Yoga Frontiers: Women Shape Practices in Exceptional Ways

Yoga Frontiers: Women Shape Practices in Exceptional Ways

by Molly M. Ginty

Gathered in a circle on a rainbow of yoga mats, tucking braids, curls and dreadlocks into handkerchiefs and hair bands, women of all ages, shapes and sizes take a moment to check in before yoga class.

“My menstrual cramps are bad today. Can we do something for that?”

“My abdominal muscles are weak since my second baby’s birth. I vote that we work on our abs!”

“I’ve been feeling tired, and it could be my diabetes flaring up. I’d like to do poses that will energize me.”

The students close their eyes and settle into themselves, placing their hands on their laps. They lengthen their spines, broaden their chests and draw their shoulder blades down their backs. They turn their attention inward, inhaling gently, exhaling fully. Together, they find their center. Together, they breathe.

©Barrie Karp

This scene — a room full of women enjoying their weekly yoga class — has become a familiar one as the popularity of yoga has burgeoned in the United States. And this gathering — the Monday-evening class that I’ve taught for four years to female inmates at Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan — is one example of the many ways that yoga is being used to address women’s specific concerns.

More than 16 million people in the United States practice yoga and 77 percent of them are women, recent Yoga Journal surveys show. “Women are naturally drawn to this practice,” says Paula Tursi, the director of New York City’s Reflections Yoga studio, which offers all-female retreats, as well as classes for female heart patients and transitional housing residents. “Women are very sensual, physical beings, and yoga both reflects and supports our nature.”

A system of poses, breathing exercises and meditation techniques designed to strengthen the body and quiet the mind, yoga was developed by holy men in India more than 4,000 years ago. Male Hindu teachers brought it to this country and introduced it to American audiences starting in the mid-1960s. But since the late 1990s, when yoga began spreading rapid-fire through the U.S., with sun-flooded studios cropping up in small towns and major cities alike, it has been women who have led the charge to popularize this ancient practice.

Groundbreakers Push the Boundaries

Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga Center in New York City. Sharon Gannon of Jivamukti, just a few blocks away. Patricia Walden of Yogamala in Boston. Gurmukh Khalsa of Golden Bridge Yoga in Los Angeles. Judith Lasater, who is based in the Bay Area but offers classes and workshops worldwide. The most popular yoga instructors and authors are overwhelming female — as are the students who flock to their classes.

Just as a woman teacher, Lilias Folan of Cincinnati, helped cement yoga in the popular imagination with her groundbreaking 1972 PBS television series, Lilias! Yoga and You, female instructors are continuing to expand yoga’s scope today. Shiva Rea of Venice Beach, California, has developed new ways of moving — including 25 variations of the traditional sun salutation, a sequence of lunges, arm-strengthening poses, and back and leg stretches that work the major muscles. Yasmin Fudakowska-Gow of Montreal has redefined yoga’s physical boundaries, doing 108 sun salutations every day for 108 days in 2010 (which took her one to four hours per day, depending on her energy level and schedule) and setting the Guinness Book world record for continuous practice — 32 hours without break (a marathon performed on the same day she did her final round of 108 sun salutations).

“Occupy” classes
help activists take
care of their bodies
and minds

Bernice Bates of Pinellas Park, Florida, is pushing yoga’s chronological boundaries by continuing to practice it every morning, just as she has for 50-plus years. “Yoga has kept me so physically healthy that I look and feel decades younger than my actual age,” says Bates, 92, who is recognized by Guinness as the world’s oldest yoga instructor. “I still drive, swim, take regular walks, and do all my own shopping and gardening. And through it all, yoga practice keeps me from getting stressed out.”

Some of the most cutting-edge work that female instructors are doing involves adapting yoga to the needs of specific populations. Lila Lowling of Cincinnati, founder of the Deaf Yoga Foundation, uses sound vibrations (which she sometimes generates by pounding on the floor) to communicate with her hearing-impaired students. Gretchen Hein of Tallahassee, creator of the Beginning Yoga for the Blind and Visually Impaired CD, has her students gather around her and place their hands on her body to feel her demonstrate poses that they can’t physically see. Cindee Rifkin of New York City is teaching “naked yoga” to people struggling with body image issues and those who are recovering from sexual abuse. “Shedding their clothes during yoga gives these students permission to be exactly who they are without any shame or embarrassment,” says Rifkin. “It alerts them to the beauty and wonder of their bodies — to the push and pull of their muscles, and to the feel of the air on their skin.”

A Tool for Unwrapping Political and Personal Stress

In addition to serving these populations, women teachers are also using yoga to assist political activists, helping changemakers find the energy — and the peace of mind — to do their work more effectively. At programs for battered women, yoga is enabling staff members to deal calmly with the verbal threats that are hurled at them by their clients’ abusers. At homeless shelters and drug rehab facilities, this practice is allowing counselors to generate more patience toward their most difficult clients.

And in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, “sustainable activism” yoga classes are helping organizers cope with all the challenges that face them: police brutality, funding shortages and forced eviction from encampments such as the one that once stood in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. “Activists often put others’ needs before their own,” says Leslie Booker, who is the founder of New York’s Urban Sangha Project and who teaches sustainable yoga once a week to OWS participants at a nonprofit called the Interdependence Project. “But our classes help them take care of their bodies and their minds, teaching them forward bends that relieve their anxiety, backbends that help them cultivate compassion, and partner poses that build their sense of community.”

More than 16 million people
in the U.S practice yoga and
77 percent are women

Many of the innovative yoga programs being developed by women are those tailored not just to specific populations, but to a specific type of students — the female kind. Consider yogaHope, a nonprofit in Boston that brings yoga to women in homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment programs and prisons. “A prescriptive approach can help traumatized women address problems such as those associated with long-term stress,” says Sue Jones, yogaHOPE’s founder. “We get students to release their muscles and relax on their mats. Then we cure the anxiety, high blood pressure and insomnia they are suffering as a result of long-term stress by using specific restorative poses and breathing practices.”

Shakta Khalsa, an instructor in Herdon, Virginia, and the author of Yoga for Women, says yoga can not only address women’s health problems after these issues crop up, but can prevent problems from occurring in the first place. “To promote breast health, for instance, a woman can do poses that stretch the chest and upper body,” Khalsa explains. “She can get her arms whirling to move fluid through the lymph nodes near the breasts.”

The women whom I teach at Bayview Correctional Facility have come to rely on their weekly yoga class — and the yoga they practice in private in their cells — to address their individual health concerns. To ease menstrual cramps, they lie on their backs with their knees out and the bottoms of their feet touching (called reclining goddess pose). To tone abdominal muscles, they practice the “yoga push-up” (plank pose). To boost overall energy, they do rapid-fire breathing (breath of fire).

As I settle onto my mat and join my Bayview students for class, I close my eyes and focus on my number-one wish: that yoga will not only help these women physically, but that it will help them break the habits that landed them in prison in the first place. I hope this practice will enable them to observe their thoughts without becoming engaged in them — to take a step back, to think the next move over, to respond and not just react.

“More than simply a physical practice, yoga is an emotional and spiritual exploration of why we behave the way we behave,” says Tursi. “It goes deep into our darkest place to find what our motivation is. And when women practice yoga and explore that motivation, phenomenal healing can occur.”

Molly M. Ginty is a yoga instructor and an award-winning health writer who has contributed to Ms., Women’s eNews, and the Utne Reader. She is writing a book about yoga’s evolution and its expression worldwide.

Also see Bodies in Motion: Physical Females Face Different Risks by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Becoming Glory: Kicking Goals to Transcend the Night, A Memoir by Christine Stark in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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