Omega: Having studied extensively with both B.K.S. Iyengar and his daughter Geeta Iyengar, what have you observed about the role of women in yoga?
Joan: One of Mr. Iyengar’s legacies—we call him Guruji—is that he was the first one that taught men and women in the same class. It had been forbidden, but he broke through a lot of Indian taboos in his introduction of yoga to the West, and now everybody can do yoga if they want to.
A long time ago lots of women practiced yoga, but then it became more of a men’s practice. Today, the bulk of practitioners again are women, and we’re a huge force in yoga. What Geeta did was to legitimize women in yoga with her book Yoga: A Gem for Women by pointing out that women’s bodies are different from men’s.
Men are usually drawn to more athletic forms of yoga. All these strength-based poses are fine for women when they’re younger, but they are not going to work when they’re older. When women have children, they are carrying around kids that are 25 or 30 pounds or more, so they’re generally strong and don’t necessarily need strengthening yoga. Women may even be stronger than lots of men—we tend to be strong in lots of ways we don’t realize. I think women are finding that out.
Omega: How can women have a practice that adapts to the cycles of their life?
Joan: Yoga can help women know how to treat their bodies and not be embarrassed by them. Our bodies are going to go through changes, and yoga teachers can help make women aware of the importance of doing what’s necessary and appropriate at different stages.
Most women really push themselves a lot, and they don’t have any down time. A lot of women don’t even want to admit that they have a menstrual cycle. But there are poses that you can do during menstruation that are less demanding on the body, that are healthier for you than others.
When Geeta’s book first came out, lots of my friends went to India and didn’t want to admit that they had their periods because they didn’t want to miss out. But if you do too much, you can stop having your period or have it more often. This happened to several women in a back bending intensive with Guruji once, and we learned that too many backbends can upset your hormonal system.
In Iyengar Yoga we learn to have respect for our bodies and let go of the idea we are missing out or losing something if we don’t do a pose at a certain time. When you go through menopause, you really need to slow down. Your body is more tired and your joints tighten up, so your practice should change. And then once you get through menopause, you want to maintain as much of your health and strength as you can maintain. You don’t have to be afraid—you can just recognize that and move into a different kind of practice.
Omega: What did you learn about how a yoga practice changes as you age from watching Mr. Iyengar?
Joan: Guruji was in his 50s when I met him, and he was almost 96 when he passed away. So he evolved. We all evolve in what we’re doing—at least we hope to! Guriji was never a patient person, but his style was far more aggressive in the beginning. He pushed us really hard. And he always demanded a lot of his students, especially if you were going to teach his yoga. He wanted you to maintain a high quality in your practice.
He didn’t reach his peak until he was 75, and at 84 he was still dropping back into backbends and standing back up. That’s just not going to happen for the rest of us—at least not for me! But when he needed to give up something, he didn’t call it “giving it up”—he called it “letting it go.” He would say, “That time is over.”
Omega: How is your yoga changing as you age?
Joan: The most interesting question for me has been, “Should I push more or let it go?” The last time I talked to Guruji before he passed away, one of the things he asked me was, "How are you doing with the aging process?" We talked about my arthritis, and he said that was to be expected. We also talked about sleep issues, which he said was just part of the aging process, too. It was very reassuring to have had that conversation with him.
I’ve gotten to a place where I can no longer do a lot of the more extreme things that I was able to do when I was younger. After breaking my back twice and fracturing it once, I have too much arthritis in my spine and my neck to do headstand any longer. And headstand was one of my favorite things to do. I’m about to have a shoulder replacement; so balancing postures are not always possible. There are things I just don’t do anymore, or I do them with a prop or a tool, like a hanging headstand using ropes, if that’s an option.
It’s frustrating, and it makes me sad at times. But then I remember him saying, “There comes a time you have to let it go.” What I’ve come to understand is that these changes are going to take place, and as a practitioner and a teacher I have to learn when to let go of something. That is a very important lesson, though not an easy one.
© 2017 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies