It seems that discussions of gender and gender identity are popping up everywhere these days. From Bruce Jenner to this J.Crew ad, things are definitely being shaken up a bit in how society views 'man' and 'woman'. As part of my mentorship with Kate, I recently read the book Nawa Yogini Tantra by Swami Muktananda where she discusses gender identity and stereotyping from a yogini perspective. According to Swami Muktananada, men and women are not very different at all and it is these norms that society places on us by how we define ourselves and our gender identity.
It becomes difficult to sometimes tell the difference between my own thoughts and feelings about being a woman versus ones that are cultural norms that I have merely taken on as my own. For my entire life, I have been in female dominated environments. I am one of two sisters, I went to an all girls school for 13 years, my college had a ratio of about 2 females for every male, I worked in an all female corporate environment for close to three years, and my sister just had her second of two girls - my world is a girl's world. Because I grew up in such a female dominated environment I was able to learn what 'being female' means from a number of strong women in my life (and I am not saying that I didn't have very open-minded, strong male role models as well - because I did!). I was never told to not play in the dirt or that boys are better at math (I am bad at math all by myself) or that girls should be quiet and reserved. The people directly around me (my parents, teachers, my friend's parents, etc.) told me that I could do and achieve anything that I set my mind to. Boys weren't in the equation all that much because frankly, they were never really around.
While I was being told by the adults closest to me that my gender was a non-issue, what are we being told by society at large and what factors influence us that are a bit more under the surface? Growing up, I knew zero stay-at-home dads (today in Sweden it is almost just as common for a father to stay at home with young children as for the mother!), I placed an enormous amount of anxiety and thought into my physical appearance, I was poked fun of for having messy handwriting (which I was told resembled a boy's), and I looked to movies and tv for my view of women in their 20's and early 30's (of which I personally knew slim to none at the time). In addition, I was taller than most of the boys and was painfully aware of the fact that I could not be the petite, blushing violet that I thought I was supposed to be. Despite my immediate environment trying its best to banish specific gender roles from my education and upbringing, those stereotypes were still prevalent.
The problem with these prescribed gender norms is that separate is not equal (surprised?!). While girls are told by society to be the princess, the damsel in distress, boys are told to be the superhero, the adventuresome cowboy. Swami Muktananda states that, "because people learn during their formative years to suppress any behaviour that might be considered undesirable or inappropriate for their sex, it would seem obvious that sex-typing restricts behavior". These restrictions follow us through childhood, into the teen angst years, and into how we choose suitable careers, date, and settle on a life partner. According to Swami Muktananda, freedom from these gender stereotypes and restrictions "greatly expands the range of behaviour open to everyone, thus enabling people to cope more efficiently with diverse situations. The most effective and happy individuals are those who have developed the masculine and feminine sides of themselves, for to deny is to mutilate or deform".
Through the study of yoga one can learn how there are aspects masculine and feminine in each and every one of us. As Swami Muktananda states, "this union of Shiva and Shakti, the union of male and female in one body, is regarded by yogis as the highest state of our existence: the transcendence of petty differences in an ecstatic state of true humanity". Shiva and Shakti, Pingala and Ida, Yang and Yin, are just a few examples of male and female that come up in the yoga tradition. In addition to the symbols, history, and tradition that yoga provides regarding the masculine and the feminine, yoga also allows a person a safe space to explore what it all means to him or her. Yoga teaches us that we are perfect just as we are and it gives no regard to society's views of what it means to be a male or a female. It breaks the stereotype and gives us a new mold to fill - to be one, unique, eternally perfect individual.