From an Eastern perspective, the practice of yoga is often thought of as having both masculine and feminine qualities. The “masculine” qualities are thought to be physical mastery, mental discipline, and the drive for knowledge. The “feminine” qualities are thought to be intuition, receptivity, and compassion. It is said that we all have masculine and feminine qualities–but that they are not always in balance in our practice.
For The Sacred Cow interview this month, I interviewed Nischala Joy Devi, a yoga luminary who wrote and recorded a unique, feminine interpretation of the Yoga Sutras that emphasizes the heart more than the mind, and refrains from using the word “he” (like other interpretations) to refer to the concept of a supreme being or universal force. Nischala wrote this book because she believes that we, as a culture, not only leave women out of the teachings, but also generally overemphasize the masculine qualities of practice and minimize the feminine.
While I have thought of my Hatha practice in terms of yang and yin (i.e., strong and restorative asana), I have never thought of my whole practice, itself, to be masculine or feminine. That said, I must admit that the majority of books I’ve read on yoga are by men (there aren’t many by women—as Nischala observes), that my main asana teachers are all men (who teach strong physical practices), and that discipline of the body and vigorous study are primary components of my practice.
These “masculine” practices are simply what I have been drawn to, perhaps as a result of being raised in a yang place like New York City—and being raised primarily by my father as a teenager. But it is also true that Western society, in general, emphasizes these masculine practices (an interesting concept since so many yoga practitioners are women). This is likely because we live in a society where there is a great emphasis on striving for success and mastery (i.e., masculine values) and less of an emphasis on home life, education, and service in the community (i.e., feminine values).
What do you think? Is your yoga practice overly masculine? Is it possible to have a yoga practice that is too feminine? (If too much asana can prevent us from experiencing our lives from a heart-centered place, can it also be said that too much bhakti and not enough asana can weaken our physical or mental faculties in a way that is detrimental to awakening?) And are these qualities really feminine and masculine after all, or is that just a social construct passed down through the ages? Write in and tell us what you think!
Such a good question. I admit that I have yet to attempt to apply masculine or feminine characteristics to my yoga practice. Maybe this is because I have struggled with the very concept of “masculine” and “feminine” as two distinct sets of characteristics. Generalizations are often valuable tools for communication, but the generalization of gender types has often left me with the feeling that something is not accurately represented. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that, for me, a yoga practice sometimes has a “masculine” feel to it, and sometimes a similar practice will have a “feminine” feel to it. This is regardless of the gender of the teacher. We are fortunate as yoga practitioners to be associated with a discipline that has such a good balance of women and men as both leaders and students. It is just this balance that makes the questions posed above “good” questions.
Many reflections can be stimulated here, so a couple to start with.
Firstly I have some female students who have four different practices over a ‘month’:
pre-ovulation, post-ovulation, pre-menstrual, menstrual.
All with different needs and possibilities according even to the length of the menstrual cycle and thus length of the phases, especially the pre-ovulation phase (which is the most variable and can be further linked here to ones Āyurveda Doṣa).
Secondly there seems to be an inordinate emphasis on developing “prāṇa strength”, such as upper body strength, through āsana and thus influencing the choice of āsana and style of practice. Whereas for both adults and especially women the need of āsana practice is more about “apāna strength”, or lower body strength and support, and therefore considering appropriate practice styles rather than attempting to emulate practice patterns that are more geared to the needs of the young adult rather than the mature body and lifestyle.
Best wishes Paul