Yoga and Female Empowerment in Bolivia
29 Oct, 2018 | Vivian Braga
Increasingly popular in the country, yoga offers more than just physical exercise
Yoga is not gymnastics, and it’s much less a religion – it’s a philosophy of life based on physical and behavioural disciplines that encompass postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayamas), meditation (dhyana) and concentration (dharana). Yoga also encompasses universal ethical principles called yamas and nyamas, which guide the behaviour of those who define themselves as yogis. These disciplines were systematised by Patanjali, a Hindu sage, about 2,500 years ago in the oldest and most important treatise on yoga: the Yoga Sutras.
Presented in this way, yoga can be somewhat intimidating for first-timers who go to a class hoping to relieve stress or cure back pain. But yoga is more than just that, especially when looked at in its totality: It’s the union and integration of the body, mind and core energies.
Yoga began to appear in Bolivia at the end of the 1940s, introduced by Bolivians who first discovered it abroad. It was the arrival of the Venezuelan teacher José Manuel Estrada, in the mid-1970s, that established and spread the practice of yoga with the foundation of the Great Universal Brotherhood (GFU) in the city of La Paz.
The GFU have spread Hatha Yoga, the most popular and practiced yoga style in the Americas, throughout Bolivia, and the last five years have perhaps seen its fastest growth. Whilst five years ago Bolivia’s biggest cities (La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, Tarija and Santa Cruz) each had between one and three spaces for yoga practice, today one can find dozens of yoga centres representing different schools and traditions. The increased availability of training in yoga instruction has further aided this expansion.
Paradoxically, yoga practice has also become less inclusive and more sectorised, often offered as a relaxation technique or targeted to groups such as pregnant women, children or executives. Despite this contradictory tendency, which goes against the core values of yoga, it continues to offer more of these specific benefits.
One of these benefits comes from the incorporation of the ethical principle of nonviolence, or ahimsa in Sanskrit – a denial of any attitude, word or thought that may cause harm to another. To master ahimsa is to reach a state of love and generosity, both for others and for oneself. Yoga which takes this concept into consideration can therefore hold positively transformative power in social contexts where there are alarming statistics of violence against women.
According to studies carried out by different non-governmental organisations which defend women's rights, more than 14,000 cases of rape against women are registered annually in Bolivia. The majority of those cases occur within the home, at the hands of a husband or other male members of the family. Approximately seven or eight in ten Bolivian women have already suffered some type of violence, and every three days a woman dies due to femicide in the country.
Women today in Bolivia are attending yoga studios in greater numbers. In cities such as La Paz, Tarija and Santa Cruz, the majority of people who practice yoga are female. At the same time, women are the majority in yoga teacher-training courses. According to Carla Anzoleaga and Juan Carlos Ibarra, who offer yoga training classes in La Paz, approximately 15 people are trained each cycle, almost all of them women. Thus women teach and support other women in the practice and the path of becoming a yogi. This path can be a means of self-empowerment and awareness of one’s own body, acceptance of oneself and an exercise of self-esteem, and it is considered a healing practice for women who have suffered some type of violence.
The experience of women on the yoga mat can help with empowerment, identity and freedom by giving them a space to use their bodies freely without worrying about being sexualised by others. Thus, a yoga class goes far beyond physical healing. It involves a wide variety of benefits that offer deep personal transformations. All yoga styles in some way encourage transformation and healing, not only of specific parts of the body, but of its totality.
Women on the yoga mat have a space to use their bodies freely without worrying about being sexualised by others.
The main challenge brought by the rapid growth of yoga in Bolivia is to prevent the yogi culture from becoming a business and therefore financially accessible only to privileged white middle-class women, as it is in the Global North. For the new yoga instructors who are being trained in Bolivia who believe in the potential of the practice, the goal now is to find ways to involve more people – both men and women of all social classes.
Whilst five years ago Bolivia’s biggest cities each had between one and three spaces for yoga practice, today one can find dozens of yoga centres.
Men’s participation is fundamental, especially in consideration of yoga as an instrument to combat gender violence. The idea that yoga can benefit everyone through the increase of self-awareness could be the basis for a developing dialogue on how to create more inclusive spaces, with one simple idea: If you have a body, you are capable of learning, discovering and growing – or, to put it simply, to do yoga.
I would like to thank the yoga instructors and instructors who contributed to this article with their insights on the history and development of yoga in Bolivia.