One size doesn’t fit all
Most of the health issues women face is due to unsuitable yoga practice
All living beings undergo transformation in six stages. For example, a tree first exists in its potential form as a seed. When the seed sprouts, it is born, this is the second stage. In the third stage, the sapling grows into a tree. The tree then undergoes seasonal changes: it bears flowers and fruit, loses its leaves. In the fifth stage, the tree grows old and declines. New leaves no longer appear, and the tree gradually withers. Finally, the tree perishes — but not before leaving behind seeds that carry the same potential from which the tree came into being. These six stages are common to all living beings; they are natural processes. This is stated in the Vedic literature.
As human beings, we are also subject to these changes. Ayurveda acknowledges the role of these stages in health and disease, and it incorporates this wisdom into its recommendations. A yoga practice too must respect and reflect them.
Krishnamacharya used to emphasise this by referring to the division of life into three phases — growth, change and decline as described in Vedic literature. He advised that yoga should be modified for each of these phases in life.
These natural processes are common to men and women. However, women experience these changes more intensely at times of hormonal changes from menstruation to menopause.
We find that roughly 80 per cent of yoga practitioners are women, of varying age groups. And as we speak of equality and diversity, it is important to reflect on not only just the role of women in yoga but also on the role of yoga in a woman’s life. Because Yoga is primarily about self-care, about balance and well-being. The responsibility that we owe as students and practitioners of Yoga is primarily to ourselves and not tradition or technique.
Today, many young women in their twenties and thirties, suffer from countless health issues caused by and not limited to hormonal changes. Some even experience a complete pause of their menstrual cycle for several months while others struggle with the challenges that menopause brings — such as depression, weight gain and osteoporosis. And the bitter truth is that a lot of this is exacerbated or sometimes even caused by an unsuitable yoga practice — the one size fits all approach with attention mostly focused on ‘can’ I do this instead of asking first, why ‘should’ I do this?
Yogic Mindfulness is the platform to bring about change. Knowing why I am doing what I am doing is the first question to be asked and answered.
The high percentage of women practitioners across the world is also often attributed to the fact that Yoga is viewed as requiring a high range of flexibility and women are deemed as being more flexible than men. However, it is often this overemphasis on flexibility at the cost of strength that causes setbacks to women’s health, especially in the later years.
For, stability — both physical and mental — is far more important than simply large range movements and flexibility. Whether I can lift my leg onto my head may not be as important when I am 70, as it is to have my body and mind stable, healthy and functional. Modern postural Yoga has a bias towards extreme ranges of movement, fast movements, intricate or somewhat artificial lines of alignment. While none of these is inherently good or bad, they are subordinate to natural and open-ended awareness— an awareness to what I truly need.
Women have been yoga practitioners over the ages. But as we applaud their many achievements, we also owe it to them to ensure that Yoga which is meant to bestow us with health and well-being becomes a support in this journey and not a hindrance.
Returning to the core, Yoga is not getting on the mat, but getting into the mind.
This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.