Ashtanga Yoga for women
Practising Ashtanga Yoga as a woman is wonderful
There are many more women who practise Ashtanga Yoga than men, so there is something that attracts us women to a greater extent than men.
Ashtanga Yoga is a demanding discipline both physically and mentally for everyone who is practising. Everyone’s body is different, whether we are male or female.
As a woman filling the powerful Ashtangi with a feminine, intriguing and embracing force, the tradition makes this so much brighter and deeper for me as a woman.
As a woman, we have our menstrual cycle for many years of our lives. We are going through a hormonal change every month, as well as during pregnancy and menopause. This affects our body and our state of mind in different ways. How do we deal with that within yoga?
In Ashtanga Yoga we don’t practise asanas for the first three days of our menstruation; instead we rest from the physically demanding practice. During the remainder of our menstruation days we do not practise upside down, or inverted, positions.
The idea is that in the first three days we will spend more time with ourselves. Honour our cycle
and the unique way our bodies purify themselves. Rest our bodies and rehabilitate. Take that time for ourselves to deepen the process of self-awareness and go deeper within us in a quiet way.
Respecting our energies
In terms of energy, we also talk about the different energies that are important for the body’s functions. Within Ayurveda, there are five different energies that control different functions in the different parts of the body, both physically and mentally, as well as psychologically and spiritually.
Apana is the energy that controls the power that goes down and is responsible for what we are going to let go of and to be able to clean our bodies. Such as menstruation, ejaculation, urine and stools.
So for example, if we are on the head during menstruation, we are upside down and are in the opposite direction to the power of apanas which strive to flow the human blood downwards. If we do this during our period, our natural downward force will be disturbed and irregular, which can disturb the human cycle. Some doctors also claim that if this is repeated then cell changes can occur and prolapse of the uterus can occur later in life.
I remember when I was with BKS Iyengar in Pune for a year. Just before my last class at
the institute I received my menstrual period. I was eager and ambitious to join the last class. To do a lying down, relaxing sequence that we always practised the first three days of the menstruation cycle was unthinkable. So I participated in the two-hour dynamic class that ended with an hour of up and down positions. I stood on my head for about 30 minutes and was up and down for an hour.
My menstruation got interrupted and it took about 8 months before it came back. The body did not feel good during this period. Swollen, tired and heavy. I learned a lot the hard way and have since then respected this part of the tradition.
Within Western medicine there are different opinions about this and also within the yoga community.
Guruji, who was Brahmin, advocated to take rest during the first three days of our cycle for many different reasons. In Brahmin’s families, the women devote themselves entirely to themselves the first days of menstruation and, among other things, do not make food for anyone else. Temples are not visited either during the first few days.
So, for many reasons, the apanic power purifies and the menstrual period itself is a cleansing power that is not shared with others.
Whatever we think about this, I always felt it was important to respect Guruji and his way of looking at this. To practice in his shala, which was also his home, during the first days of the menstrual period was unthinkable to me. Some of the women, including experienced practitioners and teachers, did not agree with this and practised using tampons. Their justification was that the blood was not outside of the body.
For many years, I spent a lot of time in a small town in Karnataka, India. There I dedicated myself to my own yoga practice, wandered in the jungle, visited the Shiva mountain and swam daily in the holy waterfall. I visited the Mokambica Temple daily to meditate and get acquainted with the powerful energy of the Goddess Mokambica. She is a powerful goddess with healing and creative powers. Many artists and writers came there to get her blessing and inspiration for future missions. It was a blessing to have been part of.
I became friends with many of the women in that village. During the women’s first days of menstruation they did not visit the temple. Instead, other women were invited and through different rituals they honoured the woman and the monthly purification cycle. A fantastic way to honour and create community between women! When the young girls got their menstruation a celebration was held to welcome the girls into the women’s world. Beautiful!
This is something I have never experienced in Sweden, where menstruation is something we don’t talk about and, for many women, is a burden to bear. This also reminds me about advertising for menstruation pads where the human blood is blue. Have you ever seen blue human blood?! This reflects our attitude towards menstruation and our femininity I think.
Pregnancy and menopause
During the first three months of pregnancy female Ashtangis advocate rest from demanding asanas. The body is undergoing a huge change and needs all the energy to create the living life that
is being formed within the woman. During the upcoming pregnancy months, asana is practised but with some modification in relation to the growing child and the woman’s condition.
During the woman’s menopause period that affects her in different ways, it is important to listen inward. To dare to use experience, knowledge and inner voice to create a practice that supports her where she is in life. Even in pranayama, certain techniques are not practised during menstruation. This is so as not to interfere with the all-important apana energy.
As a woman in this world, where there is so much achievement and comparison – unfortunately in yoga as well – it is so important to dare to listen to your own inner voice and create a safe relation to your self and your body. Everything we have to do and to be able to do. We have to give priority to ourselves and affirm our female power and femininity. This feels more important today than ever before.
To dare and to say yes to the woman inside, and affirm our feminine side, affirm the flow and the hormonal cycles we go through, is beautiful and creates an enormous sense of power and community. This produces creativity and joy.
Being a woman practising yoga is a blessing and a gift.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style,
I’m a woman
– Maya Angelou
Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by fate and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents - Patti Smith