Bashing Yoga Barbie? Guilty As Charged

lululemon-barbie

This is a response to recent comments left on my last two posts.  Comments accusing me of ‘thin bashing’, comments that have got me thinking and questioning myself deeply.  Am I, despite my zeal to promote “body love”, being exclusionary, judgmental and even mean?

One woman writes “Please be aware of the feelings and perceptions for those of us who are thin. As a 100lb petite yoga instructor, I am constantly bashed then idolized for my figure. Somehow in the culture to take back the “woman” body, it has become okay to make nasty comments to someone for being small.”

Another chides me “ judging women’s bodies (i.e. assuming you know what blonde, thin yogi pictured above has been through spiritually) is *not* the way we’re going to progress as a gender. I challenge you to keep bringing these thoughtful, intellectual messages without throwing a woman (or specific body type) under the bus to get your messages across.”

Am I guilty of disparaging my more slender sisters? Or is my message about the yoga body being misconstrued? And after some contemplation I’ve decided – yes, maybe its a little of both.

While I have not slung a single insult to any individual, my derogatory tone towards the yoga body as personified by ‘Yoga Barbie’  is clearly being taken personally. But please understand, I have nothing against white, blonde, size zero women. One of my best friends fits this exact description. And she, like I, has measured herself against an ideal relentlessly held up as an icon of beauty, and found herself wanting.

For years she has hid her “protruding collar bones” and “skinny arms” behind long-sleeved blouses (just as I have hidden my own more fleshed out biceps). She padded her bra and ate too many croissants (just as I have avoided them) in search of a plumper derrière. And I believe that even real life Barbies are not immune to such self judgement. There is always a flaw, no matter how small.

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Personally I understand that this ‘fatness’ of mine exists in my head – but it has nonetheless cast a long shadow of shame and self loathing over my body – and my life. And this perception of never being pretty enough has been the experience of my thin friend – and so many of us.

My attack is not personal but political. Barbie may seem a harmless out of date cartoon, but she has been a very formative icon. She has taught and is still teaching little girls very specific messages i.e. there are wardrobes and shoes for every occasion. She preps us for a life of shopping, of buying the necessary accoutrements (clothes, bras, sexy panties, make-up, jewelery, creams, shampoos etc.} for displaying our wares.

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And ever since we held her ridiculously tiny waist in our childish hands we’ve understood that her (completely unrealistic) body is the lynchpin from which all revolves. Without the right color, size and shape – you can’t have the rest.

Yoga Barbie is no different. As an icon of consumer culture, her work-out gear and yoga pants are now a gazillion dollar business. And whether she is sexily demonstrating a mind-boggling pose or sitting in Lotus smiling as blissfully as a Buddha, her taut abs and cellulite free thighs are the latest tool in the corporate arsenal to keep us buying, buying and buying some more.

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Today her white, young, and usually blond image is selling everything from fitness gear, natural foods, headache pills, depression relieving pharmaceuticals to cruises, meditation retreats and lifestyle magazines. And the price we pay? Never feeling we will have the power, strength, freedom or happiness that these ads promise – without the yoga body.

It’s easy to blame corporate media for exploiting our physical insecurities but we’ve got ask why are we still buying in? Why in a time when western women enjoy more freedom than ever before do they spend so much time, energy and money living up its lithe, Lululemon clad image? Why do so many yoga teachers and yoga studios promote classes, workshops, retreats (and selfie Instagram feeds) through some version of the glowing, acrobatic yoga body?

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What are they selling?An empowering ideal of inspiration? The natural outcome of self-discipline and dietary control? The result of a wholesome, healthy lifestyle? Maybe. But from where I sit it looks like the yoga body is all about the self-control, willpower and hard work. Not to mention the moral and spiritual fortitude necessary to achieve it.

I think the yoga body is selling dangerous and dis-empowering messages – that we exist to be looked at, that we must constantly strive to keep our bodies in shape, that we are not right as we are. Have we come to believe that perfecting our bodies is how we succeed in the world? But lets face it, we will never find control over our lives, through controlling our bodies.

That’s why I’ve decided, step one in this campaign to ‘give the yoga body a make-over’ is to acknowledge its powerful hold on our psyche. My intention is not to pick on thin blond women, I only want to remind us of everything this privileged white icon represents.

So sisters no matter your color, shape or size, I ask for your help in answering these questions. What unrealized aspects of ourselves allow the yoga body to thrive? What accounts for it’s appeal and allure? What messages are we buying into? How can we disentangle what is being sold to us – love, power, freedom and strength – from the image itself?

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I believe once we pull out these threads – we can begin to consciously identify how our deepest desires are manipulated to fill corporate coffers. And we can begin to understand that what we are looking for,  we already possess. We do not need to work for nor buy beauty, pleasure or power – we can merely claim it . Yes, it’s as simple as that.

So in closing I want to acknowledge Janne Robinson’s important points in This One’s for My Skinny Sisters “Size zeros are real women too…our world might be sick of media shoving glorified, thin, air brushed models down our throats..but is the solution to throw all skinny women under a bus because they don’t have hips to hold on to?”

No Janne, certainly not. I wholehearted agree with your beautiful words “If we want to radically shift our world we need to begin stepping over body image—trivial measurements of our worth and beauty, and relentlessly love ourselves. So let’s all get on the damn bus together and build a world that isn’t measured by the width of our hips.”

Yoga Body, Yoga Barbie: The Movie

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I’ve been writing about the ‘yoga body’ for several years now – but I’ve long been interested in body image and how it has been manipulated to control the economic and social behavior of women. Twenty years ago I directed a documentary titled Becoming Barbie which examined the rise of eating disorders in the light of the Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf’s premise that as women made gains in freedom and power they have been subjected to increasingly thinner and unrealistic standards of beauty. And now I’ve decided its high time for a follow-up film titled Yoga Body, Yoga Barbie because nothing exemplifies the beauty myth better today than the white, young, slim and sexy yoga body.

twiggy

Twiggy

Wolf saw the beauty myth as symptomatic of a backlash against a female body that was growing increasingly free of control. She pointed out that as women’s corsets and girdles came off, and women became bolder in demanding equal access and equal rights, beauty ideals became ever more unattainable, requiring ever more time and energy and money to achieve.

The first suffragettes saw the ample figure of the Victorian woman replaced by rail thin flapper as a fashion ideal. And in the sixties as woman exited the kitchen and entered the workforce, Marilyn’s voluptuous physique was replaced by Twiggy skeletal form.

jane-fonda_2676087kThen as women began to break the glass ceiling and demand economic parity – the new, leaner and meaner body a la Jane Fonda and her famed ” Workout’ appeared.

And today we have a new icon, Yoga Barbie. Is she just the latest icon in a long line of beauty icons designed to keep women, as writer Lindy West suggests “obsessing over their ‘flaws’ rather than their power and potential”?toesox

The link between body image and eating disorders to such media exposure is well established –and from sexy yoga ‘selfie’s to 30 day challenges, to TV commercials urging “The Hard Way” (as Reebok would like us to ‘do it’) the yoga body is luring women to push further and work harder than ever before.

Despite yoga’s approbation in popular culture as a methodology for getting in shape and losing weight, it has been shown in countless studies to be a powerful therapeutic tool in promoting increased feelings of well-being, self-esteem, and confidence.

So I wonder, is it ayogabody3ny coincidence that as yoga helped women develop a new sense of positive embodiment, of feeling good in their skin, that the yoga body became enshrined as the new icon of feminine beauty and virtue? Naomi Wolf would probably think not.

Today, as rates of  eating disorders, body dissatisfaction and depression continue to soar in young women, I think enough is enough. I’ve decided to return to my film-making roots and reach out to young women directly where they congregate: social media.

I want to create a short film for online distribution that will not only deconstruct the yoga body in the light of beauty myth and examines it’s cost – but offer solutions.  It’s time to recognize that ALL of us, no matter our color, shape or size – are worthy of love. Its time for the Yoga Barbie that women face every time they turn on their phones, computers, TVs, look at a magazine or enter a mall – to get a make-over.

Yoga and Body Image Coalition member Dana Smith

Yoga and Body Image Coalition member Dana Smith

I want to feature the yoga teachers and therapists, body positivity activists and writers who are overhauling the public image of the yoga body. From podcasts to blog posts, to conferences and workshops, they are raising awareness of issues like feminism, gender stereotypes, equity and diversity – to support ‘body love”. Their work is expanding the narrow paradigm of the “body beautiful” in yoga, and successfully enhancing young women’s body image, self-esteem and confidence.

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And most importantly, I want this film to share the stories of young women themselves. The new yoginis who longer enthralled by the lure of the ‘yoga body’ are living freer, healthier and happier lives. Talking directly to their peers about body image – they are out to promote a new paradigm: Yoga Body = Body Love.

Embody Love Movement

Embody Love Movement

I want to share this important work because I want to see them succeed. I agree with writer Carol Horton, that if we want to overcome the yoga body and the “powerful brand magic that suffuses contemporary yoga culture”…” we’re going to need to step up our own, alternative game – and invite others to play along with us.”

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One Love Fits All

That is what I am seeking to do in this film – to feature the work of women who are creating a new kind of branding magic, one that is redirecting our attention away from the ‘yoga body’ and towards yoga’s true potential as a tool for self-empowerment and well-being.

And I invite you to join me. In the next few months I will be putting together a development proposal for this film and I will be reaching out to body image activists, social media experts, health professionals, yoga teachers and bloggers asking for guidance. So don’t be surprised if you hear from me!

In the meanwhile, if you are interested in supporting this project – please share this post! I’m looking for feedback and stories on how the ‘yoga body’ has affected all of us. And if you are interested in participating or contributing your thoughts, please leave me your contact information in the comment section below, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.  Thank-you!

Rewilding The Yoga Body

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Recently a fb image of a young, white, lithe yogini balancing in an extremely deep back bend disturbed me. Not because she was just another example of the yoga Barbie -er yoga body –which saturates my yoga feed, but because she was posing in a sun-dappled forest grove accompanied by the hashtags “Fantastic #yoga” and “#rewilding inspiration.”

But c’mon. Isn’t rewilding about returning to a more natural, undomesticated state? How can an icon of a corporate culture which keeps us striving to achieve artificial, cultural ideals be associated with what is wild, free and unsullied by human intervention – exactly?

Many ‘rewilders’ see the Paleolithic as a time when earth, its flora and fauna, and humans existed in a true primeval state. And if we look to our stone-age ancestors its pretty clear ‘the yoga body’ just wasn’t in. For tens of thousands of years, painted on cave walls and carved into stone, the female body was depicted as abundantly fleshed – breasts, buttocks and bellies not only large, but mountainous.

1-blog7-001I’m not arguing that this is the body ‘au naturale’, it’s an image of its time, place and culture as much as the yoga body is of our ours. I merely want to make the point that equating the yoga body with the wild female body of our ancestors is just a stretch.

Now I have no idea what a ‘wild’ body actually looks like, but I doubt it would look like a tattooed Tara Stiles wearing a loincloth. And I’d wager that any of the programs and retreats that promise to rewild your body in 30 days (yes they are out there) will just leave you working your yoga body ever harder to measure up.

I’m with my pal Jennifer Matsui when she writes “For “inspirational”, forget hot babes doing yoga poses at sunset on a cliff, and think Kabuki she-demon and buzzard pal eating pomegranates under a tree”. Yes, that is probably more like it. Because from Lilith to Kali, to crazed flesh-eating Greek Maenads, African Amazons and medieval witches, the wild woman was licentious, disheveled, abandoned and carnal – she was never about being pretty.

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I reject the yoga body’s attempt to colonize the wild. I see it as yet another endeavor of the ‘powers that be’ to convince us that the unruly messy female body and it’s base desires must be tamed. And it obscures the view of the very real and fruitful relationship that yoga and ‘rewilding’ could potentially have. One that could free us the from the tyranny of the yoga body and engender a whole new level of “body positivity” in the process. And I believe that rewilding the yoga body begins by rewilding yoga itself . Returning to its earliest origins, the prehistoric mists of the upper Paleolithic and Neolithic, a time when woman’s bodies were not yet defiled – but divine.

yogicritualpostureToday it is generally accepted that much of contemporary yoga practice (ritual postures, meditation, mantra’s, mudra’s etc.) are sourced in Tantra Yoga – which predates the Vedic (less women friendly) traditions by thousands of years. But what is less acknowledged is that Tantra takes root in a prehistoric shamanic practice in which woman’s bodies were seen as vessels of powerful forces connected with the fertility of the earth.

Feminist scholar Vicki Noble has written extensively on how this early women’s ‘yoga’ was celebrated in ecstatic rituals of dance and trance. This communal practice was believed to purge disease and enhance fertility in women, animals, and food crops. Noble believes the bio-mystical techniques of these early priestesses became codified within Tantra – and were later co-opted by the Brahmin Priesthood. (For more on this see my post Did Women Invent Yoga?)

In her book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism Miranda Shaw documents the lives of Tantric women, many of which were esteemed teachers and Buddhas. Called by many names, Dakinis (woman who flies) Vidyaharini (knowledge-holder of magic, ritual , mantras, mudras antantricgoddessd meditation techniques) Vira (heroine) the most common term was Yogini (keeper of the occult secrets).

Described in Tantric texts as wild, ferocious and ‘fearless’, these “eternally transgressive yoginis” are described by Shaw as deriving “pleasure from the fact they are untameable”. She writes of “tantric feasts, or communal assemblies” in which yoginis engaged in esoteric rites of dance, poetry and song. Today the remains of their round, open-air stone temples are still found in India “where animal-headed statues of dancing women, stand as a reminder of their ecstatic rites.” tantricgoddess2

Shaw writes “Discovering the ‘divine female essence’ within her, was the female Tantric’s path.” And because of her biology, a Tantric yogini’s kundalini was much easier to awaken than her male counterparts. In fact according to Noble, the menstruation cycle, female sexuality, birth, and menopause were once seen as explicitly female siddhi’s – natural biological connections to spiritual power.

Today we might consider this veneration of the female body as “essentialist”. Many feminists see this view of a woman’s body as essentially different from a mans or as closer to nature as problematic. After all the whole “biology is destiny” thing has long been used to justify women’s oppression. But Noble urges us to extricate ourselves from the patriarchal view that those ‘differences’ make us ”lesser than” and reclaim our bodies as sources of power.

vajrayoginniOn this matter, I personally take cue from the “beautiful, passionate and untamed” Vajrayogini who figures so prominently in Tantric iconography and literature. In the Yogini Tantras she announces , “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, That should be recognized as my holy body”. Now that’s body positivity at work.

That’s why I believe there is a better way to resist the forces which seek to denigrate our natural functions and attempt to keep our bodies under control. We must begin with reconnecting with what is essential or authentic to our experience of being embodied – because how else will we know what is artificial or imposed?

Rewilding the yoga body means disconnecting from the artificial construct of “body image” itself, the strictures of race, class, gender that tell us to look, act and feel in certain way. It means entering the true yoga body of our sensations and feelings, to reconnect with the processes and cycles of the natural world, which flow through us. And it returns us to the ancient understanding of our fore-mothers, one in which our bodies and our biological processes are sacred and numinous.

In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, author and psychologist C.P. Estes coined the term ‘Wild Woman Archetype’ to refer to the conceptualization of the female psyche and soul as rooted in the ‘wilds’ of instinct and uncivilized energy. “ She writes: “These words, wild and woman, cause women to remember who they are and what they are about. They create a metaphor to describe the force which funds all females. They personify a force that women cannot live without.”

Rewilding the yoga body is about much more than donning leather underwear and doing acrobatic poses in the great outdoors -because our bodies are more than’ images’, they are the source of our deepest nature. And I’m pretty sure it’s where we’ll find what we’re really looking for -the lost wilds of our soul.

Khmer-Yogini-Dancer-2aSo no matter how many images of yoga bodies alluringly posed amidst the wild forests or on windswept beaches – come before you – don’t be fooled. They are sirens who will seal you into a cycle of perpetual striving – because you will never measure up. Imagine instead the wild, dancing shamanic priestesses and the untamed transgressive Tantric yoginis. Seek instead to reclaim the “dynamic quality of ecstasy” that Noble writes “seems to especially mark the female-centered yoga experience”.

Free Spirits: Yoga Therapy and Girls

Vintage Yoga (6)

“Girls are largely raised without a sense of their own divinity…their worth in the world is tied to their looks, grades, and gifts – not the amazing miracle of mere existence“…Courtney E. Martin, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

It’s no secret that rates of body image disorders, anxiety and depression are epidemic, or that parents and healthcare professionals are scrambling for solutions, usually pharmaceutical. But what does seem secret (or at least ignored) are the nearly three decades of research demonstrating that when it comes to teens at risk – a dose of “spirituality” may be really good medicine.

That’s why for my upcoming yoga therapy practicum I’ve decided to create a class with one focus – enhancing the spiritual well-being of teen girls. Because after reviewing countless studies suggesting girls with some sort of spiritual focus in their life (no matter their cultural background, ethnicity or religious affiliation) are healthier, happier, and have better academic scores that the norm, I’ve come to a conclusion. I’ve decided the best way to utilize yoga as a therapeutic tool is not just in releasing stress from a girl’s body or in calming her mind, but in nurturing her spirit.

Studies conducted on tens of thousands of teens from the US to Australia, show high levels of spiritual involvement are correlated with “ positive psychological and social functioning” and offer protective factors against “preoccupation with physical appearance and unrealistic standards of thinness” not to mention substance abuse, anti-social and self-destructive behaviors.

And isn’t this good news? Because while yoga may or may not be a religion, it certainly provides a spiritual focus. And doesn’t this suggest that yoga’s ability to foster spiritual awareness could provide a host of therapeutic benefits for girls and young women?

Problem is, as the recent Encinitas court case made clear, to teach yoga as a method of spiritual development is to head into dangerous waters. This means if I choose to offer my class within educational or health care settings, I will most likely be free to explore physiological calming techniques for my students body and mind, but if I mention her immortal soul, well, it starts to get dicey. I’m now in danger of impinging upon her religious freedoms.

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I’m not sure if defining ‘spirit’ to my students as that greater part of themselves that exists beyond the material world and their physical bodies – is crossing the line. Or if teaching their bodies are a manifestation of the divine feminine energy of the universe called Shakti – is going too far. But in looking for guidance, I didn’t find much. Seems that most educators and health care professionals are comfortable discussing a girls physical or educational goals, but when it comes to her spirit (if it can be agreed she even has one) –that’s the domain of religion, so there wasn’t much said.

And while it’s a promotional cliché to say that yoga will relax and energize the body, calm the mind, and lift the spirit, the last part is often censored in materials addressing teens and young women. In fact, many  yoga programs targeting young women feature a lot of talk about the importance of  “self- love”, “going inward” and “mindfulness” but few make direct mention of the word – spirit. And I find it odd that while many treatment programs for eating disorders are utilizing spirituality and yoga as healing modalities, preventative programs promoting “body positivity”  in yoga rarely address spiritual development directly.

Is this because yoga is increasingly under fire as a religion? Or is it because yoga has worked hard to distance itself from new agey woo-woo concepts that undermine it’s seriousness as a health care modality? Whatever the reason, I worry by removing the word “Namaste” from the yogic curriculum (as the Judge ruled at Encinitas) or reducing yoga to physical fitness or techniques for “calming anxiety”and “releasing stress” is to leave young women vulnerable to the very illnesses we are attempting to prevent and treat in the first place.

Is our secular discomfort with  religion and spirituality so great that we are willing to leave young women at risk of what author Courtney Martin calls a “deadly, often destructive, lack of faith”?

saxLeonard Sax M.D., Ph.D is the author of book Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, and he writes “For girls puberty is often the years of  spiritual awakening- when they struggle to figure out what they really care about”. Sax warns if “ girls are not healthy spiritually, they may find themselves not so much living as performing …. the technology of social networking sites, instant messaging, and texting makes it easy for girls to think they are living their own lives when in fact they are really putting on a show for their peers.

And this is where the rubber meets the road because as Sax states “academics and athletics only take you so far when it comes to the dark night of the soul”… “even if a girl has top marks, and is in great physical health, those achievements will count for nothing when a crisis hits…life doesn’t always go smoothly, divorce, loss even death can happen.”

Researchers at Columbia University attribute growing rates of depression among young women to the “broad cultural lack of support or validation for spirituality”. Dr.Lisa Miller is the director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University and writes, “Denying or ignoring the spiritual need of adolescents may end up creating a void in their lives that either devolves into depression or is filled by other forms of questing and challenge, such as drinking, unbridled consumerism, petty crime, sexual precocity, or flirtations with violence”.

But here is the kicker – as Sax states- “it seems if she has nurtured her spirit, she is bettered prepared.” Sax has chosen to define spirituality “as a way of connecting with your inner self…this is not about how you look or what kind of grades you get or who your friends with…it’s what you’re left with if you take all these things away.”

To that end Sax suggests we begin by asking girls open-ended questions -does she believe in God? How come? If yes, is God male or female? Or both or neither? What makes her think so?…“we need to help girls understand who they are and who they want to become regardless of the pressures from the society and popular culture to conform to certain ideals”.

girlsyoga8So while I’m not sure how to go about it, my goal  is to create a therapeutic  class that connects young women with their spirits. I want to figure out how nurturing spirituality differs from lets say, religious indoctrination, and I want to find a way to deal with whatever taboo lies behind our inability to deal with what the research is telling us. Sociologists have known since the 90’s that religious or spiritual involvement offers protective benefits for girls and young women that it doesn’t offer boys or men. 

That’s why it seems vital at a time when spirituality is almost entirely absent from educational discourse or popular culture that yoga class remain a place where young women are asked to find the “still center within “or “honour the light in her” or experience her body as “sacred space”. Yoga offers a unique invitation to a young woman to experience herself as a spiritual being -and this experience can be profound in a culture where she is encouraged to value herself for her physical appearance and accomplishments alone.

So in deciding how to define spirituality for my practicum class I will take a cue from teens themselves. A University of Missouri researcher is examining responses to the question “What does it mean to be a spiritual young person?”And  so far answers reveal that spirituality means:

  • To have purpose
  • To have the bond of connections, including those to a higher power (typically God), people and nature.
  • To have a foundation of well-being, including joy and fulfillment, energy and peace

And  I think girlsyoga6it worth remembering that word spirituality derives from the Latin Spiritus or Spirare – to breathe. And the breath, of course, defines the very essence of yoga – it is the unifying link between the body and the divine.

Yoga therapy is defined by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) as “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the philosophy and practice of yoga. That’s why for my yoga therapy practicum class I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m just going to come out and say it. Through Yoga we discover our Spirit. And that’s good medicine.

 

The Yoga of Time: Chronobiology and Your Inner Plant

Travis Bedel, Anatomical Collage

Travis Bedel, Anatomical Collage

“We share so much in common with plants that we have to reconsider what characterizes us as human.” Plant geneticist Prof. Daniel Chamovitz

Recently a lovely little article appeared in my Facebook feed which invited me to cultivate my inner plant. This was not to be an exercise in anthropomorphism, stated its author, but an opportunity to “vegetalize your already more than human body”. And as I read these words, I realized I had finally found a way to contextualize (and put into practice) my growing fascination with the yoga of time.

Not grand cycles of time like the Yugas, but the monthly, daily, even hourly cycles that regulate our biological clock. Like plants, our cells contain cryptochromes (light-sensitive proteins) which respond to the rising and setting sun and changing moon phases. And plant geneticists and biologists speculate that these genes are why the same cycles of time that regulate the growth, rest and reproduction of lettuce, trees and flowers, govern our metabolic processes as well.

Was this I wondered, why ancient Vedic and Ayurveda texts put so much emphasis on harmonizing human activity with the cycles of the sun, moon and solar system? Today their teachings on propitious hours, days and moon phases for meditation, sadana and asana has largely been washed out of modern yoga practice as irrelevant superstition – yet the new science of Chronobiology increasingly confirms that within every moon phase and daily cycle – there are peak times for everything.

Chronobiology (meaning biology and time) suggests that solar and lunar cycles DO create real fluctuations in our bodies and brains, regulating physiological processes such as sleep wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature, neurotransmitter activity and other important bodily functions.

CircadianRhythmsIndeed research compiled in Michael Smolensky’s book The Body Clock Guide To Better Health lends support toVedic texts which tell us that when it comes to maximizing our full potential, timing is everything. Smolensky is the director of the Hermann Hospital Center for Chronobiology and Chronotherapeutic Studies, and he asserts that fluctuations in our circadian rhythm, a roughly 24 hour period (following the earth’s rotational cycle) leaves us better performing certain tasks at certain times. For example, morning are best for tackling mental tasks because mental alertness and concentration peak from 9am and midday and wane in the early afternoon (best time for taking a nap). And because our muscular strength, pain tolerance and physical strength peak at about 3pm to 6pm Smolensky suggests this is the time to perform strength and agility based exercise.

Does this lend support to ancient Vedic texts which divide each of the 24 hours into kapha, pitta, and vata periods during which the predominating qualities of those doshas are prevalent? The three doshas are said to be the equivalent of Sun, Moon and Air energies of our body. And in the great healing tradition of Ayurveda, aligning ourselves with these energetic qualities starts with getting up in the morning.

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The period before sunrise is related to Vatta, and is known as the Brahma Muharta or “ambroisal hours. And one of the very first Ayurvedic texts advises :”One should wake up in the Brahma Muhurta for sustaining perfect health and for achieving a long life span, as desired.” Conversely waking later was believed to contribute to lethargy, fatigue and a host of physical disorders. So could waking up during Brahma Muhurta actually help synchronize our natural clock?

Each morning when the earth rotates into sunlight the geomagnetic field recoils from the impact of the solar wind. This creates a surge in the fields lines of magnetic force that run throughout the earth -and our bodies and brains- releasing the hormones and neurochemicals which shift our physiology from sleeping to waking. And as Dharma Sing Khalsa MD, author of Meditation as Medicine: Activate the Power of Your Healing Force suggests – if this transition between sleep and waking does not occur in tandem with our natural circadian rhythm, it can “diminish the production of stimulating neurochemicals, and leave people groggy and depressed all day. Or it can cause the opposite effect, the overproduction of the stress hormonal cortisol, which can cause agitation, immune dysfunction, memory loss and premature aging. “

moon-phases

Ancient Vedic texts are also full of instructions on observing the cycles of the moon. Different phases of the moon were believed to have different energetic forces that could be harnessed through appropriate breathing exercises or meditations. And again, while we regard these idea’s as folklore, studies referenced by Douglas Rushkoff in Present Shock, When Everything Happens NOW suggest that our brain is dominated by a different neurotransmitter during each moon phase.

And while this research is still far from definitive, there is evidence that at the beginning of the new moon acetylcholine (associated with heightened attention) is predominant, nearer to the full moon a uptake in serotonin occurs (the feel good chemical that gets boosted by anti depressants) and as the moon wanes our dopamine (responsible for reward driven learning) increases. Finally in the last moon phase we are dominated by norepinephrine (an arousal chemical that regulates the flight or fight response, anxiety and other instinctual behaviors).

So is it so far-fetched to consider that guided by the moon phases, the yogi’s various rituals, sadhanas, and proscriptions, might have indeed intensified states of consciousness or even altered their biology?

I’ve given only a few of the examples of research which supports ancient contentions that living in sync with daily, monthly and hourly cycles benefits us physically, emotionally and mentally. And this is important, as Rushkoff points out, because most of us live, work and sleep in artificial environments oblivious to the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution that have cued “everything from our thyroids to our spleens to store, cleanse and metabolize at appropriate intervals.”And as chronobiologists have found, this is directly linked to epidemic problems as sleep disorders, depression, dementia , diabetes, and obesity – to name but a few.

As a yoga teacher and practitioner this concerns me because most of us also practice yoga this way. We perform the same routines and sequence of postures day in and day out – paying little attention to the effects on our physiology of the changing hours, days and moon phases. And to me it suggests that we’re missing out on a vital component of Hatha Yoga (the mother of modern practice), one that emphasizes the importance of  “yoking” our being to solar (Ha) and lunar (tha) cycles.

So an obvious question arises, could aligning with natural cycles actually enhance the effectiveness of our yoga practice? Since mental concentration is high in the morning does it make it a good time for mediation? And because muscular strength and concentration fall in early afternoon- is it an ideal time for restorative yoga? And is late afternoon (when physical performance peaks and the risk of injury drops) the best time for a more energetic power yoga workout?

Now I want to acknowledge that it’s really not as simple as all that. The changing moon phases affect the appropriate times for differing activities each day. For example in the new moon phase, people will be most alert during the early morning hours, while in the second phase leading up to the full moon, people function best in the afternoon. Further complicating matters is the fact that everyone’s body clock isn’t the same. Chronobiological research demonstrates people operate on either of two distinctive chronotypes, morning people tend to wake up and go to sleep earlier and to be most productive early in the day. Evening people tend to wake up later, start more slowly and peak in the evening.

So I wondered, beyond someone inventing an App that meshes our chronotype with moon phases and circadian rhythms was there a simple way to put the yoga of time into practice?And this brings me back to the lovely plant embodiment exercise with which I introduced this post – because it granted me a clarifying epiphany. The answer was within the body – as always.

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Utilizing the great yogic metaphor of body as tree, this meditation instructs us to “ Find a patch of sunlight. Stand tall, let your feet sink into the ground below you, and close your eyes. Reach your bare arms outward and feel the sun warm your skin…feel the lift and lilt as your leaves and stems reach for more sunlight…”

Now considering that the same cryptochromes responsible for a plant “knowing” whether it is in the light or the dark are the same group of genes that keep humans in tune with their biological clock, this meditation aptly asks: “Can you feel the energetic shift when the far-red light of the rising and setting sun cues your body in to the earth’s rotational rhythms?”

I love this because it encourages us to sink deep down into the innate wisdom of our cells. It invites us to “acquire a bodily memory of the play of light and colour as they change over the seasons”. And it suggests that by cultivating our inner plant we can reconnect with our nature as beings in time, we can begin to instinctively sense and move in harmony with the cycles of time that regulate all life on the planet.

Yoga Body: The Backlash

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Two years ago I wrote a popular post titled Yoga Body: The Conspiracy. At the time it was very warmly received, generating thousands of hits, hundreds of shares and loads of positive comments. But lately the commentary hasn’t been very affirmative. In fact, its been making people pretty angry. One yoga teacher was enraged enough to call me an ignorant, lazy, pissed off “fat chick”. Nice. So what I wondered, was suddenly getting people so upset?

A lot of commentators disagreed with my claim that the ‘perfect’ yoga body used to sell yoga mats, clothes, DVDs, books, workshops, festivals, retreats, studio memberships, etc. was not a healthy ideal, that it was a body overworked and underfed. They saw it as a glowing icon of inspiration, the natural outcome of a wholesome yogic lifestyle (i.e. self-discipline and dietary control). And as one person pointed out, if I didn’t have a yoga body- well, clearly I was doing yoga wrong.

Others were distressed because they felt I was making assumptions prejudicial to the naturally thin. (Just because a women is skinny doesn’t mean that she diets or has a narcissistic obsession with working out.) All bodies, fat or thin, are just fine as they are, and it was hypocritical of me to talk about body positivity while being part of the body hating problem.

Now I admit I see their points, I am far too pleasure-loving to attend butt burning yoga boot-camp, and whenever I see a yogini devoid of body fat I suspect her of working hard to attain that physique. But it’s important to acknowledge that my post speaks for the large majority of women, women who carry a little more adipose tissue than the models of Lululemon, women for whom achieving the ‘yoga body” does involve constant work and dietary restraint. (Its whether we’re willing to pay the price, that is the million dollar question.)

This doesn’t mean I’m dissing women on the low-end of the body fat spectrum. I recognize that for some women (as one of my naturally thin friends pointed out) the yoga body is equally unattainable. Because while it may be girlishly slender in the waist and thigh, it’s definitely womanly in the breast and buttock department. Yoga Barbie anyone?backlashyogabarbie

And I’m not being facetious. Just google “yoga body” and you’ll find your screen flooded with young, white, beautiful women whose lithe bodies are either executing some advanced posture requiring the strength and bendiness of an Olympic Gymnast or  are sitting in Lotus, hands in prayer, eyes closed, their enraptured faces evoking beatific female saints who denied the flesh in search of transcendence.

backlashyogabody15Most of these women appear against blurred minimalist backdrops of sea, tropical greenery or spartan studio walls. They do not exist in relation – to either people or their environment, their bodies are the sole and dominating focus of the photograph.

And whether these images originate in corporate advertising, stock photography, or the ubiquitous yoga “selfie”, their taut torsos, rippling muscles and cellulite free thighs, testify to one thing. That the yoga body is a body brought virtuously under control. It is the physical manifestation of the inner strength, willpower, discipline and moral fortitude necessary to achieve it.backlashyogabody 13

And isn’t this why the yoga body flourishes as an icon of yoga culture? Because haven’t we all, bought in to the ideology, as yogi J.Brown writes “ that pushing our physical capabilities is how we utilize practice to grow as people”. That working harder to be better, more healthy and spiritually pure means taking “ the body just past the limit usually thought possible”?

The booming popularity of 30 Day Yoga Challenges certainly exemplifies this conflation of fitness and spiritual development. Here is a collection of copy promoting various challenges currently offered by studios across North America : Strive to complete 30 classes in 30 days! Completing your challenge will require self-control and sacrifice. You can create a whole new way of being. Be Better Than You Were Yesterday. Empower yourself and transform your body and mind in 30 days.

yogachallengeThis gets at the reason I think my post has been getting people so riled up lately, it calls into question that great sacred cow of 21st century yoga -that challenging and controlling our bodies is how we grow our souls.

Despite our pretensions that the yoga body is the natural outcome of yogic discipline and ‘ healthy’ lifestyle, it is certainly not the body ‘au natural’. It is achieved through hours of pure labor, hours spent transforming the dross matter of our flesh into something higher, more refined, something beautiful and spiritually pure. Has the proverbial bed of nails become today the penitent daily workout, as we overcome our weakness, our laziness, our unruly appetites?

It’s an obvious point that whether the yoga body is being sold to us to by big corporations or our local yoga studios, it’s purpose is to keep us striving. Because the more we keep striving, the more we keep buying. Into books, DVD’s, workshops and challenges that tell us with this program or celebrity teacher, we can up pull our bootstraps and finally get it right, be right.

Roseanne Harvey

Roseanne Harvey

I agree with popular blogger Roseanne Harvey that its high time the yoga body “ be reclaimed from Google, reclaimed from marketers, reclaimed from a fragmented culture that has mixed messages and ideas about the human body.” And during her recent quest to achieve her own yoga body in 21 days, Harvey attempted to do exactly that. Because between her glowing accounts of new healthy eating habits and core strengthening routines, Harvey did something really subversive. She posted pictures of herself looking FAT – online – for all the world to see.

Harvey's Shadow Body

Harvey’s Shadow Body

backlashyoga12 Harvey publicly exposed what she calls the shadow body, the pictures of our shame and self loathing, the images quickly and furtively deleted, the images we hide. Harvey writes “Documenting my “shadow body” and posting it all over Facebook took a tremendous amount of courage, and left me feeling vulnerable, yet empowered.” And here lies a valuable cue – because until we make peace with this “shadow body” we will never be free of the fear that we are grotesque and unlovable just as we are.

I have to admit, as enlightened as I may feel myself to be about body image issues, I would rather submit to a dentist drill than publicly post fat pictures of myself on the internet. And when it comes to relentless self-improvement, I’m addicted as anyone to the possibility that with just a little more discipline and elbow grease, the right diet and the right derrière flattering yoga pants, l can bring forth into existence that, super-together, uber-organized, blissed out, svelte yogini version of myself. In short, my yoga body will prove I am in control of my life. Yet I well know the price I pay. Self–acceptance. Being present with gratitude and reverence for the life and the body I have now.

This is why the questions I asked in Yoga Body: The Conspiracy, still need answering. Does the yoga body (and it’s shadow) take root in a backlash against a female body that has become increasingly liberated from patriarchal authority? Why, as yoga helped women develop a new sense of positive embodiment, did the yoga body ( and all that it implies) become enshrined as an ideal of feminine virtue? Why do so many western women of privilege, women who enjoy the first world ‘rights’ denied to so many, spend so much free time, energy and money simply keeping their bodies under control?

So to my posts detractors I say this. No matter our opinions on what the yoga body is or should be, lets drop the judgement, of ourselves and each other. I agree with Harvey in her post Thin Shaming The Body Beautiful Will Get Us Nowhere as she quotes writer Lindy West “ Thin-shaming and fat-shaming are not separate, opposing issues—they are stratification’s of the same issue: Patriarchal culture’s need to demoralize, distract, and pit women against one another. To keep women shackled by shame and hunger. To keep us obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential. “

And finally in closing, I ask you this. What will the future make of this endless media parade of perfect bodies executing perfect poses? What will they conclude about the practice of 21st century yoga? Why do so many respected yoga teachers portray themselves in advanced, awe inducing postures? Why do we have no other visual language to communicate what yoga is or means – than just the yoga body? Maybe its time we find something more meaningful to convey.

Halloween: Shedding Light On The Shadow

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“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~ Carl Jung

It’s the time of the year when the veil between the ordinary world and the supernatural thins. A time when children dress as goblins, pumpkins flicker, plastic skeletons rattle, and talk at late night party’s turns to all things woo-woo. A time we raise the hairs on our necks and scatter goose bumps across our skin, and make room for what normally has no place in the daylight of our daily lives – things that go bump in the night.

We love Halloween; in fact our enthusiasm has grown positively obsessional. Today it rivals Christmas in popularity and consumer spending, and retailers eager to cash in on the Halloween spirit roll out costumes, candy and merchandise earlier and earlier. (In WalMart “Spooky Central” makes it debut in mid-August).

So, I’m curious, why have we gone whole hog celebrating something that every other night of the year (as we patiently explain to our wide-eyed children at bedtime) –does not exist?

bettygrableObviously Halloween puts a benign face on what we usually fear. We indulge our fascination with magic and mystery, ghosts and witches – with the proviso it’s all make-believe. There is no monster under the bed. But maybe there is?

Now I’m not talking about literal ghouls and goblins – but about something psychological. A denied part of ourselves that has grown monstrous, below the dark basement stairs.

The great psychologist Carl Jung believed that what we consciously repress or deny becomes the parts of ourselves that operate beneath conscious awareness, what he called the shadow aspect our psyche. He argued that the overly rationalistic scientific paradigm of the 20th century, was suppressing spirituality, and he warned, if the spiritual aspects of our psyche were not recognized consciously our longing for transcendence – would meet our deepest fears.

zombieWas he right? Have we demonized the transcendent because it is demonized in ourselves? Take a look at our popular media; you’ll see a dark face indeed. The electronic hearth positively burbles with zombies, teen vampires, demonic visitations, hellish hauntings, dismembering ghouls, angels, time-travelers and alien invasions. Could it be that these zombies, demons, vampires, are reflections of our souls?

There is little point in denying that despite our secular scientific world – the ‘ghost in the machine’ still haunts us – and maybe as never before? Statistics reveal that whether it’s an encounter with the dearly departed, UFO or spooky prophetic dream, more people than ever are experiencing supernatural events. Gallup polls show that belief in the paranormal is rising, doubling in the past two decades alone.

According to Paul Kurtz, chairman of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, statistics like these indicate a regressive trend in superstitious thinking and point to the urgent need for teaching critical thinking in schools and colleges.

To believe in the supernatural is to be suffering from magical thinking and/or deviant biochemical processes of the brain. (And for those who choose to go against the grain of consensual reality, there can be some pretty dire consequences, ridicule, ostracism, not to mention hospitalization.)

20596_322667407846531_200159193_nBut Jung would have disagreed. Each of us, he argued, is destined to have a supernatural encounter, not because they constituted the remnants of a more primitive mentality, but because they reflected the growth of our consciousness as it expanded to higher levels of awareness.

Jung predicted that the 21st century would begin to see increasing reports of signs in the skies, of people being carried off in wondrous crafts, and increased paranormal phenomena because taken as a whole, these encounters are a shadow projection of our denied spiritual selves.

Stanislav Grof, Ph. D. founder of  Transpersonal Psychology, believes that rising accounts of supernatural encounters (what he calls Spiritually Transformative Experiences) do not betray a trend of delusional thinking but reflect instead our evolving comic awareness of deeper realities. And according to Dr. Michael Grosso, author of Frontiers of The Soul : Exploring Psychic Evolution these statistics suggest “we’re confronting a biological transformation – this is an evolutionary process that we’re witnessing” .

superheroToday learning to grapple with emerging psychic powers is a popular theme in films, books and video games. From the blockbuster film X Factor and spinoffs, Harry Potter franchise, to TV series like Buffy, Heroes and True Blood, all feature ‘mutants’ accepting and dealing with -the challenge of their superhuman potential. Is this growing fascination with paranormal powers reflective of an evolutionary change occurring in consciousness?

We should remember the significance of the supernatural in our religions, myths, fairy-tales, literature, art, film and popular culture. Because whether it’s the midnight knock on the door, the invitation down the rabbit hole, the decision between the red and the blue pill, this experience takes us to the edge of the ordinary world. Where we are left with two choices: stay to the straight and narrow, or take the yellow brick road. It is the moment that initiates what mythologist Joseph Campbell has famously dubbed the “hero’s call to adventure”.

sweatlodgeI think we should pay closer attention to the attitudes of our indigenous cultures. Their traditions of vision quest and sweat-lodge, actively sought an experience of the supernatural as an honour, an acquisition of knowledge, a lifelong guide. Supernatural experiences were understood to be glimpses into a higher reality, of which material world is only a reflection, like shadows seen through the glass darkly. And these cultures understood what we have long forgotten – ignoring the spirit world portends disaster for the entire tribe.

So I see Halloween as a necessary crack in the door, a safety valve, a time when we let the monsters out and see that they are not so frightful after all. Jung stressed the importance of externalizing shadow material through socially acceptable channels to bring its inherent darkness to light.

And isn’t that what Halloween is about? When we don Dracula’s cape, dress our children as superheroes and string big scary spider-webs across our front porches, aren’t we shedding light and love on our ‘shadow’ – the repressed magical, supernatural and mysterious aspects of own psyche?

halloween-eveThe etymology of the word “Halloween” means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening” and Celtic cultures saw it as time when fairies and the dead could walk in our world. And when I think back to my own childhood memories, it’s not the costumes or the candy that I remember most. It was the thrill of night; trees illuminated in street-lamps, stretching shadows, the danger of being out past dark, the presence of something other -out there. Yes it was scary. And yet, in the presence of the excited happy faces of parents and other children, the communal celebration – I felt safe. It was okay after all.