Shaking Things Up With Shakti: The Women of Ashtanga Yoga
In the Western world, yoga is often associated with women. Female yoga practitioners, however, are a relatively recent phenomenon. As their numbers grow, women around the world are experiencing transformation through the Ashtanga yoga practice – and perhaps changing the tradition itself.
A History of Maleness
For many years, Krishnamacharya didn’t teach women. The teacher of Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Deshikachar, Krishnamacharya is widely considered the father of asana as it’s practiced today. While he was revolutionary in his belief that yoga could be practiced by anyone, regardless of culture, religion, class or caste, Krishnamacharya was rigid in his patriarchal thinking. That is, anyway, until Indra Devi arrived.
Indra Devi, born Zhenia Labunskaia, was a star of Indian cinema and a colonial socialite. She approached Krishnamacharya for instruction after seeing one of his demonstrations. He refused. Women were not welcome at his yoga school. Devi, however, was a friend of the Mysore royal family. She convinced Krishnamacharya’s patron, the Maharaja, to prevail on the famed teacher. Begrudgingly, he took her on as a student, putting strict guidelines designed to break her resolve along every step of the path. Devi surpassed every obstacle. Impressed by her capability, Krishnamacharya eventually began to see Devi as an exemplary student and trained her to pass on the tradition.
Krishnamacharya would bless other female teachers after Devi, including R. Saraswati Jois. Daughter of Ashtanga guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Saraswati began practicing Ashtanga yoga as a young child. Later, she would learn to teach under the guidance of her father, assisting in his classroom. Still, she wouldn’t teach her own classes until 1975, when her first son turned four years old. Those early classes were for female students only, as men and women in India traditionally practiced separately. When people started asking her if she couldn’t start teaching men as well, however, Saraswati couldn’t see why she shouldn’t include male students into her classes. Despite the protests of her father and son, she began welcoming interested men into her classroom. She would be the first woman in India to teach yoga to men and women together.
History shows us that Ashtanga yoga has its roots in the masculine. Increasingly, however, especially in the west, women practitioners equal or outnumber their male counterparts. As they engage with the practice, these women both change and are changed by this powerful tradition.
Looking around an Ashtanga yoga shala or sitting talking with a group of Ashtanga yoga practitioners, a gender-sensitive eye would likely be struck by the untraditional gender performance surrounding them. The men of Ashtanga yoga, while strong, seem to acquire a softness and openness not included in the Western conception of masculinity. The women, on the other hand, become stronger, more rooted, acquiring stereotypically “masculine” traits. As a collective, there’s a drift towards center that defies stereotypes and expectations. Yoga practice, overtime, with adherence to method, cultivates balance. Masculine and feminine energies are inherent in all of us. The firm boxes of gender expectation, however, tend to skew them out of balance. Through regular, systematic Ashtanga yoga practice, women and men alike find a balance between Shiva and Shakti.
Embracing the Feminine
For all the balance it creates, however, a historically patriarchal tradition practiced in a culture that glorifies the masculine is going to have a residual male-bent. The female practitioners of Ashtanga yoga, as a collective, perhaps have as much to offer the tradition as it has to offer them.
On a basic level, women teach their community about cycles. While all Ashtanga yoga practitioners honor cycles, following the course of the moon and the seasons, women experience these cycles in their bodies. Taking three days off each month during menstruation, women offer an example of a visceral experience of cyclic sensitivity that touches the entire practicing community. Through the experiences of women, we see the intersection of yoga and life. Pregnancy, menopause, and every phase in between often plays out for women in a far more physicalized way than it does for men. By sharing these experiences with each other, and the men in their communities, women deepen the consciousness of the tradition.
On deeper levels, women carry with them the positive aspects of femininity, such as nurturance, compassion and surrender. Carefully cultivated, these qualities could positively contribute to the greater Ashtanga yoga community. To achieve this, however, we’re going to have to ask ourselves some hard questions and intentionally deepen our consciousness. All of us are influenced by patriarchal society. As yoga practitioners, we need to recognize how we’ve internalized this influence. How do we treat the male teachers of our tradition versus the female ones? Is softer, nurturing teaching valued in contrast to a more stereotypically masculine style? Are we glorifying strength and athletic prowess, idealizing asana “achievement” in the style of our masculine hierarchal culture?
Consciously addressing these questions, perhaps we’ll move a little closer to balance, not only as yoga practitioners, but also as a tradition. Taking that consciousness out into the world, we can only serve to make it sweeter. Luckily, Ashtanga yoga cultivates attention and consciousness. Now, all we have to do is put it to good use.
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