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Yoga, Flow, and Aunt Flo: Toward a Feminist Yoga Practice (Guest Post by Margaret)

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Welcome back, Margaret, fellow professor and yoga practitioner:

I love cults, reading about them, writing about them, even joining them—how else did I become an academic? Unfortunately, fellow members of my latest cult, yoga, have a few habits that strike me as deeply sexist. Most stem from the treatment of menstruation, commonly referred to in the yoga studio as “moon time.” Using this euphemism, however grounded it may be in a mostly mythological understanding of the body, gives me that yucky am-I-living-in-a-tampon-commercial sensation that made me avoid yoga for too many years. So first of all, please don’t call it moon time.

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What else? Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do on my period. When was the last time a woman choked on her own menses after too many moontime headstands? I think it coincided with women losing their uteruses mid-marathon. If women can’t handle inversions while menstruating, then there would be a regular exodus of lady astronauts from the international space station. Look it up, it doesn’t happen.

Asking me if I’m on my period is a pretty terrible way to start a class. Riddle me this: what does yoga have in common with Orthodox Judaism, Fundamentalist Islam, and squeamish men the world over? That’s right: each tradition excludes women from participating in daily rituals during menstruation.

But guess what—most contemporary Jews and Muslims don’t shun menstruating women. They work with them, cook with them, play Dance Dance Revolution with them, sometimes they even have sex with them.

Yoga teachers, however, are not always so forward-thinking. One of my favorites, Kino MacGregor, responded this way when asked about practicing during menstruation:

Guruji [Sri K. Pattabi Jois, founder of Ashtanga yoga] advised women to take the days of heaviest flow of the menstrual cycle (usually one to three days) totally off. The downward flow of energy during that period directly opposes the idea of yoga practice which seeks to bring energy up the spine. The  ovaries are also in a state of flux during which it is not advised to squeeze on them with the deep work of the bandhas. I’ve noticed that women who practice too regularly during their menstrual cycles sometimes experience disruption of the cycle or even infertility. If a woman wants some activity during the cycle I recommend going for a walk, taking a bike ride or even doing some easy restorative yoga but not the intensive Ashtanga Yoga practice.

(full interview here)

MacGregor’s anecdotal evidence has pretty frightening implications: practice during menstruation may cause the reproductive organs to go on the fritz or even close shop altogether. I won’t quarrel with her point. It doesn’t surprise me that a course of vigorous exercise, undertaken by women who disproportionately tend to be vegetarians would lead to irregular periods. There’s even a name for this: amenorrhea.

What does surprise me is that is no one remembers Guruji expressing concern for the reproductive health of our brothers in asana, our yogis. As terrifying as it is for a woman like me to consider, yogis risk their dwi kosha* in every  janu sirsasana B, every salabhasana, every dhanurasana. I haven’t polled my yogi buds (I will do this, I promise) but I wouldn’t be surprised if they worry about putting the squeeze on their balls during practice a whole lot more often than we yoginis feel the bandhas impinge on our ovaries.

My reproductive organs are my business. This might be a very Western attitude, but let’s face it: most yoga is pretty Western. If you are a woman teaching yoga, you are a beneficiary of this Westernization, as yoga in India was until very recently taught exclusively by and to high-caste men and boys. So please, worry less about being traditional (most Jews and Muslims are so over it!), and worry more about the message it sends when you decide that some people’s reproductive organs need special protection while others are left to flop around, vulnerable in their boxer briefs.

*Sanskrit for “two treasures.”

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