Women and Yoga
Yoga provides a sustaining force at every stage of life
By Lisa Grauaug
Yoga offers an array of benefits for women in all stages of life and when practiced appropriately and regularly it can have a powerful positive impact on a woman’s health and wellbeing.
Yoga as a practice deals with the mind and brings about mental stability and calmness. In life, we are all exposed to change − it is inevitable. Women in particular experience a number of major physiological changes (parinama-s) and Yoga provides a sustaining force throughout these changes. Some of the significant life stages for women are:
When we consider these stages of life it is interesting to reflect on the number of hormonal changes a woman may experience over a lifetime, this is quite astounding. For example, the week-to-week changes experienced over the menstrual cycle, the major hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy and post-birth, and the hormonal changes during the peri-menopausal phase.
Yoga as a stabilising tool during life challenges and changes
For many women these hormonal changes bring with them some uncomfortable symptoms such as pre-menstrual tension, hot flashes, depression and anxiety. A Yoga practice is a stabilising tool that can assist women to better manage these symptoms and bring about a state of healthy balance.
Scientific evidence supporting this claim includes a 2010 review of 21 papers which assessed mind and body therapies for menopausal symptoms. The researchers found that yoga, tai chi, and meditation-based programmes may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain (Innes KE, Selfe TK, Vishnu A. 2010).
Women and yoga through the ages
Traditionally, it has been reported that women were not permitted to practice Yoga! This is certainly not adhered to today as Yoga plays a significant role in the lives of so many women and the majority of people practicing yoga worldwide are in fact female.
The US Sports Marketing Surveys (2012) on behalf of the Yoga Journal published data showing that 8.7 % (20.4 million) of adults in the U.S. practice yoga. Of all the yoga practitioners surveyed 82.2 % were women and 17.8 % were men. We see evidence of an even stronger trend here in Australia. A 2012 Australian study looking at yoga in Australia estimated that 90% of yoga practitioners in this country are women.
Contrary to popular belief, there is evidence that women did in fact practice and were respected authorities in Yoga in the early times of this ancient tradition. Many of these women were householders, such evidence can be found in the ancient Vedic texts. These texts document that women experienced sublime states of peace through Yoga. Among the identified female sages or yogini-s are Gargi, Ahalya and Maitreyi. All of whom were said to be revered for their philosophical contributions to important texts, such as the thousand-year old Upanishad-s used by yoga practitioners and yoga teachers today.
The role of yoga practice in the lives of modern women
The ultimate goal of Yoga, as broadly translated from the source text -Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, is an experience of sustained happiness, a state of absolute calmness. Equally men and women no doubt have a right to move towards this state of being. Keep in mind, sustained happiness is a distant goal in the Yoga path and the richness and positive benefits unfold throughout the journey.
With the high levels of perceived stress reported in Australia today, the role of women in creating and sustaining balanced, healthy lives for themselves and for their families has never been so relevant. Let’s now explore some fundamental realities that are relevant to women and the application of Yoga.
The key to an enriching personal practice is to support the natural functioning of a woman’s unique system and to consider a woman’s stage of life.
Nature has designed women, structurally and physiologically, differently to men. When we take into account these physiological differences certain asana (postures) are considered more appropriate for women. Sri Krishnamacharya (often referred to as the ‘father of modern yoga’) offered some posture guidelines for women and recommended the inclusion of back strengthening and wide legged postures. Sri Krishnamachrya also strictly advocated that each student has individual and unique needs, there are no template practices for women, and practice design is developed for the individual. With this personalised approach to yoga practice, profound and long-lasting benefits may be experienced.
Over the stages of life our needs change and our yoga practice changes accordingly. For example, to maintain good health during the reproductive years of a woman’s life and to be prepared for conception (if this is your desire), the design of the woman’s practice will support the individual woman’s needs and be supportive of reproductive health.
There are yoga postures and sequences that were not originally designed for women. For example, postures that bring considerable tension to the abdominal area are not considered supportive towards reproductive function. Such postures may include, the repetitive practice of forearm balance postures, a favourite for many young women. Despite the fun challenge and good feeling of strength these postures offer, the overall effect may not be supportive of their current health needs in particular looking after their reproductive health.
A woman’s practice in the later years of life, would involve an array of practices to support healthy ageing. For example, Asana (physical postures) to support bone health and prevent osteoporosis, or the use of sound in asana and pranayama (breathing practices) for the restoration of good health.
Yoga is a transformative system for women and awareness to breath provides an anchor for positive growth.
Despite the inevitability of change and the discomfort it can bring, change provides an opportunity for growth. A key tool in Yoga to support women through the stages of life, is to work with the conscious regulation of breath. The breath is what sustains us, it supports movement and provides a continuous point of focus, a place where we can rest our attention.
Conscious awareness of your breathing helps to naturally regulate your breath. The quality of your breath has a reciprocal effect on the quality of your mental experience, “a pleasant and calm breath represents a peaceful and calm mind”. As taught by Sri Krishnamacharya, breath awareness begins in asana and prepares you for pranayama and meditation.
When mental steadiness and feelings of peace and calmness are experienced, a sense of order prevails, a sense of stability in change and we are “free” and more readily able to connect with innate positive qualities such as creativity, vitality, tolerance, compassion, patience, and love. Such qualities naturally enrich women’s lives, their relationships and can bring a depth of positive experience and meaning through any challenge and at any stage of life.
Lisa is a Senior Yoga Teacher and Registered Counselling Psychologist in private practice at The Yoga Institute. She offers postgraduate training in Pregnancy and Postnatal Yoga, Yoga for back-care, yoga classes, counselling sessions and private yoga sessions.