The Practice That Honors The Female Body Through Yoga
Cover Photo: William Farlow
By Courtney Aldor
This might sound crazy, but sometimes, as I’m going about my daily life, I forget that I’m a woman. And even though there’s absolutely nothing boyish about me, even though I’ve written about the importance of honoring divine femininity here, here, and even here, there are the little things. For instance, when I’m in a Yoga class and I’m trying to force my dainty little wrists to power through yet another chaturanga. Or when I wear a sports bra, even at home, to smoosh my boobs flat so I can roll out my shoulders against the floor. What about when I realize I’m about to start bleeding and I joke about ripping out my uterus because there's so much I wanted to get done and all I feel like doing is sleeping. TMI? It shouldn’t be because at least 50% of you readers know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not that we forget that we’re women in the physical sense, but it’s the part about remembering we have different body rhythms and therefore different needs than the guys. Especially when it comes to the physical practice of yoga, meant to help us get more in tune with our inner world, not ignore it completely.
And that’s where Uma Dinsmore-Tuli comes in. When she began her yoga practice, back in 1969, and then went about her life as a woman (well, more like a goddess if you’ve been fortunate enough to meet her) she realized that Yoga as it was taught to her wasn’t always the path to enlightenment. For instance, how do you attain the feeling of universal one-ness when your womb is cramping so intensely you're actually cursing it? When you've over-exerted yourself at work and all you want to do is curl up in child’s pose as you try to over-ride your body signals and struggle to keep up with the group? Uma herself noticed that when it was her 'legs up the wall time', she felt like an inconvenience to her teacher and classmates, rather than a proud woman called to honor her body. She found herself wishing for a practice that spoke more to women. She loved the yoga tradition, but then again, the most recent practice of Hatha Yoga had been created by men for men. And so she looked further to see what else she could find. She studied with women like Alexandra Pope, dove deep into the pre-Hatha Tantra Yoga tradition, with its honoring of the feminine, and eventually published Yoni Shakti, a book she’d always wanted to read but felt compelled to write when she found it didn’t exist. So she brought together her Yoga training, the eco-feminist picture and her feminist roots and put it into her book - writing up 20 years of work. And that became the root for her teachings of her signature style, Womb Yoga and Total Yoga Nidra…
So what exactly is Womb Yoga and Total Yoga Nidra?
Womb Yoga is simply a term I developed to describe an approach to yoga that is more in tune with our experiences as women. The traditional way of how yoga has been taught in India over the last few centuries was invented and often practiced by medieval Indian men. Women weren’t invited to the Hatha Yoga party, yet in the West today, we're mostly women practicing. As our body moves through different stages in feminine life and our monthly cycles, this type of ‘fixed-ness’ doesn’t fit with women. It felt important to develop a form that suits women too.
At its core, Womb Yoga is simply about teaching yoga practitioners how to listen in to their own bodies, and showing teachers how to guide students in that way. We all have an inner yoga, both women and men alike, and that inner yoga is our cyclical nature. It’s our wild power, it’s our most significant teacher. No outside teacher is going to match up to that! So when we can learn to guide each other to listen inwards, thereby guiding ourselves, reaching a higher state is within closer range. It’s incredibly empowering!
Total Yoga Nidra is a creative and responsive synthesis of techniques that optimize Nidra Shakti, the deep power of rest. It’s an independent form of Yoga Nidra that is both therapeutic and nourishing, completely free of dogma and constraint, that enables structured improvisation in response to the needs of an individual.
What inspired you to create this type of training?
Well, beyond my own experience, I have noticed over the years that so many women come to class and expect their bodies to perform like a man's. And a lot of us have struggled with it. For instance, we may hide that we’re menstruating or are determined to lose baby weight our body is holding on to for biological reasons. There’s a lot of hidden shame and repression around the natural cycles of women - monthly and throughout our lives. For me, there was conflict as I changed as a woman. I often felt over the course of my life that when I was bleeding, pregnant, or had had a miscarriage, for instance, it was an inconvenience for my Yoga teacher. I saw there was not a lot of understanding about the natural cycles of women, and we really needed a practice that was nourishing for us too. Yoga’s supposed to be about connection with source. But if you deny your femininity, then you’re disconnecting from your source.
It’s fundamentally disempowering for women to pretend we’re men. If Yoga is supposed to heighten awareness, but we’re making efforts to tune out what we’re really feeling (like fatigue or cramping) then we’re actually shutting down our inner resources, consciously or unconsciously. In this way, forcing ourselves through a practice becomes more like a punishment to our bodies. Even our elbows move differently than men’s elbows! Doing the same rigorous practice for 90 days straight, for instance, doesn’t work for all women. It’s unkind, and disrespectful to our bodies. Some of the powerful practices are not safe for us to do postnatally - it’s not always safe for us to jump back in. And then there’s the external sense of competition, which is often the reason people get injured in Yoga classes - they’re simply not listening to their bodies.
I’ve had female students come to my workshops who’d lost their ability to menstruate altogether, but as they progressed with the training, amongst a supportive group of women, their cycle evened out again. The reconnection is actually not that difficult - it just takes permission. And a group of women studying together has a cumulative effect. It’s really powerful - that, in itself, is very healing. It’s taking what we learned from red tent cultures and letting Yoga be an authentic expression of our feminine nature.
What are some of the specifics taught in the Total Yoga Nidra training?
We teach Total Yoga Nidra as a foundation, which guides us to listen in to the body’s messages. Total Yoga Nidra respects many forms - for instance, practices taught by Kamini Desai, The Himalayan Institute, Richard Miller’s iRest, Rod Stryker - and is inspired by the Satyananda Yoga Nidra approach. But, Total Yoga Nidra is entirely independent and moves far beyond the traditional forms. I’ve brought in philosophy from the pre-Hatha Tantra tradition which has beautiful semantics related to women’s bodies and cycles. This way, teachers and students can pick and choose what’s feeling right for them at a given moment. So there’s also an element of creative empowerment - Nidra Shakti - which helps us be immediately responsive to ourselves. We also teach about pregnancy, post-pregnancy and women’s health.
So how does the Tantra Yoga tradition factor in? Most people are familiar with Tantric Sexual practices, but there’s much more to the tradition and philosophy which has to do with masculine and feminine balance, isn't there?
Yes, Tantra came first and is an influential thread in the weave of Hatha Yoga. And we’re talking about the Tantric roots of yoga. In it, you can see there’s a real honoring of feminine cycles and the moon. In Tantra, menstrual blood is called Yoni Pushpum, which translates to as ‘the yoni’s red flower’. So there is powerful and positive language associated with women there. In Yoni Shakti, I refer to 10 great wisdom goddesses, each with a different aspect of knowledge in feminine form - ie. maiden, crone, goddesses like Tara, Shakti, and lesser known ‘guardians’ of the different spiritual stages of women. I adopted these from various traditions to help express our different monthly and life cycles. We talk about these stages in terms of the seasons as well. So there’s Tantra, but I pull from other traditions that speak to women. It’s about Maha Vidia, the great wisdom. We gain wisdom by living through our initiations when we bring conscious awareness to the naturally arising changes in our lives. If we can do that using the tools of Yoga, especially feminine-friendly tools, we learn in a different way than we would by just reading a book or talking to a wise person. We blend external with internal learning.
Is it mostly women in the trainings?
It’s a lot of women, yes, but there are men who come to learn to broaden their teaching skills and we have many men working here! Our associates in France are also men.
So where is the main training and what’s its structure?
I’m based in the Cotswolds but teach all over, really. For the full training, we teach a foundation, which can be done in a weekend or online, and then a 50-hour intensive. Sometimes we run it in parts, as they fill up quickly. We’re currently doing 5 full-length trainings a year.
Content Photo: Leticia Valverdes