Samskaras, Cultural Treatment of Women, and Gloria Steinem

What dominates our minds is the product of what we choose to put into our minds. When it comes to society’s treatment of the female body, however, most of us probably feel more at the mercy of our culture and environment than that statement suggests. So, what dominates our minds is frequently what is thrust upon our senses through billboards, grocery store magazine racks, music from passing cars or parties, or any other media we can’t help but passively take in.  Of course, most of these passively received messages aren’t great. Very little of what we are exposed to promotes a positive view of what we would like “normal” female existence to look and feel like.  Even the images and messages to which we intentionally expose ourselves can corrupt our view of what is normal. For example, I love flipping through recipe magazines, but even these have advertisements that use distorted female imagery.

We take all of this for granted, as women, don’t we? Objectification, impossible beauty ideals, our diminished value to society—we know.  But how do we counter it?  If not in the mass culture, at least in our own minds?  No matter how sophisticated or how dismissive we are of the way society treats us—we are affected.

In yoga, our habits of thought—memories, ideas, reactions—are formed by our samskaras, or subconscious impressions in the mind that route and re-route us toward certain ways of thinking.  Over time, we end up traveling these samskaras over and over, into deeper and deeper grooves in our patterns of thought.  These grooves form such steep slopes and well-trodden paths that our thoughts are continually drawn into the same repetitive habits, even when they don’t serve us anymore.  We just may not see other paths of thought.

“When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.”Yoga Sutra II.33 - Patanjali

When we do learn to recognize unproductive or unhelpful modes of thought, one method yoga offers for combating these deeply ingrained habits of mind is a very simple plan of counter-thought. As Swami Satchidananda’s translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.33 states, “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.” Satchidananda explains in his commentary to this Sutra that “It is very difficult to control negative thoughts while staying in a negative environment unless we have extraordinary strength.  The easiest way is to change the environment.”  Well, that is easier said than done.  When women are subjected to a barrage of unwanted messages, changing our environment to one conducive to positive counter-thoughts would require no less than living in a pro-woman fantasy land, or maybe a cave.  As such, the powers of our practiced counter-thoughts may be very limited, or even ineffectual.

Of course, there is a way to counter-think without becoming a hermit—there must be! In fact, I think of it as not only feminist, but totally American and utterly First Amendment: the answer to unproductive speech is no less than more speech.  Analogously, the feminist counter gesture to unproductive messages is simply this: productive messages and opposing thoughts.

Gloria Steinem circa 1972
Gloria Steinem circa 1972 • By Warren K. Leffler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At last, we get to Our Lady of the Simple Truth, Gloria Steinem.  In her 1981 essay, “In Praise of Women’s Bodies,” Steinem recounts a few days she spent at a spa, moving in and out of a shared “casual nudity” with a group of women—an experience that she regrets as too infrequent in her life.  This experience is probably too infrequent for most of us—how often do we get the chance to see each other uncovered, as we really, simply, are?  To counter this infrequency, Steinem recommends a “more speech” approach of counter-thought, to burn away samskaras of reduced female worth. She states, “We need the regular sight of our diverse reality to wear away the plastic-stereotypical perfect image against which we’ve each been encouraged to measure ourselves. The impossible goal of ‘what we should look like’ has worn a groove in our brains. It will take the constant intimacy of many new images to blast us out.”  Steinem is a savvy yogi, indeed.  We must actively seek to view our actual, diverse reality in the full-spectrum, high-gloss light of the sun, and let it pervade our minds even more than the hyper-reality of ubiquitous, false-light media lies. In so doing, we are able to burn unhelpful, hindering samskaras and free ourselves for higher realizations.

As a postscript, one incredible fact here makes me wary: I am already constantly surrounded by the truth of female diversity, all day, every day—and my unproductive samskaras relating to myself as a woman are as deeply grooved as anyone’s.  Even though every woman’s body I see in the world is different (and it’s almost never a magazine ideal), and even though I know and have worked with a range of intelligent, competent women who defy any diminished social categorization, there are still huge hurdles to be leaped in order to fully arrive at a state of mind free from the hindrance of the dominant cultural message.  The work of filling our minds with a positive reality is extremely hard—and will, as Satchidananda warns, require a change of our environment.  Consider the distance to be traveled—Steinem’s essay is over 30 years old, and is still a potent present truth.  There is a lot to be done.

Martha Moscowitz

Martha Moscowitz is a yoga teacher in Albany, New York, who tries to put the Yoga Sutras to good use in contemporary life. She is especially engaged by feminism, and seeks to apply yogic philosophy to the problems and privileges of life as a woman.

  1. The synchronicity of this post with how I’m feeling about thinking and changing thought patterns is amazing.

    I was similarly struck by this video recently that seems applicable to this post:

    If You Talked To People The Way You Talked To Yourself

    The contradicting messages of “just be yourself” but “stop being so negative” play in my mind fairly often. The point about changing your negative environment being easier than changing your negative thinking is similarly contradictory and problematic.

    Thank you so much for writing this! More food for my train of scattered thoughts.

  2. I really appreciated this piece of writing, particularly the last point.

    Incredible how difficult it is to undo habits of negative thinking. I ask myself, do men think like this? Do all women have these negative thought patterns?

    I suppose it is something one cannot truly know, but yet it is surprising how all these amazing confident women I know – smart, talented, beautiful, hard-working ladies – have the same negative, hyper-critical thought patterns.

    It makes me sad, but yet what I find comfort in is that we have not accepted this as an unchanging reality. Women continue to challenge these unfair media messages. And fortunately many men have also joined that effort. Women’s responsibility is to continue this counter-message as we reach positions of influence, such as in media so that we may the greatest impact.

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