20 Apr Movement Medicine for Women
Something is amiss within the typical yoga class experience.
We are inadvertently propagating the patriarch and undermining women empowerment and let me explain how.
There is an etiquette and a culture within yoga classes that breeds inauthenticity and whenever I encounter it, my heart always grieves a little.
I’m pretty sure most people also perceive it and yet everyone goes along with it. It’s like an unsaid consensus that if we all just follow along anyway we will get to the goods by the end.
But it is precisely the following along which is causing the inauthenticity. Yoga classes have become very formulaic and often scripted rather than a live unrehearsed spontaneous experience. This happens irrespective of the huge variety of yoga styles and teachers.
I’m referring specifically to the teacher-student dynamic which remains hierarchal. The teacher provides breath-by-breath instructions for a range of familiar yoga poses that are organised into predictable sequences and the students follow along intently.
Even the physical setting of a yoga class is standardised across studios worldwide. The space that each student occupies tends to be constrained by the confines of a rectangular yoga mat which they would very rarely step a foot out of. All yoga mats face the front of the class where the teacher takes prime position.
“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…”
Look to the moon, Not my finger pointing to the moon
Regular practitioners have grown very accustomed to this format which can be comforting for some people and taken for granted by others but for the likes of me, it can feel downright restrictive and stifling for my life-force.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against learning from a teacher and I am not against tradition and I see value in staying true to lineage and form in some contexts of practice and in some stages of your path or for certain times in your life. BUT at some stage, when you are told what to do, as opposed to given some space to choose what to do in any given moment, you lose the opportunity to awaken into your own autonomy and intuition.
For me this is really missing the inner process and the true yoga. Facilitation not instruction is the best way to transmit teachings. Teachers don’t empower students they simply allow the space for students to tap into their own power.
It’s like that moment in Karate Kid where the Sensei tells the Kid, “look to the moon, NOT the finger pointing to the moon”.
Just consider for one moment the oft used wording ‘yoga pose’ .
The Oxford definition of the word pose is “assume a particular position in order to be photographed, painted, or drawn” and so putting your body into a yoga pose based on instructions from an external source, i,e. the teacher, could be considered as a form of objectification. Equally, yoga posture or yoga position denote a contrived and stagnant bodily configuration.
From my teaching experience, this formula of teachers instructing a room of students to ‘pose/posture/position’ themselves into a string of shapes has lead student’s to approach yoga practice as performative rather than a process.
This leads their inner narrative to become pre-occupied by self enquiry such as
“Am I doing this right?!”
and they then look for further instruction from the teacher to validate their experience through verbal or even physical adjustment.
The student can also be dogged by the pursuit of perfection as they explore within the class,
“This is what the pose SHOULD be like”
or “I can go deeper/do better in this pose”
as opposed to self-enquiry such as
“Where and What is guiding me from within?”
Here I am essentially inviting you to question whether you need to be taught to be natural.
Is so much structure, instruction and formal training really required in order to reach your own authentic movement?
Do positions, movements and sequences need to be precise, specific, technical, complex, ‘aligned’ or challenging to reach that place of yoga?
In fact the more I learn about the anatomy of the body, the more flaws I find in the current yoga class approach to alignment cues instructed in postures. The yoga class culture effectively maintains a level of fear around safety about the risk of injury which perpetuates students from relinquishing their autonomy and personal power.
Being moved from within, rather than instructed from the outside invites a flow-state of consciousness and honours the intelligence of your instinct, intellect and intuition. It is this awakening that is the yoga which leads to healing and transformation.
Personally, when I practice yoga, I cannot put boundaries upon or parameters around my movement. It just expresses itself however it needs to. Sometimes it looks like a familiar yoga posture, sometimes it does not. I stay true to whatever is arising in that moment. Anything less would be inauthentic, anything else would quite frankly be posing.
My days of putting my body into end-range, non-functional, unnatural positions in the pursuit of yoga are behind me because I am no longer bewitched by the idea that attaining a ‘sacred’ position leads to a yogic accomplishment. That’s not to rule out the possibility that there is an inherent sacred geometry within very specific precise configuration of yoga poses which I am still open to exploring, but no longer to the extent that I sacrifice the longevity of my joints! Been there, done that and now that I’ve been through pregnancy and childbirth twice, I know with conviction that I am my own best authority on the power that I have within me.
What I’m saying here is nothing brand new, it’s simply time for it to be declared again so we may have a rediscovery of it and allow for yoga class to take on a different format. It’s time for less structure, less rules, less points of particular alignments and more permission and liberty to ‘dance to the drum of your own beat’.
Women, Yoga and Dance
The urge to move to music is universal. Dancing represents an essential part of human culture. The thing I love about dance is that it arises up from within without need for prescriptive instruction. Sometimes you simply can’t help yourself!
This is why I consider having an uninstructed self-practice so essential and it is also why I love dance. The reality for me is that my self-practice is both yoga and dance simultaneously and spontaneously.
I’d say that how I teach yoga now is partially influenced by aspects of how I dance. Especially when it comes to women’s wellbeing yoga because dance is so therapeutic for the sacrum, womb, pelvis, hips, thighs… actually all of the areas that are essential parts of the life creating feminine form.
There is a long tradition of dance for women within the Middle East. Egyptian Belly Dance could be considered for the purpose of seduction but actually, it is very toning and strength building for the core and the pelvic floor and so is excellent for healing and reclaiming one’s body after childbirth.
Dance within the context of spiritual practice is also nothing new. Ecstatic dance has been around for centuries across different cultures and is a form of dance in which the dancers, without the need to follow specific moves or steps, move freely and abandon themselves to rhythm as the music takes them, leading to trance and a feeling of ecstasy, connection and meditation.
I notice that now more than ever women in particular are feeling the call from their ‘inner guru’ for this empowered self-guided approach to yoga practice.
It is happening now because women are rising up to recognise their need to reclaim their sexuality, their creativity and their sense of identity. Yoga where simple, natural movement is guided from within is a form of activism.
Is what we need as an antidote to the hangovers of the patriarch, with all it’s hegemony and hierarchy for which a lot of the traditional lineage based yoga practices originated out from.
We have too long taken for granted the fact that the yoga class format that is prevalent today has simply arisen out of guru-disciple autocratic traditional yogic culture which itself was emerged from within the backdrop of a patriarchal society where power is dispersed through hierarchy and it is men that were leaders.
Women that move together, stay together
Another universal truth is that we are stronger together. Women have been dancing together for millenia across cultures.
Circles of women dancing with joined hands appear in rock art, pottery shards, vases and frescoes going back thousands of years and incorporate symbols of the Goddess in her many guises.
Dancing together in unison, in simple repeated patterns allow for group flow-state and synchronised brain waves. It creates resonance between the groups’ physiology and bio-magnetic fields and builds a bond and a sense of togetherness, a sense of support, being held, acceptance, unity community and cooperation. Dancing acts as a social unifier, increasing cohesion in a group. Collective effervescence, a concept created by sociologist Émile Durkheim, is what sits at the heart of dancing and gives it it’s unifying power. A more unified community is a happier one, and happiness has strong links to health. All qualities that make for a cohesive and equal society.
One small dance step for women, one giant step for womankind
So giving yourself the permission to move naturally in a yoga class in an unformatted, unstructured way in response to allowing your life-force to move you could be a small act of rebellion with large repercussions that create seismic shifts in your awareness which not only tap into your power but allow for the empowerment of other women you encounter.
Re-arraging the physical space in the yoga class would also help. Getting rid of yoga mats (except when padding is essential for support). Creating a circle format for student as opposed to lines of mats in a row facing the front is key. A circle format allows all participants to have an equal place where they can each see and hear one another as opposed to the ‘leader-follower’ set up with focus all on the teacher. This allows for greater group connection and it also offers the encouragement for each student to find the teacher within themselves.
How to Begin
So if letting go of the form and the structure of a yoga class feels new or radical to you and you need somewhere to start, I invite you to explore opening up your postural repertoire to include some movement of dance influence. Use music you like and feel the beat. Repeat a move and get into a rhythm. Don’t stress about what it looks like from the outside. Let your body tell you when it’s time to change up the movement pattern. Sometimes closing your eyes helps you really connect. Gradually allow yourself to let go of inhibitions and let the movements become bigger, wilder and more free. Remember that this is not just about having a good old boogie but this is a potent intentional spiritual practice. Thread this approach to the intentionality of your yoga practice, remembering to anchor back into your physiological responses, the breath, the heart beat, the nervous system, the body temperature. Be aware of energetic shifts that you experience and tune into your heart space.
My own background in dance is very informal. No training, I simply just like to do it! I tend to feel ‘moved by the music’ to such an extent that it overrides any sense of inhibition or self doubt. Maybe because I grew up with an Iranian mother and there would always be parties and gatherings which always involved ‘Persian dancing’. I did some clubbing but mostly festivals over the years and enjoyed Jamaican dancehall and Egyptian Belly dance classes in my twenties. I was lucky to learn some East African dancing when I temporarily lived in Kenya. I trained in Trance Dance with Shiva Rea which really allowed the shakti to flow.
Here I have created a 25 minute simple yoga dance practice as movement medicine for women. It can form a foundation for your exploration using some basic movement patterns inspired by dance hall and belly dance.
It is a chance to explore how rhythm and dance can become a potent practice to build strength and tone, improve co-ordination and awaken life-force for creative self-expression.
It’s a simple light hearted and fun way to get into the body and out of the head and having shared this movement medicine with my Postnatal Yoga Teacher Training students, they found it very enjoyable, uplifting and effective.