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"So you go into any yoga class in the West and it is full of women," says one teacher in the first few moments of Yogawoman, a new documentary out next month. "And it's so ironic because historically, women were never part of a yoga tradition!"
Indeed, for thousands of years, yoga was the sole province of Indian men -- and women were shunned, or had to give up their families if they wanted to study it. And yet in the past 20 years, a new generation of women have transformed modern yoga into an almost entirely female-dominated activity. Yogawoman, narrated by Annette Benning, explores this revolution by telling the stories of the world's leading yoga experts -- often dubbed "yoga-lebrities" because they attract such an intense following. Women like Patricia Walden, Cyndi Lee and Angela Farmer explain what yoga means to them and how they've seen it transform women's lives all over the world. "When women come together and you let go of the judgment and just be together as women and breathe together as women? Truths come out. Rituals happen," says Sean Corne. "That's yoga."
Yes. As I've written before, I adore yoga. One of my favorite things about the practice is that most classes are taught by amazingly strong women inspiring other women to find their own strength. Yoga has transformed how I see my own body -- after years as the most unathletic person you've ever met, in the past 4 years I've discovered that my body can do all kinds of crazy things like headstands, backbends and arm balances. This is so empowering, it makes me dizzy. Unlike other women-targeted workouts I've tried, like Curves, yoga doesn't dial it down for the ladies. It challenges you to believe in your body's full potential.
And yet -- I wish the documentary spent a little more time exploring yoga's body image paradox. Because as much as yoga can teach you to ignore self-imposed limits and respect your body for everything it can do, it can also perpetuate unrealistic expectations, like the idea that every yogini should be as thin as the majority of those profiled in the film. Women have reinvented yoga in many important and beneficial ways. But they've also spawned a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to selling you pants that give you a yoga butt.
In my experience, this isn't the fault of the average yoga teacher -- most of whom do an amazing job at cultivating a culture of body positivity. It's more to do with how yoga gets portrayed in the media when celebrities credit it with their bikini bodies. If that misinterpretation of yoga has made you skeptical, I urge you to give it a try -- even if you think you'll never ever be able to do a headstand or any of those yoga party trick moves. Don't believe me? Check out Yogawoman (at screenings around the country or you can order the DVD).