The Quiet Strength of a Woman's Body
[This article first appeared in Fit Yoga, June 2008]
In a political year where the United States had the first viable female contender for the Oval Office, the question on the tip of every woman's tongue is what defines a strong woman. Is a female leader one who learns to master a man's world? Or is there some other essence that is at play in a woman's claim to empowerment?
Far from being a respite from the politicized arena of gender politics, the yoga world sometimes makes deeply held assumptions about male and female roles more evident. Contemporary dogmas of what's possible for men and women contribute to what every yoga practitioner believes is possible for male and female bodies. If you're a woman, you might wonder whether you're the wrong shape, size, weight or gender to actually be able to catapult your woman's hips through the air and resign yourself to being flexible. But this type of thinking undermines a true sense of power for either gender.
In yoga there is an unfair assumption that all men effortlessly perform gravity-defying lift-ups, and all women snake their way into all manner of flexible positions. While the mindset of teachers, students and traditions often perpetuates some very traditional gender roles, the reality of yoga practitioners tells a different story. There are men who are hypermobile and unable to lift their butts off the ground, and there are women who are stiff as a board but able to balance unwaveringly in a handstand. One of yoga's greatest lessons is that there are no universal standards for bodies, and that all bodies, genders, races and ages have the ability to benefit from and master this ancient practice.
That being said, if you're a woman it's still easy to discount yourself when you peer into the lexicon of masterful yoga DVDs from strong, skinny men like Rodney Yee, David Swenson, Richard Freeman, Chuck Miller and Sharath Rangaswamy. Your child-bearing hips and soft curves may look nothing like these master teachers' sinewy legs. When you look for evidence that women can actually be strong in the yoga world, you dig into the very essence of femininity. Sometimes it seems like women who can perform gravity-defying feats and achieve political success have overcompensated in toughness to excel in a male-dominated world. Locking down traits typically associated with femaleness like softness, openness, emotionality, and tenderness means that powerful women are often feared for their harshness. The word "bitch" is often indistinguishable from assertive when applied to a woman's presence. Some people are even afraid of Ana Forrest, and many call Hillary Clinton an ice queen.
Trading quintessential female traits to succeed in a man's world devalues the essence of a woman. The complexity of gender is such that there are no easy answers to what constitutes essential male or female traits. My personal journey into yoga led me to ask the very difficult question of whether there is a natural strength in a woman's body that is different, but not less, than a man's. I began my journey into yoga nearly ten years ago as the stereotypical flexible girl with no strength. In awe of the mysterious lift-up, arm balances, handstands and vinyasas, I looked critically at my extra cushioning around the bum, small arms and petite frame, and blamed my shape and gender for what I could not easily do. Male teachers in the Western world, meaning well, simply let me slide, saying that they did not expect women to actually match men's strength. Movement-based, scientifically-backed anatomy books state that women's bodies have a lower center of gravity and therefore have a different set of rules to work with, thereby casting women as the physically weaker gender. Science, stereotypes and points of view could have created an artificial limit, but I dug deeper.
My ninety-three-year-old master teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, said one day in a group conference in Mysore, India in his iconographic broken English: "Yoga changing. Now some women very strong. Correct asana performing possible. Before, not possible. Now possible. All women doing all asanas o.k." Krishnamacharya, all of our teachers' teacher, was the first Brahmin to allow women into the secret study of the Indian sacred texts and is also quoted as saying that women are the future of yoga. In the arena of a quickly equalizing realm of power, it is fitting that women's role in yoga also changes and evolves. The basic teaching in yoga is the unification of extremes, and in that light it is appropriate that both men and women are asked to move towards a balance between strength and flexibility. When I attempted to experience this balance in my own body, I was pushed to the very limit of my physical, emotional and spiritual potential. Just as in any situation that pushes the envelope of possibility, existential questions as to the nature and reality of my being took form and shape in my daily practice.
After years of practice and mastery over seemingly impossible postures, there is now no doubt that women have an equal type of strength, too. Marianne Williamson says that a true woman's power is magnetic, attractive and visionary. A woman's body receives, nurtures, gives, produces, holds, bears, bends, grows, shrinks and sometimes even breaks, only to rebuild. Rather than an exposed sexual organ, in the heart of every female form rests a womb that is a great, silent and dark potential for life. This darkness that draws its archetype from the lunar cycle pulls energy, tides, change, life force and fertility to it. Where a man's body has muscles to push, thrust and engage, a woman's body beckons, seduces and contains. It is in this crucial difference where women must find their strength in the yoga practice and in life: Not in emulating the deep belly thrust of a man's world, but in tapping into a uniquely feminine way to engage the world will women touch the mystery of true female power.
If women deny the reality of the female body, including its cycles and birth potential, then the feminine soul is still held in highly contentious chains. If female yogis simply grunt, grin and bear it while toughening their skins, then their feminine softness is enslaved by the tension in their jaws. Instead real female strength comes from embracing the softness and solidity of every curve. Having practiced the challenging Advanced Series of Ashtanga Yoga continuously for the last five years, I find that endurance, pragmatism and grace are well within the domain of my woman's body, strength and soul. A man's strength is louder, directed outward, striving, reaching and sometimes fighting. It's not to say that women don't fight or aren't violent, but that in a woman's body violence takes on another form. A woman's sometimes smaller body cannot simply mimic male form in the physical world to succeed. In order to perform the same feats of strength with the graceful heart of a woman, the female body must learn to access its natural reserves of strength by honoring the female form in and of itself. This strength lies not in forceful thrusting, but instead in determining exactly how and where to work, with a perfect mix of strength and grace.
For most of my life I have carried the residue of the 1970s feminism in my genes, and on a subtle level, fought and vied for male power while never really loving the men in my life. Yoga has given me the gift of real and total self-adoration; in that sphere I rest as a strong woman with a sense of the beauty and power of my woman's body. A woman who loves herself is also able to love and celebrate men as they truly are. In every handstand, arm balance, backbend, and gravity-defying lift-up, I do not seek to replicate the male form, but instead to allow the flow of my female life to course through my veins, muscles, body, mind and soul.
Women are the great gatekeepers of the world. Our "yes" permits entry to the inner space of our bodies, while our "no" draws lines of approval and disapproval. In our ability to choose, to gather and to draw, we find our true empowerment: Not in emulating the boisterous strength of men, but instead shining like the full moon on a clear night, we are graceful, iconic, powerful, beautiful, mesmerizing, enchanting and captivating. In the yoga practice strength must come for women as well as men. When it comes, it is not at the expense of the graceful female form but as an enhancement of it--for it is a quiet strength that lies within every woman's body.
© 2008 Kino MacGregor