Too intense for a woman? • 22 October 2008

A few years ago, an authorized teacher told me that “as a woman” I don’t “need” to practice the full vinyasa for upavista konasana in the first series.

Yes, the maneuver is mysterious and possibly dangerous. Just like my femininity.

A few people asked a while ago about the relationship of women and third series. Should women take on such an intense program? I wrote a response and didn’t post it. (I barely journaled before I began this blog, but now journal offline all the time. Strange.) I sensed the moment had passed and that the discussion would only amplify women’s self-doubt. But… it seems to be coming up. Here are some of those earlier thoughts.                                         …………………………………………………………………………….

This question of women practicing third illustrates what I’ve been trying to say about gender archetypes.

They’re great interpretive tools. Actual people are not archetypes—people contain multitudes. If we allow each other.

Many teachers have an opinion about women practicing third. It’s can be a place to locate their (more or less unexamined) beliefs about gender. Not to pull a CP snarky yoga smackdown, but these opinions may say more about the specific teacher than they do about the practice.

I’ve learned the series from two senior men—one who sees it as grounding for women in an intense, really good way. And one who simply sees it as the best program ever, for any body lucky enough to find it. But others think that the transformations third brings are unnatural or unhealthy for women—it maybe be difficult to get them to say this explicitly, but sometimes you can sound it out. Which, “as a woman,” I try to do. A few duck this topic, reinforcing patriarchial taboos about discussing women’s bodies—taboos in both folk and scientific cultures which have kept women from being the real experts on our own bodies.

Bring out the smelling salts—the girls are doing ekapadabakasana.

Well, whatever. The advanced stuff is delightful for some people; and I submit that a penis is not necessary for going upside down. So enough mystery already around intense physical practice. There is no feminine mystique that is endangered by handstands.

Still, ok, the program has practical drawbacks, distributed unevenly across body types and personalities.

First, it’s sort of a drug—the endorphin release is large. But I’m not convinced that being an endorphin junkie is all bad. As long as you can work the habit without becoming a compulsive, self-centered freak. (Koan-ism?) In any case, this “risk” has nothing to do with gender, but a lot to do with personality.

Second, it can be ragged-breathingly aggressive if you’re bad at it. Otherwise, it’s just intense and focused. Some would see that as “masculine.” Intensity and focus are archetypically masculine traits, but there’s much of them in real women.

I’m not trying to kill the archetypes. Old dualities (passive/active, creative/receptive, masculine/feminine, whatever) aren’t all bad. And since they’re out there, we may as well use them for meaning-making. Instead of letting them lead us around or using them artlessly to divide up the world.

Third, while there’s no unfeminine essence in this string of postures, women do face two practical problems—shoulder/wrist trouble and the string bean factor. Men face the same challenges in their own way.

Shoulder or wrist trouble might be more likely among tall people, those whose center of gravity is in the belly or pelvis, or anyone with delicate joints. I fall in to one of these categories—low center of gravity—but I’m small and have the very sturdy wrists and shoulders of my mongrel Irish father. So, despite lacking a penis, my anatomy is still well suited to this program in a key way. (The one person I know who had serious shoulder trouble in third was a tall man.)

As for the tendencies toward lizardlyness, women who get really skinny doing this programme—because it is easier when the hips are light—might stop menstruating. (Ignoring old-school whispers about woman's "essence,") there’s dispute over whether that’s a problem for long term health. I figure, for active women, it’s a genuine problem due to loss of bone mass and a damaged metabolism. Nevermind the malarkey about cycles bringing women into transcendent gaian harmony with the universe according with their receptive reproductive fate—just for practical reasons, not cycling is a dramatic edge to be playing.

The masculine/feminine archtypes are spare abstractions, not something strive to embody. One way to use them is to interpret the notion of balanced practice. Let there be creativity and receptivity, will and surrender, exhales and inhales, process orientation and goal orientation, all of it. I figure they can balance any practice. If in our community third has been seen as hypermasculine, then maybe we only understand the half of it.