I decided to upload my final assignment for my teacher training. The research and time to think about the benefits of yoga for women has really inspired me, not only in my own practice but also to start a women’s only yoga class.
It’s not my usual style of writing but I hope you find it informative!
Femininity and womanhood, marked by menarche, used to be celebrated as a girl’s second birth (Clennell and Iyengar, p. xi). The celebration set up young women up to honour their cycle and showed them that they had the support of the community behind them. Unfortunately today the accelerated pace of life is unforgiving to women’s deep internal needs. Post-industrial life brings with it a host of health problems caused by stress and general lack of self-care. Women are often seen as the more nurturing and caring gender. Whether this is a stereotype, a true female instinct or a learned behaviour through socialisation, it is true that women in modern Western society are usually in charge of the children and home-caring and tend to place others before themselves. At the same time social and economic changes see women taking on full time jobs and the number of maternal breadwinning has increased in all age groups and is up 80% in the last 15 years (Boffey, 2016). Since 1951 the number of UK mothers in employment has almost tripled and 68% of women with children are working. In addition to duties at home and work, physically and mentally women are up against a lot in life. Of course this is not to discredit the experiences and challenges faced by others but this essay will solely focus on issues of female experience, and the ways in which yoga is an indispensable tool for facing such issues.
It is important to consider the role of women in ancient yoga tradition. As Tantric scholar Ramesh Bjonnes writes “women have been gurus, healers, yoginis, and Goddesses since the beginning of time”. Until recently there was a misunderstood idea that, historically, yoga had been solely practiced my men. Thanks to modern research, however, a very different reality is emerging. Evidence by people such as Vicki Noble, Norman Sjoman, Ramesh Bjonnes, Monica Sjoo and Miranda Shaw suggests that ‘there was a widespread female-centred communal yoga practice dating from the upper Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. Celebrating the natural powers of “bleeding, birthing, healing and dying” (Noble cited in Bjonnes, 2011). It is commonly agreed that the first historic reference to yoga was a seal found in the Indus Valley, depicting a man sat in lotus position, however, many similar seals of women have been found since, some much older. (Dinsmore- Tuli cited in Bjonnes, 2011). Female tantrism was practiced my women through the rituals of dance and trance to celebrate femininity and purge the community and crops of disease. With this in mind it is more likely that Tantra emerged from shamanism rather than from the priestly Vedic traditions. With the advance of patriarchy the ecstatic techniques of women became overshadowed and finally replaced by more ascetic, masculine practices. The mind became the new path to transcendence and women’s body based practices were outlawed, making yoginis be seen as ‘witches’ and ‘demonesses’ (Bjonnes, 2011).
Sadly this pattern of suppression of female nature has been entrenched in many societies till this day. Although female led movements in the US influenced and catalysed the emergence of modern yoga, its revival has largely been a masculine movement (“The Roots Of Yoga: Ancient + Modern | History Of Yoga”, 2011). Led by men such as Krishnamacharya and his students amongst others, yoga was popularised in India and the West. The first ‘modern’ women known to be permitted to practice yoga alongside the men and boys at Mysore Palace was Indra Devri around 1937. Interestingly we see a reclamation of yoga by women today. Out of the 20 million yoga practitioners in the US, 83% are women. Perhaps women are finally recognising a deep rooted need for spiritualism and self-care through movement and body awareness. (“New Study Finds More Than 20 Million Yogis In U.S. – Yoga Journal”)
Taking a closer look at gender roles and socialisation today, upbringing shapes people’s actions and personalities. Children often re-enact learned behaviours from parents. Until recently in Britain it was a given fact that in a family with two parents the father worked while the mother took care of children and home. With legislation that aims to bridge equality between men and women such as the 1994 Trade Union reform and Employment Rights Act which guaranteed every working woman the right to maternity leave, it is now more common for both parents to work to make ends meet (“Timeline: Equality For Women”, 2003). However today’s parents were children at a time when gender roles were more entrenched and they learned to take on the roles of their parents. It seems that western governments have done all they can to encourage women to go out to work but have not balanced the equation with prompting men to pick up half of the home tending responsibilities. Thus, women often are left with the majority of housework as well as a full time job. Not only this, but women are also up against the challenges of their own biology and life circumstances.
Psychologic disorders such and anxiety and depression can make life very difficult. 28% of women suffer from stress compared to 20% of men- (“Gender And Stress”, 2016). Women are also more likely to suffer from physical symptoms of stress such as headaches and twice as many women as men suffer from depression at some stage in their life (“Mental Health Statistics: Men And Women”). Certain factors including hormonal disorders, personal life situation and life experience contribute to likelihood of suffering from depression at some stage in life. Conflicts with parents and pressure from school during adolescence may manifest as anxiety disorder or depression. Many women experience PMS but this can become premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) which is more serious and usually requires treatment. Pregnancy and attempts to become pregnant can come with a whole host of triggers for depression including lack of social support, economic worries, relationship problems and fertility problems. The ‘baby blues’ usually subsides after a couple of weeks but can develop into postpartum depression in 10-15% of pregnancies. Premenopausal and menopausal symptoms increase the risk of suffering from depression. Life factors that can contribute towards depression at any stage include unequal power status to men, causing financial difficulty and low self-esteem, work overload, and being a victim of domestic abuse during childhood or adulthood (Mayo Clinic). Now this essay will look more closely at challenges faced during different stages in a woman’s life.
From the time a girl reaches puberty (and perhaps even before) the life of a young women can be very challenging. During adolescence she will have to balance school life and the pressures and expectations with big changes in her body. The monthly cycle can cause dramatic highs and lows in temperament and emotions, pains in the body not to mention discomfort, embarrassment and insecurity. Additionally ideas about beauty and perfection are fed to people through the media, causing feelings of inadequacy. According to Elissa Gittes, MD, an adolescent-medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “The media evokes ideals to girls which are often unattainable and unhealthy.” The media continuously feeds images of the perfect body, while simultaneously young women’s bodies are changing in their own way. From a young age people are taught to see themselves as inadequate by the media and other people in their lives. ‘More than 90% of girls want to change at least one aspect of their appearance, with most of them picking body weight. Almost 25% would consider plastic surgery to fix perceived flaws, and 13% admit to having an eating disorder’ (“Yoga For Teenage Girls”, 2016).
The menstrual cycle begins to fall into rhythm as a young women leaves adolescence. During school and college there is very little education about working with the body rather than against it, meaning that as we reach adulthood few people have much idea about how to care for themselves. Only two centuries ago women wouldn’t have experienced much more than 100 periods in their lifetime. Today girls start their period earlier and have fewer babies meaning that she can have around 350 periods during their life (Clennell and Iyengar, p. 2). The time of menstruation was considered a sacred time during the tantric era. Today, although menstruation is medically better understood it is largely ignored, even by women. Often the body needs rest but lifestyle and mentality do not allow it. Few jobs will allow a women time off when her body needs it (usually before the period). Thankfully today more and more individuals are studying the menstrual cycle and noticing how many women feel stronger, more creative and have more energy leading up to ovulation and report a period of increasing tiredness and desire to withdraw following ovulation until menstruation. For example the Bristol company ‘Coexist’ is currently in the process of creating a ‘period policy’ which will allow women time off when they need it and recognise improved efficiency during times of higher energy. This benefits both the employees and the business, which will have happier, more productive female workers (Morris, 2016).
Many women will have children during their lifetime, and pregnancy and childbirth cause huge changes in the body. The pregnancy itself can be a wonderful yet challenging time for women even when there are no complications. Symptoms during pregnancy may include: Pelvic pain, backache, nausea, sciatica, varicose veins, hormonal changes, mood swings and pre and post-natal depression. Giving birth is a massive strain on the body and often takes a long time to recover. Not forgetting the emotional and physical upheaval felt by mothers who have miscarriages and women who are unable to have a child for any reason.
Then of course there is motherhood. Although often a beautiful and rewarding experience, bringing up babies and children can be overwhelming, exhausting and difficulties with the new baby can lead to feelings of helplessness and guilt. Relationships are often strained by the pressures of raising children and aggravated by a lack of sleep in one or both partners. During this parenting process, caring for children may become the priority and self-care is often neglected especially by the mother who is biologically more connected to the baby than the father. Additionally, today many women bring up children alone, taking full responsibility for all their needs. In 2014 there were 2.0 million lone parents with dependent children in the UK. Women accounted for 91% of lone parents with dependent children (“Families And Households- Office For National Statistics”). As a single mother it may seem impossible to find time to yourself and needs to be scheduled far in advance, especially if she has more children.
To mark the end of a women’s fertility are the menopause. The menopause begin for most women between the ages of 48-55 but can occur earlier or later. Mood swings can be very volatile during this time and many women experiencing menopause will also suffer symptoms such as memory loss, hot flushes, reduced sex drive and difficulty sleeping. Understandably, this can be a troubling time, especially during premature menopause which occurs in around 1% of women. However when these life events unfold for women, if approached kindly and with acceptance they can be transformed into times of self-discovery and inspiration (“Menopause – NHS Choices”).
So how can yoga help with these issues? The role of Yoga.
Yoga is an amazing tool for both helping to balance hormonal fluctuations and processing the emotions that are already present. Throughout life the thing that really determines our experience is our emotional response to situations. Our temperaments are fluctuating all the time and may be very different between two points in a monthly cycle or moments in life. One day everything, from paying the bills to visiting family may feel very daunting and provoke anxiety or anger and another day the same situation is taken in our stride and in good humour. Yoga can play a part in maintaining a healthy balance of hormones. ‘The entire body is controlled by hormones. The twisting and bending positions of yoga place specific pressure upon the various endocrine glands, thus regulating their secretion’ (McClure, p. 63a). For example, sarvangasana and matsyasana squeeze blood in and out of the thyroid and parathyroid, helping to maintain healthy functioning of these two glands (“Your Body Center, Yoga, Hot Yoga, Vinyasa Flow Yoga, And Forrest Yoga In Houston, Texas”).
Additionally, yoga helps us to accept the emotions that we have. Studies show that in general Britain people have a strange relationship with their emotions and are often in conflict with their feelings. According to a Kleenex survey: ‘Brits are highly skilled ‘mock-moaners’ – a nation of cynics, good at being critical so long as it isn’t about anything really serious like ‘real’ emotions.’ And 40% reported preferring to bottle their emotions up. Strong emotions- positive or negative are often seen in a bad light. Yet 72% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘bottling up emotions is bad for your health’. As a result it seems that people are not really sure what they are feeling and may have learned to be condemning of our own emotional state, especially those we consider negative, putting us in a continuous state of conflict with ourselves. This also makes us very vulnerable to depressions and anxiety. (Sirc.org, 2016). According to Anna Folkowski the mind has a tendency to cling on to negative feelings and repeat them over and over again. 70% of thoughts are the same, meaning that the mind can become a very negative place. Conditions such as alcoholism and overeating can result from people looking outside themselves for solutions and trying to escape inner turmoil (“Yoga And Self Acceptance | Anne Falkowski | Tedxmanchesterhighschool”, 2016). Through yoga we can begin to be at ease with ourselves by carefully and non-judgementally witnessing our emotions without trying to intervene. Pranayama and meditation teach us to bring our attention inwards rather than outwards and process thoughts and sensations compassionately. This is an amazing skill to have, considering the difficult emotions that our hormones throw up during the monthly cycle, pregnancy, menopause and high stress situations in life. Boston University School of Medicine researchers say yoga is a better anxiety reliever and mood lifter than other exercise after a study compared gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels of yoga practitioners and walkers. Depression and anxiety are linked to low GABA levels (Julia Melamed, 2016). Additionally, pranayama helps to calm the adrenal gland, relaxing the mind and body and giving us more time to process thoughts and emotions (Kelley).
Yoga helps to keep the body strong and supple throughout life. It is versatile and can be adapted to all situations and people. Yoga for teenage girls can help with many issues such as flexibility and posture. As the bones grow, the muscles can become tight, causing growing pains and putting strain on the skeleton. In turn this can cause hunching and bad posture. Yoga helps the muscles to lengthen and release muscular tension. Menstrual cramps, which are sometimes especially painful in adolescents are reduced by regular exercise and yoga is exceptionally useful as it promotes a mind-body connection which enables better management of pain. Yoga can also aid with managing pain by working with the endocrine system. The master gland, or pituitary gland is responsible for growth hormones which stimulate the adrenal and thyroid glands but also release endorphins and help to control pain by soothing the nervous system (Julia Melamed). Generally, exercise relieves cramps because it helps release beta-endorphins, which are internal opioids — your own “human morphine,” according to Kelly’s doctor, Gustavo Rossi, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. “It produces analgesia [pain relief] and helps to burn the prostaglandins — chemicals released during menstruation that cause muscle contractions — much faster.” (“Exercise: SOS For Menstrual Cramps”, 2016).
Many women first practice yoga during pregnancy. It is an ideal exercise as it is gentle and versatile, able to adapt to the specific women and her stage of pregnancy. Yoga helps to keep the blood flowing around the body and relieve tensions placed on the body by the pregnancy. Women can use the breathing exercises and positions learned in a pregnancy yoga class to prepare for childbirth or delivery. Although it is not recommended to practice asana for a few months after having a baby it can be very affective in getting back into shape later on. Used mindfully, yoga can be an effective treatment of weight gain, weak muscles, back and joint pain and mild sciatica for new mothers. Not only this, but yoga can mentally prepare women for motherhood by showing her a method of self-care which can be continued even when time is short (“Celebrating Motherhood With Yoga”, 2016). Lower levels of energy as women age, coupled with less spare time due to family duties and work can mean that fitness is rarely a priority. Yoga can be adapted to fit around our day to day lives. It can be practiced at home in short sessions and the intensity of the practice can be altered depending on energy levels and other considerations. An important aspect of yoga is that many people find it very enjoyable, making it a good choice for people who lack motivation to ‘work out’ in other ways. When people enjoy something they are more likely to keep it up.
Additionally, this mind-body connection which is developed during yoga helps with self-acceptance and body image. Young people today, especially girls and women are susceptible to becoming unhealthily obsessed with body images. This can lead to eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and over-eating as a comfort device. Yoga is empowering as it teaches young people to bring their attention away from imagined outside opinions and self-judgment, into the inner reality of how the body and mind are in the present. This may be the first time that many people have ever taken the time to notice how they are really feeling and in this way can be quite revolutionary (“The Real Reason Yoga Is Still Dominated By Women” 2013).
Unfortunately, thanks to the media’s portrayal of yoga, it is not as accessible as it could be. Yoga in the US is a $27 billion dollar industry and is sold through imagery of the ideal body. Karlyn Crowley, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at St. Norbert College, said that we’ve come to think of the “yoga body” as female, slender and taut. “If you ask the average person what yoga is, they immediately think of a beautiful woman doing stretches and bends” Phillip Golderg, spiritual teacher and author of “American Veda,” recently told the Huffington Post. And not only this but almost all imagery that we see on social media shows white women. This is a real shame because for the vast majority of the world, not made up of generically beautiful, white, flexible, tall, women yoga is not portrayed as a viable option. The real meaning and value of yoga is buried beneath judgement and impressions. Genuine yoga is about stilling the mind to be able to come into deeper connection with the Self. What has this to do with body type, designer clothing and juice diets? (“The Real Reason Yoga Is Still Dominated By Women” 2013).
We also see how improving the posture can have a positive effect on the mind. According to Amy Cuddy, women tend to feel chronically less powerful than men. This means that they are more likely to adopt closed, hunched postures as if trying to make themselves smaller. A feeling of weakness is linked to high levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and low levels of testosterone (power hormone). This problem is worsened for young women at school and university by carrying heavy backpacks with laptops and books, causing a hunched position which has a knock on effect and can trigger feelings of low self-esteem. This problem can work both ways however. Studies show that when people adopt a high power stance, even just standing up tall, their cortisol levels drop and testosterone raises. This means they feel less stressed and more confident (“Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are | Amy Cuddy | TED Talks”). Yoga not only helps us to improve posture in general but certain asana can be compared to powerful stances such as virabhadrasana I and II. Improved levels of testosterone and less stress can actually contribute to determining success. When we feel stronger we take more chances. Practicing yoga asana, therefor, can help women improve their posture, causing them to feel better about themselves and encourage them to aim higher.
Yoga also helps us to develop a stronger sense of self-worth. The decision to attend a yoga class once a week can make a huge difference to life. ‘For most people a yoga practice can help us feel more vibrant, agile, and connected. But for anyone who has experienced trauma, a body based practice like yoga can be a lifesaving healing technique’ (Nora Isaacs, cited in ‘Yoga for “Yoga For Trauma Survivors « Yoga Activist”). Although there is rarely a single cure, yoga can be used to help people who have experienced psychological trauma reconnect with their bodies. Trauma can result from a high stress situation that overwhelms the sufferer’s ability to cope. It is highly subjective and can span from single blow events to repeated occurrences and often results in long term mental or emotional problems, feelings of helplessness, fear, grief, terror, anger, disassociation and flashbacks to the events. (“What Is Psychological Trauma? | Sidran.Org”). Certain traumatic experiences are more likely to affect women, such as domestic abuse. In the USA 1.3 million women are assaulted by their intimate partner each year compared to 835,000 men and shockingly the leading cause of injury amongst American women between the ages of 15-44 is from domestic abuse (“How Common Is Domestic Abuse? – Womens Aid”, 2016a).
Yoga, practiced with special consideration and modification can help trauma survivors to gently come to terms with their experience and begin to take control of their own body again. ‘Trauma keeps us trapped between regret of the past and fear of the future’ Liz Arch, a domestic abuse survivor and yoga teacher describes how she only experienced the trauma while she wasn’t mentally present in her body. By mindfully practicing yoga asana she created a strong anchor to her own body and experienced independence and control, as well as finding a safe place to process her emotions without becoming overwhelmed. Being present in the body and with the breath gradually helps to reprogram the mind and nervous system and step away from negative habitual thought processes (“How Common Is Domestic Abuse? – Womens Aid”, 2016b).
Another distressing event, which happens in around 10-20% of pregnancies, is miscarriage or spontaneous abortion (Pregnancy and Loss). This is almost a taboo subject and while there are plenty of support groups for pregnant women there are few for those suffering the loss of a baby. Many women report very intense grief following a miscarriage. Sadly, this is often coupled with an element of guilt, and self-blame. This can include feelings that the body is inadequate or that the mother has done something during the pregnancy to harm the unborn baby. Grief level is very subjective and depends on how bonded the mother felt to the foetus. Such grief may not subside until a subsequent pregnancy, if it occurs. Multiple miscarriages augment feelings of guilt and sadness. Unfortunately some women may not ever be able to conceive and this can be incredibly distressing. The body’s natural instinct to reproduce is tied to many women’s need to feel a mother-baby bond, an inherent maternal drive, making infertility very difficult to come to terms with. Yoga, by no means, is a magic cure. However it may help to foster a sense of compassion and care towards the body again. Through yoga we can recognise our own self-worth and come to terms with the loss without blame (“The Yoga Space » Yoga And Miscarriage”). High stress levels in women who are anxious to conceive can affect the hypothalamus which for some women will affect their ovulation. Yoga techniques like pranayama, shown to reduce stress, can therefor make conception more likely too!
To conclude, yoga can be an amazing tool for women. It is a versatile practice which can be modified to any stage in life. This essay has explored the challenges and natural events that occur such as adolescence, pregnancy, menopause as well as more difficult and sometimes traumatic experiences including miscarriage and domestic abuse and how yoga can be helpful. Day to day life, in itself, can be difficult with the ups and downs of hormones but with a holistic practice such as yoga we can keep our bodies and minds healthy throughout life and also accept ourselves as we are. By looking back on the early development of Tantra we can see how, by changing our attitude towards the natural feminine cycle, we can learn to respect and even to celebrate it. Often women are in conflict with themselves without knowing it. Low energy and mood is associated with negativity and our own perspective of this becomes a cycle, leading to spiralling emotional suffering. By learning to be at peace with our natural inclinations in the moment through yoga we stop fighting them and start to give ourselves space to work with them. Different aspects such as pranayama, mantra, meditation, asana, relaxation, and mindfulness techniques can be applied, in the moment and to the extent needed, making yoga a viable choice for anyone. There are however difficulties in the general perception of yoga. Mass media spreads the image of yoga being just for flexible, taught bodied, white women. If we can overcome this hurdle the abundance of benefits are revealed to us. ‘Yoga postures balance the glandular secretions, relax and tone the muscles and nervous system, stimulate circulation, oxygenate the blood, stretch stiff ligaments and tendons, limber joints, massage internal organs, align the spine and calm and concentrate the mind.’ (McClure), p. 63b).
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