To accompany my recent book review of Yoni Shakti ~ A woman’s guide to power and freedom through Yoga and Tantra, I’d like to share an interview with Uma which was originally featured in The Mother Magazine. I attended Women’s Wellness Yoga Therapy training with Uma in 2018 and found her teachings and delivery deeply powerful, authentic and transformational and am honoured to be offering Women’s Wellness Yoga Therapy and Pregnancy Yoga in West Cumbria,
Please begin by telling us a little about yourself, your own journey with yoga and the role this has played in your life.
I first practiced yoga when I was four years old. My mum and I were watching the telly, and a programme called Yoga for Health with Richard Hittleman came on. It was a Thames TV series, and I was totally captivated by it, especially by the lovely long–haired ladies in leotards and tights. I did yoga on the floor in front of the TV. One of my earliest memories is adjusting my mother’s handhold in the bow pose. She didn’t continue, but I did.
We had the book of the TV series, and as a child I used to practice poses and meditation in my bedroom. By the time I got to college in London and found a real live yoga teacher, I had already developed a whole set of ‘yoga’ practices that grew out of that magical early encounter as a little girl. I loved how I felt when I practiced the poses, and I was happiest when I was meditating. I did yoga because it felt good. I carried on with the practice because it helped me to live my life with clarity and confidence. Yoga gives me courage to be fearless and lucid, and to trust my heart.
Because yoga has been with me since childhood, I have been able to see the difference between how life unfolds when yoga is at the centre, and what happens when other concerns take over. I spent ten years as a journalist, and another ten years teaching in universities, and for a while those activities pushed yoga to the outer edges of my life, but eventually yoga became the central focus, so my skills as a writer and educator could be put in the service of yoga – that was a very positive change.
Yoga brings me back home to my inner guide, to my own heart’s truth. Yoga practice is a direct connection to the source of creativity and lucidity. My practice is a daily ‘deep clean’ that helps me to see the world and my place in it clearly. It brings me joy in small things, and it gives me hope in dark times.
Yoni Shakti is a tremendous book, in its size, scope, depth, comprehension and its potential for bringing change into the lives of those who explore its practices. Could you share a little about how the book came about, your journey of conceiving and writing the book and how you balanced this alongside your family and other aspects of your life.
I’d been teaching yoga mostly to women for over fifteen years when I had a clear realisation of the crying need for a book like Yoni Shakti – it was the book I had been looking for myself for a very long time. It was the book I needed when I first started teaching yoga. And when I realised that it just didn’t exist, I knew I would have to write it myself. I didn’t actually want to do it because I could see what an enormous job it would be to include all of the different stages of our lives as women into this single book, and to explore how yoga can support us, but I knew it needed to be written.
And the whole outline of the book arrived in a very powerful encounter with yogic synchronicity. It happened on the Atlantic coast of County Clare in 2011, when the vision of Yoni Shakti arrived fully formed in my heart during a practice of yoga nidra (the meditative heart of yoga). I sat up from the practice and I knew straight away that this was something totally vital and huge.
Within twenty-four hours of the ‘cosmic download’ in yoga nidra, I had written a complete proposal for a seven hundred-page book, and had secured both a provisional publishing contract (with Yogawords) and a writer in residency (with the Hosking Houses Trust). Not bad work, when we had no mobile network or internet access in our little stone cottage by the sea.
There was an awful lot of hard work between that first yoga vision, and the launch of the book in London in 2014. Actually writing the book, when I was also teaching and training teachers full-time, and looking after my family was incredibly demanding. I woke at 4 am every morning to write, and in the end the whole process made me very ill indeed. The manuscript was finished in a year: it was high intensity. The writing in the end was the least difficult thing, the process of assembling all five hundred illustrations and working with the editors and designers to make a great looking book out of so much material in so many different voices was one of the most deeply challenging times of my life. It was a bit like being in labour for years! I wouldn’t recommend it at all. But it really needed to be done, and I had huge faith and trust that what I was doing was for the best.
My family life was totally eaten up by my involvement in the book and all my kids and my husband really hated that I spent all my spare time writing. And a lot of what I was writing about was very enraging – there’s a lot of really bad old stories and limitations and sufferings associated with being born in a female body at this time, and I felt really inspired to share how yoga can help support our lives as women. It was a very difficult thing to do, but I felt driven by the original vision and know how important this has been for so many women. Now I have the book in my hands and I hear how so many readers value it, I see how completely the original vision of Yoni Shakti was manifested in that perfect yoga moment when I first received the call to write the book. It was Yoga in action!
Your book Yoni Shakti introduces the practice of Womb Yoga. Please can you tell us more about Womb Yoga and how you developed this practice.
Womb yoga developed initially out of the practices of yoga for pregnancy and birth. As a mother and as a woman sharing yoga for other mothers I could see how nourishing the practices of pregnancy yoga were. I noticed that many of the women who had done yoga during pregnancy felt disappointed by the lack of nourishment in the usual kinds of yoga classes to which they returned after their pregnancies were over. A lot of the women I knew were ending up in ‘ordinary’ yoga classes that depleted and tired them, or sometimes injured and upset them because the practices and the teachers were not very nourishing and so many of them began to return to the pregnancy yoga classes not because they were pregnant but because they wanted to enjoy a practice that honoured their women’s bodies and left them feeling replenished and nurtured. And then I could see how the practices also supported menstrual health and fertility, and our journeys through perimenopause and beyond menopause into the mature years. And so I gradually opened up a lot of classes that had originally been just for pregnant women so that other women could attend – and then I simply called these classes womb yoga.
How does Womb Yoga differ to the traditional forms of Yoga many of us are familiar with? Do use examples of practices and attitudes towards practices to illustrate and compare if you like.
The main difference between womb yoga and traditional forms of yoga is that womb yoga actually honours and respects the rhythms and cycles of women’s bodies, whereas in traditional forms of yoga we are asked to confirm to shapes and forms that are determined by and designed for male bodies. There is also a tendency in most traditional approaches to yoga for students to simply copy the teacher, to create external shapes that ‘look’ right. Whereas in womb yoga we are encouraged to listen to the wisdom of our own bodies and to tune into the feeling of the pose rather than how it looks on the outside. Key practices of womb yoga
involve deeply heart centred restorative work and circular, serpentine movements that are very suited to women’s bodies as opposed to the more linear, military lines of most traditional yoga practices.
Yoni Shakti shares yoga practices for women throughout their lives and through all stages of womanhood. What benefits do you feel a regular Womb Yoga practice can bring to women and girls today?
What my students and teachers tell me is that when they practice womb yoga they come more in tune with their own inner guidance and intuition. The practice refines and hones our capacity to listen to the corporeal intelligence – to hear the wisdom of the body, to honour her and to listen to what it is that she is calling for. At a physical level the practices of womb yoga tend to support menstrual health and fertility, to improve vitality and to support the healthy functioning of all aspects of us as humans, from our digestive function to our sexual life, from our capacity to conceive and lactate to our ability to handle the ups and downs of mothering or the challenges of the perimenopausal period with greater skill and grace. I also see that the practice of a yoga which truly honours the deep feminine within each of us supports self esteem and confidence to listen to our own needs, and that is profound and nourishing . I also find that the practice of this approach to yoga nourishes our intuitive and creative capacity – I developed the practice because it was what I myself needed and I am glad it support so many others.
Would you say traditional yoga is the equivalent of Womb Yoga for men today, or do you feel there is potential for growth and evolution here too?
Yoga is constantly evolving and changing. It is a huge body of transformational and life affirming practices that support our lives as humans on this planet. The idea of a ‘traditional yoga’ is being taken apart every day by discoveries and understandings that expand and deepen our understanding of how the practice of yoga can serve us. I think that the whole of yoga is changing, for men and for women. This recent history of so many separate schools and lineages of yoga that fight with each other and seek to perpetuate unchanging and unquestioned practice as if it were ‘handed down from ancient times’, this is coming to an end. We are in a time of convergence and synthesis, a time when the teachings of many different traditions are being questioned, re-examined and reconfigured. My own current work as the Co-Director of Studies for the Celtic School of Yoga (www.celticyoga.org – website launching June 2015)) is a good example of how the deep interconnection between the heart of the eastern traditions of yoga and the indigenous spiritual gifts of the Celtic tradition are being reconfigured into a whole new paradigm of teaching and sharing yoga.
For me, the highest teaching of yoga is the affirmation shared by the late Mukunda Stiles: ‘With great respect and love I honour my heart my inner teacher.’ Yoga gives us the power to embody this resolve. The practice of yoga has brought me everything my heart could wish for: the most wonderful job in the world (who wouldn’t love this work of sharing yoga, through writing and teaching, with amazing women all over the world?), my husband and my three children, and a supportive community of openhearted, inspiring yoginis and yogis, and now the home for my work which I have been searching for for so long, the newly formed Celtic School of Yoga.
How has yoga inspired, nourished and supported you along your mothering journey?
As a mother, yoga has been a crucial support at every stage. My eldest son is now sixteen, and so I can reflect over all these years of mothering, from looking after tiny babies, to managing life with teenagers. Without yoga practice I couldn’t have managed any of this. When I put yoga at the centre of life, then I am able to be a better human and so a better mother: everything of value that I do is powered by yoga practice. Mothering three children whilst writing four books, training hundreds of yoga teacher and therapists, creating yoga camps and travelling around Europe to share the teachings: all of this is only able to brings delight because daily yoga practice gives me strength, clarity and the capacity to be astonished by everything that happens. None of it would be possible without yoga.
I found mothering two small boys a very great challenge, especially because I wanted as a mother to question a lot of the ways in which I had been parented myself. As a feminist, as a yogini and as a writer, I found that mothering involved me in a whole world of women’s work that I actively resented and found very tiring and pointless. Keeping house, doing laundry, endlessly cooking meals, and all the daily tasks of keeping children cared for often seemed to be totally undervalued and utterly thankless. It was a huge shift to actually embrace and engage with these activities with some joy. For me, the awareness that came through yoga practice, and the way that even a few conscious breaths, or a short period relaxation could in fact revive and energise me, was absolutely vital to maintaining my sanity through those early years of parenting. To me yoga was not a luxury, it was an essential part of life and I know I couldn’t have coped as a mother without it. I often wonder how any mothers can cope at all without some kind of yoga practice. That’s why I wrote Mother’s Breath in the first place.
When I wrote Feel Confident Yoga for Living (Dorling Kindersley 2001) I was sharing all the traditional yoga practices that had helped my in my life, and then when I wrote Mother’s Breath (Sitaram and Sons 2006) it was because I wanted to share what I had found was supportive to me as a mother, and my Teach Yourself Yoga for Pregnancy and Birth (Hodder 2010) was a way to share the benefits of these practices to women who couldn’t get to classes.
What can a Womb Yoga practice bring to mothers today? Both those who have not tried Yoga before, and also those with some experience, or an established traditional practice.
Womb yoga can nourish and nurture, can restore depleted energy and bring a joyful delight into the celebration of family life and the deep feminine. It’s more likely to be applicable and relevent and nourishing for women than a traditional practice, because it is so rooted in the feminine experience. I would say that if you can find time to do a little of the womb yoga practices each day then you will find it easier to connect to the source of your intuitive wisdom – the kind of wisdom that is called upon every day in mothering. But also that you will find a stronger more vital body is more resilient to the demands of mothering – being grounded and strong in the legs and back, yet fluid and able to move with grace and fluid power in the pelvis and lower spine, all of these experiences make the job of mothering more joyful. It’s hard to mother children when your back hurts or you feel tired and achey and crabby: so the womb yoga practice addresses these issues directly.
Can you suggest some practical ways in which mothers can build a Womb Yoga practice into their busy days and nights of nurturing young children and growing families.
At the simplest level, I found that the yoga breathing and relaxation practices I used to help settle my children to sleep made that nightly activity a pure joy – it eased all of us into a beautiful restful night’s sleep and helped to settle any babies or children who awake in the night, and also supported me through times when I was having less sleep than I really needed. Above and beyond all else it was the breath and yoga nidra that helped me to honour and reverence those special times of transitions in the day – the movement from waking to sleep and back, that is so often a source of strife and trouble in young families, and I found with yoga that it could become a joyful sharing of something special and nourishing.
At a physical level, it is easy to incorporate the understandings of the physical and the energy body into daily activities so that you can move with conscious awareness of what really supports and nurtures you – walking with the awareness of the energy that comes up from the heart, and allowing a freedom of movement in the pelvis and shoulders as you move – all of this helps to strengthen, vitalise and lift your spirits. Taking fifteen minutes in the afternoon to do a yoga nidra practice really transforms your energy in the evening – it is really really worth it!
Do you have a Womb Yoga practice or two which you would like to share.
There are two really crucial practices to share: the first is yoga nidra, which literally means ‘yogic sleep’, and the second is the heart womb breath and meditation series. The first practice allows for yoga to be utterly and deeply rested whilst remaining aware, it’s a life safer and it brings a whole new perspective on whatever you may be doing.
The Heart-Womb River gesture
When the link between heart energy and pelvic energy is broken we disconnect from our source power, and need to look to others for guidance. When this link is strong, love flows freely down into the source, vital energy is nourished and we re-connect to our intuitive wisdom.
1. Sit comfortably, bring hands to heart in prayer position.
2. Exhale, move hands down in yoni mudra (downward pointing triangle).
3. Inhale, return hands to heart.
4. Repeat, synchronizing breath and movement with awareness.
Yoga Nidra: star web woman
Download this track http://www.yonishakti.co/audio, and simply lay down comfortably and listen.