I’m No Skinny Minnie Yoga Teacher – But, Oh, How I Want To Be!

As much as I want to ripple with muscle and sinew, and sport teeny-tiny rock hard buns, I have to face it; it’s never going to happen. It’s time to grow up. I spent my twenties dieting because I wanted to be as desirable and fashionable as the models in magazines, and in my thirties I dieted because I wanted to be seen as successful, toned, thin and in control.

Now as old age and the fear of infirmity looms, my priorities need to be less about thinness and more about health. So after decades spent struggling to banish my adipose tissue, I’ve decided to give up the fight.

The problem is that yoga as a uber trend has filled the media landscape with glowing, lithe, muscular women clad in the tightest apparel imaginable. The rise of the super thin superstar yoga teacher to celebrity status compounds my dilemma. I worry that the gentle bump of my belly and the generous curve of my thighs will cause my students to see me as undisciplined and not a very serious yogi.

They may be right in a way. I’m no longer willing to submit my body to punishing routines or deny myself the pleasure of ‘gourmandizing’. I see the pleasure of a creamy smelly cheese or a nice glass of Syrah as good for soul.  I take heed of what author and molecular biologist Bruce Lipton suggests in his book The Biology of Belief — that our cells respond to feelings of pleasure and joy with regenerative growth, while fear, hatred or anger causes them to shrink and retreat, allowing disease to take hold.

But nonetheless, every once in a while, overcome by the latest vision of washboard abs on the cover of Yoga Journal, I find myself wallowing in anxiety and recriminations. No more chocolate cake, no more sweet potato fries.

I realize this continuing preoccupation with weight is shallow and narcissistic – but is it really my fault? Aren’t these the traits the corporate world has spent billions to deeply inculcate into my psyche? By constantly feeding me, all of us, images of already anorexic models, airbrushed to appear even thinner; doesn’t the cog of consumerism keep turning?

As feminist author Naomi Wolf pointed out nearly twenty years ago in her book The Beauty Myth, the beauty industry is in the business of stoking our insecurities for profit. They well know the fatter we can be made to feel, the more likely we are to purchase fat-free ice cream or the latest back fat erasing girdle.

At the time Wolf wrote the book, 90 percent of American women considered themselves overweight, and almost half of them were dieting. Now two decades later, little has changed.   With every wait at a supermarket checkout, I am surrounded by magazine headlines telling me how to walk, run, flush and fast away those 10 lbs – in a week.  Recently one tabloid cover exposed mounds of dimpled celebrity cellulite, the shame!

But it isn’t really funny. Study after study show this media exposure is linked to growing rates of depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in girls. This is the biggest reason I want to finally to leave this entire obsession with body image behind.

It grieves me that I’ve personally wasted so much precious energy over a perfectly normal belly and it grieves me even more to see this continue in another generation of women.

And now, it angers me that yoga, something that should make us feel good in our skin, is being sold as a product to lure us into yet another cycle of consumption, built around yet another set of impossible standards.

This year fashion week in New York, included its first ever yoga fashion show. Footage taken backstage showed the models (all yoga teachers) being directed to look tranquil and serene and to remember that above all – this was fashion.

As I watched the impeccably groomed, incredibly lithe, and overwhelmingly beautiful women, clad in their designer yoga duds, showing off the perfection of their downward dogs, it was clear I was witnessing another tentacle of Wolf’s beauty myth emerging.

Yoga today, as writer and blogger Carol Horton so aptly observes, is being sold as a brand that “ promises to remodel you to fit a prefabricated image as someone who’s not only thin, fit, bendy, and attractive, but also empowered, serene, smiling, and – most of all – happy.”

Horton writes “Of course, yoga can confer such benefits, and it’s only natural to want them.” The problem is this manufacture of a seemingly fabulous, but ultimately false pseudo self “undermines the most important gifts the practice has to offer.”

That’s what makes it all, to use Horton’s words “so powerful – and so insidious”. The more we buy into the images that we’re being sold – the more we become alienated from our authentic selves.

I agree with Horton who writes that “If we want to have a practice that’s stronger than the powerful new “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.”

So where to begin? Well, doesn’t ‘authenticity’ begin with the body? And I don’t mean the body we see in the mirror, but the body we experience through sensation.

Our image-orientated culture asks that we ignore our body’s needs and desires in order to look a certain way. But yoga reconnects us to our bodies; we learn not to ‘see’ the body from outside in, but to feel it from the inside out.  And we discover with this shift of perception, that being in the body can feel good.  It can make us feel healthy, energetic and strong.

That’s why I want my students to lighten up, and I don’t mean in the thighs. I want them to stop fretting about whether they’re working hard enough to lose weight and bring to their practice some gratitude for being healthy and alive. I want them to experience the strength of their limbs and the joy of breathing life-sustaining oxygen deeply into their lungs.

I believe that the more we use our yoga practice to connect with the real life pleasure of being in our bodies, the less likely we are to buy into the media messaging that wants us to judge ourselves from the outside.

A study conducted by California’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute at the University of California supports this idea. They found that women who practice yoga “reported less self-objectification, greater satisfaction with physical appearance, and fewer disordered eating attitudes compared to non-yoga practitioners”

Through yoga, the study suggests “women may have intuitively discovered a way to buffer themselves against messages that tell them that only a thin and ‘beautiful’ body will lead to happiness and success.”

So it gives me comfort that the ultimate power of yoga lays in its ability to transcend the disempowering advertising by which it is being sold.

We all fear being judged. I’m no different. But as a yoga teacher, I feel an urgency to settle this matter within myself. Can I help my students with self acceptance if I can’t make peace with my muffin top? Perhaps the best thing I can do, according to Anna Guest Jelly, founder of Curvy Yoga, is stop pretending that I’ve got it all under control. She believes the most important thing yoga teachers can do is “name their own experience.”

In a recent interview in The Magazine of Yoga Anna states “I think admitting that sometimes you hate your body or sometimes you’re eying the person next to you to see who’s fatter isn’t something we want to admit in yoga. We’re all supposed to be above that somehow—or at least be polite enough not to talk about it!”

Anna suggests maybe that this is where yoga teachers can start. “We can start with ourselves, in our small sphere of influence, and really be a force for good in both our own lives and in the lives of those with whom we are in relation.” I like Anna’s suggestion that we begin every yoga class by asking students to find five things they like about their bodies. “Over time, this will become a healthy habit for them.” She reminds us, “there is no magic solution except for this – practice.”

The final word I want to leave to Naomi Wolf who twenty years ago, asked questions that have become even more relevant today. What if all the cumulative energy and time women spent on their bodies were spent solving world hunger or finding the cure to cancer? What if all the self-hatred and recriminations engendered by comparing ourselves to airbrushed images evaporated? How might women’s lives be different?

So I invite you to begin to imagine. How can we find a way to achieve something more meaningful with our lives than just a better body? How can we stop wasting our precious time with self-hatred and serve our highest state of well-being? I believe it boils down to this, we must practice feeling good in our skin, and we must practice substituting love for fear.

For more on yoga and body image please go to my follow up post: Yoga Body: The Conspiracy


19 Comments Add yours

  1. Danielle, This is a wonderful post. I agree with you enthusiastically, and with Carol Horton.

    I also think that Carol’s writing can be interpreted in other ways. We can also re-interpret yoga to be a path of strong discipline and asceticism, a path that takes away from the parts of popular culture that actually offers us chocolate cake and sweet potato fries with the message that they will make us happy, or that on some level we deserve them.

    The radical acceptance that you describe is a subversive path. I love it and support it. But strong discipline is also a subversive path. There are many ways to stand outside of popular culture, and one of them is to use yoga to interrogate the consumption desires that culture teaches us. The desire for fries is just as culturally constructed as the desire to be thin, so why take one personally if not the other?

    Perhaps a practice that balances radical acceptance and strong will – Patanjali’s abhyasa and vairagra – can help us to see our culture clearly in the way you beautifully describe, while also participating strongly in yoga’s more action-based forms of transformation.

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Thanks! You have many important points, some of which I am planning to write about in future posts. Your comments certainly reveal the complexity of the issue at hand.

      I agree our desire for certain foods (just as my desire to be thin) is culturally constructed – which is I am involved in the process of untangling my own thicket of (often unconscious) beliefs, reactions and perceptions.

      One issue I did not dwell on this post (length concerns) is the idea that our response to food (pleasure or fear) impacts our bodies on many levels. Allowing ourselves pleasure may be just as important to our health and spiritual development as discipline and control.

      Of course, I agree with you completely that balance is necessary. Indulgence and asceticism are both part of the big picture, i.e. yin and yang. (I especially love your idea of a practice that balances radical acceptance and strong will)

      Finally, my own personal belief that yoga is a methodology that activates our higher brain through discipline of its more primitive centers can be found in my posts Yoga and The Biology of Transcendence. See Part One here.

      Of course Carol’s wonderful, insightful writing can be taken in many ways, but alas I can only authentically offer my own interpretation.

      Thank you for taking time to make these valuable and thoughtful comments. Namaste.

  2. Spoken from the heart. Honoring your wisdom, curves + desire to make a difference in people’s lives.

  3. Lauren Naylor says:

    As a fellow yoga teacher occasionally falling into the same trap of wishing I was like those covergirls on Yoga Journal (believe me I know to stop myself, but it sort of sneaks there sometimes), I so appreciate your wonderful article and bow to the sisterhood of yoga teachers of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. 🙂 Radiant Light!

  4. nadinefawell says:

    I absolutely relate, and how beautifully & eruditely you expressed yourself! Also, I think Anna G-J is totally right: naming our own experience gives us power and authenticity as yoga teachers, and that, that is so much more than a hot pants body. Which is NOT a gift that keeps giving. On account of the inevitable ageing thing.

  5. Judy says:

    You write beautifully. I have just discovered your blog and am enjoying the variety of subjects you touch upon. In one of your other posts, and in this one you talk about body image. But even in your blog I find no photos of the “sisterhood of muffin tops”, of which I proudly belong. I would love to see a post about strong women, doing yoga that didn’t fit into the media image.

  6. What a lovely article. I am a yoga teacher and we need to trace back to the origins! Pantanjali’s scripts…I wander how many qualified (so called) teachers are even aware of these? Yoga is ungoverned and anyone can set up training courses now . People are focusing on Yoga as a form of weight loss then they are connecting with the ego. Yoga should release us from Ego not attatch us to it!
    Yoga is a life practice not a gymnastic display or competion in drinking green juice and accomplishing the strongest arm balance.
    I am finding more and more that the yoga induatry is focusing on the asthtestic results. The whole idea of needing a mat, toe socks, yoga bag and vast ammount of other kit just plays into the whole idea of consumerism which Yoga is not about. Yoga is about treating yourself and others well, breathing and moving with grace and ease. Well done for this piece. More like us may actually have a furture in “keeping yoga real! xx

  7. Tanya Dayman says:

    Your rIght. of course. And intuitively have felt it too. Sadly I have no doubt bought into the fashion industry standards. I know that we should be working towards the dissolution of the ego, but my ego always checks the mirror to see now my arse looks in my new bold print capri yoga tights. I know I shouldn’t but I hate it when my thighs touch. I am a victim – but only because I chose to be. But I can choose to be different.

  8. Angela says:

    Loving your blog, deep insights, thank you for sharing your words.

  9. Nancy Miller says:

    I also am a Yoga Instructor. I am 5ft. 3in. And 131 lb. I promote relaxation, flexibility, learning to breathe deeply, stretching slowly, balance. I average around 12 in my class aged from 20 to 79. We don’t look at body shapes, how you look in what you wear to Yoga class. It is a fairly darkened room. Have been doing this for 10 years. Oh and by the way, I am 70 years old and have had 4 heart by- passes.

  10. Carolyn says:

    In response to the first comment: Being overweight is a complex issue as well that has many facets, most of which have nothing to do with a lack of discipline.

  11. I have to respond to this post as well because there’s a call to action. As a studied yogi I would have to say that the best way to combat the negative images and values placed on yoga would be simply to reinforce the positive aspects of yoga as often as possible. As yoga teachers we have a unique platform to stand on – our students listen to us commanding breath and posture and “just sink a little deeper if you can” so they will most definitely listen to us regarding our thoughts about the general public’s view of yoga. We can gently suggest the important aspects of yoga (i.e., breath, ease of posture, spirituality etc) while discrediting the unimportant aspects (perfect posture, ease of balance, rock hard muscles). This is done by the way we teach our classes – offering alternatives and reminding students it is OK to not be able to do something in class. If we continue to use the platform we have as teachers and yogis alike – we can slowly discredit the business aspects that have no foundation.

  12. Jewell says:

    What’s up, I log on to your blog like every week. Your story-telling style is awesome, keep it up!

  13. Benjamin says:

    Spot on with this write-up, I truly believe that this amazing site needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read through more, thanks for the information!

  14. Philipp says:

    Terrific post however I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Appreciate it!

  15. Elizabet says:

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that helped me. Cheers!

  16. Anne says:

    Really beautiful — I have had the same thought many times. I remember going to the owner of the first studio where I taught, nearly in tears, because I was afraid I was the “fat teacher” at a size 8-10. I love my curves, I love my glass of syrah and I love the joys and pleasures and challenges of both body and yoga. Thanks for this 🙂

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