Two different species?
When I was first learning yoga in the 70’s, it was the time of women’s lib and the sexual revolution. Many women wanted equality in every way with men, especially in terms of job opportunities and income. In the way I was originally taught yoga, there was no real distinction between the asanas a man and a woman did in class. Women’s yoga was unheard of.
I was shocked the first time I attended the Iyengar Institute in Poona in 1984 that some of the classes were men-only and women-only. It seemed like such a backwards approach to this westernised girl. However, I trusted that the Iyengar family knew what they were doing. Then I discovered I enjoyed the feminine atmosphere of the “ladies’ classes”.
Gita Iyengar, especially, has had a powerful influence in promoting a subset of practices she has created especially for women. Sequences for their menstrual cycles, pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause, and post-menopause. Her book, Yoga: A Gem for Women, is a classic, and has spun off many specialised women’s yoga tomes.
I’m honoured to present Ana Davis here, as she makes a case for doing yoga appropriate to a woman’s stage in life. It resonates with the message I profess.
Women have a different physiology and physique from a man, and produce different hormones. Now that I have been through all the women’s stages in my life, it makes sense to me that women have a practice that suits their biology. A woman’s biology dictates who she is in the world, and, by extension, the kind of yoga she does in her various seasons.
The case for doing ‘women’s yoga’
5 Reasons to Stop Doing Yoga Like a Man by Ana Davis
Some years ago I attended a yoga teacher–friend’s class and shared a cup of tea with one of his female students after class. When my friend’s student heard that I specialized in yoga for women she confided that she suffered debilitating menstrual pain every month. I asked her if she still attended my friend’s yoga class during her period. She replied that yes, of course she did, she just took a pain-killer as she didn’t want to miss her ‘yoga-fix’. “So how do you feel after you do the class?” I enquired, curious, because my friend’s classes were of the dynamic, yang, make-you-sweat type. “Oh, I feel worse!” she replied, resignedly.
Isn’t it ironic that the majority of yoga practitioners and teachers are women, yet so many of us persist in practicing like men, often to our detriment? My friend’s student is a good example of the type of women who adopt an overly yang, ‘push and strive’ approach to their yoga practice at the very times in their cycle that they need a more gentle approach that responds to their changing monthly needs.
The upshot is that women are cyclical – our physical energy as well as mental capacities and emotional energy all fluctuate throughout our monthly cycle as well as through the seasons of our life.
Enter, a more feminine approach to yoga.
Here are five reasons why you’ll benefit from adapting your yoga practice to suit your unique feminine cycles and life transitions.
You’ll learn how to work with, not against the natural, lower energy -ebb of your monthly bleeding-time.
When we menstruate our uterus is working hard to expel its lining that has built up from the previous month and according to yoga’s sister-science, Ayurveda, menstruation represents a wonderful opportunity that women have to cleanse our body of Ama or accumulated toxins, leaving us feeling rejuvenated once bleeding stops.
Corresponding to a drop in our hormones, this is also a time when our immune system is at its most vulnerable.
So it’s no wonder you usually feel tired and sometimes even wiped-out on that first day or two or your bleed.
This all means that we want to support this process of cleansing and to rest when our energy is low in order to enhance our health (including balancing any menstrual anomalies), vitality and fertility. So, the kind of yoga we practice when we bleed needs to help us to rest and take stock. I call it the ‘big exhale’ in our month.
This is also a time when we are deeply in touch with our intuition, operating more from our right-brain, which lends itself naturally to the more gentle, meditative practices that feminine-centred, or what I call ‘Dark Moon’ Yoga has to offer.
And, last but not least, by resting and going inward during our time of natural, monthly retreat, we are reframing our attitude towards our menses as a sacred time of deep honouring and connection with the needs of our bodies, which is in turn aligned to the cycles of the moon. The benefit? You’ll fall in love with your cycle and what it means to be a woman, shifting your focus from dreading it as a curse, to welcoming it as a blessing!
You’ll be creating a fertile space both literally and metaphorically for a new life to grow in your womb
One of the contributing factors to infertility is stress, so the stress-relieving benefits of yoga can help your chances of getting pregnant – either naturally or as a support if you’re going through IVF.
But not just any old kind of yoga will do! It’s recommended that you practice a feminine-centred yoga that is not too strenuous – studies have shown that women who do rigorous exercise may have more difficulty conceiving.
Practising nurturing, meditative fertility-focused yoga will also help you prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for the changes and challenges of pregnancy, birth and beyond.
You’ll be nourishing a healthy, happy pregnancy and preparing for the challenges of birth and motherhood
If you practice yoga when you’re pregnant, you’re practicing yoga for two. This means that there is no more critical time in your life-cycle to adjust your yoga practice so that it becomes feminine and nurturing in order to keep yourself healthy, calm and energetic, and to give your baby the best possible start in life –even before he or she is born. It’s now that you’ll need to discard your ‘yoga-ego’ and work gently and sensitively in your yoga postures so as to avoid injury. Your body is coursing with the hormone, Relaxin, which makes you much more vulnerable to straining muscles and joints.
The added benefit of practicing conscious, prenatal yoga is that you’ll be able enjoy particular postures, breathing techniques, meditations and visualisations to help you prepare for your baby’s birth.
You’ll have a valuable ally to help re-build your post-baby body and support you on your new path as a mother.
Postnatal yoga will help you work gradually and mindfully so that you can safely return to your pre-pregnancy strength and stability. Plus, it will refresh your tired body and mind and help you deal with all those sleepless nights! Restorative Yoga will become your best friend!
Your yoga practice will now embody the idea of ‘nurturing the nurturer’ – filling up your ‘mothering-tanks’ so that you can go on giving to your children and partner.
You’ll have your own ‘feminine yoga tool box’ to support you during the often tumultuous transition into menopause
Menopause is the final frontier for women. For some the transition to no longer ovulating and bleeding is smooth and uneventful. But for many more it can involve years of distressing symptoms. A finely-tuned, feminine yoga practice can be right there with you, offering rest and rejuvenation for those tired days when you’ve suffered insomnia; uplifting you if you experience symptoms of sluggishness and depression; cooling the fire of hot flushes and frayed tempers; and generally balancing your hormones so that you can ease as gracefully as possible into your ‘wise woman’ phase of life.
Like for menstruation, practicing a feminine-centred yoga practice during the ‘Autumn’ of our life offers us the opportunity to positively reframe our perception of this life transition and embrace the gifts of becoming a woman to be reckoned with!
“At menarche a young woman enters her power,
throughout her menstruating years she practices her power,
and at menopause she becomes her power”
– Native American Saying
Ana Davis is Director and Founder of Bliss Baby Yoga which specializes in prenatal, postnatal, restorative and women’s yoga teacher training courses. She is currently writing a book, “Moving with the Moon – Nurturing Yoga, Movement & Meditation for Every Phase of your Menstrual Cycle”. An advance chapter of this book, “The Dark Moon – Nurturing Yoga for Healthy Menstruation” is now available as an e-book. Find out more at: www.anadavis.com