Ashtanga yoga class — for women only

In my Ashtanga Google alert on Wednesday — my inbox fills so yours doesn’t have to — I noticed a listed for a women’s only class (at what looks like a general yoga studio), which happens once a week. It immediately got me thinking about whether segregating classes out would be a good, a bad, an indifferent idea. I imagined a class for stiff white guys, for instance.

Clicking through to this women’s class didn’t provide much more information; there was no description or anything. But there was a listing for another class: for men only. And basically it is what I just described: for stiff guys.

Based on the Ashtanga practitioners I know, I think one of this system’s main attractions is its universality: We’re all practicing (give or take our abilities) the same poses, in the same sequence. Yeah, there’s Second and Third and onward, but we all start with Suryanamaskaras and at least a few standing poses (and are supposed to do First once a week). And bandha, drishti, breathing are all common.

I also thought about one of the panels at next year’s Confluence (now open for pre-reg):

11:30 am-1:30 pm – Women’s Panel Discussion with Diana Christinson, Kathy Cooper, Dena Kingsberg, Leigha Nicole and Mary Taylor moderated by Shelley Washington (lecture/discussion/Q&A)
Each teacher will share the profound gift of yoga they received from their beloved teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and one of their favorite stories relating to Guruji. This discussion will offer an opportunity for students to ask questions of the teachers.

Which is to say: We aren’t all the same. And maybe it suggests a rationale for some type of, occasional, practice segmented off for men, women … those pesky adolescent boys we all hear about, the infamous “Ashtanga for seniors.”

I don’t know.

Would something like that attract you? Repel you?

Posted by Steve

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Watching the Consciousness-raising of India

It was about this time last year that Steve and I were getting ready for our pilgrimage to India.

We had made the decision to make a cultural journey, rather than what you might call asana-based. We achieved that goal beyond our wildest dreams. I think we came home with a pretty broad but also fairly deep perspective. I saw the temples, yes; but I also learned about local politics, the education system, its economic development, rural life: we spent a good deal of time with locals. Since we got back, we’ve been following the national news in India pretty closely.

While we were there, the media—both newspapers and television—were rife with stories about rape—the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape. Steve, a former newspaper editor himself, wondered about it as a national obsession. On our last day in Mumbai, while we were checking out of our hotel, we watched a TV news story about men supporting women in protest against sexual violence: The men were wearing skirts (Western style) in solidarity.

I said at the time that India was experiencing a moment of consciousness-raising, a pivotal moment—America had its moment as well—when it becomes no longer acceptable to blame the victim. I was lucky enough to be traveling with my husband, but I have traveled before to places where just being a woman alone was a dangerous thing–not in back alleys or dark streets: just sitting on a bus or shopping in a store, when I was alone, I was harassed. And that was a fairly familiar thing: When I was very young, this was still acceptable on the street where I grew up in Texas.

Two radio stories today on NPR and PRI provide some excellent context for the state of women in India one year after its national trauma. The first covers the recent scandal that has brought attention to the conditions of women in India in the workplace.

As India marks the anniversary of the infamous gang rape in New Delhi, it is ending the year as it began: in upheaval over its treatment of women. In a recent series of cases, men in positions of privilege are alleged to have sexually harassed or assaulted female employees. The episodes spotlight the absence of women’s rights in the Indian workplace.

The second provides one woman’s perspective on how far attitudes have come in a year from Rhitu Chattergee, a reporter who has returned to India after living for a long time in the United States.

But today, as India looks back on what has changed in the past year, time and again young women in Delhi tell me one thing: ‘It is no longer acceptable to blame the victim. You may think it’s the victim’s fault, but you can’t say that out loud without being publicly shamed.’

At the same time, the Indian supreme court has declared consensual sex between two adults of the same gender “unnatural,” effectively criminalizing homosexuality. I have gay friends in India right now, studying yoga. Gurus are stepping all over themselves, declaring yoga can “cure” them. There is, I realize, a long way to go.

In our Western appropriation of the beliefs and practices of another country we have to be careful we don’t do what Edward Said termed “Orientalism”: blind cherry-picking of aspects of the culture, romanticizing and retelling the stories in a foreign image. We must be careful to maintain our respect, and recognize the difference between the truth and our projections. When it comes to the role of women and the changing awareness of sexuality in India, a country we have come to love and admire, it’s both encouraging and frightening to watch the process of awakening happen.

Posted by Bobbie

A few thoughts on equality

When I was a young woman growing up in South Texas in the ‘70s, it was always clear to me (from my mother, and daily life) that I had to be wary of men.

I have very vivid memories of walking to the Circle K to get a Coke or candy or what not when I was very young—from probably ten through my teens—and getting “catcalled” (younger readers may need to Google that), propositioned, offered rides. In the Circle K itself, it wasn’t all that unusual to get pinched or poked, or for men to rub up against me. I was often referred to as “sweetheart,” “sugar,” or worse. I didn’t understand these things at that age. I only knew they scared me. As I grew older, I learned what it was exactly that I was scared of–and it made me angry.

I’m old enough to remember when self-serve gas appeared at that Circle K (as opposed to full service, where an attendant would pump it for you) (again, you can Google it). For the first few years of my driving, men would frequently offer to pump gas for me.

Of course, the feminist movement was young then, and I was in the South. But if I had to pin a moment when things really started to change, when the daily indignities that women had to endure began to subside, it was the brutal rape of a young professional woman jogging in Central Park in 1989, and the truly tragic trial that followed.

While we were in India, I thought much about the consciousness-raising that followed the Central Park rape, the fact that so many women, new to the professional workforce, recognized themselves in the victim, and then recognized the dangers of the anger that followed. She was young, educated, and just out for a jog. The backlash and arrests that followed represent a terrible moment in America, and caused much soul-searching. It seemed to me that women (and men) in India are reacting in much the same way. A recent story in The Los Angeles Times resonates with similarities with women in America, in the early stages of the feminist movement:

Rape cases have been a fixture in India’s headlines for years, but the brutal attack in December hit a deep nerve. Many young women saw themselves in the victim, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student of modest means who moved to New Delhi to chase the Indian dream — and gain independence in the process.

If India’s young women manage to rise in the aftermath of the rape and subsequent death of the New Delhi rape victim, if they claim their place as equals, it seems to me their voices will move India into a new and promising role on the world stage. In gaining their independence, they will gain a new level of independence for their country.

Women protesting in New Delhi. Via the LA Times
Women protesting in New Delhi. Via The LA Times

They have been taught well the way of peaceful protest, and taught us in the States in turn. I’ve attended many “Take Back the Night” marches in my time that looked exactly like this photo from the Times. I’ve seen the look of determination you see in this photo on the faces of women standing next to me.

We’ve been deliberating here on the Confluence Countdown how to report on this pivotal moment in the country that we owe so much to in our own lives, and have grown to love. I decided to respond with hope and encouragement—in this new moment of equality in America—to my sisters in India, to look to the future, and know you are on the side of history.

Posted by Bobbie

Are women making yoga better?

What’s the usual percentage of women in a yoga class here in America? 99%?

Too high, you think? OK, how about 88%?

Both might be a teeny exaggeration, but I’m pretty sure that the usual figure is in the 75%, even 80%, neighborhood. (Although I think it was reversed at my morning Mysore today.)

Whatever the actual number, I think it’s fair to say that women dominate yoga here in America; while perhaps the absolute biggest yoga “rock stars” still are men — Bikram, John Friend — the next rung down has plenty of women: Shiva Rea, Seane Corn and probably a bunch from styles with which I’m not so familiar.

These women in yoga are the subject of a documentary I suspect some of you have already seen or are planning to grab a showing of: “Yogawomen.” It focuses on women’s role in moving yoga forward (or maybe a different direction, given your opinion of things) in the West.

This article — from Religion Dispatches, which seems like a pretty solid site from my initial look — delves a bit into the movie. It includes these key lines:

The film tells us that women once naturally inhabited the realm of yoga practice, until the staid Brahmin men got a hold of it and reined in the power of mortal women in the public sphere, relegating feminine powers to the goddesses alone.

It was Indian men, too, who brought the practice to the West, but there has been a massive shift in the last generation. Now it is women who have become what Kate Clere McIntyre describes as “modern-day evangelists, getting up on their yoga platform” and finding ways to push women to do things they think they can’t do, to step away for just a moment from family and responsibility to other; from careers and mass media imagery of who they should be and what they should look like.

At first, Michael McIntyre admits, he wasn’t sure why they weren’t making a documentary on yoga, as opposed to women and yoga. I wondered the same thing. Isn’t the stereotype of men that they are even more out of touch with their bodies than women; overscheduled and torn between conflicting demands that don’t allow a minute for introspection, contemplation, or the stillness from which groundedness is born? All these reasons are why the film claims women should do the practice. But Michael came to believe that they were documenting something momentous, and women were leading it. “As a man going to classes taught by men, I was getting the practice, but not the phenomenon,” he said. “Women are taking it to the next level.”

That’s a pretty bold set of statements, and I’d be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts. My focus goes to one word in particular, though: “phenomenon.”

I wonder what, exactly, McIntyre means? Is it in the sense of phenomenon as a “pop phenomenon?” Is it in the sense of “phenomenal?” Does he mean the rush to buy the $100 Lululemon pants or is he talking about the inward investigation that yoga can induce?

The article, too, pushes this idea, and quotes McIntyre further: “Yoga is a Sanskrit word. No doubt about it. It’s a spiritual practice. I think people have a spiritual experience with it.”

I wonder just how that spiritual experience is being altered, improved, enhanced or reduced by yoga’s transformation in America. And, if women are leading that change, what are they adding to the practice? What might they be taking away?

And what might yoga look like in 20, 50 or 100 years?

Posted by Steve