Being a Woman; Doing Yoga

November 18, 2011 § 4 Comments

By Jacqueline Austin

More than half the yoga practitioners I know, are women.  In the past few decades, since its popularization in the West, yoga has gone from being a masculine practice, to being a subject of study for all people.  This makes me wonder if Arjuna’s questions to Krishna, and Krishna’s answers to Arjuna, might have been slightly different if Arjuna had been a woman?  It also makes me ask, what part of my yoga practice is specific to my gender?  Being a woman, doing yoga: how do these two basic facts in my life relate to one another?

Obviously there are gender differences in the expectations placed on us students by our teachers.  In my lineage, Iyengar yoga, the teachings prescribe a monthly vacation for every woman from an otherwise fairly non-gender specific four-beat calendar of standing poses, forward bends, backward bends and restoratives.  This fifth beat in a woman’s calendar, this pause, requires a woman to meet her female reality, in practice.  It gives rise to deep questions about women, yoga, and time.

My experience of yoga, interlinked with my hormonal shifts over months and years, makes me believe that a woman’s experience of time is not the same as that of a man.

My female experience is about creativity and procreation, enclosure and membranes, myself and other, spirit and blood, health and Self.  When I was a new mother, during the fifth beat, the fifth week, I would sometimes feel like I was floating in the ocean.  Perhaps I confused my body memory of floating in my mother, womb in womb, and being just a membrane’s breadth from her, with true union.  As a woman who does yoga, I feel I am asked in my practice to discriminate between primary sensations of universality, and the penultimate experience of liberated unity (moksa), which yoga offers for women, as well as men, to seek and perhaps, to find.

I wonder how the physical configuration of women’s bodies, and the ailments to which we are prone, affect our path through yoga? At each of my woman’s milestones—menstruation, pregnancy, menopause—I have dealt with female ailments.  My wide hips and female pituitary-pineal dynamics may have as much to do with my Tadasana as do more commonly credited aspects of my consciousness.  The large number of neural links across my brain’s medial membrane, a feature of the female brain, sparks a yoga mind which seems to me to start from a field, not a point.

Whether or not each of us women practitioners have children, the design of our wombs to hold and embrace another and of our brains to internalize and recreate a field of experience, profoundly affect our practice of yoga.

Now the fifth beat of my practice is about to change—how, I do not yet know. As I say farewell to this phase of my life and prepare to enter another, I look forward to discovering yoga practice, yet again.

We women who draw up in our chariots on the field of battle, might turn out to have the same questions as Arjuna.  Our questions may arise from a deeper source than our lunar cycles.  But it’s equally likely that we female warriors may turn out to practice differently from the men.  What we see, we should note and develop, to benefit humankind.

Copyright 2008 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.  Originally published in Yoga Vidya, The Journal of Iyengar Yoga of Southern California, Spring 2008.  Jacqueline Austin, a long term practitioner of Iyengar yoga, was for eight years the editor in chief of Yoga Vidya.


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§ 4 Responses to Being a Woman; Doing Yoga

  • Thanks for this post! What I find particularly worrying is that adult women are trying to follow an Ashtanga practice that’s essentially been developed for 12 year old boys… No wonder we see so many injuries. Not that I am saying stay clear of Ashtanga – but practice with mindfulness. I think a shift will only come if yoga is taught by women who were trained by women who were…Whenever I took a class in India, the fact that there’s fundamental differences between how men and women practice is not a topic as certain things are not to be discussed openly in this society.

    • jacajacjac says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. I feel it’s up to women to figure out women’s practice. Men can’t do that! There are enough of us female practitioners. Let’s discuss what is (and what is not) appropriate to our practice generally, as well as individually. There are also enough non-Indian practitioners that we Western men and women can figure ourselves out *culturally.* What’s appropriate to Indian practice sometimes comes off as very different in a Western practice.

      Our wonderful first generation women teachers sacrificed a lot, to learn yoga. Parts of their bodies got shredded as they worked on these issues. How many hip replacements are there among women yoga teachers in their 60s – 80s? Can we figure out a way to learn from their experience, while being respectful to the male gurus who preceded them?

  • Bruce Brodie says:

    The new writing blog is delightful. Although, perhaps I should withhold comment until I figure out what Tadasana means. This is a great forum.Keep the great words flowing.

  • jacajacjac says:

    Thanks, Bruce! I just tracked back to your blog (bartonboard). What a strange and wonderful article on the Lichtenstein sculpture. =)

    PS: “tadasana” = mountain pose

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