Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Masculine practice, female body

The modern asana practice was originally developed by men, for men. The ‘father’ of the practice, Krishnamacharya, had three main acolytes who, in turn, spawned many more. Those acolytes –not the right word, but it will do – were BKS Iyengar, the late K Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son). Largely, when people talk about practising yoga, they are talking about practising in the Krishnmacharaya lineage. This is a masculine lineage, despite Indra Devi – another of Krishnmacharaya’s prominent students.

My teacher, Judy Krupp, was trained in the Iyengar lineage but she is not an ‘Iyengar teacher’. She has been my teacher since 1993 and for that entire time she has been tinkering with the practice. It only occurred to me a few years ago that she was tinkering with it to make it more suitable for women’s bodies. Women, after all, were the majority of her students and she is also, obviously, a woman. We have never had a conversation about this – in that way that teacher-student relationships can be intense and murky at the same time - but it’s clear that she was adjusting the asanas and the practice as a whole according to what she thought was needed. Less emphasis on building upper body strength beyond what’s appropriate for women; more emphasis on building core strength. No encouragement for women to hang in joints that are more likely to be hypermobile than men’s, no matter how much deeper in a posture that floppiness may seem to get them (hypermobility can be as big a problem as stiffness). I still wonder at my good fortune in finding this tinkerer.

In recent years I’ve played with different forms of the practice. I still went to class with Judy, of course, but my curiosity took me elsewhere too, mainly to the work of Shiva Rea. And, funnily enough, it’s taken me onto Judy’s path: I’ve now arrived at the point of doing my own tinkering. I’ve felt in my own body what’s lacking and what’s been overdone – the bulky shoulder muscles that made an old injury worse; the larger-than-needed hamstrings and quadriceps; the abdominal strength that could have been better. What was also overdone was the fire element – too much of the practice created heat in a body that needed more water, earth and air.

However, what really put me on this path was having pregnant women in the class and realising how much of the asana practice I’d have to modify in order for them to not miss out. Surely, I thought, this practice should not need to be adjusted around normal womanly things like menstruation and childbearing? Surely if we’re women we should be working in a feminine paradigm, not a masculine paradigm? The difficulty, of course, is that it is an inherently masculine paradigm and adjusting it doesn’t make it any less so. There’s also the fact that the asana practice is largely beneficial and beautiful and it’s sustained many of us for decades.

But now I’m curious as to what else is possible, and curious about what a feminine paradigm of practice will look like. I’m not the only one, obviously, who’s thinking about this, but I had to really feel it in my own body before I could join in. Perhaps it’s the work of a lifetime; perhaps it’s just a natural extension of my apprenticeship with Judy. I can say for sure that it is the flow and freedom of yoga itself that inspires me to inquire and change. The practice itself – not just the asanas, all of it – is solid, constant and amazing. Now, back to the tinkering.

- Sophie Hamley