One Woman's Way in a Patriarchal System

Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati

When I first became involved in yoga in the 1960s, I was only just beginning to take a look at my own conditioning, as a woman in a man's world, and even now, aged fifty-seven, I am not sure if I have got to the bottom of it, so deep and insidious it is. So I never even noticed that all the great teachers of the past and the present were men and that the teachings themselves were male-oriented. I do remember noticing, however, that there was naumukhi mudra, but not dasmukhi mudra for me!

In 1969 I had the great good fortune to meet my beloved guru Paramahamsa Satyananda, and I saw that he had many female disciples, who were in positions of authority and not just relegated to doing 'women's work'. Through him I learned that my 'grandfather guru' Sri Swami Sivananda had taken the gigantic step of initiating women into the Dashnami order of sannyasa and that this had caused serious dissent amongst the orthodox people of his day; and indeed Paramahamsaji himself was much criticized for continuing this noble, if revolutionary, work of recognizing women as equals. In his satsangs Paramahamsaji often spoke of the fine qualities of women and of our great spiritual potential, and I am sure that many of us received great encouragement and inspiration from his spoken and written words.

I observed the blossoming and development of many women through their contact with Paramahamsaji and through the practice of yoga – not to mention the extraordinary changes that were taking place in my own life! But it was only really when I started teaching yoga myself and was, therefore, in close and regular contact with my students that I was able to clearly notice the changes. Even now I can recall some really mousey little ladies, with hardly an opinion of their own, who gradually discovered their own inner strength and became beautiful, strong and outspoken women! Even their voices changed, expressing their new-found confidence. And these changes started through very simple practices, such as leg raises, naukasana, abdominal breathing, bhastrika and other techniques working on manipura chakra area, the centre of personal power. Not all of the husbands were very happy with these changes, and those who were unable to follow their womenfolk into a journey of self-discovery often found themselves in the divorce court! Of course, those couples who embark together on a spiritual path tend to grow and develop harmoniously, but if it is only one of them, and especially if it is only the women, the relationship seems doomed to fail. I believe that yoga (and other spiritual paths) played, and indeed still plays, a large role in women's quest for fullfilment within marriage and in their working lives, and it was our much mocked 'women's intuition' which sent us in our hundreds to the yoga classes which started up in Europe in the late '60s and '70s.

When I first came to Ganga Darshan in 1985 I realized what an incredible yoga my children were for me, and how my involvement with them and their upbringing had so perfectly prepared me for those first six months in the ashram, not least in the endless round of loo cleaning, without the benefit of rubber gloves, long-handled brushes and other Western gadgets. And this realization caused me to question much of the male thinking in the classical texts of yoga, which is so very different from a woman's way. Male thinking tends to be in a straight line, from A to B, whereas woman's is a continuous process – circular, in cycles. The male authors advise turning your back on the world, giving up things, people, feelings, and disciplining yourself (often rather brutally) into becoming this ideal renunciate, one with God – although how it is possible to be one with God with back turned firmly on Her creation, I do not yet understand. But a woman's way is not this giving up of everything, rather we tend to take on more and more, we have the innate capacity to open our hearts and minds to more, time and time again.

All of which brings me to the troublesome issue of detachment, one of the qualities most aspired to by yogis. And although I certainly agree that life is much simpler and more beautiful without too much dependence on our old, familiar crutches, I know that if today I am a half-way decent human being, it is thanks to my God-given attachment to my children. As mothers we are given the great gift of loving our children unconditionally, and if we can love them unconditionally, then our hearts can and do open to include others ...and more and more.

I have known some aspiring yoginis turn their backs on their children, and I cannot help but wonder, if one can abandon one's children, born of one's own body and love, how much easier it might be to reject God and guru at some point.

So, please, dear mothers, sisters and daughters, don't be afraid of acknowledging your own wonderful womanly qualities – you are a reflection of Shakti, Devi, Mother Earth, without which none of this is possible. Your monthly cycles are not dirty, keeping you out of the kitchen and away from the temple – this is man's foolish idea, because he is afraid of our power which manifests at this time, and which reminds us of our connection to all the cosmic and earthly cycles.

You are not some second-class citizen, needing a male body in the next incarnation in order to reach liberation. Our yoga tradition is a wonderful one, full of noble truths and practical advice, but we must not be afraid to look at it through our woman's eyes and adapt it to suit our woman's nature and potential. If you really, really know what moksha means, what one-ness with God means, then by all means make that your aim; but if your practical woman's nature aspires to live a useful and loving life wherever your guru and circumstances direct you, then this is no less noble and no less true.