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Respecting the Female Body in Practice and Teaching

By Elonne Stockton

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In June Arielle and I will teach a two-week continuing education anatomy module:
The Female Body and Yoga Practice: How the Female Body Responds to and is Affected by Breath, Asana and Vinyasa Practice

Although the number of men in modern day yoga classes is slowly increasing, the majority of students in a class are female and this is not likely to change anytime soon. For that reason, all teachers — both men and women — need to understand the effects of practice on the female body in the different stages of life. Men and Women are equal, but we are not the same, and in order to be safe and effective teachers, we need to understand these differences and how they affect a yoga practice.

Yoga is often taught as a one-size-fits-all activity, the same for both men and women, and for all women regardless of where they are in life or where they are in their monthly cycle. Most fail to take into account the special considerations for pregnancy, menopause, or female illnesses like endometriosis, etc.

As we become more experienced practitioners and teachers, we realize that yoga practice must be an individual pursuit, different for each student. We teachers must learn how to personalize our students’ practice, and to do so we must equip ourselves with targeted training, knowledge and experience.

Some Things to Consider Which You May Not Know

Most people who have been here for one of our retreats or courses generally know what to practice and what not to practice during heavy cycle days and during pregnancy, but here are some things that you might not have been aware of:

1. Watch the count in pranayama

Most people know to skip retention during heavy cycle days and during pregnancy, but it is also important to watch your count. You may be practicing with a simple ratio of 1:2 (inhale:exhale) but make sure the count is comfortable.

Your normal count is likely to be too much during this time, so drop the count as needed. For example, if you normally inhale for a count of 8 and exhale for a count of 16, you can drop the count to 7:14, 6:12 or to whatever can be practiced in a relaxed and easeful manner. You should never feel out of breath or fatigued.

And the count should be comfortable from start to finish. If the count is easy when you start but not when you finish you still should drop the count, right from the beginning and throughout the entire practice. Never drop the count halfway through.

2. Be careful before your cycle.

It is not only the heavy days of your cycle that you may need to alter your practice. Before your cycle is also a time to be mindful as it is a time women often get injured. You may find you need to reduce your retention count at this time as well, as the internal pressure has shifted. And listen to your body. If you feel exhausted respect that and take shavasana, or reduce and alter your practice accordingly.

3. Be careful when helping/adjusting a woman around her cycle.

Again, before the cycle is a time women often get injured, so it is a good time to be gentle. It is also usually an emotional time for women (both before and after a cycle), so exhibit some compassion.

You may not know when their cycle is, but if you are working regularly with your students you should get to know their cycle and learn how to adjust your teaching according, depending on where they are in their cycle. Also encourage them to take days off around their cycle and to modify practice appropriately.

If a student’s cycle is irregular (either temporarily or chronically) due to stress factors or due to excess practice or exercise, it is important to be aware of this as well. If she is open to it, you can help her start to regulate her cycle with a therapeutic approach to practice.

4. Even a simple seated practice can be overdone.

During your period and pregnancy, even if you are practicing everything that is prescribed, you can practice in a way that is forced, beyond what is comfortable, and then it is also contraindicative. If you make yourself sit too long it can create strain in the body and overuse mula bandha. And you may be using a simple 1:2 ratio, but if you practice too many rounds of pranayama, in a forced way, beyond what is comfortable, it is also contraindicative.

5. There are no hard and fast rules.

Every woman is different, every cycle is different, every pregnancy is different. What is right for one practitioner is not necessarily right for you, and what is right for you one month, or one pregnancy, may not be right the next time around. Of course keep practicing, but respect where you are at physically and emotionally, respect the constant changes that are an inherent part of life. Alter practice as needed and practice in a way that is supportive of you as an individual and your life.

It all comes down to ahimsa/non-harming. Ahimsa is the foundation of the whole practice, and it should be the driving force of life.

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