Strong, Vulnerable, Women

March 8, 2013 § 8 Comments

Sometimes I wonder if the Ashtanga asana sequence is too masculine for women. Too hard. Too energetic. Too rajasic. Usually these doubts arise the week before my holiday when everything else feels hard anyway. And then it dissipates and I get reacquainted with the versatility of this practice, with the myriad ways that one can use this tool to work with the body in a way that’s suitable for a particular period of time. Fewer vinyasas perhaps, or longer holds, anything that helps me to flow through the sequence in a way that’s either nourishing or challenging, depending on the day.

The practice builds strength. It took me a while to realize that this strength isn’t just physical – it’s also mental and emotional, the latter coming from learning to embrace one’s weaknesses and vulnerability. Women are vulnerable, yet somehow we’ve learnt that it’s not cool to show our vulnerability, that in order to be taken seriously in this world we need to put up an armor, be like one of the boys, wipe off those tears and meet life head-on. That’s the message I grew up with anyway, being raised by a plethora of strong female role models both at home and in school, all of them adherents to the mantra of “get on with it”. I recognize that my Asian heritage – where we (men and women) are raised to hide our emotions and be annoyingly opaque – has something to do with this, but I also have a suspicion that it’s also an unintended result of the suffrage movement – “You want to work? Sure! Just don’t complain!”.

The Ashtanga corollary to this is the “push push push” mentality among really driven Ashtanginis. That ambitious drive to do xxx-asana just as well as that dude on the next mat or to progress as far (or even further than) men. Yes, we certainly are just as capable as men in many ways, but I think it’s a little misguided to expect that we can get all “bootcamp instructor” on ourselves, ignoring (or pausing) our cycles, in the name of “progress” on the mat, and expect our bodies to be just fine with that. It sounds more like a denial of what it means to be a woman than an affirmation of it, and I suspect that this is partly due to a lack of conversation around what it means to be a woman doing Ashtanga today. It’s difficult, I know, because we’re built differently with unique constitutions, but surely there must be a big enough pool of women practitioners with stories to share? I’m talking about stories like: practicing with endometriosis/PCOS, practicing with (despite) menopause, practicing after pregnancy and losing all that weight, and so on. Am I missing something? Perhaps there’s a blog or community out there that currently does this? Please share in the comments if you know of anything.

Anyway. I am off to start a weekend with Nancy Gilgoff, who would know a thing or two about practicing Ashtanga as a woman and using the practice to meet your needs. I guess this was a long-winded way of wishing all the women who read this blog a happy International Women’s Day. Rock on.



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§ 8 Responses to Strong, Vulnerable, Women

  • Nobel says:

    Hello D,
    I think it’s pretty funny that the first person to comment on this post is not a woman 🙂 Thanks for sharing your pictures in your previous post; they’re beautiful.

    I do not know of any blog or community out there that talks about issues that surround practicing Ashtanga as a woman. But maybe you can use this blog as such a platform? I’m pretty sure that if you start, others will follow 🙂

    • D says:

      Oh the irony 😉

      I had a feeling someone was going to make the suggestion you did Nobel, and I think this topic needs more than just a blog to be effective….I think it needs to be an online community of sorts, like the Ashtanga message boards of old. Maybe Google+ might be a good platform? Or the good old mailing list? Hmmm….

  • Anonymous says:

    There was a great discussion at the AYC this year about what it means to do this practice as a woman and as she goes through the various stages of life. Nancy and Dena did an excellent job at answering the question. I’m sure a video will pop up on YouTube sometime soon with their responses.

  • evahowe says:

    There seems to be very little out there on the subject. When I was pregnant, I got to chat with a fair number of women on the subject of pregnancy and Ashtanga and a bit of what happens after the baby is born. But I really found very little on being a woman in Ashtanga or on being a parent in Ashtanga (which I feel adds yet another layer!). My body being different as a woman didn’t really get hit home until after Walter was born and I was trying to cope with my body being different and attempting to lose all that weight!

    • D says:

      I knew you’d have something to say about this! Let’s get together when you’re back and talk about how this gap can be addressed…..there’s collective wisdom floating all around us, just gotta find a way to tap into it!

  • dellacroce says:

    There is a good interview from Dena here:
    I was talking today about this exact same issue. I believe ashtanga is quite a masculine practice too but I also believe it’s quite female. All the the grace, the lightness, the kindness, the love for the practice come from a female side. Sure it’s about building strength but i’s also about nurture compassion.
    I always remember myself I’m a woman on virabhadrasana II. I always try to remember myself in that asana, to look for the grace in me, not the warrior.
    Thanks for sharing, it’s a great issue!

    • D says:

      That interview, WOW, what a gem. Thank you for sharing it here, it is so beautiful to read, so heartfelt.

      Nurturing compassion and finding the grace in the practice, you’re absolutely right, we need that to balance strength, after all, this path is all about finding the balance yes?

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