I often get asked to define the style of yoga that I teach, yet it is a difficult task to describe what I do succinctly. Like all of life’s journeys, the path that has led to me to becoming a teacher of women’s yoga is layered and complex. While I have been practicing yoga since I was 15, I discovered feminine yoga after experiencing a traumatic midlife health crisis that was rooted in a toxic patriarchal work environment. What I learned from these hardships inspired me to deepen my feminine yoga practice and to share this with other women as they navigate their own life challenges. This may surprise you, but, just like much of our daily lives, yoga is deeply rooted in masculine philosophies. I have found that for me, taking a feminine approach to yoga to be a necessary counterbalance to these predominant influences.
History of Yoga and Gender Roles
Traditionally yoga was a male oriented practice and yogic teachings were passed on from male master to male student. If there were women teachers and gurus, they taught mostly in private, and not in the public sphere. If we examine the lineage of today’s most popular yoga teachings, we find that most originate from a male creator. This fact inevitably impacts how we experience, teach and practice yoga.
When we look back at the spread of yoga from the East to the West beginning in the early 1900s, we think of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyenga, Swami Satyananda and Swami Sivananda. Interestingly, these teachers are all heads of a particular school of yoga and are all male. It is therefore arguable that these ubiquitous yoga lineages were not created with a woman’s body in mind.
This may seem strange to you as yoga as we know it today is thought of as primarily an activity for women. The recent Yoga Alliance Ipsos survey (2016) shows that 70% of yoga students in the US are women. Similarly, in Australia 85% of yoga students are women, compared to only 15% of men (Yoga in Australia Survey, 2008).
Despite the recent historical roots of yoga being the domain of men, early history shows that women played a key role in the community and practice of yoga. For example Vicki Noble’s research shows that women actually invented yoga around 7 BCE and that it was the increase in Brahminical laws that brought restrictions to women’s roles and social status.
Uma Dinsmore Tuli suggests that women’s involvement remained strong through the Tantra and Bhakti traditions. Importantly, one of Tantra’s key features is an emphasis on the power of female deities and practitioners.
Luckily, with our expansive access to information via the Internet, some of the more feminine teachings, including a whole range of healing art practices from the east, are beginning to gain more exposure.
When discussing feminine yoga, I want to be careful not to convey the traditional Oxford English definition of ‘feminine’:
having qualities or an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness
Instead, I prefer to look to the concept of feminine as presented by eastern philosophies, through the lens of Yin and Yang, where the qualities are viewed as a continuum.
All men possess feminine qualities and all women masculine qualities, none of which are inherently good or bad. The key is balance. For example, the positive masculine qualities of clarity and decisiveness can be very useful, but if out of balance can turn into overconfidence or inflexibility. Similarly, the positive feminine qualities of flow and flexibility have the potential to manifest as indecisiveness.
I would argue that our society is largely out of balance and that the masculine qualities are given more weight overall. Glance into any corporate environment and we see qualities like control, power, lack of emotion and intense drive being valued and leading to career growth.
A more feminine approach to life in general, and yoga specifically, is where we cultivate and nurture the feminine qualities of connection, receptivity, fluidity, surrender and nonlinear thinking and behavior.
We are at a moment in time when now more than ever we need a yoga practice that acknowledges the feminine and recalibrates the balance between the feminine and the masculine in ourselves and our communities.
Feminine yoga is much more than yoga postures that are adapted for a woman’s menstrual cycle (though, these cycles are important). Feminine yoga is not limited to a particular style of yoga or series of asana, although there can be more womanly postures, particularly with a focus on the hips, which can be a great source of tension, as well as power for a woman.
Instead, it is more about a shift in how you approach your yoga practice. Feminine yoga needs to be fluid so as to be supportive of where a woman is in relation to the cycles that influence her life. The cyclical nature of a woman life is far more tangible than for a man and it simply makes sense to connect our bodies to the cycles of our lives, including the menstrual cycle, the moon cycle, our life stage, and the seasonal cycle.
One cycle that we are all familiar with is our monthly menstrual or moon cycle. If you are menstruating, you can take on a more dynamic flowing practice at ovulation and engage in yin, mindfulness and restorative yoga at the time of menstruation. If you are menopausal, your monthly cycle can be attuned to the moon. You can engage in more dynamic practices at a full moon and more inward and mindful practices at the new moon.
Your yoga practice will also be influenced by your current life cycle. Whether you are in the Maiden, Mother, Maga or Crone phase, this needs to be considered within your yoga practice. Maidens and mothers may be drawn to a stronger, more dynamic yoga, whereas women in the Maga and Crone life stages may require gentle slow flow, yin, mindfulness and restorative. For example, I have met many women who were focused Ashtanga yoga practitioners, who in mid life, experienced burn out from such an athletic strong practice.
How to Cultivate Your Feminine Yoga Practice
- Honour all aspects of your emotional, physical and spiritual self as you are in the moment.
- Adapt your yoga practice according to where your are in your cycle, including the menstrual/moon and life stage.
- Listen to your intuition, allow spontaneous movement (or stillness!) to arise as you practice.
- Acknowledge yourself as a sensual woman and cultivate your sensuality within your yoga practice.
- Cultivate a devotional practice, connecting to the divine feminine. For example drawing from any of the worlds Goddess traditions that are meaningful to you.
In addition, some additional practical suggestions to cultivate the feminine into your yoga practice:
- Wear comfortable layered clothes, particularly ones that make you feel more feminine, preferably made from natural fibres.
- Create an altar and adorn it with candle(s), beautiful flowers and imagery.
- Use your favourite essential oils.
- Create flowing playlists with music that you enjoy and that makes you feel good. For example I enjoy Kirtan music to inspire and support my devotional yoga practice. Click here for a 30 minute Feminine Flow play list.
Uma Dinsmore Tuli (2014) Yoni Shakti: A woman’s guide to power and freedom through yoga and tantra. Pinter and Martin: UK.
Vicki Noble, Did Women Invent the Ancient Art of Yoga (http://www.lotusfertility.com/Yogini_Roots.html)
Yoga in America Ipsos study (2016) (http://media.yogajournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2016-Yoga-in-America-Study-Comprehensive-RESULTS.pdf)
Yoga in Australia, Results of a National Survey (2008) (https://researchbank.rmit.edu.au/eserv/rmit:6110/Penman.pdf)
This blog was also inspired by teachings from the following training and workshops I have attended:
- Lorraine Taylor (2014) Sacred Journey into Yoga, Bali. The history of women in yoga
- Tina Nance (2014) Sacred Journey into Yoga, Bali. Sacred menstruation.
- Jane Hardwicke Collins (2016) Autumn Woman Harvest Queen Menopause Workshop. Melbourne. The cycles that affect a woman life.
© 2017 Jane Mallick. All rights reserved.