Yoga, a Sanskrit word, translates as union. We can further unite people by being gender inclusive in the language we use to share this practice. Yoga is for all people regardless of any dualistic, dividing factor. By opening up to non-conforming perspectives of gender ,we create more safe space in our practices for others. Yoga is for all practitioners, including transgender, non-binary, disabled, neurodiverse and/or elderly persons.
As yoga teachers, it may feel natural to give cueing like, “Pregnant women can do this pose this way…” or “Men may need to adjust themselves in this position.” Gendering these instructions may exclude people from the cues they need to find their asana.
When it’s necessary to address the posturing of pregnant women it is appropriate to address “those who are pregnant.” It’s possible for trans-men to carry children and some do. Gender is more than a binary, we don’t all fall neatly into male and female categories with corresponding genitals. Gender is determined by many factors. There are as many different genders as there are people.
It is not the same as biological sex, which also does not fall into neat dualistic categories. Simple fact: genitals do not determine gender. Some women have penises, some men have vaginas and non-binary have both. Less common, but no less real, intersex individuals have additional combinations of reproductive organs. All bodies are valid. We all deserve love and peace with our identity.
Trans people identify with a different gender than the one assigned to them on their birth certificate. Non-binary people reject the social myth that there are only two genders and identify within a wider spectrum. The only accurate way to know someone’s gender is to politely and privately ask their preferred pronouns.
Doctors may have told their parents they were female at birth, when they are actually male. Or they might not identify with any particular gender, but were assigned to be male/female. Cis-people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The potential gender or gender-less variations are as plentiful as different skin tones and eye colours.
Trans people have been around for as long as there have been people, but recently media attention and an increasingly conscientious society has brought these folks, myself included, into the spotlight. More people are transitioning at an early age, so it feels like there’s more of us. It’s likely that if you teach regularly, you have already had trans people in your classes and just have not known about it. Using gender inclusive language validates trans people’s experience in this life. This validation is not something we experience from the world at large, right now. People have to consciously decide to give that validation and respect.
If you’d like to be more gender inclusive in your yoga classes, there are a few key points to consider as you prepare to teach. First of all, as the teacher, what are your gender pronouns? Do you prefer to be called “she/her”, “he/him”, “they/them”, or “ze/zir”?
To establish good rapport and compassionate connections with all persons in respect of their gender-status, it is as simple as saying, “Hello and thank you for coming today. My name is Kaitlin and I prefer she/her pronouns.” Do this in every class, regardless of the genders present.
I prefer they/them pronouns and I would like to think that as I teach I will be comfortable always introducing myself in this manner. But sometimes as a genderfluid and non-binary person, I don’t feel safe outing myself to students. This will always be a personal judgement call. If it doesn’t make you feel comfortable, don’t feel like it’s a necessity. A reluctant ally is not much help. Every single yoga teacher doesn’t need to do this, but every time one does they invite more people to be gender inclusive in their everyday lives.
Just acknowledging your awareness of gender opens the door to your classroom being a safe space for all. It is extremely powerful to hear cis people acknowledge trans people’s existence in this way. It doesn’t happen enough. It may even be emotionally triggering for some. But hopefully, it will be a way to let others know you are safe and respectful of them.
An additional safety note: never out a trans person to someone else. You may endanger them. To avoid outting anyone, do not ask their gender in front of the entire class or make everyone share their name and gender. That’s a quick way to make someone feel singled-out. Mournfully, a 2017 study by the Human Rights Campaign shows that trans women of colour are more than four times more likely to be murdered than cis women. The world stage is still so hostile that, for many people, being trans is enough to get you killed.
When we honour all people in our practices we lessen the violence against marginalized groups by offering others a chance to change their perspective. Favour gender-inclusive words over exclusive ones. Words like friends, yogis, people and humans, folks, practitioners, comrades are better than ladies, guys, girls, dudes…etc. Everyone has a space on the mat. Using inclusive terms keeps us all together. After all, yoga means union.
How can we ask people to find a comfortable seated position if we do not consider the comfort of their souls?
Contributed by guest author Nym, Yoga Teacher Training Alum