Photo: Cora Wen ©Jack Walshe
The Yoga Crone founder of Yoga Bloom talks about her experience with ethnicity, gender and age in the teaching and practice of yoga
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Related post Cora Wen, Part Two
When you mention Cora Wen anywhere in the community of yoga practitioners, you feel the love. Cora’s students and friends absolutely coo!
Warm, funny, no nonsense Cora participates in more styles of yoga teacher trainings than anyone else we know, and offers her own teacher trainings – internationally – as well. Naturally we couldn’t wait to get into Conversation with her.
As you’ll see for yourself, Cora did not disappoint our hopes for a frank and energizing discussion of all things yoga, all things Cora and the lively territory where they transformative-ly overlap!
Susan Maier-Moul Rodney Yee was speaking with us in March about the need to spend more time as senior teachers creating a path into what yoga means as you get older, because, as an industry, we’ve only glorified youth.
Cora Wen Yes and actually that’s something that I’ve been really on. I started a whole thing. I call myself a Yoga Crone. I have this Yoga Crone project which I’ve been interviewing different people that are older.
Teachers that are well-known, and are older, who have been teaching for 20, 30, 40 years. I started with an interview with Angela Farmer.
Susan She’s incredible; she’s fabulous.
Cora She’s a goddess. There’s yoga crone. There is a woman who clearly is older. But she is beautiful. She is goddess.
A few months ago while I was watching Angela doing a hand stand and someone was saying, oh, well, you know, so and so can walk around on their hands into whatever and I looked at them, and I said, yes and so and so is 30 and Angela Farmer is 73.
Cora Okay. So she’s 73 and popping up in a hand stand against a wall. Going up in bakasana. Indra Devi at 106 when she died was still practicing yoga. Four poses. Only four poses. padmasana, sukasana, baddha konasana and tadasana. Tadasana at 106. That I am much more impressed with than somebody who is 25 doing scorpions.
The wisdom, and also your body changes. Menopause. I’m really big on talking about crossing the bridge. What happens in menopause and after. Not just during, but after.
I’m happy now to teach my younger students some of these intense poses that I don’t feel appropriate anymore for my body. They’re too hard on my bones.
It’s a different body that I have now, and I don’t need to go after them. I’ve had these beautiful poses. They’re really nice. It’s fun. But now it’s for me to teach others. And for me to help others be safe and practice and also to show the younger women, especially, the younger women, Susan, a model of aging, truly aging without fear.
Susan There’s a sigh in me for that one. If we leave nothing else for our daughters that would be such a gift.
Cora I’m not afraid of aging. I’ve studied with Angela for I don’t know, I’ve known Angela for 12 years and I’ve studied with Patricia (Walden) now, for I don’t know, 15 years. Judith (Lasater) for 17 years. These are my models of growing older.
So I’m 50. My teachers are in their sixties and seventies. I don’t have fear of aging because I look at these women, and I think, okay. Okay. That’s cool.
Supporting teachers as they learn how to teach
Susan What do you think about the concept of bodies changing in response to our life mission, supporting us in moving less, actually, settling down to the work of digesting our life experiences? What sort of body do you need for that work? What sort of body do you need in order to be still or to focus that lifetime of acquired wisdom, and boil it down and offer it to someone else? Is that a different shape or metabolism?
Cora I think that’s true because you also want more stillness. Don’t you? I mean, you don’t need to do 27 chaturangas. You know, but you might want to hang out in a pose longer. So it’s not even just stillness. It’s like stability. I think that we definitely get the stability as we age. Emotionally and spiritually.
Susan I feel like there’s a kind of digestion that women our age do. You can take in a lot, and you have a well developed neuro network to process some of the more priceless meanings, but then you have to be able to turn around and offer that in your work.
That requires a kind of very concentrated heat, in my mind. Not just time to read but to assess what’s key or valuable. It’s not just sitting still. There’s actually kind of directed-ness, and I think that my posture work has changed to support that.
Cora Well, you know, I know that for myself, I’m definitely much more interested in teacher training now. I’m more interested in teaching teachers how to teach, than in just teaching a bunch of workshops.
I’m more frequently categorized as therapeutic especially for conferences and things like that. I end up being the restorative person, yet I still teach, in class, big poses. Hand stand and backbends. Big poses on balances.
But it’s interesting also because the body changes, like one thing I’ve noticed, I just was teaching a bunch of very yang students in their twenties. And they’re doing all these “big poses” – back-of-the-book wackos and arm balances.
I was showing them some structural things but they couldn’t do them, because the body wasn’t really actually accessing the opening that they needed to really be fully in these poses with stillness. They were just going after them physically, and bending where they needed to, and huffing.
Susan Bending like a green tree does.
Cora Yeah. Just sort of huffing and puffing, you know and they could blow the house down, but then comes the wise one, the old one, you know, that looks decrepit and they can, you know, blow and change the wind in another direction, because it’s a different power.
Maybe they practice this everyday, but I’m looking at their body and saying, yes, but you’re getting it from your back and not from your sternum, and your thoracic spine and how does that change?
Because your intercostal muscles will now have to shift and open, and that supports your lungs which supports your heart which supports most of your organic body. That will change the way you actually feel in the pose rather than just the way it looks. You will have more ease and stability.
You’ve got to slow down and that’s very hard for the yang people to hear because they just want to go hard pose to harder pose to harder pose.
I’m much more interested in a right angle pose because right angle pose I realize now inspires more in your body. It requires deeper opening. You need the stability in your legs. You can’t just sort of pop in and out of it.
It’s the same with a hand stand. I remember, I was in my thirties when Angela Farmer said to me, Cora, you’re working so hard. Just lift from the perineum dear.
I was like what? What does that mean? What does that mean? I’m kicking and kicking and kicking. You know, I could kick so hard into the next building, right?
Now I’ve learned to take that differently, and yes, I do lift from a different area. From my pelvic floor, from the whole feminineness of me. From my belly, and that gives me a different hovering and lightness in this pose that doesn’t come from sort of the yang huffing and puffing.
Susan I’m thinking about the great women that you’ve worked with, and the amazing synthesis that you now offer your students what you’ve named “crone” teachers. This is that digestion work that I was mentioning, but you’re digesting the teaching of these stunning, brilliant women, and assimilating whole traditions of our great female teachers.
Susan Do you think that we’ve come into an age of empowered female yogis, that as a result of these generations, there are great female teachers who now understand yoga for the women’s anatomy?
Cora I think that there’s more and more coming.
But I teach internationally, and I see still the great white male being held as high in other places. Like in Asia, all the many of the well-known teachers are Caucasian and male and that’s a different body than a small, light-boned, not big BMI Asian woman.
It’s still male-dominated. I think that there are some more women that are coming up, yes, definitely. But I also think that a lot of the women strategies I see in a lot of the women teaching, I see a very maleness in their teaching.
Susan Can you say a bit more about that?
Cora I mean, I see that there’s a lot of language about women, and feminine, and grace, and goddess and all that, but I still see a very male focus sweatiness that’s always coming.
Susan Do you know the scholar Christopher Chapple? He’s a lovely man. He’s at Loyola Marymount.
Cora Oh, right. I know the Loyola Marymount program.
Susan I was sitting with him a month ago, talking about his work. He has a chapter in Yoga and The Luminous on “The Use of the Feminine Gender in Patanjali’s Descriptions of Yogic Practices,” which is, by the way, an interesting piece of writing.
I commented, because this is always on my mind, it’s apparently laudable in yoga theory to talk about “the feminine,” or “the divine feminine” and feminine energy, but I don’t see any serious engagement of women.
Cora Or you see a very yang woman. But then again, we teach yin like yin yoga is just slowed down yang yoga.
Think about somebody like Angela. My three female teachers, they represent the woman in all ways. Like Judith is absolutely mother. She represents the mother caretaker. She will hold you when you’re hurting. This is like her energy.
She’ll also ask of you a lot as a good mother. She’ll train you to have good decision making, and make your own thoughts in the world. She is nurturing supportive.
Patricia is absolutely graceful, beautiful, her body is just physically so beautiful.
The way she moves through poses it’s just like you just want to cry. I watched her do a 108 drop backs, and in the middle of it, I realized her toes did not bunch. Her toes didn’t move as she was dropping to the floor. I didn’t care about the poses anymore. I looked at her toes.
That’s what made me want to study with her. I just watched her toes have extension and lightness the entire time she was dropping back, and thought I want to learn that. That’s really cool.
Not the pose, but just, wow, her toes. I’ve got to grind to move them around, and kind of grip them and shift, and do all this commotion. She had no commotion in her body. Go back and forth. It was like this gorgeous, like light flower just walking back and forth in if wind.
I looked at that like that’s grace and beauty. This is what woman is, right?
Not aggression. But just beauty, and graceful like a ballerina. Right? Light, airy: this is what feminine yin is.
Angela is like this delicious, oozing femininity. Sexual, but not trampy. A sexual woman.
Those three models have really modeled for me how to be a woman without being a man disguised as a woman.
Cultural and anatomical difference
Cora I don’t need to prove that I can have big muscles and, you know, do nine hundred chaturangas.
And I’m Asian. We don’t like to have those big hard muscles. You know, in Asia, women don’t want to exercise and have sixpack abs and be cut. Cut is actually gross to an Asian woman. That’s masculine.
Susan There’s a really wonderful book, The Expressiveness of the Body by a Japanese historian, Shigehisa Kuriyama. He examines differences between Greek bodies and Asian bodies, over the course of medical history. Anatomy drawings, for example, diverge, and in the Asian drawings there are no muscles.
Cora Oh, that sounds great because I’m very much about that. I’m writing an article that I pitched to Yoga Journal U.S.
For about seven years we went back and forth, and then they decided not to talk about it.
It’s about different bodies, and cultural differences. Racial and cultural differences and how that affects asana and see that’s a very touchy subject because it has to do with race.
Because what I see is a much higher flexibility. A much higher flexibility, typically Asian and Middle Eastern women, some eastern European as well, but I have research on it. They have much more ligamentous laxity and I myself have it. I could be a contortionist.
Susan You want to touch into Tom Myers, who is -
Cora Oh, yes! Anatomy Trains.
Susan He’s currently doing research with someone in Germany, and they’ve identified that there are really two very different kinds of connective tissue which are genetically different, and which have quite different properties of flexibility.
Cora Oh, I’ve got to connect with him. Wow. I would love to talk to him, because I’ve been doing research about squatting because what I’m seeing in Thailand, for instance.
There’s much more pronation than supination, and that has to do with squatting because the muscles of squatting actually have to do with the flat footedness, which is the way the ligaments stretch in squatting cultures, but also I don’t see as such knee pain.
We have a lot of knee pain in the West and there’s much more external rotation in the hip joint.
They sit on the floor, floor sitting and squatting. The flat footedness. There’s a lot of different issues that I see. Hypermobility in the spine. And there are different kinds of injury, but then also the BMI is lower.
Then you look at African American women. I see this a lot. African American women have a much greater posterior curve which we call a booty. It’s not just the booty part. It’s the actual posterior curve of the sacrum. What happens for a lot of African American women, I see that’s really uncomfortable is savasana.
Because savasana, you’ve got now skinny white girl saying to an African American woman, just relax, and lay on the floor. But for some women, a lot of African American women, and I’ve talked to many because I talk about this all the time, it creates a torque in the spine, because it actually is a backbend.
So the way I work with them is not just lifting the knees, but actually lifting the leg supporting underneath the bum, so that it allows the spine to relax and then they can relax in a savasana for a long time.
Susan They don’t spasm in the low back trying to maintain and relax at the same time.
Susan So you are totally observing the inappropriateness of single-minded instruction. People have become willing since Paul Grilley to talk about individual bone structure. What you’re speaking about, I’ve not heard even very well published teachers attest before. There’s really silence on this topic.
Cora Yeah. Nobody wants to touch this, and I keep on saying I’m the only person that can talk about it, because I’ve studied anatomy, and I ain’t white.
Susan Right. Also though, you’re completely willing to address it.
Cora Think about it emotionally for an Asian woman. What I see emotionally is an Asian doesn’t want to – is not taught to – is taught to be humble, and not to be seen, and to take care of the family. So what I see is an incredible openness in the shoulder joint. Repeatedly, I see this.
But there’s a very collapsed sternum and you can’t just tell someone culturally and physically who has been taught to shield this part of the body, you can’t just say, push your heart open.
Cora It doesn’t work, because emotionally, what can happen is, that can happen too fast. There can be a real burn out, a burn out in the nervous system, in the emotion of the person.
It’s almost like you crack the heart open when it wasn’t ready and then they stop doing yoga. It’s too big. It’s too big. The student feels, “I didn’t do it in myself, and I didn’t talk about it. You didn’t provide the support.”
Women, men and yoga
Susan I used to get women students who would say to me, “I want to do heart opening” and I would look at them to see what was going on, and I’d have to say, “well, you’ve got to start with your legs.”
Susan Because the reason you’re doing what you’re doing with your heart is you don’t have the support. It’s not a fluttery thing to have an open heart. It’s a grounded earth sort of thing. What’s amazing is the number of women that’s all they can think of, and I think it’s this culturally instigated, veiled self-criticism. It’s not coming from self-respect and understanding. It’s coming from I’m not good enough.
Cora And in Asia, I’m teaching in Thailand the first 500-hour teacher training in Bangkok, and the reason my Thai students love me is I talk about being an Asian woman and an Asian woman who’s practiced yoga for a while and my inquiry and my journey.
I’m saying to them, you’re not a Caucasian male, you can’t balance that way by just working harder. You don’t have body mass. You don’t have the strength. You’re not using your abdominals. You don’t want to have big muscles. You know, you don’t have all those, and you don’t want to look like what you’ll need in order to do these aggressive poses. But you can get that strength in a different way.
But the male teacher can’t teach you that because his body is different. The male pelvis has a different shape. Their center of gravity is different.
Susan Their whole sensing of the situation is different.
Cora Absolutely. No. This is it.
So why don’t we talk about male and female? Why are we saying, do X? Why are we saying that those arms need to be 90 degrees?
I hear this all the time, Cora, isn’t the arm supposed to be 90 degrees in chaturanga? It’s like well, maybe for some people the anatomy allows that.
When I have my arm at 90 degrees, I’m basically at my hips at my ASIS, and I have a hyper mobile shoulder. I can’t keep my shoulder in that angle. That distorts in my body.
I can’t really compensate, and you know what? Maybe I could Susan, if I was willing to do abdominals for an hour everyday, and not eat anything. Yes. I probably could. But you know what? I don’t want to.
And look at what women and men have. If we look at the base sociological level, right? A man is applauded for his power and strength. Which is not affected in either sports, like a physical, or a financial, like success, about the power.
Power and strength. So it’s power and strength. That’s what man is seen as. Woman is youth and beauty. Both because youth is baby bearing. That’s the natural chemical thing that happens in mankind. So youth and beauty and what we’re doing is we’re only going after that now in yoga. Youth and beauty.
I can lose weight. I can have a tight bum. I can do push ups. I can do hand stands. I can do poses. But it always comes back to doing yoga, not being yoga.
Susan It comes back to what you’re saying about being, well not only not being afraid of aging, but embracing it as wisdom.
Cora Embracing it, yes. Yes and saying, you know what? I might have to give up some of my youth and beauty now, because I can encourage young women to find their true beauty and not have to suffer through all the agita that I self-inflicted upon myself as I was a young woman.
Hopefully will help the you curb some of the increasing eating disorders. Some of the insane plastic surgery, some of the going after wastefulness on beauty.
We see that with the rising eating disorders because models are once again becoming way too skinny. There was that gal that died in France.
Susan Isabelle Caro.
Cora Yes. So we’re seeing this now and the thing is that now, look at Yoga Journal. The women are skinnier now in the abs then they’ve ever been.
I know that I have a body that’s highly mobile and I’ve done a lot of strength and you know what, Susan? I’m fifty now and it’s a different body. It just is. You know, and I’m not going to fight that.
I’m not going to give up and say, oh, well I don’t do anything. I’m just going to go sit on a mountain and pray. But I’m not going to fight it. I’m going to embrace what I am, I’m going to be thankful for all that my body can do. I am thankful for all that it could do in all my life and I’m thankful, and I have gratitude for how I can proceed in this life.
Susan Well, I think that what we’re talking about is that it’s not a concession to do that. It’s a progression to do that.
Cora Yes. Yes. Absolutely.
In part two of her blockbuster interview with The Magazine of Yoga, Cora Wen shares from her heart about her path to becoming an international powerhouse teacher: walking away from her six-figure corporate job, coping with her mother’s death, and her philosophy of “moving outward with your practice.”
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