The Missing Gap: Yoga and Women

I began studying Yoga eighteen years ago. This last few years have brought about a massive shift in how I move my body. Movement defines our relationship with the world. When we move from a place of trying, attaining and perfecting then this tends to play out in the rest of our daily actions. Likewise, when we move from a place of listening, from sensitivity, from transition then most likely our day to day actions will also shift.

The yoga industry is rife with selling an image of yoga, teaching a diluted version that potentially feeds people’s addictions rather than releases them. I hate to say it, but our contemporary spin of yoga can be little more than a spiritual smoke screen preventing us from having a good look in, as we must surely be “on a path”, if we have a practice, a teacher and so on. But on the inside, little is changing, we still feel alone, isolated, confused, victim to our own wounds, and forgetful of our true nature as a beautiful, wonderful part of this wider world.

So what is wrong? Are we missing some lessons?

I am appealing to women to investigate beyond the narrow projections of what we have been told yoga is all about and how we are to move in a standard and regimented way. When I showed a dear friend a “pretty” image I had chosen for the poster of my next training and asked her if it was selling out, she replied: “No way! It’s you doing you. It’s how you experience our wonderful connection with the cosmos through the expansion that comes in the posture”. Boom! Yes! However, in the age of mass advertising it’s a tricky path to navigate between authenticity and taking on a new persona. Likewise, how to teach what we feel is important to teach when so many seem to want what the industry dictates? I’ve often felt the pressure to be smart, sexy, full of purpose, “in my power” and yet at the same time I’ve have had clear moments of feeling self empowered, full of purpose and wonderfully embodied, as well as a thousand more times of feeling exactly the opposite and therefore “failing” to fill the role of “yoga teacher”. Yet at the end of the day “we” (students and teachers) are the industry. It is up to us to vote with our bodies! What is it that we feel is important and how are we going to invest our resources in exploring those issues? How can we make our classes inclusive to those who don’t want to identify with the instagram image of yoga?

Personally, this has meant diving deep into yoga studies from the perspective of a woman whilst also looking for teachers who can help me fill the gap between what yoga hasn’t been able to support me with. I don’t feel this is abandoning yoga. Just like we can’t expect everything from one person, yoga is our basis of self-enquiry and yet also subject to the same forces of corruption that threaten the integrity of all spiritual and religious practices. It actually feels like a really exciting time for uncovering discrepancies and adding even more depth to our offerings. This is what it is all about! What are you good at? What do you love? What is your passion? And how can you go out in service and do it? Rather than simply copying the popular culture’s interpretation of yoga, let us not be distracted by the fancy image, complex sequencing or racking up teacher training hours. Not that there is anything wrong with all of that.  My point is, what do you love about yoga? How does your practice help you to serve yourself and to serve the world?  In the words of Frederick Buechner, find “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I feel that I have tripped up enough in my life to have been taught some pretty tough lessons and now I am passionate about sharing them with other women. I have journeyed through ten years of eating disorders which I know was a huge impetus in giving a voice to body image issues. I’ve had enough failed relationships to question the mandate of sexuality that we are sold, and instead to rewrite what is truly valuable to me. I’ve also put a serious amount of blood, sweat and tears into my yoga practice to realise the necessity of balancing intellect with an embodied spirituality. This has shown me which areas of myself have been silenced. Which parts of my body I have forgotten about, or no longer feel, and which parts of my shadow I still have to acknowledge. A yoga practice which honours a woman’s body and is designed to bring her back to its innate wisdom is essentially a practice that guides her back to source.  Source is the earth wisdom and it is also the temple of the womb space, and the unique code it provides each woman with for understanding her natural flows.

Over recent years I have begun to speak to what I have experienced as the missing gaps in the yoga industry. I have worked hard to take yoga to where it is inaccessible – where it has become too exclusive to be inclusive. This has meant teaching in conflict areas, teaching in prisons, teaching to support people overcoming addictions including eating disorders and self-harm. If yoga is about liberation then I want to see this embodied in its practitioners. For example, what needs to change so that your practice essentially stops the seeking? If the wisdom is really within, then why do we keep looking outside for answers, and why do avoid self-practice, want to teach rather than study, or follow a rigid set of postures that fail to address the source of any internal discontent?

A new perspective of Yoga

As I have been stepping out of the box and off the yoga mat to have a look at yoga from the outside, I have seen the multiple ways that our standard system of teaching, practising and interpreting yoga can be another form of silent repression and domination… Following set alignment cues can often fail to honour the difference of each and every person, even demanding a synchronization of the breath, the tendency for comparison and competition, the myth that yoga teachers have it all “sorted” and are somehow perfect humans rather than the ones that need to hear it the most…

Over the years, asana has managed to seduce me, and I have also fallen more and more in love with movement. I am finally able to work with prana simply by being, rather than having to be on a yoga mat. I want to be outside more and more, because nature is our teacher, our mother, our life line. She is not our resource but our very source. Once we reconnect to this then the deep feminine intuitive wisdom of the earth herself can teach us.  Perhaps then we will no longer be on a desperate search outside of ourselves to look to others for guidance and instruction. The challenge is that we have become so disconnected that perhaps what we now need are yoga un-trainings: A chance to unwind the conditioned and automatic ways of moving, thinking and even perceiving. What more is there waiting to be acknowledged?

What is never talked about in a Yoga class

As I have shifted my studies and practice so I have shifted the focus of my courses. Unwind the Feminine is an immersion which I run that is about recognising that women have different bodies, and primarily because of the favouring of certain masculine qualities, these differences have not been respected. We have a womb space. We have breasts, cycles and vaginas. But none of this is spoken about in a regular yoga class. And I have come to the conclusion that it is ok for us to create a space where we can talk about this.  Rather than making more of a separation between men and women, this space is so necessary for our collective healing and for the health of our planet.

In Unwind the Feminine we explore how to move our bodies in a way that honours our curves, our energy levels and our cycles. It is about reclaiming wisdom that seems so innate its almost strange that it now needs to be taught. Many of us have become so disconnected from our own cyclical wisdom and so good at following the external demands placed upon us, that when left up to our own devices we no longer know how our body needs to move or even be treated. Self-care seems almost self-indulgent, and we appeal to certified teachers to tell us how we can or can’t move our own bodies. Yoga promises us a chance to reconnect. Yet let’s be mindful! The answers lay on the inside. Your body is different from your teachers. Especially if she is a woman who has never learnt how listen to her menstrual wisdom.

It is about uncovering the hidden treasures of our menstrual cycle and the inner yoga of this. The death of aspects of the ego which it necessitates, the capacity for deep feeling and intuition.  The ability to rewrite the narrative that so many of us have been fed, which is that to be valuable as a woman means to be in one’s fertile years: to look and act a certain way. The bones of older women are literally degrading as they fade away, as they become invisible. My purpose is to have a good look within and see where, including in the yoga industry, we have silenced what it is to Be Woman.

Womb Wisdom and Your Yoga Practice

Never once have I heard a yoga teacher mentioned the effects of menstruation on the size of my womb, which can swell up to eight times its non-menstrual size. If they had… then I wouldn’t have kept on doing inversions and would definitely have made space to listen to the natural shift in my consciousness. Likewise, rarely do teachers acknowledge that mula bandha might well be different for men and women, or how to support women working with uterine prolapse. Of course, once we take a brief look back over the historical development of hatha yoga, then it comes to no surprise that the majority of what was taught was designed for a male practitioner. Yet yoga has survived because of its ability to adapt to the needs of the contemporary age. Therefore, it is up to us as teachers (who are teaching primarily women) to be able to speak to a woman’s body and her life cycles. For example, it would be hugely supportive for women if teachers were able to give a voice to menopause. By acknowledging the inner fire of transformation that menopausal women might be experience it can be a huge relief and bring an aspect of trust that this is her initiation into the next stage of her power. Rather than feeling the world as crashing down for no reason, it could instead encourage her to see as what non-concordance there may be between her inner world and outer expression of it. It would also be a huge revelation if teachers could speak to the innate siddhis which a woman’s body already has, such as menopause but also pregnancy, lactation and even miscarriage as Uma Dinsmore-Tuli acknowledges, all of these very earthly, woman-centered experiences bring with them a dramatic shift in consciousness and psycho-physical transformation. As a yoga teacher there are some serious gaps regarding speaking to a woman’s body, which if addressed could really help her switch the light of expanded awareness and intuitive wisdom on – from the inside!

We are cyclical in nature and yet living in a time when the world is at war with cycles. Even at a global level, we value youth over old age, we turn the night into light, we have air con for the summer, heating for the winter, seasonal fruit all year round…the list is endless. Yet the cycles remind us that all will rise and all will fall. All that is given will be taken away. If we as women practitioners carry on each and every day as if we are the same, if we ignore our monthly cycle, or refuse to talk about menopause then it’s possible we are refusing the sagacity of yoga and the intelligence programmed within our very own bodies by behaving in a way which is deeply disrespectful to our own health and wellbeing. 

Now I have spent a decent amount of time exploring how to share this with other women in a way which can be absorbed into the yoga practice they know and love, as well as how they can address such discrepancies in every day life. However, if we as women are still striving towards the attainment of a perfect body, to be constantly “attractive”, support a family and hold down a demanding job then that’s a ton of attention going out. If our practice mirrors these same patterns and is all about following external cues and someone else’s ideas of how we should be moving then it doesn’t leave a woman much room to listen to her body, to hear it, and to respond according. Stress is responsible for a majority of menstrual irregularities, dis-ease and challenges, and as we all know, too much pushing, doing and chasing is also puts a huge strain on our nervous and immune systems. For example, if you are on your mat pushing through a sequence of straight lines and perfect angles, if the breath is forced, if there is no time to pause feel and intuitively move then is there a chance for developing a deeper understanding of the causes of the areas of stagnancy or even pain in your emotional and physical body. If we push on through when our energy levels drop pre-menstruation, when our body is redirecting its focus to the womb, then we tend to feel overwhelmed or even burnt out. The inner critic can be fierce at these times and if we don’t recognize it as a gift of our moon cycle, as an ally which is here to keep us on track, then we can often feel totally lost and without purpose. If we keep going during our bleed – during the time that we are actually more closely aligned with the unseen – then we are not open to the powers of renewal that the bleed offers us as the last month is literally cleared out to make way for a new cycle.

This new cycle is not just physical, but it can bring with it new ideas, new perspectives, visions and radical insights. As we move out of the menstrual time we are gifted with an increase in energy and eagerness to be back “in the world” to put this new wisdom into action. During ovulation, this is the time to go for it! To say “Yes” and to make the most of being more in the “physical” realm. If we haven’t given ourselves time to rest and rejuvenate then this can really backfire. It is times such as these, where we might feel overwhelmed by the action of the inner world and our outer world commitments that addictions tend to rise. It is no surprise that many of us reach for coping mechanisms and unreliable external anchors of stability. The drop back down towards pre-menstruum can then feel exhausting. Yet it is actually a beautiful death of aspects of the ego as this time can bring us back in view of our true values (not those of the external world). This can be a time of realising where and how we can realign aspects of our life. For many of us, what we here is so out of sorts with the path we are on that we do our very best to ignore it. Yet until we listen we will be exposed to the same inner voice of discontent. It really is a magnificent guide and intimate feedback lope. Our menstrual cycle is our unique personal code to understanding ourselves. It is yoga at the most intimate of levels. If we are unable to listen to our own needs, to understand our own cycles then we are also unable to listen to the deep feminine – to the needs of our Earth.

I wish I had been taught what I am now learning when I hit puberty. I have asked women all around the world about their memory of their first bleed, and more often than not, words such as “shame, fear and terror” dominate experiences rather than feelings such as excitement, joy or even experiencing a deep respect for the female body. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with gender separation for those who are prepared to admit that we are different simply by virtue of having a different body. After all this is not about the contemporary spin placed on the different sexes, but rather about providing an opportunity for women to recognize the multiples layers of her monthly cycle and health of her pelvic organs. Perhaps this can allow us as women to just have space to feel into the innate wisdom of our wombs, to honour our monthly bleed and to actually learn about the gifts and wisdom of our life cycles as we journey through time. By doing so I do believe that rather than feel our monthly bleed or even menopause as shameful, or as a physical and emotional strain to be silenced or ignored, we can welcome it as our own embodied inner Yoga.

A recent participant, in one of my courses, complained that she had been on the contraceptive pill since been a teenager. Her menstrual cramps had been so strong they prevented her from studying. Yet she felt that something was amiss.  There was an intuitive knowing that The Pill was limiting her emotional, mental and physical health so she came off. As time went on she experienced huge shifts in her level of body awareness and found a renewed sensitivity as to how best to nourish herself. She found a way to plan her big meetings during ovulation and took flexi-time during her bleed. Not only did this significantly ease the cramps, but this honouring of her inner seasons provided her with some wonderful insights as to how she could move forwards with her creative projects. Her sex life also improved. She described it as if rather than seeing in primary colours, now she was seeing a huge spectrum of light and texture. She no longer needed the false high and confidence of alcohol to experience intimacy.  Another woman recalls coming off the contraceptive pill and almost immediately feeling totally out of alignment with her chosen carrier. She took action, quit her job, immersed herself in what she was curious about (Thai Massage, writing and yoga) and has since been amazed and the new intimate connection with her own body. Rather than feeling it as a obstacle to her happiness which she had to lug around, she is now listening to its innate wisdom and letting this guide her food, relationship and work choices. She is letting her body speak and is way happier for it.

The flux in our emotions, the change in our energy levels, or deep synchronisation with the moon and intuition can provide all we need to remember one of Yoga’s biggest teachings: That we are not separate from all of this, but an extension of it. Within our very bodies is the microcosm of the macrocosm. There is nothing to lose nor to gain, simply to embrace the divine beauty of life which we innately are.

The benefits of Menstrual Cycle Awareness

Menstrual Cycle Awareness can offer the keys for women to be freed from the spell of an emotional whirlwind and the tendency to repress her natural ebbs and flows. I admit, I have had to learn this not just by reading books, but by seeking out older and wiser women, in a space exclusively for women to be free from stereotypes and shame. Once a woman really opens her eyes to the intelligence of her own womb then she can share these insights with her partner who will already be exposed to the power of her cycle.  This has huge benefits for intimate relationships, as it has revealed to me in my own relationship. Before my moon the inner critic can be fierce. My partner can be pivotal in reminding me this is just my cycle’s wisdom unfolding. Yet my inner critic can also bring to the surface issues which have gone unresolved and highlight that it’s time to address them. By noticing my own cyclical flows, he is also paying more attention to the cyclical flows of the natural world around. We are becoming more attuned – together. Perhaps once this work is more firmly established then we can invite our male friends, brothers and partners to join us. That said, hopefully there will be not much need to run such courses as the wisdom will already become mainstream and basic common sense. It is my vision that the women who attend my courses will be able to share this with the men in their lives, and the men will become so well informed they won’t feel threatened by talk of women’s work and neither will other women who are conditioned to view their contemporaries awakening as a threat.

Self-leadership is the only kind of leadership, and yet we live in a collective. This time of huge environmental turmoil is yelling to us to break the spell that has kept the secrets of our bodies locked under shame and fear. The work starts by taking a good look within. Indra’s Net, or the Jewel Net of Indra, in Mahayana Buddhism is a Spider Web. In each “eye” of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel and yet a change to one of the jewels on the web is reflected by a change in all of the other droplets. If just one woman who attends Unwind the Feminine and as a result has the space to quit self-harming or gains the confidence to shift her life in a way that reflects her unique gifts then we will all feel the benefit. If each woman claims the ability to tune in with the natural intelligence of her body then together we are collectively correcting the imbalances that have been created through refusing the wisdom of the deep feminine. This will have a radical and immediate effect on the Earth and all of her creatures. She is waiting for us to remember, to listen and to reclaim our unique part in Indra’s Jewelled Net.