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By my second year of law school, I was desperate. I was exhausted and wracked with anxiety. When I woke up one day in excruciating pain and unable to move my head, I hobbled over to the university health center, where I got a big shot of muscle relaxers in my right flank. Over the next two weeks, I took my final exams in a cloud of prescription painkillers and Flexeril.
The next semester, instead of signing up for my usual high-impact cardio or boxing class at the gym, I decided to try yoga.
It stuck (and it made my neck feel better). More than a decade later, I have a regular practice and a teaching certification. And when I look around classrooms in cities from New York to Nairobi, I see people who feel familiar: ambitious, overextended, Type-A women. The kind of women who, like me, might have managed to displace a disc in their cervical spine just from stress.
For a great many women, a yoga practice also offers a rare, largely female space where the ethos is one of treating your body with kindness.
Women are exhausted, and we are flocking to yoga. Men also practice yoga, sure — and, predictably, they dominate the ranks of gurus and leaders and the kind of practitioners who brand their own names on their particular “school” — but in the United States, your average yoga class is filled with women. Your average yoga teacher is a woman. Your average aspirational Instagram yoga celebrity is a very limber woman in very expensive leggings.
There’s an impulse here to mock this dynamic of the Lean In woman in her Lululemon, because, I suppose, there’s an impulse to mock just about anything beloved by ambitious young women who live in big cities — misogyny coded as class analysis. And there is certainly much to critique about our modern commodified yoga culture: the pyramid schemes disguised as teacher trainings; the yoga “influencer” who is more interested in gymnastics and theatrics and posing for likes than teaching or any sort of mind-body connection; the cost; the embroidered couch cushion spirituality; the various ways in which the practice is now coded and marketed as for the white and wealthy.
But for a great many women, a yoga practice also offers a rare, largely female space where the ethos is one of treating your body with kindness. In a yoga class with a decent teacher, every student should feel like her body is perfect as it is — powerful, useful, and also entirely temporary — and be encouraged to care for it accordingly. This is not a message women hear in most other arenas of our lives.
Yoga also forces us to slow down. Like a lot of Type-A, competitive women, I spent years trying as hard at yoga as I tried at everything else: pushing myself to the limit in every class, trying every inversion, practicing arm balances over and over. I was immediately drawn to hot power yoga, which was fast and sweaty and toned up my legs as much as it taught me to breathe. I bristled at the spiritual stuff, tolerating an “om” here or there, but treating yoga essentially as exercise.
Eventually, that approach shifted. The more my instructors told us to work on matching our breath to our movements, and the more I figured out that particular dance of internal and external, the more yoga felt like a moving meditation and less like exercise. When I had enough of the basics down so I could actually listen when teachers said to move slowly, to make movements fluid instead of throwing our bodies into shapes, I started to feel a new reverence for the way my body could move through the world, for its grace and its strength, and for its limitations. I started to treat it better—in class and outside of it.
At their best, yoga studios provide the combination of community and spirituality once reserved for church.
Like many of the women I see in yoga class, I grew up in a post–second wave feminist world where girls were told we could be whatever we wanted to be while also knowing we had to work twice as hard to get there. Women of my generation (I’m an “older millennial”) outperformed boys in school, getting better grades and graduating in higher numbers. We filled the hallways of graduate schools, and when I graduated from law school, female law graduates outnumbered male ones. Many of us went on to work demanding jobs in hectic cities. We have children or partners or both, and probably a great group of friends, and maybe a pet or two. A lot of people need us, and much is asked of us. We are working ourselves to the bone in pursuit of absolute perfection and working even harder to make it all look effortless.
Yoga is one of the only places where we can take an hour and be alone and silent — encouraged, even, to let our thoughts float away and concentrate only on breathing in, breathing out, and moving our bodies along that wave. It’s a place where women who are otherwise caught up in competition and the demand that we prove our worthiness can absorb entirely unselfconscious sermons on love and compassion without worrying that we will be seen as silly or uncool or unintelligent.
“There’s such a disconnect to a faith or a spirituality in a regular person’s life,” Jessica Sandhu, a wellness coach and yoga teacher in Washington, D.C., told me. “Most of [my students] are pretty high-powered — they work in politics, they’re early morning people. They are under a lot of stress. But yoga really affects the nervous system, and although they might not understand that while they’re doing it, there is a yoga bliss.”
At their best, yoga studios provide the combination of community and spirituality once reserved for church. Fewer than a third of Americans under the age of 40 go to church once a week; more of us meditate weekly. We are seeking spiritual connection, calm, and meaning, and while meditation can certainly help us relax and focus, it’s not necessarily connective. A yoga studio offers a physical space to bond with people who ostensibly share a similar desire to both connect and transcend the mind and body, and who believe in the basic principles of doing good and wishing peace to all beings. Of course, there are plenty of people in yoga spaces who are more bohemian Zoe Kravitz than striving Tracy Flick. But those of us who aren’t naturally placid and Zen are perhaps the ones who need yoga the most.
I try to practice yoga daily but go through periods where I’m practicing more or less. And when I’m dedicating more time to my practice and spending more time in yoga spaces, I find myself more attuned to how I behave in the rest of my life. Do I behave as kindly as I believe I am? (No.) Am I as generous to others as I would like them to be to me? (No.) Do I exhibit patience, gratitude, openness, and empathy in all that I do — even on Twitter? (Ha, no.)
When you are the kind of woman who competes in traditionally male spheres and has necessarily developed a tough shell of cynicism and acerbity, there is a profound vulnerability in walking into a yoga studio and being invited to take off that skin. There is deep relief when you give yourself permission to soften and to feel all of your complicated and neglected feelings. The concept of “safe spaces” is much mocked by a mean-spirited right, but the best yoga teachers seek to create a space where their students feel seen, held, and secure. When so much else in one’s life feels competitive, tenuous, and stressful, there is enormous value in that sense of safety (however brief) and perhaps even more significance in what the whole of yoga asks of those who enjoy the asana practice: to move through the world with more grace, more empathy, more humility, more ease. That is both a relief and a challenge for women moving through worlds that incentivize efficiency and faking it till you make it.
For those of us who are used to striving and pushing and achieving, a yoga class might be the one place where quiet acceptance is what’s asked of us. In the last minutes of class, yoga students lay silently in Savasana (Corpse pose), quiet in both mind and body. All you have to do is lay there. And that is enough.