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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