The Downtown YWCA, where Washington women for years have learned everything from wok cooking to sewing, has severely cut back its instructional programs this year, leaving only classes in health and physical education.

YWCA officials say the cutback is only temporary, as the organization grapples simultaneously with long-term financial problems and a reassessment of its social role.

"We're supposed to be an organization which cares about issues," said Jane Bristol, acting chairwoman of the D.C. branch board of managers.

"We're looking very carefully at what we're doing to meet the genuine survival needs of women."

Bristol and Joy Jones, executive director of the Y, located at Ninth and F streets NW, said the branch probably will focus more of its resources on such areas as job skill courses and day care, though no firm decisions have been made.

Jones declined to spell out for a reporter the programs suspended this year, but she told one inquiring member that they included classes in typing, sewing and the arts, as well as specific programs for senior citizens.

The Y did not notify its members of the much-abbreviated class schedule. Instead, it issued a new catalogue that listed a much smaller number of classes.

The reduction in classes also means that the Y now closes at 7 p.m instead of 9 p.m., Jones told a member who called to inquire.

The YWCA has been bothered for years by financial difficulties -- problems it hoped to remedy four years ago in a controversial move from its 55-year-old building at 17th and K streets NW to a new and larger facility at 624 Ninth St. NW.

The old building was sold and razed in February 1981 to make way for an office building.

At the time of the move, critics within the Y's membership charged that poor management was the organization's real problem, one that a move to a new $9.5 million facility was unlikely to change.

At that time the Y had been running annual budget deficits of about $100,000.

Jones acknowledged that the present cutback in programs was triggered in part by continuing annual deficits of $90,000 to $100,000, which she said have forced the Y to rent out former classrooms as office and meeting rooms.

But she said the course offerings also were being reassessed to avoid duplicating adult education programs offered nearby by the University of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We want to find out what we as an institution can do best to fulfill our social role in the community and then do it," she said.

Jones said she hoped, for example, that the Y could integrate a day care program with one for senior citizens, to involve the District's increasing number of elderly people with children and young adults.

"The majority of these elderly people are single women, many of whom might welcome an opportunity to become more involved in the community," she said.

In the meantime, Jones said, the Y will continue to offer a full range of programs in health and physical education, which she said remain very much in demand.

Many of the suspended educational programs may be reinstituted as money and space permit, she said.

A key to this may be expanding the membership, which Jones said had been at a "fairly static" level of 5,000 to 6,000 but had grown to 6,500 as of Sept. 5. Dues ($20 a year) and program fees make up about 90 percent of the D.C. Y's annual budget, with the remainder coming from the United Way.

The budget itself, Jones said, has been lowered from $850,000 to $750,000 this year. She and Bristol said, however, that the Y is in a much stronger financial position than its longstanding deficit problems would seem to indicate, and they emphasized that the program suspensions were not caused solely by money.

"It's really not so much a financial question," said Jones. "We're trying to bring this branch of the Y into the 1980s."