Yoga and The Female Body

I love yoga. Through bodily awareness, intentional movement, and single point of focus concentration of breath and movement, my practice of yoga has been the gateway to a deeper understanding of myself, which inspired me to complete my yoga teacher training several years ago. While some people say it is not real exercise, others say it is just another form of exercise and in my opinion, both views are incorrect. Sure, a challenging yoga class three or four times a week will definitely change your body, by improving your fitness, strength and flexibility. After one year of only yoga practice, with no other regular exercise, I completed a two week high altitude trek in Nepal without significant difficulty. And yet, yoga is not only exercise. The emphasis on breath, bodily awareness and intentional movement rewires your nervous system. The deep restoration during savasana, the meditative phase at the end of a class, is not the same as laying on the floor and watching television. Not to mention the energetics of different poses, the realms of consciousness that align with these postures, the Siddhis (basically spiritual superpowers) of regular meditation or endless other yoga topics that demonstrate its potential transformative effects. As every yoga website will tell you, it really is a practice that cultivates union of the mind, body and spirit. Personally, I believe yoga's real depth is found in practices outside of the physical ones, although asanas are important.

With all that said and done, the yoga world is unfortunately not limited to only wisdom, peace and incense. Look under the eco-friendly recycled yoga mat and a confronting story begins to emerge.

Anyone who has seen the documentary Bikrim will understand how insidious and destructive treatment of yoga students by yoga teachers, leaders or gurus can be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop at Bikrim. The Royal Commission into the Satyananda Yoga Ashram in NSW revealed to the public horrendous treatment of children and adolescents that occurred in this seemingly idyllic ashram. To the horror of those who suffered, their families and the world beyond, the people overseeing this ashram, the Bihar School of Yoga in India, did not respond in alarm or in service to the victims. Instead, they sought to minimise the damaged public image of the perpetrator who served two years and four months of imprisonment. It is important that we, who participate in yoga as well as those who don’t, do not forget about these crimes. We ought not to assume moral integrity because someone works within the world of yoga. Always exercise your own discernment, after all, it is the age of the false guru as my own yoga teacher once said.

At the same time, the way a typical yoga class is often taught or practised can have negative implications for the female body. This is primarily due to the fact that the common yoga styles and sequences of today have been reshaped to serve men’s bodies and subsequently leave out vital information that is needed to serve women’s bodies.

There are many theories about how and why this came to be. One theory explains that men previously understood the incredible power of the female body that was experienced through monthly cycles, especially at the time of menstruation, pregnancy, birth, and menopause. A woman experiences heightened abilities to perceive the ethereal realms during these bodily transitions. Inspired by the power of femaleness, men developed, under divine guidance, the techniques of yoga to cultivate their own spiritual robustness. Due to it being developed to serve men it was created around the City of 11 Gates. These gates represent the orifices of a man’s body (ears, eyes, nostrils, mouth, urethra opening, and anus) as well as the navel and the sagittal suture of the skull. However, a woman’s body also has a vagina and nipples and cannot be confined to the teachings based upon the City of 11 Gates. This may sound abstract but this foundational difference is reflected in how yoga is commonly taught in ways that do not support the changing physiology of a woman’s body.

Another theory is that the world and teaching of yoga was always female-oriented. The practice of yoga was intuitively received by women due to their ability to perceive medicinal secrets of the universe. This is consistent with the way women throughout history were commonly the medicine keepers who tended to the ill with herbs and other forms of natural medicines until the obliteration of this knowledge during the inquisitions in Europe and across the world as well as global colonisation. Women practiced and refined the various forms of yoga including the physical practice, breathing, visualisations, meditations and ways of interacting with oneself and the world. Because this developed organically through the vessel of femaleness, it naturally embodied the cyclical wisdom of female physiology. However, as with the inquisitions and medicinal knowledge, this integral knowledge of yoga was largely destroyed, and as yoga fell more and more into the hands of male teachers, the world and yoga increasingly began to orientate around the needs of men and their experience of life.

It is important to note that there are many male yoga teachers and gurus who attribute their own growth of spirituality to the bestowment of wisdom from their female teacher or guru. Sadly, these examples are far and few between and the typical class of yoga taught today, whether by a man or a woman, does not include the honouring of women’s cyclical nature. For example, there is often little mention of ways to adjust postures or recommendations to leave out certain postures depending on where a woman is in her cycle, also known as The Seasons (you can read more about The Seasons of Women here). Thinking in the yogic mindset, it is counterintuitive to perform inversions during menstruation because of the increased downward flow of Apana, which is the energy or Prana that governs processes of elimination including menstruation, bowel movements, and urination. I’m not suggesting that a woman should never do an inversion during menstruation. However, this knowledge should be openly available to everyone practicing so they can decide for themselves how it feels and understand why it may not feel great sometimes.

It is also common that yoga teachers instruct students to switch on and contract their pelvic floor, known as engaging Mula Bhanda. This is considered a way of redirecting the flow of Prana (energy) to recirculate it within your body rather than have it flow outwards. I have participated in classes where teachers encourage engagement of Mula Bhanda almost throughout the whole class and this can leave an impression that it is only favourable to maintain a contracted pelvic floor, similar to the misconceptions that doing endless kegels will alleviate all your pelvic floor health concerns. However, repetitive contractions of the pelvic floor, or continuous activation of Mula Bhanda, can exacerbate the already potentially fatigued and weak pelvic muscles and contribute to even more tension being held in this space. Meanwhile, the woman is likely to think she is helping herself and improving the function of her pelvic floor. More clarity around the instruction to engage Mula Bhanda is needed in yoga classes, it only takes a few words to point out that this can be counterproductive for women who experience tension or numbness within the pelvic space.

Yoga classes often fail to integrate the fact that women’s bodies vary considerably over the course of one month and a lifetime. However, there are ways to restore the knowledge of women’s changing experiences of health within the yogic space. Uma Dinsmore-Tuli is an incredible yoga teacher who has written about this extensively in her book Yoni Shakti, which I highly recommend for any man or woman interested in yoga or women's health, and offers the following elements to be incorporated in the yoga classes and trainings (please note the below points are paraphrased from Yoni Shakti):

1. A private opportunity at the beginning of class for each woman to inform the teacher of their current phase of their menstrual cycle or greater life experience.

2. Essential information regarding the different effects certain yoga postures have on women to enable informed decisions.

3. Appropriate alternatives and variations to postures or practices that better suit a woman if she is pregnant, menstruating, ovulating, breastfeeding, lactating, or menopausal.

4. Referrals to other forms of yoga better suited to particular students than the style of the class at hand (think Hot Yoga being replaced by gentle Yin classes for a pregnant woman).

5. Humility and a willingness of teachers to admit their ignorance regarding how they understand the effects of womanly cycles on yoga practices and vice versa, in order to nurture the simple truth that a woman is always her own ultimate teacher.

If you are a practicing yoga teacher and this information is completely new to you then I strongly encourage you to look into the work of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli (click here to explore her work) as she offers much more detailed information about what practices are both supportive and harmful to women depending on their monthly or life cycle phase.

Next time you attend your yoga class, consider for yourself how you are feeling and what practices will nurture your current season. Don’t be afraid to ignore a teacher’s instruction and do something else for a few moments, or longer, if it feels right. If your yoga teacher has a problem with your willingness to choose what serves your body best during their class, then I suggest you find another studio or teacher, however, I doubt this would need to happen as most teachers do encourage you to do what feels right in your body. Yoga is a powerful and transformative spiritual practice that can benefit all people. For women, yoga must be taught, offered and practised in such a way that honours female physiology and our cyclical nature. In my experience, when this occurs women have even more to gain from the practice.

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