fitness · yoga

Why Yoga Needs Levels

Yoga practice, tree concept for your designA rant with the wonderful title “Namaste Bitches” came our way yesterday. I love the juxtaposition of the traditional yoga closing “namaste” — translated from Sanskrit to English it means something like: “may the light in me honor the light in you” — with the aggressive dissing, “bitches.”

So what is the author’s complaint?  Well, it’s a resentful diatribe against “the bullshit that has tarnished the beautiful practice of Yoga, the real benefits of eating for health and the elegance of living a more gentle, inclusive life.”

The lightning rod for her misery is the yoga studio. Yoga, according to her dictionary, is supposed to be this:

Yoga: a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation.

We’ll overlook for now that it’s a bit more complex than that and that it depends which dictionary you consult. But the kind of yoga we’re most fixated on in the West (and in this article) is the physical kind of yoga, namely, hatha yoga. We short-form that to “yoga” in this part of the world, and maybe that’s part of the problem. But that’s for another day.

The complaint is that her yoga studio, far from attracting practitioners who are interested in this peaceful liberation of self, is a magnet for mean girls.

Here it is:

If you have been to a Yoga studio, you know what I am referencing, you have heard them. Sadly, sometimes the instructors are just as shitty. Yoga is a practice, not a fucking competition. I should be able to forego the $200.00 yoga pants and show up in whatever the hell I please. I should be able to gradually improve the yoga postures as my body strengthens and not feel intimidated by the voices of the Namaste Bitches in the back, muttering about how they should have different classes for people who are not very good at yoga. As God is my witness, the next time I hear anything like that directed at me or anyone in the class, I will purposely turn around and raise my middle finger and utter in the most peaceful voice; “Namaste this, Bitch”.

When we posted this on our Facebook page yesterday, the vast majority of people said, “that has not been my experience.” Nor has it been mine.  And I don’t know that I would continue to frequent a yoga studio where more experienced students tried to shame the novices.  It’s not just “not yogic.” It’s rude and disrespectful.

Of course not everyone who takes a yoga class is full of respect and non-judgment for those around them. But seriously, maybe try a different studio if the one you go to gets you that riled up.

I started doing yoga way back before it was trendy.  You couldn’t buy $100 yoga pants when I started, let alone $200 yoga pants.  Every year my instructor took our orders for black Danskin leggings, we gave her our size and our cheques. She got a bulk discount on the shipping. And then a few weeks later, after we’d all but forgotten, the delivery arrived and we all got our new yoga pants.

The proliferation of yoga studios and yoga fashion kind of crept up on us through from the mid- to late-2000s to now. I get that there are lots of things to rant about whenever something pure and sacred has much that is good commodified right out of it.

After over a decade of Iyengar yoga, taught by an exceptionally experienced teacher according to the strict requirements of Iyengar certification (I’ve written about the quality of instruction here), I had some difficulty grasping the approach at the local hot yoga studio. What was the problem?  They had no sense of levels.

Now don’t get me wrong. It didn’t matter to me for my own practice that there were people with hardly any experience taking the classes. It didn’t matter because everyone did the same sequence every class anyway.

But having come from the Iyengar method, I had grown accustomed to working my way through levels, each of which had a slightly different curriculum.  The beginners didn’t do headstand or full-arm balance, for example. And it took some time to work our way to full back-bends. Instructors in the method need to keep advancing in their certification. As they progress in their qualifications, they are permitted to teach more advanced curriculum.

So unless it’s a special workshop day, you just wouldn’t find a lot of people at different levels of practice taking the same classes. That’s not about competition. You don’t need to be competitive to want a class that’s appropriate to your level of experience.

From what I’ve witnessed, novice and advanced students alike feel better in classes geared to their abilities. Yoga is no different from any other physical practice in that it’s a set of skills learned over time. The idea of doing the exact same class with all different levels of experience runs counter to that approach, as if everyone at all times is prepared to do any of the postures.

The more I practiced in the Iyengar tradition, the more I realized just how vast and deep even the physical practice of yoga is, never mind all of the other levels of teaching.

And you can really hurt yourself if you do it wrong. When you have an all-levels class with a potentially inexperienced instructor who just goes through a sequence as if it is an aerobics class, there is a huge possibility that someone is going to get injured.

So while I can definitely get behind the “Namaste Bitches” ranter’s disappointment that there are judgmental mean girls in her yoga studio, I think there are all sorts of good reasons for offering different levels of classes that respond to the different needs and abilities of students.

It’s safer and it respects the idea of yoga as an on-going practice in which students gain insight, understanding, skill, and ability over time, with adequate instruction geared to their level of experience.


menstruation · yoga

Yoga’s ‘Red Tent’: Iyengar yoga and the menstrual practice

redtent I remember back in high school gym class when girls sometimes sat out of virgorous activity, and definitely out of swimming, because it was “that time of the month.”  I can already feel the feminist sense of affront rising as I think back on it. The very idea of relegating girls to the side lines because they were menstruating. Please.

Through my teens and twenties, taking a time-out because of my period made absolutely no sense to me.  Though I did suffer from body ache, tiredness, and unpredictable moods prior to my period each month (yes, I believe in PMS and you can’t convince me otherwise), the minute I started to menstruate I enjoyed a surge of energy (and optimism) that stayed with me through the duration of my period and on into the better part of the month!

So I experienced much resistance, annoyance, and feminist skepticism when, upon attending my first class of Iyengar yoga in January 2000, the instructor said that women should let her know if ever we were menstruating because there was a “special practice” we should follow.  The practice involves mostly restorative poses and completely avoids inversions (such as headstand, shoulder stand, elbow balance, or full- arm balance) and vigorous standing poses.  I’ve also been told that twists are to be avoided.

Geeta Iyengar, daughter BKS Iyengar (founder of the Iyengar method), writes: “During menstruation, if one does inversions the blood flow will be arrested.  Those who tried to do it out of enthusiasm or callousness will have noticed that the flow stops abruptly.  This is certainly not good for health since it may lead to fibroids, cysts, endemetriosis, and cancer, damaging the system.” 

Apparently, it’s not clear that these medical risks of “arresting the blood flow” are borne out by the research.  Dr. Timothy McCall, writing for The Yoga Journal, says that “One study, however, found that retrograde menstruation naturally occurs in 90 percent of women, most of whom never develop endemetriosis. So we do not know for sure if inversions increase retrograde flow or whether the backward flow increases the risk of endemetriosis.”

And of course, yoga comes out of a tradition that pre-dates the modern medical model.  It is not surprising, therefore, that some detractors of any special practices around menstruation believe they are more linked to beliefs about women’s impurity at that time of their cycle. Many religious traditions hold to the view that women ought to be segregated while menstruating–e.g. the red tent.  Assuming most feminists reject the view that menstruating women are impure, this reason for practicing alone instead of with the class won’t go over particularly well with them.

In addition to giving medical explanations, Geeta appeals to the ayurvedic medical model, maintaining that menstrual blood is like any bodily waste–urine, feces, phlegm, mucus–and that all wastes ought to be excreted. The process ought not be hindered because these forms of waste, if retained, “invite diseases.”

Iyengar yoga has special practices for all sorts of things from stress and depression to head aches, back pain, and respiratory issues. Circulation issues?  There are multiple sequences of asanas for that. Lower backache?  They’ve got it covered. Stress, depression, headaches, mental fatigue, insomnia? That is one of the things I really admire and respect about this form of yoga.  The teachers are well-trained enough to be able to modify poses to respond to the special needs of students.

Of course, the ayurvedic tradition is not the same as the Western medical model. The medical explanations for some of the recommendations might seem foreign to those of us raised in the Western medical tradition. But the sequences of asanas do offer some relief for acute issues and, practiced over time, can alleviate (if not cure) some more chronic conditions.

But back to the monthly.  For every one of us who breeze through it, there’s another who suffers with major cramps and heavy flow, headaches, back aches, what have you.

And it doesn’t always stay the same from that first shocking experience to menopause.  From my easy time of it for the first twenty-some years, things started to change for the worse in my mid-thirties.  I felt more tired. On occasion, I might experience cramps.  And just generally, life can get stressful. And that’s around the time I first began to practice yoga.

While I remain skeptical about the medical explanation for refraining from inversions, I have actually come to enjoy the sequence of poses contained in the menstrual practice.  The practice is inward and restful yet energizing at the same time. Some of the poses do wonders for the particular kind of lower back pain I get with my period. And I kind of like that at the studio we are comfortable enough with ourselves and our bodies to say when we need the special practice.

In our class, lots of us opt for this “red tent” when we have our period. I also know that on occasion some of the men, feeling especially tired or exhausted sometimes, have expressed the wish that they could do “the menstrual practice.”  I agree that they should have the option of doing it or something like it.

We all have energy cycles. Not everyone is always up for a vigorous class of standing poses and 5-minutes each of headstand and shoulder stand. Sometimes a quieter, supported sequence is the right choice.

And it’s not the right choice for everyone. My younger self, with her increased energy and light flow, would have balked at the idea of taking a time-out for something as inconsequential as menstruation.  And regardless of what Geeta says, I do think she should be permitted to make that choice without risk of being called “callous.”

As an experienced student, I could stay home those days and do the practice there.  But I usually will attend class anyway for a few reasons. First, the energy of the rest of the class, even if I’m not doing what they are doing, feels good. Second, depending on what’s being taught, sometimes it’s possible to do what the rest of the class is doing, with minor modifications (such as substituting other postures for the inversions). Third, the studio has more equipment, making it easier because all the props are on hand. And finally, if I do have a question about one of the asanas in the sequence, my instructor can help me out. I have learned a lot from my teacher over years of doing the special practice in class from time to time.

In my case, I no longer feel offended at practicing off to the side when I am menstruating. It’s not the same as being side-lined from gym class and forced to do homework. We are given a full alternative practice to do instead. It feels good. It’s a good option and I take it. But it does need to be optional, not mandatory.