Yoga means something different to everyone. There are so many lineages, teaching styles and practices to choose from that one person can have a completely different experience to the next. Now there is the debate about “modern yoga” and whether it fully reflects the depths of the ancient yoga teachings but this isn’t what I want to talk about today. I want to open up a conversation about masculine and feminine approaches to yoga. Credit to Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, author of Yoni Shakti, for sparking my thinking about this topic.
The history of yoga in the East began in a very masculine way. Only priests known as Brahmans were allowed to teach yoga and this was only to males from higher caste families. It was only later that the Upanishads enabled lower classes and women to access the teachings of yoga. Nowadays, at least in Western yoga, it is a completely different story with the majority of yoga teachers and practitioners being women. I know from my own experience, the classes I have attended have been 90% female and the two yoga teacher trainings I have been a part of have been all women expect 1 token male in each (shout out to Mark and Phil if you’re reading).
Why does yoga mostly attract us women? In my opinion yoga is the perfect antedote to the very masculine world we live in today. Often we have to “man up” and push ourselves to make it in the male dominated society that we live in. Most women work these days and the typical jobs where we are expected to show up and perform at our best each and every day is totally against the cyclical nature of our beings. But a yoga practice can be that space in our lives where we can totally let go of the pressures of life and be ourselves. Practicing yoga regularly is great for our physical health and vitality but also helps to meet our mental, emotional and spiritual needs. Yoga classes can also provide that feeling of community and support that is so important to our wellbeing.
But even with this new wave of women in yoga there are still masculine undertones in certain types of practice. Traditionally, yoga schools are hierarchical in structure with gurus acquiring followings of students who dedicated themselves to moving along the yogic path. Examples that are common today in the West are Iyengar, Bikram and Ashtanga yoga, both highly demanding physical practices although in different ways. Why is this a masculine approach? Well often these practices are very rigid. They teach a specific practice and often other forms of yoga are disregarded as “not real yoga”. The practice is goal orientated, trying to achieve a specific posture or state of mind. Ashtanga and Bikram yoga in particular also follow a fixed sequence of postures making the practice more repetitive and less intuitive.
In terms of yogasana there are “perfect postures” with the thought being that every body can get there in the end with enough dedication and persistence. This can be seen in the meticulous way that Iyengar teaches alignment in poses with props and similarly Ashtanga yoga is a very strict practice where the same sequence of poses is practiced each time, working towards more advanced postures. Now I am not criticising either of these yoga practices. They have huge benefits, enabling the practitioner to open up physically, emotionally, energetically, mentally and spiritually. However, the strict nature of these practices leaves little room for individuality and listening to the body. The practices are designed by men, for men and therefore do not take into account the cyclical nature of the female body.
So what does a feminine approach to yoga look like? There are many types of yoga available today which specifically incorporate the softer, graceful, intuitive aspects of feminine energy including Yin yoga and Shakti yoga. But the key point is encouraging students to use their practice to become aware of the rhythm and cycles of their bodies. Instead of forcing the same practice, allowing some space for the body to speak about what it needs. This could look like adapting the practice based on where she is in her menstrual cycle or in the cycle of life, whether it be motherhood, pregnancy or menopause. This could still include yoga practice based on traditional teachings but also incorporating less conventional practice to compliment this.
When it comes to asana practice, feminine yoga also opens up to enable variations on the “traditional” postures which better suit the body. Whether this is bringing softer, more graceful energy into the poses rather than an angular, straight lines or modifying poses to allow for our curvier female bodies that have bellies and breasts to consider. Pranayama and meditation practice can also be adapted to match the different energetic and emotional states women experience with the tides of hormones in their bodies. Particularly around menstruation, women can access levels of spiritual connection almost effortlessly when practicing menstrual cycle awareness throughout their cycle.
The majority of the yoga teachers I have learnt from have been women, and conversely to India it is true that the vast majority of yoga teachers in the West are female, however I have had a couple of male teachers too. I respect and admire both but there was definitely a different energy about the practice. I love to feel that nurturing, motherly energy when I am in a yoga class so that I feel safe to fully let go and feel deeply during the practice. The classes I have been to with male teachers have felt more structured and masculine energy compared to the more flowing feminine energy. Of course that’s not to say all male yogis teach this way, it’s just been my experience so far.
Right now I try to take aspects from each and change up my practice throughout the month, both in classes and at home, to suit where I am at in my cycle. I really want to start a teaching a yoga class where I can incorporate this cyclical aspect to the practice and help women connect with their bodies and cycles through their yoga practice. Developing this idea is my intention for this month, I’m not sure yet how it will look but I’m planting the seed that will hopefully grow into a beautiful creation I can share with other women over the next weeks. Its the new moon today and I am also embarking on a new chapter of life, moving to a new country so it’s the perfect time.
If you’re interested in this you can follow my blog here or find me on Facebook @moonlifeyoga where I’ll post once I set up the yoga sessions (online only for now).