Surya Little: Yoga for Women’s Health – Adapting Your Practice to the Cycles of Life
Surya Little is founder of Prajna Yoga with her husband, Tias Little, and she teaches yoga workshops and yoga teacher trainings both nationally and internationally. Surya’s yoga background includes many years of study in the Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga traditions, and she also has an extensive background in the macrobiotic approach to healing. In this interview with YogaUOnline, she discusses the ways in which women’s bodies are unique and the implications this has for our yoga practice.
YogaUOnline: Surya, you have a very varied background working with the healing benefits of both nutrition and yoga. One thing that particularly caught my interest was that you spent a while teaching yoga and cooking macrobiotic food to members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia. How did that come about?
Surya Little: Well, I was living in New York at the time and working as a part of macrobiotic healing center called Gulliver’s Living and Learning Center. The woman who ran the center, had connections to Saudi Arabia, and she started a program for women. Next thing we knew, the Saudis were interested in learning how to heal their bodies with food. The diet in the Middle East includes a lot of animal foods, and lots of fat foods, and many of the women were overweight. So they were looking for something more alternative. So from that, the opportunity arose for me to be a personal assistant chef and yoga teacher to one of the daughters of the king of Saudi Arabia.
YogaUOnline: What kind of results did you see?
Surya Little: In the year and a half I was with the family, she lost about sixty-five to seventy pounds, so it was really quite a healing process for her. She was only twenty-eight when I met her, and her confidence, her beauty, just shined after she started to lose weight and connect to her body. And the yoga practice helped make her feel even more centered inside.
YogaUOnline: In your teaching of yoga, you offer workshops on yoga for women’s health. You focus particularly on how our yoga practice can help support balance in the reproductive cycle, and in the natural transitions of life including peri-menopause and menopause. What inspired this particular focus?
Surya Little: Well, I had been practicing in the Ashtanga yoga system for many years, and I found that no one ever addressed the female body. That became apparent to me when I was trying to conceive in my late thirties, and had a miscarriage. It took me about two years, before I was able to conceive. During those two years, I developed a deep understanding of how to practice appropriately for a woman’s body, and which parts of my yoga practice that were not really beneficial to support the preparation to become a mother.
YogaUOnline: Could you give an example of some of the things you’ve had to modify in your own practice to get more attuned to your body as a woman?
Surya Little: I had to pull back and not be so rigorous in the practice, slow it down. The Vinyasa-based practices I was doing were creating too much internal heat for my body. So by not moving so quickly in and out of poses and creating a more earth-grounding practice, my body started to get back in balance. So I focused more on static poses, and on standing poses, where you stay really grounded to the earth. I also increased my understanding of inversion practice, and did a lot of work with shoulderstand work, which is really great for women’s health. And of course, I became very careful with my diet, and made sure I was getting adequate amounts of protein (I’m a vegetarian) and I learned how to cook and eat properly for the body so you can prepare for fertility.
YogaUOnline: A woman’s body is very unique: We go through so many transitions in our lives, first as we enter our fertile years, during our monthly cycle, during pregnancy and childbirth, and later, peri-menopause and menopause. These are big and challenging changes! Should women practice yoga different from men?
Surya Little: Well, it’s important to understand how your yoga practice can best support whichever phase of life you are in. If you’re a mature woman, you may need to ground more, you need to stabilize. If you’re feeling irritable and moody, a really intense yoga practice doesn’t really support your nervous system. So whether you’re working with the choice of foods you eat or with yoga, these are different ways that we can affect the nervous system and create greater balance in your system. And for women, it waxes and wanes all the time with the different cycles that we’re passing through. It’s important to approach your yoga practice with that awareness.
YogaUOnline: Tell us about your work with nutrition. Which approach do you use when working with people to make nutritional changes?
Surya Little: Well, I mostly work with macrobiotics, because it offers great insights into how you can heal with food by creating balance on the energetic level of the body. We are constantly exposed to different influences from nature and our environment, and we need to learn how to balance these different types of energetics in our body.
Food is energetic. So different foods create different effects in your body. If you’re feeling heavy and bloated and stagnant, for example, maybe you need to emphasize foods with heating effects to help increase digestion, for instance.
Everything can be viewed in terms of the underlying energetics in the body. So you can affect your body and how you feel, by the foods you choose and the way you prepare and cook your food. We can nourish the life force in a way that brings the energetic body back to center instead of extremes. We can bring balance with simple actions, such as the foods we eat or our approach to our yoga practice, rather than thinking you have to put some chemical into your body to make a difference.
One of the reasons yoga is so successful today is that even though it’s a physical practice, it also connects us deep into the internal organs, which has not only a physical effect on our bodies, but also a mental-spiritual effect. Hatha yoga can have a deep, therapeutic effect on the body, particularly if we understand how to properly use the yoga asanas in a way that creates balance, that is, when to emphasize standing poses, seated poses, inversions, and so on.
Each phase of a woman’s life (menses, fertility, peri-menopause, menopause) is a journey. It is important to prepare for each phase to stay in good health, both physically and emotionally.
Also check out Surya Little’s course on YogaUOnline:
Journey Into Maturity – Preparing for the Wisdom Phase of Life