I anticipated in my last post about yoga during pregnancy that I would be able to keep up some degree of an Ashtanga Yoga practice. My honest intention when I wrote it was to keep a record of how to modify the practice during my pregnancy and post it here. Well, things didn't quite work out that way! Although I have been fortunate to have a reasonably straightforward and uncomplicated pregnancy (I'm now entering week 30) keeping up the Ashtanga practice proved impossible. Most of my energy was channeled into teaching yoga and transporting myself between classes on my bicycle. When these tasks had been carried out, all I wanted to do was rest or sleep. Due to tiredness and some pain around my sacral iliac joint, getting up for early self-practice or even practicing a full Ashtanga sequence at home became too difficult. My practice in reality was reduced to a few stretches and meditation and on a good day a couple of modified Sun Salutations and some standing or seated postures.
It has been challenging to let go of this expectation and desire to feel as fit and in control as I used to be. But pregnancy has uncovered aspects of myself I didn't know about and I have certainly had a lesson in letting go and accepting this constantly changing body.
These pictures speak for themselves in order to explain how my body has changed. Over five months I have grown from being lean and athletic to being, well, something else! I'm sure that a rapid, involuntary and physical transformation like this happens almost exclusively on these occasions, when a woman is growing another human being. And I can honestly say that it makes me feel slightly grotesque. Grotesque in our contemporary understanding of the word, meaning comical, distorted and ugly, not so much. Mostly it makes me feel grotesque in what Bakhtin describes (see project brief below for explanation) as an existential experience of ambivalence and dualism; a celebration of the cycle of life. I feel removed from the sense of self that I know and at the same time fascinated by this novel experience of being a vessel for a new human being.
MA in London
So while I have not kept up my usual yoga regime and therefore not had to ponder on how to modify the Ashtanga practice, I have been thinking a lot about my changing body in a different context. What has also occupied my time and energy since September has been starting to study for an MA in dance at the LABAN conservatoire in London. Travelling down from Leeds to attend the course one day a week has also taken some energy, but more than anything it has inspired me to use the current situation creatively and think more about my grotesque body. The rest of this blog post is dedicated to the project brief I have written for the module I'm doing this term. The module is called Dance and the Moving Image. The brief is a response to the task of writing a proposal for our final project, which is to make a short dance film. My intention is not to make a film about the grotesque body but rather that I aim for the film itself to be grotesque body: ambivalent, open and subject to change. Writing the proposal has itself been an interesting journey into understanding how I feel in my current state. How the final film will come out is still an enigma...
Comments or observations are gratefully received on the brief below.
Project brief for
Dance and Moving Image module
By Marie Hallager Andersen
What I have really enjoyed about the filmmaking process so far is that I’ve allowed myself to be intuitive. I had often experienced in the past that working creatively has been a path full of obstacles because I was trying too hard! I would overthink intentions and meanings and as a consequence the outcome felt contrived. The ability to let go of control and not to try so hard I’m convinced arises from my pregnancy. I have become a vessel for another human being and am no longer in complete control of my body. Having another human growing inside me makes me a stranger to my own body and an involuntary observer of a physical transformation. Hence, my world at the moment revolves around a kind of unruly body! This has turned my vision and my attention towards change and letting go.
To write this brief and explain what will be driving my process I found it necessary to deepen my understanding of the unruly and grotesque body. For this, I have turned to Bakhtin and his book Rabelais and His World. This book deals with the ‘carnivalesque’ mainly in terms of language and laughter but overall it celebrates the cyclical character of life and death, dualism and ambivalence. What I find applies to me the most in this book is the idea of incompleteness and impermanence: for Bakhtin the essence of the carnivalesque; for me at the moment a ruling factor of life. Here’s what Bakhtin says:
In the famous Kerch terracotta collection we find figurines of senile pregnant hags. Moreover, the hags are laughing. This is a typical and very strongly expressed grotesque. It is ambivalent. It is pregnant death, a death that gives birth. There is nothing completed, nothing calm and stable in the bodies of these old hags. They combine a senile, decaying and deformed flesh with the flesh of new life, conceived but as yet unformed. Life is shown in its twofold contradictory process; it is the epitome of incompleteness. And such is precisely the grotesque concept of the body. (my bold)
The underlying theme that resonates with me in Bakhtin’s quote is that of the body being in constant change. The celebration of the changing and grotesque body is a feature of the carnivalesque. If the classical body is all about appearance the grotesque body is all about experience. Bakhtin says earlier in his introduction: ‘Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed’ (p. 10). The essence of the carnival was degradation and ‘bringing down to earth’ in order to make way for the new and fresh. The purpose was never to elevate or to complete, it was always, in a sense, ‘work in progress’.
Giving in to the state of ‘constant change’ and accepting the course of nature is of particular relevance to me at the moment and so this will be the starting point for my investigation.
Approach to project
Applying this to my final project for the Dance and the Moving Image module, the idea of change and the incomplete will be the pivotal point of my research. The grotesque body is not closed and complete but it is open to the outside world. Bakhtin says: ‘[…] the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, complete unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits’ (p. 26). That openness and susceptibility to change is what I hope to bring out of my work in the course of the next weeks.
To clarify, the object of my research will not be that of the represented grotesque body (although this is not excluded); rather the film itself will be a grotesque body. Implicit in this is the idea of emphasizing process instead of outcome. This means thinking about how concepts such as openness and ambivalence can be introduced in the form (and not – or not only –in the content) of the work.
In the context of my film this means that beginnings and endings can weave in and out of each other and that they are always open to change. Precisely like Bakhtin presents ‘ambivalence’ –something that is twofold, contradictory and ‘in becoming’. In this way the creation of the film will be the object of the final film itself.
How to achieve it
Since 2008 my main interest as a dancer has been improvisation and spontaneous movement. This means I have been more interested in the process and in learning as I go along, in relying on intuition. In my film, my starting point will therefore be to approach shooting with the idea of process to the fore. In this way I believe I can be open to the unexpected and be open to new pathways. In my experience with filming so far, I have found that when I work with material that comes from intuition and spontaneity the scenes seem to come together more easily and I engage a more creative part of myself. The pitfall here would be to shoot footage aimlessly and endlessly. I personally work best within parameters so the idea is to maintain spontaneity when filming but doing it within a framework of set tasks.
Given my approach to the project I have not got any finished outcome in mind! However, in order to be true to the concept I have presented above I intend to set myself certain tasks as a strategy to collect and edit footage. The tasks will be based on the idea that the film itself is a grotesque body: ambivalent, open and subject to change. This will come across primarily in the formal approach to filming rather than in the content. The tasks (or ‘obstructions’) will both restrict and release the ways that I shoot footage and the ways that I edit it. Simple parameters will generate a complex system: the ‘product’ will be a record of this system rather than a finished object. Complexity is another feature of the grotesque. Like ambivalence, complexity indicates something that contains more than one thing at once, e.g. the pregnant body.
To help this process along I will do some research into other artists’ work looking specifically for work that is done with the purpose of setting out obstructions or guidelines to generate material. An obvious one for me is fellow Dane Lars von Trier and his 5 Obstructions from 2003. I furthermore worked with a choreographer in Denmark, Palle Granhøj, who makes use of a technique developed for devising movement material, which he calls ‘Obstruction Technique’, which could also prove useful. And this is just to start off with.
In order to collect material for the accompanying presentation and the piece of writing I will be handing in, I will keep a record of everything that seems of importance in the artists I research, the books I read, the encounters I have etc. Additionally I want to keep a diary where I either write, record or film myself talking about the different stages of the process. This will potentially be a part of the finalized project. In the spirit of the edited film, I predict that the presentation and essay will also be based on process, so this aspect of collecting material seems important.
In practical terms I intend to:
· Set myself five tasks (‘obstructions’) for sound recording and shooting footage (that can be carried out in isolation or together) that will generate material in accordance with the concept discussed above
· Research other artists’ work with the particular aim of finding works of art with the same ethos of ‘in becoming’ and incompleteness
· Look at footage on my computer detached from the situation of shooting and see what actually works on the screen
· Familiarize myself more with editing software
· Read, and write along the way to document my reading, research and findings
· Keep a diary: recording or filming myself or writing down things I experience and encounter
· Always bring along camera and/or iPad
With the practical limitations that pregnancy entails it is easy to feel confined or inhibited when filming. The physical state of my body means that long hours of standing or walking to obtain footage is not available to me in the way it would have been before. Instead I have to find a way around it and make the restrictions a part of the process. My pregnancy itself is one of the obstructions! The experience of pregnancy is revealing things to me and it has a potency to it. I am hoping to make a film that will be a formal equivalent to the ambivalence of this grotesque body of mine!
 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, Tr. Helene Iswolsky (Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 25-26.
 My boyfriend Alan has been working on the grotesque body in Italian comedies and he talks of the grotesque body as a body ‘in becoming’, a phrase I found useful to grasp the idea of the body in transformation, always somewhere on the scale between life and death.
 Cunningham and Cage
It's ironic that about nine months ago I wrote a blog post about yoga and women deliberately avoiding to talk about menstrual cycles and pregnancy. Well, times have changed and… I'm pregnant. 19 weeks (almost halfway through) to be exact with a baby due in January. My partner Alan and I are delighted.
This change sheds new light on my relationship with my body and with my asana practice. In this blog post I want to articulate how I feel about my pregnant body in the context of my yoga practice. Here I’m not so interested in celebrating the beauty and wonder of pregnancy (wondrous and beautiful as it is!); instead, I want to reflect on how I experience being a woman of 33 years going through major physical changes while trying to keep up a yoga practice and work as a yoga teacher.
Before I got pregnant I was sure I would have no expectations about what I would be able to do during pregnancy. It appeared that my expectations only revealed themselves when they weren't met... When the first nausea and tiredness hit me around week five or six I realized I had no idea what I was actually in for. I had heard women with children talk about how tired they felt in the first trimester, but it hadn't occurred to me that I couldn't just power through it like I normally do. Since being a child gymnast and throughout my dance training I have always felt in control of my body, of how much I choose to exercise and my weight and body shape. Pregnancy changed this. The energy that goes in to growing the baby in this first stage is completely unexpected. I actually felt like I had a minor flu for about two months. And that’s not to mention the nausea and vomiting!
Naturally I had to accommodate my yoga practice to this. Boy, that was hard. Not being able to do what I wanted to – when I wanted to – felt like a massive failure on my part. What would other yoga students think of me when I gave up half way through the standing sequence? (Of course, I couldn’t tell most people I was pregnant at this point.) Would my teacher think I was lazy? Would I become overweight when not exercising and practicing as often as before? Would I forget the Ashtanga yoga sequence? Would Kapotasana now forever be beyond my reach? All these question and fears crept in within weeks of my positive pregnancy test.
Thankfully the symptoms eased off. As with many other women my energy slowly returned to a more acceptable level around my 14th week of pregnancy. For the past five weeks I have been able to practice more regularly and felt the urge to do so, rather than doing it out of duty.
However, I am slowly succumbing to the fact that my practice will not be back to how it was for a very long time – if ever! Instead of being frustrated about this and forcing myself into a regime I can't cope with, I have decided that I want to develop a practice that suits this stage of my life. I'm determined though to not give up my beloved friend – the Ashtanga Yoga practice – so the next weeks and months will be an investigation into how to modify the practice to keep it part of my life even as my life and body change. Focus has to be less on deepening postures and more on finding useful alternatives and variations that make me feel good in my body. My intention is to report back on what modifications I find useful and my thoughts on how to keep the practice viable.
Not much is available in terms of videos and hands-on instructions for modifying Ashtanga for pregnancy. I did find a few useful blog posts though. Below this video I have listed links to them for you to read for yourself.
Last week in my friend's flat in Berlin I was practicing in my room and although not a part of the standing sequence I couldn't resist reaffirming my ability to do this:
Links for articles to read:
These are links that give useful suggestions and guidelines on how to approach the Ashtanga practice during pregnancy
See also this video of Arkie Yogini practicing 35 weeks pregnant
May Bank Holiday Yoga Intensive
What: 2-day Ashtanga Yoga workshop offering four different workshops of 2.5 hour each with a different focus. On the first day we taught an Ashtanga yoga class looking mainly at the technique of the standing postures and in the afternoon an inversions class with focus on moving in to headstand with safety. The second day began with a Mysore self-practice class followed by a back bending and restorative session.
Where: Yoga Kula, Leeds When: 5+6 May 2013 10.30 am - 4.30 pm
Who: Workshop was led by myself and Alan O'leary and open to students of all levels to participate.
My approach to workshops always goes via my own practice. What occupies me at the moment? What am I working on understanding or improving for my own practice? This is, in my opinion, key to delivering a informative and inspiring workshop.Handstand on Mallorca
On the basis of that the first class I taught with Alan revolved mainly around the standing postures of the Ashtanga sequence including Sun Salutations. One aspect of these postures that I am beginning to understand is the important of (a mild version of) Uddiyana Banndha. (A full and concise explanation is not appropriate for this blog post so I will just give the overall idea of the concept and then you can read further about it here. See is also this video of Kino MacGregor explaining the difference between Uddiyana Banddha and Uddiyana Kriya).
Uddiyana Banddha teaches us to work deep from the core of the body with a firmness to the lower abdominal (protecting the lower back) while keeping softness and spaciousness in the upper abdominal cavity to encourage deep breathing and full movement of the diaphragm. Many students who don't understand this Banddha will instead grip at the abdominal muscles and hip-flexor muscles, tensing and shortening the front of the body rather than lengthening and softening.Through exercises to locate this 'Banddha sensation' and partner work we went through the key postures of the standing sequence and Downward Facing Dog. The main purpose of the class was to get the students to understand the subtle lift of the lower abdominal muscles together with a sense of letting go while in the postures.
This class was followed by an afternoon session on inversions. I often omit inversions in my regular classes as it takes time to explain how to move in to shoulderstand and headstand with awareness and safety. The main focus for the inversions session was therfore to spend time on preliminary exercises to build up strength and courage to do the postures safely. Before moving in to the more extreme inversions, balancing on hands, head or shoulders, we focused on Downward Facing Dog and half dog to work on rotation of hands/shoulders. Interestingly the principles of 'lifting up' from the previous session on Uddhiyana Banddha came back when understanding how to engage the core muscles for inversions. I then introduced a few Iyengar based techniques: we used bricks squeezed between first hands and then thighs to isolate the action of first the arms/shoulders and then legs/pelvis. Following this we practiced handstand. This position is the easiest in which to identify the before mentioned muscle groups that needs engaging to keep inverted balances steady. We worked in partners again using the wall for safety. After handstand we moved in to headstand through various preliminary postures. When learning to do inversions safely it's vital to know which steps to pause at and stay with before attempting the full posture. Finally we moved gently in to the Ashtanga shoulder stand sequence focusing mainly on keeping weight through the arms and the shoulder and not in to the neck.
Mysore self-practiceUrdhva Dhanurasana in threes
Monday morning started with a Mysore class. I love teaching Mysore because it gives me the opportunity to give personal feedback to each student. It allows them to work with their own breath and internalise the practice. Many discrepancies or bad habits that accumulates when practicing for a while can be detected and therefore rectified during this practice. Also it was a great opportunity for me to assess whether my instructions on the previous day had been clear to the students. Alan has written a blog post about Mysore self-practice. Read it here.
Back bends and restorative yoga
I have out of curiosity been practicing Matthew Sweeney's Moon Sequence lately and found it a great alternative to the Ashtanga sequences. The Moon sequence focuses less on chaturanga and upper body strength and more on back bending. It became the starting point for the back bending session. After explaining the different parts of the spine that play part when opening the back we warmed in to the session by practicing the beginning of the Moon sequence. The beginning of the second series Ashtanga sequence builds up strength and flexibility with lots of control. This was a natural follow up starting with Shalabhasana up to Laghu Vajrasana with a few modifications. Last we practiced Bow posture (Urdhva Dhanurasana) in threes where the students would help each other create length and lift through the spine. See image to the right.
For the remaining part of this session we went in to restorative postures winding down mind and body after a very stimulating back bending session. Restorative yoga, where supported relaxation gives the energy back to the body, is a very valuable tool particularly, I find, as an Ashtanga yoga practitioner. In Ashtanga Yoga we become accustomed to the upwards and powerful energy of the practice and underestimate the value of letting go and giving in. The postures are set up with lots of props: bolsters, belts and bricks to support the body to rest in various supine, prone and twisted positions. The perfect antidote for two days of physical practice.
This is the end of the third of four blog posts about working within my three disciplines: yoga, improvisation and life coaching. I decided to keep each post focused on the execution and content of the session and I will then continue with a more in-depth analysis after the final post. My aim is to highlight the common denominators between the three disciplines by putting the sessions next to each other and look at where vocabulary, intention and outcome correlate.
The fourth post will be about teaching an improvisation workshop for improvisation Exchange in Leeds in May 2013.
There are two points I want to make in this blog post. One is that, if you practice with discipline and commitment Ashtanga Yoga will give you evident results. The other point is that the strict practice can become a trap when a rigid approach to the tradition takes over. This blog post is about learning to practice in a disciplined way, but also learning to practice smart.
I had already begun to write the post when I came across an article by yoga master Matthew Sweeney, ‘The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga’. In it, Matthew explores the ideas of change within a traditional method. I was curious to add some comments and so I thought I'd use Matthew’s article as a starting point to talk about the subject and then expand with my own thoughts and experiences. But I urge you to read Matthew's full post here.
Matthew outlines the pros and cons of sticking closely to the traditional Ashtanga Yoga series. He argues that the practice and the teaching of the practice has evolved and that the idea of 'tradition' depends on who you ask. Is it to deny the 'tradition' and to refuse a sequence that 'works' if you start to modify, to adapt or even to play with postures out of sequence? He points out the uniqueness and deficiencies of the Ashtanga Yoga system. I find his closing words and concluding question intriguing:
every system needs to evolve else it will become stagnant, every system needs stability from which this change can flourish. It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it?"
He addresses the reader directly and asks us to take a stand on this. Can we as hardcore traditionalists embrace change and can we as lovers of variety and change accept the value and depth of tradition?
The pros of sticking to the traditional practice
A very good argument for sticking strictly to the sequence is that of facing postures found to be unfamiliar and difficult. The Ashtanga Yoga sequence doesn't allow you a lazy playlist of 'greatest hits'.
I experienced this with my own body. After committing to the full Ashtanga practice in Mysore classes (no skipping postures!), I found my confidence increase both on and off the mat. The truth is that some of the more extreme primary series postures meant that I had been avoiding the full practice for a long time because of injury and fear. I needed the sequence to confront me with what I found difficult; it taught me not to cop out every time I hit an obstacle.
Read on for Matthew's precise and sharp analysis on this subject. I couldn't have said it better so I will let it stand for itself:
The simple fact is that by adhering to the set sequences of Ashtanga, although more discipline is required, the results are definite. Without set sequencing, without some commitment to self practice, both the results of the body and the focus of the mind are generally limited. A key benefit of a set sequence is that it keeps you honest. You are forced to doing postures that are difficult or problematic rather than avoid them, or only doing the ones you may like or which feel good. (...) Avoiding difficult or problematic postures is a major flaw, particularly with styles of Yoga that don’t work with set sequencing. Both beginner and advanced practitioners can fall into this trap, which leads to building up your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses, and then leads to further imbalance, rather than less."
The cons of sticking to the traditional practice
Matthew's main argument in his article against sticking dogmatically to the set order of the sequence is that the majority of the postures in the primary series are about upper body strength and forward-bending postures. Many of us get stuck here due to inflexible hips or hamstrings and hence we build strength in some areas and less in others by vigorously repeating vinyasas and forward bends. As Matthew explains, this focus enhances the upward and energetic aspect of the yoga practice (referred to as masculine energy) and less on the downwards and soothing aspect (female energy). (For more on such a theme see my 'Women & Yoga' post here.)
It is not that Matthew argues that we should not teach the traditional method but rather that you have to learn to take responsibility as a teacher for tweaking the practice to accommodate each individual student who takes an interest in doing yoga and not only those who have certain aptitudes.
After the initial learning phase it is important to consider the needs of the student rather than blindly following the tradition. It is important to consider whether the standard Ashtanga is appropriate (and often it may not be) and then notice if you do not teach an alternative out of fear, rigidity or inability.
Ashtanga Yoga -A sacred cow?
It is my experience that there is an unwritten rule particularly for more senior Ashtanga teachers to be very faithful to the traditional teaching: 'If this is what Guruji (or Sharath) has said, then it must be the truth'. Therefore I was thrilled to hear Matthew Sweeney talk about the problems of how dogmatically the Ashtanga practice is often approached. Finally: a senior teacher to speak out about what I had been thinking. And no doubt he’s not the first to express this. Matthew says:
Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day. There is nothing innately spiritual, holy or sacred about them.
Haven't most Ashtanga practitioners been wondering about this at some point since starting their yoga journey? The approach taken by our teacher (and very advanced Ashtangi) Joey Miles, is probably unusual compared to that in some more traditional Ashtanga Yoga Shalas. Joey teaches a disciplined Ashtanga practice according to the inherited sequences, but he allows for the use of props and modifications (to postures and sequence) where appropriate. He’s influenced by Iyengar Yoga and will spend time with the individual student to help them understand basic alignment for a safe practice. If a student is working with an injury or is otherwise challenged he might suggest modifications or additional postures to work sensibly with this. In short, Joey seems to take the ‘tradition’ less dogmatically, and although he honours it, he has given it his own stamp.
Self-practice for Ashtanga Yoga only?
Inevitably a led or ‘counted’ Ashtanga class cannot accommodate modifications for every single student in the space of 90 minutes. Led classes, of course, have their place for establishing rhythm, pace and focus to the Ashtanga sequence, and for reminding us of the correct breathing. But what are Mysore self-practice classes for? Matthew Sweeney mentions self-practice aspect several times in his blog post and also argues that it is one of the unique features of the Ashtanga practice, where the student receives feedback and hands-on adjustments during practice. So many other Yogas don't do self-practice. So should a self-practice class only be for people who naturally find jump backs and forward bends easy? Surely no teacher or true yogi is interested in this kind of exclusion.
Why should a student not feel welcome to come and practice a modified sequence for a period of time due to aptitude, age, injury or illness? Or perhaps a more permanent adapted practice if circumstances or body type doesn't fit the Ashtanga Yoga archetype of lean and petite? It is my impression that self practice classes risk becoming exclusive to the type of students who a) already know the full primary series (other students seem to think that this is a prerequisite for doing this class) and, b) have right body type to cope with vinyasas and forward bends and who thrive on the upwards, 'male' energy Matthew refers to in his blog post.
Back to Leeds
As mentioned earlier on in the post one of Joey's strengths as a teacher is precisely to implement what Matthew Sweeney is talking about in his post: to notice the needs of the individual student and have the courage to let go of the established sequence if this benefits the student. The implications of this is that some students will be practicing modifications or adapted versions of the sequence next to someone doing a ‘strict’ Ashtanga practice. Now what are the practical implications of this? How do you make sure that the practice in the self practice environment stays safe for both students and teachers? And all this while acknowledging the usefulness of being disciplined with the practice but still making space for all types of people.
To practice smart is to practice with discipline but not with rigidity. So the emphasis of our practice is not to follow slavishly the form of the postures as they are set out in the text books but to practice with ease so doing yoga remains fun and inspiring. Modified with benefits but not discarded to avoid confronting difficulties.
Yoga is for everyone regardless of ability. I will finish with a quote by Matthew Sweeney again:
For example, how do you teach someone missing one arm(...)?
Next I’ll be returning to my series of posts about developing a yoga practice for Toke who only has one arm...
I want to do some thinking about women and yoga. “The usual stuff,” you may be thinking, “about the moon and menstrual cycles and how women don’t have the same upper body strength as men?” No. I have deliberately decided to stay clear of the usual topics about women. I am all for talking openly about the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and the power of the womb, but frankly - I thought to myself - there must be other aspects to discuss when thinking about women and their yoga practice. In other words, I am interested in thinking about yoga in relation to women as a gender rather than as a sex.
It is a subject that has been on my mind for a while and although I have strong opinions about yoga in relation to women I am also very confused about what to think. I notice that I contradict myself a lot and have very mixed feelings about certain aspects of the subject: I want to be feminine and I want female role models but I don’t want yoga to be about gender. I feel that perhaps the female body is more prone to become sexualised and that women are more vulnerable as both yoga teachers and practitioners... Yet, I have no evidence that men don’t feel the same vulnerability.
To help me shed more light on this subject I asked three smart and self-assured female friends and yoga colleagues to give their personal account of being a woman practicing and teaching yoga. We are all in our 30’s, independent, have no children and make (some of) our living teaching yoga.
Kathinka Walter and Manuela Berndt
Angela Sykes and Marie Hallager Andersen
These are the three women plus myself:
Kathinka Walter: German choreographer and yoga teacher based in Leeds. She is currently writing her PhD on performance installation and improvisation whilst teaching choreography/improvisation at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. She has been practicing yoga for nine and teaching it for five years. See Kathinka's website here.
Angela Sykes: Angela lives in Leeds. She’s a yoga teacher, yoga studio director, Massage Therapist and Vipassana meditator. She’s been practicing yoga for ten years and teaching it for five years. See Angela's website here.
Manuela Berndt: German choreographer and yoga teacher living in Berlin, where she opened Kalaa –art TO Yoga yoga in 2011 after years of being a choreographer in Leeds. Manuela still teaches dance and choreography but mainly runs her yoga studio in Prenzlauerberg/Berlin. She’s been practicing yoga for nine years and teaching for six. See Manuela's website here.
Marie Hallager Andersen: Danish, living in Leeds for ten years. Dancer, aerialist and improviser, life coach, yoga teacher and blogger!
I wanted the blog post to be about subjects that aren’t often discussed openly: the kind of things we think about but don’t necessarily say out loud. I decided to focus the debate by emailing questions about three topics:
MANUELA: To be honest I don’t feel surrounded by prominent and influential men in my everyday yoga world. In the West, women predominate in the yoga market as teachers, practitioners, entrepreneurs and customers and in my case all these roles come together. Coming from a professional dance background where, seemingly, females are a majority, but when it comes to jobs and opportunities they fall way behind men, in yoga I don’t feel we are competing.
KATHINKA: I will answer this question in regards to Ashtanga teachers, as it seems that within Ashtanga the imbalance between female and male teachers is more prominent. So far I have not worked with many female Ashtanga teachers due to more male teachers being present in Leeds and at other places I have practiced.
In contemporary dance the male choreographers dominate the scene despite a much higher number of female dance practitioners. I notice when I have a new group of students, there is a moment of joy when I see guys interested in dance. There are so few of them that I learn their names much quicker. This attention must boost their confidence, giving them an approach towards their dancing (yoga practice) with less fear of failing.
ANGELA: I did most of my intensive yoga training in India where yoga is most certainly male dominated so I have a few thoughts around this! I studied with (and came across) only one female yoga teacher in India. It was at this point that I noticed how lovely it is to study with a women’s supportive energy, she is a back bending teacher so the sessions were very very challenging but presented in such a gentle, supportive way that it made it feel easier in some ways! In contrast around the same time I also studied with a very tough male teacher who would often shout in our faces and try to ‘break us’ which at the time I rationalized that he was trying to bring my ego to the surface and see if I came back and if I didn’t then I was not ‘ready’ for the experience! I know this teacher is certainly not representative of male teachers and is the strongest contrast of experiences I have in terms of comparing the experience of male and female teachers! I feel in the West that yoga is actually a much more female dominated endeavour so I have never felt any lack of supportive feminine energy in the classroom setting.
KATHINKA: I differentiate between two types of (male) Ashtanga teachers - the very masculine ones that have a very harsh sometimes even military approach to teaching (and possibly their own practice) and the teacher who very much looks at the student’s needs and how to best accommodate them. The latter ones are the ones I work well with as they keep reminding me to keep a soft approach to my practice as I easily tend to challenge myself too much/let my ego of ‘wanting to achieve’ certain postures get in the way. I imagine that this could be the role for a female teacher to take – creating a calm atmosphere for my practice where I can still challenge myself physically but with a soft and insightful approach.
MANUELA: Thinking about my own role models I can’t pin it down to one person who has it all. In my practice and teaching I get inspired by friends, colleagues, teachers, students, YouTube, writers, male and female, Iyengar and Shiva Rea and many more. As an entrepreneur I look up to my accountant who is incredibly sharp and fast and as a yoga customer I am just as ridiculous as everyone else.
That said, I feel very strongly about Indra Devi who in the 1930s persistently persuaded Sri Krishnamarchaya to teach her, consequently becoming the first foreign yoga student and teacher in India. It was her, a woman, who in the 1940s brought yoga to the West and started adapting it to our bodies and lifestyle long before her fellow Mysore yogi Patthabi Jois set out to bring us the teachings of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. Indra Devi planted the seeds for what has become a wonderful mass movement: YOGA FOR ALL!
KATHINKA: Donna Farhi would be the one very high up on my list of role models. Unfortunately I have never met her but I really enjoy her writing. I find her insightful and intelligent (emotionally as well as mindfully) and her wise and thoughtful approach to yoga practice is very inspiring. Bringing yoga to life – the everyday practice of enlightening living (2004) is a book I highly recommend every yoga practitioner to read.
MARIE: As I said at the beginning of this post I’m not interested in reducing this discourse to a battle of biology but there is a social aspect of gender that has to be considered. A man can never completely understand, on an experiential level, what it means to be a woman. Expectations of women’s behaviour, role and looks are deeply ingrained in our culture. This is expressed through the etiquette we have to follow and in a yoga context, how to look and behave on a mat both as a teacher and as a student. When is the last time you saw a woman take off her top to expose her chest in a yoga class? The social expectations of genders spill in to the shala. I listen to my male gurus share their wealth of knowledge but there is an aspect of me, my upbringing and the social expectations of me as a woman that they can never grasp.
KATHINKA: In yoga I find myself – like in dance - in a male dominated environment. You have all these women practicing yoga and being yoga teachers but why is it that - and I tremendously generalise here - men find it so much easier to step forward and take the lead? Why am I mainly surrounded by male teachers? Why can I not name enough female role models? And in regards to what I said above [about privileging men in class], should we as yoga teachers take more responsibility in how we affect our female students’ confidence?
MANUELA: In my experience female yogis aren’t perceived as any less exciting, sexy and strong and apart from a few commercial ‘Yoga for men’ labels there doesn’t really appear much of a gender discourse in yoga. Yoga seems to be an area where people search for so called female attributes and where they are allowed and encouraged to do so, even though yoga was originally intended for men. Recent movies and documentaries such as Yogawoman celebrate the female leading the way and femininity is used as a marketing tool for all sorts of yoga products. Nevertheless, I can see why Marie who has mainly been practicing Ashtanga Yoga comes up with a question about male and female role models. Being constantly overwhelmed with the offerings of the Freemans, Paradises, Swensons, Scotts or Sweeneys, one does have to ask herself what this male star line-up is all about. And what do we need it for? (Actually I do have a poster of David Life in his skimpy knickers in my hallway.)
Ashtanga yoga and Vinyasa flow:
ANGELA: I teach several styles of yoga including Hatha Yoga, Yoga Flow and Ashtanga. I think more women are attracted to flowing and more gentle styles of yoga because generally they are less ‘performance’ focussed and more looking at how ‘connected’ they feel while practicing. Ashtanga requires strength and determination, which I feel most men would either like to have or already feel they have and can use this ‘skill set’ in the practice of Ashtanga. The Ashtanga practice is energetically very ‘yang’, which again is something men tend to be drawn towards. I also feel that the set sequence of Ashtanga suits men as there is a start, middle and end offering a sense of ‘completion’.
MARIE: I practice Ashtanga and teach Ashtanga - mainly. The practice for me is a moving meditation and I achieve this meditative aspect through repetition and a very tangible, physical approach to yoga. In addition, Ashtanga Yoga has many similar positions to the dance technique I was introduced to at college. It works on the same combination of strength and flexibility, but in my opinion with the added forgiveness and kindness to the body that I never experienced as a dance student. I think this strongly influences my own practice and also how I approach teaching yoga.
MANUELA: I practice and teach Vinyasa Flow because I like the freedom and creativity of it. I have practiced Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga in the past and still do so occasionally. Personally I don’t like the idea of sticking with one fixed series and being told when to proceed to learn the next asana. Asana practice is so rich and manifold that I would completely lose out getting stuck on Marichiasana D for months or years. This way of learning and teaching also seems extremely ambitious to me, always focusing on achieving or dominating an asana and I guess this bores me and after 20 years of ballet training, I don’t need to put myself through this anymore. Nevertheless, I can see how the routine and discipline of the series do lead to deep understanding and progress and certain practitioners, men and women, are looking exactly for this.
KATHINKA: Vinyasa Flow requires the student to follow the teacher, as there is no set sequence. Students have to adjust to changes and take in much information at once. Apart from men being attracted to the physicality of Ashtanga I wonder if another reason might be that they struggle with someone else taking the lead and not being in control. The number of men in Mysore classes compared to led classes speaks for itself. As mentioned earlier the presence of male Ashtanga teachers is definitely another reason that attracts men to Ashtanga yoga. It gives them a male role model for their yoga practice on the mat and in life.
ANGELA: I feel as a woman myself that I am more interested in connecting to myself and nature as practice. I do not push myself to the edge, as I know this is not the right way for me to practice yoga. To me yoga is a spiritual endeavour and I work harder on the inside, what happens to the physical body happens as a by-product of the work I am doing inside.
MANUELA: There are certainly more women than men in my classes but I think that is the case in all yoga styles and has started to shift anyway. I also don’t believe that men are less attracted to Vinyasa Flow than to Ashtanga because I can’t see why it should be any more girly and softer. In a Vinyasa Flow class I get to offer challenges you don’t necessarily find in the Primary Series such as Double Dips (reversing vinyasas), half bound Ardha Chandrasana, Pincha Mayurasana and so on. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Ashtanga Yoga is incredibly challenging and physical but so is Vinyasa Flow, we only play with order and variety. So why should Vinyasa Flow be less interesting for men? It can’t be the music, everyone loves music and there are many women who opt for practising without it, too. It is also a myth that men don’t suit the bound and flowy movement style. In my classes I observe all sorts, it’s like a dance floor with many different types, male and female, taking their own approach and pathway to yoga.
ANGELA: I think you can approach any style of yoga in many different ways. However, it is what is in the practitioner’s mind/body/spirit, which manifests into the practice. I love Ashtanga, Hatha and Yoga Flow and choose to approach them in a way that suits my body and mind generally and in the moment I’m practicing. The thing that I work the hardest at, is trying to unpeel the ego and this means that I do often need to back off, slow down and really listen to what’s going on inside.
MARIE: If my preconceived notion about Vinyasa Flow classes [described above] reflects what the average person new to yoga thinks, it’s no wonder that men are likely to shy away from them. It doesn’t exactly match with a masculine and buff self image to go to a flow class that has a reputation of being all about softness, chanting and ancient spirituality! No wonder (perhaps) some men opt for the Ashtanga class! At least there you can be allowed to huff and puff and sweat while learning to do fancy handstands - another common prejudice I believe some people have! Of course, neither preconception is accurate. I think it’s more down to individual teachers’ approach - gender and yoga styles aside!
KATHINKA: I have to admit that I struggle with this question and the focus on my appearance as a teacher. Only recently have I started wearing leggings and tight tops so that each posture/movement becomes more visible to the students to help them understand its alignment. I do not think too much about my appearance as a teacher - and actually do not want to. Especially when giving adjustments.
MARIE: I try and dress appropriately when I teach yoga. By appropriate I mean tight fitting clothes to show the contour of my body but not too short or revealing. I think it’s important to show students the result of years of practicing and also it makes it easier when I demonstrate. For me it’s a fine line between wanting to be confident with my femininity but not making the yoga practice about gender. Some students will identify with their teachers and I feel it’s an important role to first of all be a knowledgeable and compassionate teacher but also to be woman.
MANUELA: I do think about how I present myself when I teach but only a little bit and especially in some Berlin city studios I might come across as under-dressed without the Lululemons [yoga gear brand]. Some students (male and female) even get them before their first yoga class paying the amount of a block of ten classes or the teacher’s fee for three yoga sessions. I do wear high street leggings and T-shirts and practice Sauca as much as my time and discipline allow. I used to work at a studio where at some point I had a few male students with difficulties to focus on their Drishti, which made me feel very uncomfortable and I started wearing baggies for a while. Now I don’t work there anymore and apart from the occasional gaze I am again pretty unaware of my body image whilst teaching.
ANGELA: When I practice and teach I dress modestly (cover legs, stomach and chest) and this feels better for me and for my practice. I do however make sure that students can see the shape of my body so I tend to wear quite close fitting yoga wear. I feel it is very distracting when people get into how they look during the practice and I’m never happy when I see mirrors in a yoga studio! This is one reason I am not too keen on the Bikram method as students are encouraged to turn outward by looking in the mirror at the physical shape rather than feeling the body from the inside and become skilled at ‘knowing’ what is placed where and by ‘feeling’ and looking ‘in’ rather than looking out.
KATHINKA: Having a regular Ashtanga practice my body is quite muscular and less curvy. However, as this is not very different to the effect of dancing (especially with a strong dance technique), I have not noticed a big difference since I have started practicing Ashtanga.
MARIE: I have always had a minor complex about my shoulders being too wide in comparison to my relatively narrow hips! I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’m very happy to be kept fit and strong through the practice of yoga but have honestly sometimes thought of scaling down to avoid a too-androgynous look. It’s important to me to appear womanly. I don’t know if it’s possible to do third series and still have a figure like Scarlett Johansson. I have yet to see evidence for this.
ANGELA: My body feels so much better since I started yoga and this is the thing that I notice so much more than what it looks like physically! I am aware however that yoga has changed the way my body appears, I am much more toned than before. I used to be heavier and yoga definitely makes it easier for me to stay slim and not really have to think about it too much. I do try however not to be over involved in how my body looks as I feel drained by how fixated we are on external appearances and do not like to value myself on something that is limited by time and space and isn’t even really me! I feel nourished when I see people on a deeper level and I am seen on a deeper level, there is nothing more fulfilling than being seen for you really are inside.
MANUELA: Of course yoga changes the body as any physical exercise does. It even creates a very aesthetically toned physique and more so if it goes hand in hand with a yogic lifestyle in terms of vegetarianism or veganism, modest consumption of alcohol, nicotine, sugar and coffee and a good night’s sleep. Who isn’t conscious of this? Most people take up yoga to lose weight and get fitter in the first place. Coming from a dance background I have been conscious of my physical appearance and shaping almost all my life. With yoga my bi- and triceps have developed more than with my previous training and I think that’s about it...on the outside. I’m not going to go into what yoga does on the inside because this is not the question here.
ANGELA: My body is not really me even though it is important to keep it healthy so I can live life fully and happily, make a living for myself and help others. It is not who I am and is therefore not something I want to dedicate too much of my time to, there is so much more I can learn from looking in.
KATHINKA: When you enter the yoga studio the body becomes asexual, a tool you work with to get closer to stillness. Any other way would not be appropriate for me. I want my students to feel safe and comfortable – not having to worry about their appearance but being able to focus inwards. The same applies to my own practice. I do like that my awareness of myself becomes asexual - sensing my body from within, following the breath and connecting with the inner self without judgement or need for identity. The best practice is the one where I can truly draw my focus into my body and separate the self from I, me and mine, connecting with the self that lies deeper inside, un-labelled by the mind.
MARIE: When I look at the women where I practice Mysore they typically fall in to the same body type category. Lean and athletic. In my experience men with an extra pound around the belly will still master the practice. They seem to have a more pronounced ‘can-do’ approach to the practice where women with a few curves have a less head-on attitude. Is that a female trait or lack of encouragement/belief from teachers? I once overheard a teacher kindly but honestly tell a male student that he couldn’t bind in Marychasana D because he was carrying too much weight around the belly. Could you have said the same thing to a woman?
Here ends the responses we gave to the questions. Thank you so much to Kathinka, Angela and Manuela for their honest and interesting contributions to the post. Manuela gets the last word:
MANUELA: Now the next thing on the agenda must be to discuss pay and social status of yoga teachers, how we live and how we might be perceived as professionals.
I'm happy that you raise this issue, Manu, I couldn’t agree more. One thing is talking about status between genders within our little yoga world. But how do we perceive ourselves in the bigger scheme of things when it comes to such un-yogic subjects of money, social status and fame? And how do we think others see us?
Stay tuned for more...
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