Women, Age, and Ashtanga Yoga

Women in Ashtanga: A Lineage of An ‘Other’ Kind

Maybe it’s crazy, but I love this picture of me. It doesn’t even occur to me to ask Meghan to photoshop out all the lines in my face. I kind of like them. It shows a woman who has lived. A woman with stories. A woman who is surprisingly becoming more and more comfortable with who she is – as she is.

Becoming more at ease with the signs of aging is no small thing in our culture. And especially as a woman. I remember my mother explaining this to a four-year-old Meghan, as they sat on the couch, watching some random Disney movie:

“Don’t let them fool you Meghan. They call her a witch, but really – she is just a strong woman who is refusing to go away. She’s not evil. She has simply refused to fade.”

At the time, I just sighed. Can’t she just be a little girl and enjoy the story? I wondered. Except as I look back, I realize, it is never too early to change the stories we tell about ourselves. Or too late …

Woman as Identity

Identity is the essence of our humanity. Identity as a person is impossible to define definitively because each one that God creates is unique and unrepeatable. God calls us by name, and one of the sweetest sounds to anyone’s ears is the sound of their name. //Anne Mulqueen 

My mother is, by any definition, a strong woman. As of this writing, she is in Rome, speaking as the Spiritual Director for the Secular Franciscans to leaders of the Catholic Church. When I ask her why she stays so active in a place that doesn’t really recognize or value women, she explains that the Church is made up of men and men are fallible. She says she does not mistake the Church for God. Still, I get the feeling she sticks around for more than just this. Her role perhaps, as much duty as dharma.

The institution of Ashtanga yoga can also feel quite patriarchal at times, though that seems to be changing. They say it was originally designed for 14-year-old boys which may indeed be a myth, but at its peak, it does seem to turn most bodies into looking like one.

Though it’s not the presence of the masculine that disturbs me at all – but there feels a lack of a balancing feminine. In fact, the number of young women who stop menstruating while practicing along with those who struggle with fertility should be reason enough to at least ask some questions.

And then there is menopause, which Dena Kingsberg had to kindly remind me, “is not a dirty word.” Still, as my mom taught Meghan early, women are judged harshly for aging. I, for one, pushed myself to keep up during a time I needed to slow down. And I suffered needlessly for it.

As it turns out, there is also still plenty of life (and practice) post-menopause too. Plus, I hear from plenty of women who have just begun practice in their fifties and sixties. Though I’m not sure they need the yoga as much as the community needs them!

Because it’s not the method that is imbalanced. It’s us.

Woman as Other

Does the word woman, then, have no specific content? Surely woman is, like man, a human being; but such a declaration is abstract. The fact is that every concrete human being is always a singular, separate individual. To decline such notions as the external feminine … does not represent a liberation for those concerns, but rather a flight from reality. // Simone de Beauvoir :: Woman as Other, 1949

Growing up, both my mom and my dad did a fantastic job convincing my sister and me that as girls (and now women) we are every bit as worthy and deserving as any One. They worked hard in affording us every advantage and taught us that every person is born to this world, equal and the same.

It was a very enlightened concept except for one thing – it’s actually not true. One was already defined. And the One was already a man.

From a biological and sociological standpoint, so in a very real sense, men and women ARE different. Even energetically, there is masculine and feminine. In merging the two, we must be careful that in creating One, we are not simply stripping away the Other.

For example, most of my life, in the name of equality, I spent much energy trying to be as good or just like a man. I never allowed myself to enjoy being a woman. Of course, I understand why my parents raised me to think this way. They were preparing me for a world that doesn’t yet value the Other. And it was a first big step in changing the story – Her story.

Though this unconscious narrative didn’t leave me altogether prepared for what’s happened as I’ve aged – this woman, revealed. These softer curves along with a newly acquired paunch are now impossible to hide. Age, no matter how hard we try, is the one thing impossible to disguise.

And so now, for the first time in my life, I’m learning to practice Ashtanga as someone Other than a 14-year-old boy. I feel a bit lost at times, especially without an Other to guide me. But it’s also exciting. My body is changing again – though it’s my mind changing most. I’m falling in love with the discovery of it all.

This practice is not a One-size-fits-all, no matter how hard some will try to make it this way.

Women as Ashtangis

Our Ashtanga lineage is also an important part of our identity, connecting us all as seekers. It’s how we pass down the learning. It’s about relationship. Lineage is a line connecting our past, our present, and our future. Except it’s not a line at all – it’s a circle. Trees grow up from the roots, but also from the seeds dropped down.

Perhaps you may remember, I brought back a little street puppy from India. Watching her grow up in another environment, in different circumstances, has been so interesting. Her instincts are so strong, hardwired in her DNA. I watch her fight them off when necessary, but it takes a level of conscious struggle on her part. Some of this will take more than one lifetime. She is evolving but also, part of a bigger evolution.

As my meditation teacher, John Churchill, is quick to remind me, We stand on the shoulders of the generation before us. I stand on my mother’s shoulders and now my daughter stands on mine. Collectively, we are learning to discover and embrace who we really are.

And we are not all One. Which is fantastic! For even there to be One at all, there must also be an Other.

I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks, she spins.
And the fine threads fall behind her
following her way,
telling
where she is going
telling
where she has gone.
telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice
The sentences saying the way.
// Ursula K. Le Guin

So if you’re out there like me, a woman in Ashtanga, getting older and feeling a little lost – now is not the time to stop and hide. Keep practicing. Know there are Others doing the same, growing roots and dropping seeds. This is our duty as much as our dharma.

We are on a path through a pathless forest, a maze, a labyrinth.

The fine threads fall behind us, following us, telling where we are going, telling where we have gone, telling our story.

The line, our thread of voice, is the lineage we are creating.

It’s a conversation worth having … with Others, writing our own story about who we are.

 

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August’s Dispatch: Cultivating the Feminine through Meditation