The Feminine Critique
Most ancient scriptures were written for and by men. Nischala Joy Devi and Esther Myers question their relevance for modern women.
By tradition, only the males of India’s upper castes could study the sacred texts. These were written expressly for Brahmins and kings, whose duty required that they learn scripture and practice yoga. A woman’s duty, regardless of caste, was to tend to her family. Nowadays, however, things have changed, and Western women have embraced the sacred traditions of India. How can modern, liberated yoginis relate to the obvious male slant in yogic classics like the Bhagavad Gita, which unfolds as a battlefield dialogue between the warrior-prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna? To find out, we asked Esther Myers and Nichala Joy Devi how they deal with sexism in yoga scripture.
Esther Myers holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Toronto. She studied Iyengar Yoga and worked closely with teacher Vanda Scaravelli. The author of Yoga and You (Shambhala Publications, 1997), Myers leads yoga workshops internationally and recently released the video Gentle Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors (reviewed in “mixed Media” Jan/Feb’02).
Nischala Joy Devi, best known for developing the yoga portion of Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, lived almost 18 years as a traditional sannyasin (renunciate). Cofounder of Commomweal Cancer self-Help Program, she now teaches and directs Yoga of the Heart, a training program for yoga teachers and health-care professionals working with cardiac and cancer patients, and is the author of The Healing Path of Yoga (Three Rivers Press, 2000).
Yoga Journal: Can an ancient scripture like the Bhagavad Gita, written by and for men, provide a universal message that includes modern women?
Nischala Joy Devi: The Gita did not speak to women directly because women weren’t allowed to read it. Great wisdom abounds in the story, but a woman keeps hearing the word “he”, it becomes very difficult to swim through the metaphors and find it.
Esther Myers: We need our own expression of what yoga means to us today more than we need to look backward. The Gita offers an extremely male, militaristic, and sexist approach while the majority of those practicing yoga in North America are women.
YJ: Is it just the pronoun “he” that causes trouble?
NJD: Changing the words would be a good start. But the problem runs deeper. In the first chapter, Arjuna clearly doesn’t want to fight his kin. These are the people he loves and respects. Yet Krishna tells him to repress his feelings and charge. The message is very masculine. A woman approaches her feelings in a different way: not as an obstacle but as a guiding force to honor just as deeply as her social obligations.
EM: While most of us interpret the Gita’s central metaphor as an internal struggle and not a “real” war, I’m not sure I want to use war in any form, as a metaphor for spiritual practice. A metaphor colors your perspective. War has become a way of solving problems: There’s war on cancer, a war on drugs, a war on illiteracy, and a war on terrorism. The way war permeates our culture shuts out other kinds of solutions. I prefer the language of nurturing and compassion. It’s the search for well-being that brings people to yoga class, not combat.
Talking Shop with Esther Myers
By Claudia Cummins
A practitioner of yoga for nearly three decades, Esther Myers is perhaps best known for popularizing the organic and poetic teachings of Italian yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli.
Esther Myers, who lives in Toronto and teaches yoga around the world, produced the video Vanda Scaravelli: On Yoga and wrote the instructional book Yoga and You. Myers also recently completed a practice video for women with breast cancer.
Yoga Journal: What is unique about Vanda Scaravelli’s approach to yoga?
Esther Myers: I think it’s the combination of power and fluidity. There are strong practices like Ashtanga, and then there’s Kripalu, which is a much softer approach. But this is dynamic and powerful, and soft and fluid. I think it’s very feminine. It’s got a quality of spontaneous emerging that’s sort of rare in the yoga world.
YJ: What were some of the essential elements of her teaching?
EM: A real clarity of underlying principles. She actually started with Iyengar and then came to feel she needed a practice that was less strenuous. So she set out on a process of relaxation, unwinding, and undoing. This willingness to surrender and to trust her body’s wisdom absolutely became the foundation of her own process of discovery and evolution. Also, Desikachar taught her the importance of integrating breath with the postures. As she followed the breath deeper and deeper into her core, she found a spontaneous and powerful undulation emerging from her spine which she called “the wave.” This idea that the spine is the undulating quality of your being infuses all of the poses.
YJ: How did you meet her?
EM: It was really bizarre. I studied with Dona Holleman in 1978, and Dona was studying with Vanda at the time. She took me to meet her, and it was absolutely a non-event, I thought, except Vanda said, “My daughter lives in Toronto. You should get in touch with her.” It turns out her daughter lives a 15-minute walk from my house. Six years later Vanda came here to visit her, and the only thing I can say is that it was like Mary Poppins. This woman landed on my doorstep and changed my life!
YJ: What was the single greatest lesson you learned from her?
EM: When I asked her how she developed her own work, she said, “I just trusted my body.” I think that was a gift that she had, trusting her own process to the extent she did. It confronted me with how much I didn’t.
YJ: Did you eventually find it, this willingness to trust your own body?
EM: When I had a hysterectomy two years ago, one of the things I was aware of was “I know how to do this now.” What I had certainly found was that now I can go to where my body is and gradually build from there.
YJ: You have a video coming out this fall for women with breast cancer. Can you tell us a bit about it?
EM: The women in it are all breast cancer survivors, so it’s unusual for yoga videos. There’s a lot of relaxation, some simple yoga poses, and some of the stretches you’re given after surgery, incorporated with breath awareness that comes from a yogic perspective. It’s geared toward women for whom lifting an arm over the head would be a challenge.
YJ: How has your exploration of yoga changed through this experience?
EM: It has changed a lot. I took the diagnosis as a death sentence, which is not an uncommon association with the word cancer. When I started studying with Vanda, she was about 78, so transmission for her was a big issue. She felt she had tapped into something important and didn’t want it to die with her. I really took that on. I said, “If I only have two years to live, one of my goals is to put this out in the world.” That sustained me in a huge way. And the other thing that changed is how I see yoga as a resource. You can use it for stress management, as a powerful ally in a storm, or a vehicle for profound self-acceptance, transformation, and love.
Poses for Sacroiliac Pain
The late Esther Myers’ 10 years as a student of Vanda Scaravelli inspired her to find her own unique, organic approach to yoga. Esther taught classes across Canada, Europe, and the United States before her death from cancer in 2004. She left behind a practice manual for beginners and a book titled Yoga and You, as well as two videos, Vanda Scaravelli on Yoga and Gentle Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, both of which are available through Esther Myers Yoga Studio, www.estheryoga.com/products.
What are good poses for people with sacroiliac pain? Which poses should one avoid?…Natalie
Esther Myers’ reply:
To begin, I would like to refer you to Judith Lasater’s article Out of Joint,” which is an excellent resource.
Before I suggest ways to work in your yoga practice, I recommend an accurate assessment and diagnosis of the cause of your pain by a qualified professional such as an osteopathic physician, chiropractor, or physical therapist. It may be challenging to diagnose since the symptoms of sacroiliac problems are often similar to those of other lower-back problems.
A qualified professional will try to determine if your discomfort is caused by a misalignment of your pelvis, tension in the large muscles of the hips and pelvis (which may cause the joint to jam or stiffen), or a strain (which is often due to looseness or hyper-mobility in the joints). Very often one sacroiliac joint is stiff and the other is hyper-mobile, creating an imbalance that can cause discomfort in either side. The discomfort itself may not correspond to the cause.
In her article, Judith Lasater notes that a higher percentage of women experience sacroiliac pain than men. She attributes this to “the hormonal changes of menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation [which] can affect the integrity of the ligament support around the S-I [sacroiliac] joint.”
Another potential risk factor for women is that yoga poses were developed by and for men. The pelvis is narrower in men than in women, which makes it more natural for men to stand with the inner edges of their feet together in standing poses. Although I was taught to do Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and other standing poses with the feet together, I now practice and teach with the feet hip-width apart. Widening the stance creates more space in the pelvis and provides a wider base of support.
Finally, stiffness in the hip joints in combination with the unusual stresses placed on the joints through asana practice can strain the sacroiliac. If you push yourself beyond the natural range of movement in forward bends or twists, you may strain your sacroiliac joints, lower back, or knees. It can be very frustrating to hold back in class when you want to do all of the poses, but it is essential that you respect your body’s limits.
If your sacroiliac joints are hyper-mobile, your first task is to strengthen and stabilize the back of your pelvis. Backbends lying on the stomach such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Salabhasana (Locust Pose), and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) are particularly effective, although you have to be careful not to compress your lower back. If your back feels tight or achy after you’ve performed the poses, you’ve gone too far.
When the joint has been stabilized and you are pain-free, begin to gradually reintroduce forward bends, being careful not to overstretch the back of your pelvis. Interspersing forward bends with small backbends (listed above) may help prevent overstretching in one direction or the other. I recommend introducing twists and Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) last.
If the pain is caused by muscle tension in the back of your pelvis or by compression on the joints, then forward bends and seated poses that stretch the back of the pelvis will be beneficial. Raja Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose) forward bend, Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) are very effective. Remember that you may find that you need to strengthen one side and stretch the other, which will make for an imbalanced practice while you are healing.
Although the recommendations sound quite straightforward, you will have to be patient and experiment for a while to find the balance of strengthening and stretching that is right for your body.