Saturday, September 3, 2011

My ladies only class

Historically yoga was a male only field.  In the course of its evolution from a priestly form of meditation to a counter culture medium to what we now call “modern postural yoga,” a form of exercise taught in gyms, studios and schools, men have played a dominate role. Woman only became involved in yoga in the mid 20th century as yoga began to make its way into the West.  The story goes that the first woman to take a yoga class was the wife of an ambassador stationed in Mysore, India.  When this woman wanted to take a yoga class it was only because of the status of her husband and the constant pressure of the King himself upon the teacher, a certain Krichnamichriya otherwise known as the grandfather of modern yoga, that she was allowed access to the class.  Luckily for us this woman proved to be a dedicated student.  She went on to become Indra Devi who opened the first yoga studio in Hollywood and taught such yoga enthusiasts as Marilyn Monroe and Gloria Swanson. Because of her success and dedication the doors of Indian yoga studios remained open to us all. 

Women now dominate yoga – not as famous teachers perhaps but certainly as students.  Around the world up to 80 per cent of most yoga classes will be women and at certain times of the day the classes will most certainly be women only.  Yet as yoga is being adapted to the cultural milieu of the Arab world these classes of “only women” become “ladies only” classes. 

There is something radically different about teaching and practicing in a class that only has women in it and a class for “ladies only” – a difference that I am only now beginning to appreciate.  When we teach a “ladies only” class the whole approach is different.   For our ladies our first focus is protection.  All the windows are covered – all the doors are screened.  A cocoon is created and those outside it work hard to make sure that the security is not breeched.   As we step onto our mats and take our first deep breaths this sense of protection is reassuring and affirming.  It also provides an arena for risk.  The “ladies only” classes are challenging.  The women who take them are strong and want to be stronger.  Many of my ladies only students have not had an extensive physical education and yet yoga plays to their strengths – to their suppleness and fluidity and grace, and this gives them the confidence to develop strength and stability and stamina.   For me as an expatriate living in the Arab world the ladies only classes are also a privilege, an opportunity for an intimate conversation that I rarely have in my daily life.   And the ladies only class is a conversation between women.  We adapt our practice to our cycles and stages of life and this is discussed freely in a ladies only class.   We focus on certain body parts and anatomical needs - no euphemisms are required.  We watch the movements of our mind and the effects this has on our body image and self-esteem and together we slowly train them away from destructive patterns.  Together, through a constant give and take of what works and what doesn’t, we balance our culture and religion with the health giving and life affirming aspects of yoga.      

Yoga is a living, evolving tradition and it is a remarkable honor to be a part of its introduction to the Arab world through the ladies only classes.  But as is usually the case when you teach you learn more from your students then they do from you.  The ladies only class is teaching me again and again what it is to be a woman practicing yoga.

Yama Yoga will be offering Ladies only classes at discounted rates starting September 18th.  See our website for details.