When I was in China, I regularly attended yoga classes at my gym. It was part of the membership fee. Plus, I really liked the meditative benefits of doing so. And it made me sweat a lot. One afternoon I arrived to class ready to stretch and pose. Changed into my blue gym shorts and black tee shirt, I walked into the yoga room, grabbed a blue yoga mat, and began to warm up.
I picked a spot in the center of the room surrounded by mainly middle-aged women. By now I had gotten used to being the only non-Chinese and only male. But this time, one stout, short-haired woman whom I’d met before and who knew a bit of English greeted me in such a way as to reveal some surprise at me being there. I gave another look around and wondered.
Then the instructor arrived—a young, athletic woman dressed in white tank top and maroon sweatpants. When I asked her about the class, she conveyed through my short-haired acquaintance that, indeed, this was not yoga but “balance” class. Oh, okay. Balance sounded alright. So I decided to stay put.
Moments later, our instructor walked to the front and put a CD in the stereo along the right wall. She then pressed “play,” walked to the center, and faced her class of twenty-five evenly-spaced students.
The music began. She began. I raised my eyebrows in surprise.
After the first beat of the song, I knew this was far beyond the gender-neutral territory of yoga. The music was slow, light, and passionate. The instructor led not with poses but with smooth and methodic dance moves: limp, lightly-touching wrists slowly floating toward the sky as bent knees straightened, raising her whole body. Her arms parted and waved outward at the crest of her stretch with a lifted chest and body now elevated onto her toes. A serene expression rest on her face during this swim stroke with the sky.
I feebly followed her lead along with the others. I was self-conscious, but something about being away from home allowed me the freedom to not care too much. My thin frame moved awkwardly—particularly compared to the instructor, even compared to the stout middle-agers—but I gave it my light-footed, light-hearted best. And after just a minute of letting myself go to the art, I felt something in my hands and arms and then in my whole body. Whatever that something was, our leader exuded it.
I had actually been introduced to the term feminine power just a couple of months prior in the US and recalled this phrase right here and now in this yoga class in China. It seemed I had a definition offered by the feelings resulting from this dance. This was a force not of aggression or domination but a resonation of being that nurtured each moment of each movement. The methodic choreography didn’t demand a surge of energy but a persistent and delicate intensity.
By participating in this and subsequent balance classes, I not only gained an appreciation for this new power concept, but by zooming out to make room for a broadened understanding, I was able to objectively recognize for the first time all previous notions of power. While we moved to the music in the yoga room, bulky men on the other side of the gym floor lifted bulky plates of metal in a show of what I now consider masculine power: domination, competition, proving yourself, demonstrating your worth by defeating or conquering something—an opponent, a barbell, a goal, a calculus problem, a trophy buck, a competing business, another country.
The power of the balance class definitely included an element of fight, but it was a passionate battle demonstrating the power of growth, potential, hope—and most of all, an appreciation, love, and dedication to life; to living.
It’s likely these notions may make some American readers cringe, as it is controversial to put men and women into boxes. But despite them being predominant to one gender, my experience demonstrated that such expressions of power are not exclusive to either gender. And in addition to a gradient of these powers’ expressions across the gender continuum, I theorized there to be variation across cultures.
Experiencing this other side to humanity’s power dichotomy, I then recognized China’s overall unique demonstration of femininity and masculinity. I didn’t have to go too far. In the lobby of my gym were pictures of some of the male trainers.
Then out in the streets, Zhuhai’s residents embodied an interpersonal closeness:
In China—at least southern China—many men carried themselves with a more delicate walk, prettied hair, and some sported lengthy, manicured fingernails. I’d also see men pull up their shirt and tie it in a knot over their midriffs.
I had to wonder how a society’s embodiment along this continuum of femininity/masculinity influences national aspects of business, art, policy, and philosophy. Specifically, I thought about how China conducts foreign policy, and then I thought about the US approach. I thought about Chinese domestic policy, and then I considered how the US likes to address its social ailments by having a “war” with them.
It suddenly occurred to me just how far-tilted America is toward the masculine, so much so that the terms for the gender equality discussion are drawn in the masculine.
By experiencing these classes and newfound power, I learned that gender appreciation and equality are not about pretending the differences between the masculine and feminine aren’t there—that equality means advocating that women can do everything men can. It’s about realizing that femininity is equal for what it is. But America doesn’t value feminine strengths, I realized. Vital and beautiful virtues such as patience, caregiving, and the ability to nurture are seen as less important and even demeaning.
The unfortunate result of this institutional undervaluing is that it limits understanding, exposure, and appreciation of femininity. If not for an accident, I wouldn’t have taken part in this class on the other side of the world. And I’m grateful that I did, because it taught me to appreciate femininity as a force and as a personal attribute of my own.
By missing out on this power, I believe we restrict our potential on the continuum of the human experience.
This essay is from my recently-released book, “Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China“.