Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A man's practice?

My older sister, Kim, first got me into Ashtanga about six years ago. When she got married, she stopped practicing except for the occasional post-run yoga poses in the living room. She recently had a baby and is now starting to get back into yoga (partly motivated by wanting to strengthen her "core” after pregnancy/labor).

Over Christmas, she asked me if I thought Ashtanga was more of “a man’s practice.” The feminist inside of me reacted immediately (almost in anger!). These were her points and my responses:
Kim: Ashtanga emphasizes being lean and light, but women are curvy and it’s harder to be lean. 
Me: It’s healthy for everyone regardless of gender to be lean and light. I think it’s possible for women to be lean, light, AND curvy. 
Kim: Postures seem to squish women’s body parts (i.e. breast and belly). 
Me: What's wrong with that? I don't think that is harmful (and may even be beneficial – many postures are meant to put pressure on/massage various body parts and organs). 
Kim: You aren’t supposed to practice when menstruating. Does this go back to an idea that having your period is dirty? 
Me: This is a time of rest for the woman's body (if I don’t rest during this time I definitely feel a difference in my practice). I think this is a sign of respect for the woman and her ability to have children, rather than because she is “dirty.” Also, there's an *unproven* idea that inversions may lead to endometriosis from backwards menstrual flow. 
Kim: The practice seems out of sync with women’s life cycle of having babies – you can’t do twists, etc, when you are pregnant or recently had a baby. 
Me: The entirety of a woman's life is not about having babies! Women practice Ashtanga right up until they give birth. You can continue to practice throughout the whole of pregnancy (with modifications, of course). 
Though my sister seemed to accept my answers as adequate, her question stuck with me and I sometimes wonder about this. The Ashtanga practice was developed by men, many of the advanced practitioners/teachers are men, and much of the physical practice does seem to come more easily to men.

But... that definitely does not mean women cannot or should not practice or teach it... though the practice may need to be modified sometimes (as Saraswati, Guruji’s daughter, discusses in this interview.)

One thing I love about Ashtanga is how it attracts strong, yet feminine, women. And maybe the intensity of the Ashtanga practice helps women to be intense in other aspects of their lives, be it a career, mothering, creativity, or other pursuits.


  1. General comment: "Legend" has it that the Ashtanga system as it exists today was developed by Guruji to render teenage boys' minds calm. Regardless of whether that's true, it was created at a time when men were the predominant, if not exclusive, practitioners of yoga. Thus, it must have evolved around the abilities and experiences of male practitioners. How this idea might be applied to females I don't know.

    Should women be building stength and flexibility in the same ratio as men? Do ashtanginis look/seem "too" muscular? How about Kino MacGregor, say? Maybe the strength aspect is just a turn-off to many woman, not a real physical limitation--perhaps like flexibility with men.

    To respond to the third concern about not practicing during menstruation: The ideas about not inverting during menstruation seem to have come from Iyengar (perhaps others too, but I know he's said this). However, in Iyengar's system, you would still practice during menstruation, but not invert. In Ashtanga, you do not go to the shala at all.

    This was explained by David Keil when he was at Y^2 about a year ago. I am not sure if the tradition is Indian, Brahman, Hindu, or something else, but the idea is that it's disrespectful to touch (i.e., adjust) a woman during this time. Thus, women don't take a holiday for physiological reasons (as given by Iyengar), but due simply to Guruji's spiritual or religious belief. I can't be sure that Guruji never gave a physical reason for the holiday, but this is how I interpreted what I heard.

  2. By the way you can tell your sister that the guy behind me most mornings moves his "junk" out of the way for Pasasana everyday...that has got to be a crazy level of squishing

  3. What a wonderful and important conversation this is. It makes me think about so much... I remember distinctly calling the Y2 studio just after I found out I was pregnant in September 08...I was in a panic. Should I practice? Should I stop practicing? I had heard/read so many conflicting perspectives. The call I got from Karen I will never forget; to paraphrase, it was something like, "Congratulations! Now get your butt back to the shala!"

    It was a beautiful journey to wake up every morning with the belly growing larger and larger, the body slightly heavier, finding the poses opening and closing. Some people told me to stop practicing. But I couldn't see it...with every new phase of the pregnancy, there was a new lens of the practice to look through, to experience. It was so fitting, a blessing, even, to start labor there on my mat in the shala...crazy and not-at-all-crazy.

    And THEN...THEN when my child was here and my body had begun to heal...to see it finding poses it never even considered before the pregnancy was astounding. There is no break in the process of practicing...even with modifications, the practice continues. I think now about preparing my body for a second child and how the practice will move with me as I do that, and how I will move with it again when that child is born.

  4. Frank, thanks for all of that! And so interesting to hear that the practice was developed to render teenage boys' minds calm! Where did you learn that? I can see how that could be very effective (a good reason to try to get a yoga practice into schools!)

    Jill, haha good to know that men have to squish their body parts as well!

    Rebecca, I LOVE hearing this from you!!! I remember seeing you in the studio throughout your whole pregnancy, how beautiful you were (and still are), and then the morning your water broke as you were just about to start your practice! You are amazing!

  5. I had heard that several times. I did a google search for something like ashtanga teenage boys to see if there was a reliable source. There is not: I don't think Cyndi Lee's article in Yoga Journal qualifies; other results were blogs or yoga-studio websites that often had egregious errors in other information; none provided a source. There were all different versions of the story: created several hundred years ago for teenage boys, created by Krishnamacharya for teenage boys, created by Guruji, etc. I've also heard (but didn't see this in my search results) that it was a project/challenge that Krishnamacharya gave to Guruji.

    In any case, I have definitely heard people (usually Iyengar devotees) use this as a reason why Ashtanga is not good for adults--that it might be OK if starting young, but that people hurt themselves when they start Ashtanga when they're older--say, 25. Yes, that's a real-life example (25=old?). Having started Ashtanga at age 28, I vigorously refute such assertions. I won't say it's risk-free yoga, but for me it does require maximal concentration (hello, back-bending) and does induce a meditative state ("Ashtangala-boogala").

  6. Thanks, Frank! That is all so interesting.

    Yikes - older = 25?! I don't know about that though, the ashtanga practice feels like it's so good for my body (except when I get injured...hmm).

    I love the intensity of this practice and don't know if I'd get the same quieting of my mind/meditative state from other styles. I especially need this practice when the rest of my life is so crazy and hectic (now I wonder if maybe that's because my mind becomes as unquiet as teenage boys' minds?!)

  7. As a man I find the idea that Ashtanga is more of a man’s practice very perplexing. In my experience, Ashtanga is the only yoga practice that is balanced between male and female, i.e., isn’t primarily for women. For instance, vinyasa – with its emphasis on raw flexibility, standing poses, extreme hamstring stretches (hanumanasana, etc.) and failure to focus on and develop upper body strength – plays to women’s natural strengths and habitually avoids their weaknesses.

    I also don’t agree that more of the Ashtanga practice comes more easily to men. I would agree that certain aspects of it – i.e., poses and transitions that are mostly about strength – are generally easier for men, but as a stiff guy I cannot even tell you how many times I’ve seen women who are new to the practice easily enter poses that I still can’t fully and completely do after six plus years of practicing (kurmasana and supta kurmasana being the obvious examples). Ashtanga emphasizes both strength and flexibility. Men are generally stronger, women are generally more flexible. Ashtanga makes both men and women work on their weaknesses, and in my opinion doesn’t favor the natural advantages of either gender.

    However, I do agree with your sister about the “no practice when you’re menstruating” prohibition, which I think is the product of chauvinistic men who are uncomfortable in the presence of women on their periods. I’ve see no evidence that inversions are actually harmful during menstruation, and I’ve heard a lot of vinyasa teachers echo this prohibition without recognizing that down dog is also an inversion. In my opinion, in the context of vinyasa especially, this prohibition is a pseudo-mystical recognition of women’s reproductive capacity with zero scientific basis.

  8. Thanks, Josh. Good point about down dog also being an inversion...

    I also like your point about how ashtanga makes both genders work on their weaknesses, whether strength or flexibility or something else. So true! I'm still envious of your jumpbacks though :)

  9. I thought about the “man’s practice” issue again at lunch today and I might have to revise my initial opinion somewhat. If we are talking about doing the practice correctly, and if we define doing the practice correctly as entering a pose while engaging the bandhas, then anyone who passively enters into a pose without engaging their bandhas and instead relies on their natural flexibility isn’t correctly doing the practice. In that context, insofar as possessing natural flexibility encourages people to passively enter poses without engaging their bandhas, natural flexibility might actually be a hindrance or an obstacle on some level.

    I’m not sure what I feel about that, though, so I’ll probably have to think about it for the next three years or so and then get back to you!

    And I’m very jealous of a lot of people’s practices in that room who can do all kinds of crazy awesome stuff…