Yoga For Women
Yoga has been marketed to women as promoting health and beauty, and as something that could be continued into old age. It has created a substantial market for fashionable yoga clothing. Yoga is now encouraged also for pregnant women.
A gendered activity
Geeta Iyengar notes that women in the ancient Vedic period had equal rights to practice the meditational yoga of the time, but that these rights fell away in later periods. James Mallinson states that the Gorakhnati yoga order always avoided women, as is enjoined by hatha yoga texts such as the Amritasiddhi, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the Gheranda Samhita; but all the same, women are mentioned as practising yoga, such as using vajroli mudra to conserve menstrual fluid and hence obtain siddhi.
The yoga scholar Mark Singleton notes that there has been a dichotomy between the physical activities of men and women since the start of European gymnastics (with the systems of Pehr Lingand Niels Bukh). Men were “primarily concerned with strength and vigor while women [were] expected to cultivate physical attractiveness and graceful movement.” This gendered approach continued as the practice of yoga asanas became popular in the mid-20th century. A masculinised form of yoga grew from Indian nationalism, favouring strength and manliness, and sometimes also a form of religious nationalism, and continues into the 21st century among Hindu nationalists like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, continuing the tradition of gymnastics and body building exemplified by early-20th-century figures like K. V. Iyer and Tiruka. The other form emphasises stretching, relaxation, deep breathing, and a more “spiritual” style, continuing a women’s tradition of exercise dating back to the Harmonic Gymnastics of Genevieve Stebbins and Mary Bagot Stack.
Leading “yoginis”, women in modern yoga, include Nischala Joy Devi, Donna Farhi, Angela Farmer, Lilias Folan, Sharon Gannon (co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga), Sally Kempton, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, Judith Hanson Lasater, Swamini Mayatitananda, Sonia Nelson, Sarah Powers (founder of Insight Yoga), Shiva Rea, Patricia Sullivan, Rama Jyoti Vernon, and Sadie Nardini, the founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga.
In 1936, the journalist Louise Morgan interviewed the rajah of Aundh, Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi, in the News Chronicle. Her report announced “Surya Namaskars – The Secret of Health”, claiming that not only were the rajah and the rani in perfect health (although he was over 70, and she had had eight children), but the 60-year-old wife of the rani’s tutor looked younger than her daughters, something, Goldberg comments, many American mothers secretly but heartily wished, and the first time that Surya Namaskar had been sold to Western women.
A pioneer of modern yoga, the Russian pupil of Krishnamacharya, Indra Devi (born Eugenie V. Peterson), argued that yoga was suitable for well-to-do Indian women: “Yogic exercises since they are non-violent and non-fatiguing are particularly suited to a woman and make her more beautiful.”
Elliott Goldberg notes that the normally progressive Devi was effectively arguing for “a gentle yoga for the fairer sex”, deprecating the more energetic exercises such as Surya Namaskar.Devi was encouraged by Krishnamacharya to begin teaching yoga in China. In 1939, she opened the first yoga school in Shanghai, continuing to run it for seven years, mainly teaching American women. On her return to America in 1947, she opened a yoga studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, teaching yoga to film stars and other celebrities including Greta Garbo, Eva Gabor, Gloria Swanson, Robert Ryan, Jennifer Jones, Ruth St. Denis, Serge Koussevitsky, and the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. This famous clientele helped Devi to sell yoga, and her books such as her 1953 Forever Young Forever Healthy, her 1959 Yoga for Americans, and her 1963 Renew Your Life Through Yoga, to a sceptical American public.
Not all her clients were women, but all the same, much of the advice in her books was to women. For example, in Forever Young Forever Healthy, Devi advises her readers that “No make-up can hide a hard line around the mouth, a selfish expression on the face, a spiteful glance in the eyes.” She instructs them to stay absolutely quiet and ask themselves if they are as beautiful as they can be; in her view, yoga brought beauty by assisting with peace of mind.
While Devi and Moore were spreading asana-based yoga in America, women in Britain took up the practice from the 1960s, and yoga, in other words asana sessions, became a common option among adult education evening classes. For example, in Birmingham, a local newspaper editor, Wilfred Clark, gave a lecture on yoga to the Workers’ Educational Association in 1961, meeting such an enthusiastic response that he proposed yoga classes to the local education authority, and founded in turn the Birmingham Yoga Club, the Midlands Yoga Association, and finally the British Wheel of Yogain 1965. Yoga groups soon sprang up all over Britain.
Yoga classes grew beyond those of local education authorities when ITV screened Yoga for Health from 1971; it was adopted by more than 40 TV channels in America. The yoga researcher Suzanne Newcombe estimates that the number of people, mainly middle-class women,[a] practising yoga in Britain rose from about 5000 in 1967 to 50,000 in 1973 and 100,000 by 1979; most of their teachers were also women. With the rise of feminism and being well-educated, middle-class British women were starting to resent being housewives, and given their relative economic freedom, were ready to experiment with new lifestyles such as yoga. Newcombe speculates that their husbands may have found having their wives attending “course on traditionally feminine subjects like flower arranging or cooking … less threatening and more respectable than employment outside the home.” The women saw evening classes as safe, interesting, and a good place to make friends with like-minded people. Further, women in Britain were accustomed to gendered physical education, dating back to Mary Bagot Stack’s Women’s League of Health and Beauty before the Second World War.
Health and beauty
Yoga has been marketed to women as something that made them look younger, and that they could carry on learning or teaching into old age, a message taught by books such as Nancy Phelan and Michael Volin’s 1963 Yoga for Women: “Most yoga teachers know … of women who have astonished everyone … discarding stiffness and tension for suppleness, slimness, serenity and poise”. The yoga models in the 1960s and 1970s wore “flattering and sexy fishnet stockings and a tight-fitting leotard top.”
Clothing and accessories
Women’s yoga has created a large market for fashionable yoga clothing. Major yoga clothing brands include Lululemon, known for their yoga pants. Sales of athleisure clothing including yoga pants were worth $35 billion in 2014, forming 17 per cent of American clothing sales.
Before 1980, few books considered whether yoga was relevant to pregnancy. Since then, numerous books have addressed the subject, including Geeta Iyengar’s 2010 Iyengar Yoga for Motherhood, Françoise Barbira Freedman’s 2004 Yoga for Pregnancy, Birth, and Beyond, and Leslie Lekos and Megan Westgate’s 2014 Yoga For Pregnancy: Poses, Meditations, and Inspiration for Expectant and New Mothers. According to the American Pregnancy Association, yoga increases strength and flexibility in pregnant women, helping them with breathing and relaxation techniques to assist labour.
- Hodges 2007, pp. 65–66.
- Mallinson & Singleton 2017, pp. 53-54.
- Singleton 2010, pp. 160–162.
- Singleton 2010, pp. 157, 160–162.
- Pingatore 2016.
- Singleton 2010, p. 152.
- Cook, Jennifer (28 August 2007). “Find Your Match Among the Many Types of Yoga”. Yoga Journal.
If you are browsing through a yoga studio’s brochure of classes and the yoga offered is simply described as ‘hatha,’ chances are the teacher is offering an eclectic blend of two or more of the styles described above.
- Beirne, Geraldine (10 January 2014). “Yoga: A Beginner’s Guide to the Different Styles”. The Guardian. London. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
- Newcombe 2007.
- Pingatore 2015; Pingatore 2016.
- Hodges 2007, pp. 66–67.
- Hodges 2007, p. 70.
- Gates 2006, passim.
- Friedman, Jennifer D’Angelo (12 April 2017). “Sadie Nardini’s Empowering Yoga Sequence for Women in Honor of V-Day”. Yoga Journal. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
- Goldberg 2016, pp. 275–276.
- Goldberg 2016, p. 291.
- Goldberg 2016, p. 343.
- Goldberg 2016, p. 346.
- Martin, Douglas (30 April 2002). “Indra Devi, 102, Dies – Taught Yoga to Stars and Leaders”. The New York Times.
- Goldberg 2016, pp. 348, 350.
- Goldberg 2016, p. 350.
- Goldberg 2016, p. 352.
- Goldberg 2016, p. 322.
- Goldberg 2016, p. 323.
- Goldberg 2016, p. 324.
- Newcombe 2007; Newcombe 2019.
- “Middle Class”. Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
- DiBlasio, Natalie (30 December 2014). “Retailers Rush to Tap Millennial ‘Athleisure’ Market”. USA Today. McLean, Virginia.
- Newcombe 2007; Phelan & Volin 1979, p. 16.
- Loffredi, Julie. “Stylish Athleticwear and Workout Clothes for Women”. Forbes. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
- Hodges 2007, p. 71.
- “5 Outstanding Prenatal Yoga Books”. Our Family World. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
- Iyengar, Keller & Khattab 2010.
- Barbira Freedman 2004.
- Lekos & Westgate 2014.
- “Prenatal Yoga”. Irving, Texas: American Pregnancy Association. Retrieved 24 March2019.
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