Like many people, my ideas about women and femininity were shaped by my family and culture. My mother had a great job and was the primary breadwinner in my family, while my father stayed home with the kids until we were all in school. I grew up hearing about gender inequality and wage gaps that didn’t reflect my family circumstances, but did seem to reflect what I saw in my friends’ families. I went to a church that was somewhat neutral theologically (we had a female associate pastor for a while), but saw sharp gender divisions in some of the larger religious world around me. I listened to songs with lyrics like “If I am masculine then I will be taken more seriously…If I am vulnerable I will be trampled upon.” And even though my mother was quite successful in her chosen career, she got there by being tough and assertive, and by adopting traits often considered to be more “masculine” than “feminine.” This all left me with the feeling that the world was out to keep me down, and that the only way to be successful as a woman was to be tough and hard, and to protect that which was soft and vulnerable in myself. “Femininity” was out, and “masculinity” was in.
I cultivated a character who was “tough” – I didn’t express a lot of emotions, didn’t let myself cry or show “weakness.” I even went so far as to wear men’s clothing much of the time. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking actually caused me to close off that which was my greatest strength. I didn’t trust my emotions and intuition, viewing them as weak, and ended up making decisions in my relationships with others that caused pain for everyone involved. As I began to seriously study yoga, I came to recognize the flaw in my thinking. I was embodying Piscean ideas of strength and power, rather than Aquarian ideas of synergy and our interconnection. By walling off my heart and suppressing my emotions, I was actually weakening myself. People around me couldn’t tell how I truly felt, and were at risk of offending me or hurting my feelings inadvertently. If I had allowed myself to be vulnerable, and expressed my feelings authentically, my interactions with other people would have been expansive instead of restrictive.
Whatever your religious or spiritual background, sacred texts and teachings from around the world espouse the strength of an open heart. Things which are rigid tend to be brittle and more easily broken. Things which are softer and more flexible have a strength unmatched by “toughness.” While having an open heart is beneficial for men and women, I feel that for women it is paramount. Yogi Bhajan taught that as women, we are 16 times more powerful than a man. This means that we have the potential to be 16 times as positive and 16 times as negative. If we act from a place of rigidity or hardness, we can do great damage. If we can act from our hearts, we have amazing potential to exact positive change in the world.
If you’ve ever shared some of the same struggles I have, you might wonder how you can shift your ideas about strength from rigidity to fluidity, hardness to softness. It’s not always easy, and may not happen overnight. But here are a few things I used to help me embrace my femininity and experience true strength:
1) Yogi Bhajan gave the teachings of Kundalini yoga in order to help people embrace their inherent grace and dignity. He gave his students spiritual names ending in Singh or Kaur as a reminder that we are princes and princesses of God. He encouraged people to dress in modest clothing, and in white, as a tool to feel regal and expansive. You might try incorporating more white into your wardrobe and see how you feel, and how others respond to you. If you don’t have a spiritual name, you might consider applying for one. You don’t have to use it publicly, and might instead choose to use it as a personal mantra and reminder of your soul identity.
2) There are so many messages coming at us from all sides, telling us who we should be and how we should behave. This is even true of yogic teachings. There are times it can feel overwhelming, and you might begin to feel that you can never live up to whatever ideals are held before you. Remember what Yogi Bhajan said in one of the lectures in the I Am a Woman Reader– “One thing shall never betray a woman: her own light and her own radiance as a woman. If the light within you can guide you, you will definitely excel.” If you need some help connecting with your inner light, try the meditation for Keeping you Steady and on the Path. It will help you to identify anything in your life that helps or hinders you on your essential path, and helps you to move towards fulfillment.
3) Strengthen your heart through yoga and meditation. Transitions to a Heart-Centered World is one of my favorite manuals, and one I turn to frequently. In the introductory pages, Guru Rattana says “Many of us find it almost impossible to relax the heart, which can be constricted by negativity, self-hate, and fear…this muscle can also be relaxed by a simple, kind command, allowing energy to flow to the higher centers.” When you can relax your heart and take down the walls you have built, your energy will flow freely in other areas of your life as well! I also love Akasha’s DVD Kundalini Yoga for the Heart Chakra, because it really helps me to get my energy moving. Whatever practice you choose, know that you are building a great source of strength for yourself and the people around you.