Interview with Rosie Good: Yoga for Women In All Phases of Life
Since I work a lot with women’s energetics and life phases, I often receive questions about how to deal with challenging symptoms created by PMS, menstruation, pregnancy, perimenopause and menopause. While I provide a lot of energy healing resources here to draw upon, I wanted to add some more physical information, specifically on how to work with these within yoga. For this I turned to Rosie Good, founder and teacher of Yoga Bindu in San Pedro, California, and my own yoga teacher. I have moved often in my life and therefore experienced a lot of different yoga studios and teachers, and never found one I love quite so much as Rosie’s, because of her emphasis on yoga as a spiritual practice, and the beautiful transmission that she herself brings to her classes and studio. She has practiced yoga for 30 years, and is certified in hatha yoga through The Center For Yoga in Los Angeles, and in kundalini yoga and kundalini prenatal yoga through Golden Bridge.
Since the yoga terms here may be unfamiliar to some readers, I’ve linked to Wikipedia on some terms. But I also think there is a lot of information here any women will find interesting, even if you don’t have a yoga practice (and perhaps you will be spurred to begin one!)
Thanks so much for doing this Rosie. Can you first give everyone a little sense of your background, and where you are coming from within the yoga world?
I teach what is called the Krishnamacharya blend, which is Iyengar, Viniyoga, and Ashtanga yoga, mixed with kundalini yoga. What I come out with is pretty much a pranayama [breath]-centered practice. Yogi Bhajan is my primary influence in kundalini yoga, and Gurmukh at Golden Bridge. I’ve also studied a lot with Rod Stryker and Diane Gilbert.
Krishnamacharya is probably the most influential teacher in 20th century yoga. Iyengar was one of his students, as was K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga. And since I know you would like to focus on women’s practice in this interview, it’s interesting to note that Krishnamacharya was the first teacher to allow a woman to practice – Indra Devi.
This was in India? What led him to teach her?
Yes, in India, although she was a European woman, and has talked about her experience. She says that she pestered him, asking him over and over to teach her. She would sit in child’s pose before him and ask. That was the way he was taught – he would sit in front of a yogi’s caves for weeks waiting before the teacher would see him and meet with him. So she impressed him, and eventually he taught her. And then he taught his wife and his daughter-in-law, and yoga gradually opened up to women for the first time.
And now here in the U.S. at least, women make up the majority of yoga practitioners! Before we get into that more though, I wanted to hear a bit about your spiritual background, because I know that you are a practicing Catholic, but also practice yoga as a deeply spiritual practice, so I’m interested to hear how you blend the two for yourself?
Well I sometimes call myself ‘Catholic and…’, because there’s so much more to what I believe. When I was young, my yoga practice actually took me away from Catholicism, and then it brought me back.
That’s interesting, because Catholicism is really the most mystic of the Christian traditions in many ways. I mean, all the saints have siddhi powers!
Yes, that’s true! I took Sanskrit for a couple of years, and my teacher said something that made this blending ‘click’ for me. He said, ‘You learn another language not necessarily to speak it, but to better understand your own.’ I think it’s the same with culture and faith traditions. I think when you learn about others, you find out more about your own. And Catholicism blended a lot of traditions in its formation, it’s all still in there. It seems the more I studied Hinduism and yoga, the more I wanted to return to the faith I was brought up in and understand it more deeply.
Yes, I can see this, this is true for me in many ways too. Ok, turning back to women in yoga, I’m first interested to hear if you think yoga has changed as the result of so many women practicing it here in the West?
Well, that’s hard to say, but I think overall that here in the U.S. at least on the physical level it has become more focused on strength. It’s interesting because Gurmukh said Yogi Bhajan told her part of her role was to strengthen women. So her classes were known to be very tough. And I think as that happened, more women were drawn to yoga for that reason. They wanted to experience their body as strong, and to experience their body weight in a positive way, because they had so many experiences out in the world where that wasn’t the case. So that’s probably the main physical change.
How about on the spiritual level – within Yogi Bhajan’s kundalini yoga teachings, does he speak to any differences between men and women practicing? I have never found much writing on this in kundalini yoga writings, only in Tantric traditions.
Yogi Bhajan did not really talk about differences in practice for men and women, but Rod Stryker has – he comes from a more Tantric tradition, and includes similar teachings to yours on the central role of the sacral chakra and women. And of course Gurmukh focuses on teachings for women.
Ok, let’s get into the asanas [physical postures], as I know many women would like more information on this. I’d like to move through all the different phases of a women’s life. First, during PMS and menstruation, what asanas can help with symptoms?
Well for PMS, inversions. Inversions every day! And it doesn’t have to be a big inversion – you can just lay on your back with your feet up on the wall, or do downward dog, which is considered a semi-inversion. Or of course you can work towards bigger inversions if you have an established practice – headstands, plow, etc.
For menstruation, the traditional teaching is that you shouldn’t do inversions during your period. I do teach that in my teacher’s training courses, but in class I actually don’t emphasize it much, because I and many women I know find we benefit from inversions at this time. Medically, there is no reason not to invert – there used to be a belief that doing so would slow or inhibit the flow in some way, but medically that’s been proven not to be true.
However, energetically, it is a little more complicated. Prana is our incoming energy and apana is our outgoing. During menstruation, your body wants to release a lot of apana. When you turn upside down, you are raising that apana to the gastric fire, and the traditional teachings are that this mix might cause you to retain something your body wants you to let go of, or cause you to release more than you should. So that’s the foundation for why traditionally women were told not to do inversions during their periods.
But I find personally that it’s different each month for me, and that sometimes I really feel inversions are helpful. Especially if I have back soreness, a plow may feel great, for example. And I find that it may actually shorten my period, with few issues. So that may actually be an example of this apana idea of releasing more faster actually being a positive.
Yes, it may be you are working with this idea of the apana meeting the gastric fire – it’s like you are gathering up what needs to be released in the plow so it lets go faster and easier.
Yes, there’s a way to work with it. So I try to help women to really tune into their own bodies, and feel for themselves what feels right on a particular day. For me, I feel I can work with this, so I don’t avoid inversions.
Yes, that makes sense. So going back to PMS, for PMS symptoms, inversions are the best for relief?
Yes. Although a good all around yoga practice is the best for everything, including PMS! But inversions every day will help.
Ok, thanks. Moving on to pregnancy. What do you usually advise?
Well in kundalini yoga, what Gurmukh (who of course specializes in this) teaches is that in the first trimester we really don’t need to do anything differently, assuming there’s no problem with the pregnancy. However, in hatha yoga, many teachers teach that in the first trimester you want to take it really easy, to make sure the pregnancy takes root. So there are some differences in view between hatha and kundalini traditions. For me, here, I like women to take it easy those first three months, just to be on the safe side.
Are there any asanas that help relieve the nausea that many women feel in their first trimester (morning sickness, although we all know it’s often not just confined to the morning)?
There is a pranayama [breath practice] that is really good at helping with this – sitali – where you curl your tongue in on the sides and stick it out a bit, and suck your breath in through it. Then you exhale either through both nostrils or alternating nostrils. It is also a cooling breath. But it’s good for nausea at any time, including during pregnancy.
That’s great to know. How about as a woman moves into the second and third trimesters?
In the second trimester, assuming you are feeling good, you can do whatever feels good, although never anything on the belly, and shavasana (corpse pose) on your side, your left side is best. The head should be raised if on the back. I don’t like inversions for women at this point, and no breath of fire. I do like mula bhanda [a root lock done by contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor] throughout pregnancy, although I know some teachers advise letting that go at a certain point.
Really? I’m surprised, because we are advised to do kegels [pelvic floor contractions] throughout pregnancy, and mula bhanda really starts with a kegel for women, right?
Yes, basically, although there’s a subtle difference. Eventually mula bhanda in women becomes an internal contraction of the cervix. It becomes so fine-tuned that this is where you contract – it is not even the vaginal muscles anymore.
Yes, that’s the true kegel in Tantric traditions too, although it’s not called a kegel. I like to do something called an ‘energy kegel’ which is a variation on this, where you release light upward from the sacral chakra upon release of the internal contraction. The cervix is the internal focal point for the sacral chakra in women in the chakra system I work with.
Yes, that makes sense. So I like continuing mula banda throughout pregnancy, although some kundalini traditions advise stopping it. I think it is just considered too much stimulation at a certain point.
Then as pregnancy progresses, of course hip openers are good birth preparation, although women have to be careful, because the hormones loosen your hips, and you don’t want to overdo it. At a certain point in the third trimester, it’s best to hold back from the fullest expression of your hips opening, so you don’t overstretch the connective tissue, which doesn’t always bounce back.
So what about post-partum? How soon do you advise returning to yoga? And how to phase back in?
Well you can start with pranayama [breath exercises] right away. This can really help facilitate your own recovery. And grab some moments to meditate – of course yoga is more than the asanas [postures], so physically while you are recovering you can gather your energy this way. But then as far as the asanas, you can return as soon as your doctor says it’s OK, which is usually 6 weeks. And start with building strength again. I like to do a lot of backbend variations, even small bends, to begin rebuilding abdominal tone and strengthen the lower back. I also like to do a lot of standing postures, to develop hip and leg strength. So rebuilding strength is the first step, and of course a well-rounded practice.
Ok great. On to perimenopause and menopause – are there any asanas or pranayama associated with relieving any difficult symptoms women experience during these life phases?
There is not a lot specifically taught about this, and of course that’s partly because there aren’t that many women teachers that have been through this yet, but that is changing. But I think kundalini yoga is especially helpful, because it is really working with your glandular system. It is working with balancing your entire glandular system, which of course includes your hormones, so it will help smooth the hormonal transitions that occur. And inversions, again, are part of this – inversions are great for your glandular system.
Meditation also, because it quiets down the parietal lobe of your brain – the part of your brain that says ‘this is where I end and this is where the world begins.’ In true meditation, this is quieted so you don’t have this separation. So when you are hurting or uncomfortable, from anything, including these big life transitions, meditation will help because it quiets down this sense of ‘I’. And since kundalini yoga does all the preparatory work to help you get to this calm place, it is especially helpful in that regard too.
In hatha yoga, the emphasis is more on being healthy overall. If you are healthy going into these phases of your life, you will experience fewer issues. You might want extra emphasis on maintaining your pelvic floor, or want to address physical body ailments specific to you, but if you are healthy overall, that will go a long way to ease the transition.
There are also some teachers now focusing more on weighted yoga, in order to help support bone density during this phase. It used to be this was kind of frowned upon, but more teachers are adopting this as more older people take up yoga, because bone density is a big concern, and is aided by this kind of weighted strength work.
There are also teachings on yoga and the stages of life. This is not specific to women, but is part of Hindu teachings. And the final stage is really our spiritual stage in that system – brahmacharya. We are brahmacharya when we are young, and then we return to it in our final phase of life. Traditionally, asana practice is said to wind down during this phase, and pranayama and meditation become the central practices. Now we are living longer and in better physical shape, so asana can continue for a long time, but philosophically, I think there is still something to learn from this. The transition is from the physical to the spiritual – our yoga practice shifts.
Yes, and this ties into the teachings of so many different faith and energetics traditions. It’s really about shifting our identity from being body-based to spirit-based during this phase. I think women especially have a profound opportunity during this time – to use perimenopause in this way. I think for people who don’t do this, aging is more difficult.
Yes, I see this all the time. When older women come in and cannot do everything that younger participants can do, or can’t do what they used to, some will become frustrated and want to quit. But they have so much more to experience and benefit from yoga – really the good part is just ramping up! Realizing this helps so much with emotional aging. Yoga is a life long practice. With age we can really give up on trying to prove something physically, and move inward.
Thank you so much Rosie, this is great information! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just keep practicing! Practice daily – even a little – if you can. Invert daily, even just a little. It changes your whole perspective. And for women, as we age, kundalini and restorative yoga. Meditate.
I support that. Thanks so much! And for those of you in Southern California, I highly recommend trying out a class with Rosie at Yoga Bindu. She also has her first CD out, a Restorative Yoga Practice, that you can order by emailing Yoga Bindu.
Please feel free to share your own thoughts and questions in the comments. And I do promise a new recorded meditation in my next post! Namaste-