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?
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.
Most 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.
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.
This 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.
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 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.
51 Comments Add yours
Thank you for posting this! I interviewed a few yoga teachers on this subject for my site, and the most common response to “what is a yoga body?” was “the body you have”. But I still have my own wishes for a perfectly in-control body and life. I’m currently reading “The Power of Glamour” by Virginia Postrel,who posits that glamour is partially created by our own longings, attached to an image just vague enough to speak to them. I think the image of the solo woman meditating or arching into an impossible pose (in a beautiful resort environ, btw) gives us just enough info to relate, but also takes us away from the ordinary pressures of our life. We can put ourselves into that picture. Though if these images are taken as reality, future people will wonder why we were so antisocial!
Well said. Thanks.
Wow! Thank you! Having been practicing yoga for the past 20+ years (sometimes more regularly, sometimes less regularly), I have asked these questions myself – though perhaps not as eloquently. I have seen yoga bring people together, and it has helped me to heal my own body shame. When I keep yoga personal and local, it’s been good for me. As far as looking at media, I can’t do it anymore. If I waited to have the perfect body before I could teach, or to be able to do all the advanced postures, I would never teach. Power yoga was never my thing either, I can go to an aerobics class for that. (But then, when I first starting taking yoga classes, the first half hour was dedicated to meditating and pranayama, and the last 15 minutes to deep relaxation – a regular class used to run 1.5 to 2 hours long).
I posted an article a while back about lululemon written by a friend of mine. She is a regular writer for many yoga forums, but no one was willing to publish her piece. Though many people were receptive, I also received a lot of nasty insults, condescension, and even curses and threats. I was amazed!
Hang in there! I’m realizing that everything ebbs and flows, including the yoga “culture” as it is portrayed, and sadly at times, therefore, acted out.
Anyway, great piece – thanks for writing.
Reblogged this on Shiny, Happy, Healthy. and commented:
I loved this piece.
It’s such a great reminder that yoga is for EVERY BODY.
Also great to remember that “yoga” is many things: breath, balance, meditation, awareness…
Never just the poses.
you never fail to inspire! thanks for having such a strong voice, Danielle!
means a lot – thank you.
Thank you for this! I remember being in a women’s workshop and the speaker was Robert Bly’s wife, (Ruth Counsell I think). She said that she felt every woman looks in the mirror at some time and despises what she sees. It made sense to me, however, someone in the audience stood up and started denouncing her and her view. Interesting what buttons get pushed! Hang in there – the truth will set us free.
Great piece of writing!
Thank you for sharing your view.
Thankyou for your post. I am a yoga teacher of a specific practice designed for women called Tigress Yoga which seeks to completely shift the emphasis from how it looks to how it feels inside this womanly body. In my first days of training though I came up against so much of what you speak of in my mind. I don’t have a yoga body. Women won’t take me seriously as a teacher if I don’t look a certain way. It’s deep conditioning that takes work to unravel but I believe many women are working towards it. Delaney. X
Right on! Everyone has their own path to follow.
When even pilates is in better touch with how women feel than today’s what should be called “aspirational yoga” – rather than “inspirational yoga”, you gotta know “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” … you just hafta!
And I don’t just say that only because of all my newly acquired medical contraindications against whole classes of poses, but …. IT’S A THOUGHT!!!
hah! like that….
Great post on what seems to have unfortunately become *the* hot button issue in yoga today.
I went back and read some of the comments on the “Conspiracy” post you referred to. Wow, they are very passionately worded and felt! I would suggest that any readers of this post who haven’t seen those comments click over and check them out. They give a sense of just what a big deal the “yoga body” question has become.
Personally, as someone who has been drawn to a very physically demanding practice (Forrest yoga), I can relate to the readers who say that a dedicated yoga practice can and will change your body in dramatic ways. But what I don’t get at all is the ways in which that fact is connected to such a reaction against your critique of the endless photo stream of iconic (read: young, thin, female, white, individualized, serene-looking) “yoga bodies.”
Your critics say that the images help to draw people to yoga, and that once there, they will not only naturally move closer to that “yoga body” look, but discover the deeper dimensions of the practice as well.
As someone who’s been practicing for 15 years, I think that is naive.
First, the “yoga body” imagery introduces substantial confusion about both personal identity and yoga practice, whether you are naturally thin (as I am) or not. You can always be more beautiful. more perfect, more serene . . . more like, in short, the symbolic promise of the imagery. Or so, one is led to think. In fact, we will all age, and become less beautiful over time. And it happens quickly, really. That’s just a fact.
Anyone is doesn’t think that it’s normal to be impacted by relentless media imagery is simply wrong. Human beings are deeply social creatures. Our sense of meaning is deeply shaped by our culture and it’s very, very VERY hard to undo that conditioning.
Traditionally, that’s what yoga is about – undoing that conditioning. It takes years, is difficult, and always an iffy proposition. I’ve never met anyone truly “enlightened” and the most advanced teachers I admire write that they never have, either. But, enlightenment is what it would take to not be affected at all by one’s culture.
To advocate promoting the “yoga body” image as a means of getting people into yoga on a serious level is incoherent and self-contradictory.
Thanks for the great series of thought-provoking, important posts!
“To advocate promoting the “yoga body” image as a means of getting people into yoga on a serious level is incoherent and self-contradictory.”
“Naive”, “incoherent” and “self-contradictory” are very kind attributions to the motives. I don’t know why you are being so kind …
How about being more accurate, and seeing through these possible motives. Deconstruct what is generally in heavy rotation these days.
Words like “disingenuous”, “condescending” and “venal” come to mind for me–and readily ….
Thanks Carol, what an elegant summation – and yes, totally, I agree yoga is about undoing the ‘conditioning’ on so many levels…
Insightfully said, Carol. I’ve been disturbed by the flood of these images too. It doesn’t help yoga and it doesn’t help my students.
The ultra-advanced pose images are part of a wave of yoga that is pushing the body to be more and more acrobatic as a misguided way to deepen one’s practice.
As someone who is naturally bendy, I can attest that it is easy to be seduced by this and think that it is an “enlightened” path. Oddly enough, it was a teacher who has profited from “fat-burning” yoga that shook me out of that and into a more organic practice that is nourishing for the body and joints.
I suppose, in the end, this is the product of asana being separated from meditation and the other limbs of yoga.
Reblogged this on Holly Troy ~ Sacred Folly and commented:
Interesting piece on yoga and body image, and why some begin the practice of yoga in the first place.
“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. As Harvey reminds us, ‘the body beautiful will get us nowhere’… ‘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.'”
as always to the point! thank you again for another great article! the point of yoga is simple, practice, practice when you feel like it, when your gut feeling / heart feels like it, without attachments, expectations etc. i believe in any practice, physical or metal, we need to enjoy the process, when we enjoy, feel like this express us or the practice coincide with who we are, then everything else is irrelevant. unfortunately the current advertisement industry promotes always the results and we get carried away sometimes…
I think Roseann made a very good point when she said “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.”
However, I think this extends beyond simply our physical body, but also to the core of our mental being (our self). This is where yoga can be great, if we look beyond the physical asana part of the practice. In meditation, yoga allows us a chance to practice being with ourselves without attaching to the many thoughts that are constantly firing in our minds. This inlcudes thoughts of shame, fear, unworthiness, etc.
For me, learning to be at peace with myself was one of the greatest gifts I have received from yoga during the years I have been practicing it. Also, a funny thing happened, once I let go of the self-judgement, and sefl-consciousness of how I looked, then the obsessive thoughts about body image etc. stopped as well.
“There is no wrong way to have a body.”
Great link! Thanks!
As I recently began a photo series on yoga which has featured mostly fit men and women I feel compelled to comment on your article. For me, the question of who I work with is all about shadows and lines. Someone with abs, triceps, biceps or even simply tendons that become defined while they’re stretching to pose is much more interesting to look at then the same person would be without these features. Do I then contribute to perpetuating an unrealistic image of men and women? I hate to say “yes” but it would seem that I do. I would venture that in many cases where a photographer is choosing models for yoga shots (or shots where the body will exposed and featured), they will choose models with lines and where someone from marketing is choosing the models they will probably go the same route but for different reasons (sex appeal, etc.). The net result is the same of course, in that, overall, the average female (and male) body are misrepresented.
Hope I don’t get lambasted for writing this, just reflecting on my own actions and reasons and putting it out there for the sake of dialogue…
thank you for this piece! as a yoga teacher i come up all the time against people’s insecurities and fears about their “unworthiness” to practice yoga- “i’m not flexible”, “i’m not fit enough”, etc. yoga, as i understand it, is the practice of cultivating inner awareness and sensitivity to what is there: being fully present. one thing i say all the time to my students is that the quality of their practice is determined not by how they look in a pose, but by how how attuned they are to what they are feeling and their ability to be guided by that.
I am a professional belly dancer, and a size 2; a runner and an athlete, by choice and by joy. And I too struggle with the subject here, feel anger at these projections.
This blog in its entirety is one of the best ones in this subject area. Honest, clear, very well written, carefully bringing forth the details and their relevance in a way that clearly (but gently) shows the reader the differing perspectives… and the nuances inbetween.
From this post, I came away better informed and feeling more normalized, less frustrated. Thank you. 🙂
“it’s [sic] purpose is to keep us striving. Because the more we keep striving,…”
A newbie yogi/yogini asked his/her teacher, “How long will it take for me to achieve some degree of mastery if I practice 2 days per week?”
The teacher replied, “About three years.”
The newbie asked, “Well how long then if I practice 3-4 days per week?”
The teacher replied, “Perhaps five years.”
The newbie asked, not without some degree of frustration, “How long then if I practice 6 days per week?”
The teacher replied, “Probably about eight to ten years, maybe longer.”
Totally exasperated the newbie responded, “I don’t get it! How come the more striving and dedicated my practice the longer you say it is going to take?”
The teacher replied, “You have but two eyes. One of them will be so focused on improving your performance you will only have one eye left to focus on your practice.”
It would be wonderful if the striving stopped at just buying. Sadly, not so. It exists in the alleged six count six second inspiration of the upward arms in pranayama (that on average really only lasts about 4.5 seconds with a striving pushy teacher) and accelerates into the lowering of the arms and the exhale while the striving teacher blurts out “theslowerthebetter.” Is this Pranayama or Formula One racing? I’d prefer to just Pranamanyana.
It exists in the desire to take yet another class and pick up yet another paper certificate of attendance. This sells product, but you cannot buy poise or skill or the intelligence it takes to incorporate it into your life. You have to get that on your own mat, by yourself and in yourself. Just what are you going to do with those certificates, anyway? Paper the walls in your studio? Your bathroom? Your WC?
30 day challenges? Been there done that. I didn’t get a thinner body, didn’t grow more hair, didn’t meet my dream girl, didn’t get more flexible and when some dude cut in front of me on the road instead of flipping him the bird with one hand I took both hands off the wheel and went into the namaskar sign. I have no idea where that came from but if I had flipped him the bird at least I would have had one hand left on the wheel. I still do the 30 day challenge, however, it takes me 40-60 days to do it. I don’t do the namaskar sign any more and I manage to keep both hands on the wheel (most of the time).
“Empower yourself and transform your body and mind in 30 days.” Holy nirvana! People who wrote this and believe it don’t need enlightenment as much as they need to TRANSCEND THE BULLSHIT. They are probably convinced they levitate when they go number two.
“Be Better Than You Were Yesterday” Pretty hard isn’t it to be here NOW if you are still hanging on to yesterday? Even a child knows you cannot step in the same river twice. A graph of progress showing incremental steady achievement? Anybody who has ever studied brain growth knows the brain itself doesn’t grow that way so why should anything else in our body or our practice?
“You can create a whole new way of being.” You mean like an ALIEN? How about just a human being being human? Forget the Roswell stuff! Stay on Earth connected with yourself and others. Become a somanaut not an alienonaut.
I read on the Internet that when Krishnamacharya tried to pay his teacher for the years of training he spent at his master’s side, the old guru refused money.
Did his guru ask him to go meditate in a cave? Eat raw meat? Eat raw food? Cook slow food? Never go to McDonald’s? Become a priest? Go gluten free? Be eco-friendly? Campaign against global warming? Save the whales? The polar bears? The spotted owl? The gray wolf? Do doubles in a 60 day hot yoga challenge? Of course not. He asked him to go find a woman, marry her and have kids. Gawd….how pedestrian.
Go back and look at the advertising-marketing drivel mentioned up above. 30 day challenge? Piece of cake! Just try living with the same woman for 30 years and having three kids. 30 day challenge is looking pretty easy now isn’t it? Hell, try being the woman with three kids and it will seem like thirty years (some days). Same husband? May seem like sixty years (some days.)
Empower yourself? Transform? The only way to transcend the bullshit is to get your hands into it. Nobody who ever has three kids tries to levitate. You just consider yourself lucky if you have the time to try to go number two. A double lock on the door (inside of the door) might help unless the kids are waiting behind the shower curtain to ambush you. To paraphrase the words of that famous song, “You’ll never wipe alone…”
Better than you were yesterday? Ok maybe the Beatles had it right: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…” Of course there are those kids, who, when Mom is about to lose it say, “Mom, you think maybe you need to go to yoga today?” Bless them. They need a break as much as you do.
A whole new way of being? It’s usually a pretty good idea to master only one thing at a time. Some people are so busy multitasking they just don’t get that is multifracking. So why not first try to focus on beginning to master one thing before you move on to something new? People who keep moving on to something “new” become the challenge others see in the world, not the change they want to be.
Of course you solve all of these issues by doing hot yoga and if you do it enough in a hot enough room everybody is guaranteed at least one thing:
My name is Barry Craig and I approve this message http://www.optimalbodywork.net
Thanks, Barry, as usual, your comments illuminate and entertain!
Oh, was that comment a MASTERPIECE … I’d love to read your blogs …
great response! You hit all the points and summarily deflated them.
Not exactly on the same topic, but one that I shared on Facebook, and in its class, the BEST I’ve read:
“I can feel a difference between a true yoga class led meaningfully by a teacher with real intentions and a yoga class led by the resident group fitness instructor at the local rec center.
“Go ahead, move your bodies. But move your mind too. Respect the asanas. Take time with them. Sun Salutations are not a race. They are a practice in bringing together your mind and body through your breath. King Lizard isn’t only meant to stretch your quads, it opens your heart and sends your mind on a journey of endurance, patience, and tolerance….”
So all these visual marketing and other commercial tactics basically evidence a lack of RESPECT for the practice …
This article is very interesting because I’ve never assumed that the girls in yoga pictures got their bodies solely by doing yoga. Maybe it’s because I live in LA, but 1) I assume they are models and 2) that kind of “perfection” requires an intense amount of work that goes beyond doing three yoga classes a week (I know bc I do three classes a week, bootcamp once a week, go running, go spinning, etc., and still don’t have that body). But I can see how others could misinterpret these images in yoga marketing. You bring up some great points.
I think these yogi models are absolutely a beautiful inspiration and I don’t want to take anything away from them… but I think it’s important for the rest of the world to know that doing yoga won’t GET you that body. Intense cardio, pilates, yoga, (perhaps weight-training), and/or a VERY restricted, clean diet can get you close. But there are also genetics that come into play. And in regards to postures, a lot of the girls I know who can do really advanced postures have a background in gymnastics or have just been working at it for a very long time. I think it’s awesome… and more power to them.
My point — no matter how much I diet or workout, do yoga, go spinning, dance, etc., I will never be Kate Moss’ size or stature. I’m just not build that way. And that’s OK. And that last statement… that alone… is what yoga should be selling.
Thanks for spreading awareness.
Reblogged this on j.lol and commented:
Elegantly written and entirely true!
Bravo Danielle! Thank you for writing this.
Having been a yoga practitioner for over 15 years, I reflect back to a time where I strongly identified with the ideal yoga body, sought after it and advanced in my yoga asana practice quite significantly in that pursuit. Then one day, I woke up and I realized I wasn’t a better person because of it… and hey, isn’t this yoga supposed to transform my inner world too? In fact, I was more obsessed with my physical appearance and physical practice than ever, and continually compared myself to others. I wasn’t any happier, more content or satisfied with myself.
My pursuit of the yoga body also brought long-term ill effects resulting from strenuous practice – with hyper-mobility in joints that shouldn’t be hyper-mobile and with continuous sacral-iliac pain. I came to ask myself… what was the point of doing such an extreme practice?… to what end?… to look good, feel strong?…at what cost? Isn’t the practice of yoga supposed to be supportive of my health and well-being?
Since then has been an exploration focused on cultivating self-compassion, care, understanding, healing, and a letting go of perfection and that ideal yoga body.
In my opinion, true yoga practice does not focus primarily on asana and the physical body anyhow. Its practices are based on the intention to transform ones’ being and to connect to higher consciousness / state of awareness / purpose…to find wholeness.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to cultivate meaning and worth that is less dependent on the outer physical world, including my body and its abilities, and instead to focus on cultivating an inner well-being and care that lessens a need to perpetually pursue being good enough, or worthy enough in this world.
So true! Been there, done that. Thanks for taking the time to contribute your comments…
I have never (yet) been there … having practiced regularly for 6 years and late-middle aged … am no longer middle-path oriented in my practice; and am willing to go ALL OUT, but within constraints, and hampered by quite a few medically mandated contraindications. When you get to that fork in the road .. well, thank you for saving me wasted time on the rest of my journey. Peace out!
It’s almost as if we as a culture have trouble making sense of something that uses the physical body to relate to the spiritual mind. I’ve never thought yoga was supposed be some get fit quick program, but many classes are definitely run that way (instructors shouting for you to “push it”, etc.). I also agree that images like these “yoga bodies” both disenfranchise many serious yogis who don’t fit that mold, and also gives unrealistic expectations to people who might be better off in a standard fitness class (if the physical body is their primary goal). I practiced classical ballet at a professional level for years, and I always looked forward to our weekly yoga class as a time when we didn’t have to push it to the limit and compete- it made me feel peaceful and grateful for my body. These images are absolutely unrealistic, and as you rightly pointed out, will not be achieved by yoga alone. It’s offensive to serious yoga enthusiasts such as yourself, and it’s damaging to people seeking a body that they will never get from that practice. Because of my background in ballet and my physique (which I always point out, is definitely part genetics- you can’t change the size of your skeleton) people often ask me for fitness advice. I can’t tell you how many women do yoga a few times a week and DO expect these results. I always tell them, if that’s what you really want you need to: 1. Understand that every body, even at it’s fittest and most muscular, looks different. 2. Commit to some serious strength/resistance training at least 4 times a week, supplemented with a twice a week flexibility training. I think in the western world we have too closely tied anything physical with appearance. For me ballet was always deeply spiritual, but usually any compliment I got (from non-dancers) was not about my grace or agility or expression, but on how my legs looked in shorts, or how toned my x,y, or z was.
I’m a former dancer myself, so this resonates! Thanks.
Thank you so much for your prior comment. Following is an excerpt from an article by Kate Holcombe, student of TVK Desikachar, son of Krishnamachrya:
“The goal of yoga is to come to a place of
independence from the agitations of the
mind, and to a deeper connection with
your own inner compass—that quiet,
peaceful place within. When you are
connected to this inner compass, you are
better able to handle the twists and turns
of life. You don’t take things so personally.
Your mood generally remains more stable.
You see things more clearly, and so you are
able to make choices that serve you better.”
The entire article may be found on yogajournal,com May 2010 pp.71ff.
Including leaving out of yoga. Period. Works both ways.
If yoga does not serve you (other reasons too, such as a medical condition needing straight, dedicated, moving large muscles of the body – cardio I have developed – one year ago) … I have ratcheted down my practice frequency by nearly 2/3rds …
Love this topic. I agree wholeheartedly with all of the previous comments. I have been teaching yoga for over 35 years and have observed its transformation……and the transformation has not been one I would have expected. Way too much emphasis is now aimed at perfection of asanas, attempts to create a “yoga body” (which in reality is just utter nonsense), and focus on extremely flexibility for the sake of appearances. Our yoga society has created a society of elitists and perfectionists, all counterintuitive to the intention of ancient yoga practice as a path to spiritual evolution. Thanks for all or your honest, and real, comments. Keep up the good work.
“Way too much emphasis is now aimed at perfection of asanas, attempts to create a “yoga body” (which in reality is just utter nonsense), and focus on extremely flexibility for the sake of appearances.”
Ah yes, Flexibility, the Holy Grail of Yoga ( if I may be granted a temporary license to mix cultural metaphors). Greater flexibility = greater enlightenment (NOT!!!)
Heard of an incident the other day where a yogini burst into tears during class. Teacher asks her if there is a problem and of course she says yes and adds she has been doing this yoga for a little more than a year and she still cannot touch the floor if her knees are locked. Teacher says “Why is that a problem? God is not on the floor!” Touche!
In a moment of lucidness (at least for me, anyway) one day I coined the following aphorism:
“Saying you cannot or do not do yoga because you are not flexible is like saying you don’t save money because you are not a millionaire.”
Of course our society is so busy drinking its own crafted cultural karmic Koolaid…
Great Article. LOVED the Barbie dolls doing yoga picture – made me really laugh.
Here’s some discussion on a topic you mentioned but didn’t really tackle in this article: whiteness. The most disturbing aspect of mainstream American yoga is the way America has excluded South Asian practitioners from the visible yoga landscape!
I’m not saying white people can’t practice yoga, but some visual recognition that white people didn’t invent yoga, that yoga has primarily developed in a non-white culture, and that South Asians who are not ‘yoga gurus’ practice yoga would be fantastic.
I mean, 50-year-old ‘yoga gurus’ are the most I’ve ever seen of South Asians from the mainstream American yoga establishment.
And that’s a big problem, because it looks like South Asians are invisible in the yoga landscape unless they’re here to teach you some badass yoga moves or lead you into spiritual enlightenment. That’s what South Asians are in American yoga: people who are here to give you stuff like, I dunno, a yoga body or a fulfilling spiritual life. They are treated, at best like charitable magical beings, or at worst like straight up servants to a predominantly white consumer pool.
If that sounds exploitive, then it’s probably because it is. The people who make the most money out of yoga (mats, clothes, blocks, straps, ‘yoga socks’, retreats, festivals, dvds, books, classes, fitness modeling, etc.) in America are white people, even though yoga wasn’t invented by white people!
And the saddest thing about this is the number of white Americans who don’t want their yoga to have anything to do with South Asian culture. I mean, if yoga bothers your Christian conscience, then one would think that you would just find another form of exercise rather than just make yoga Christian—which is precisely what ‘Holy Yoga’ did. Also, if you think the cultural context of yoga is stupid, then how about just don’t make a yoga video instead of making an entire practice that actively ridicules it like DDP Yoga?
People who have no respect for South Asian history, culture, religion, and people are making big money off of the word ‘yoga.’ And that’s not only wrong, but mad racist to an absurdly imperialist degree.
If you’re white and like yoga—I don’t have beef with you. But if you’re white and you think it’s okay to disrespect South Asians, then that’s not okay. If you’re white and you think it’s okay to exclude South Asians from a practice that came from South Asian culture, then that’s not okay. If you’re white and think South Asians shouldn’t be featured on yoga magazines for ‘artistic reasons’ (aka you think South Asians are ugly in general), then that’s not okay. If you’re white and you think South Asian yoga practitioners are here to serve you, then that’s not okay. And if you’re white and you think you’re entitled to simultaneously crap on South Asians while making money from a South Asian practice, then that is super duper not okay.
Yes, this is body politics too because, at the end of the day, it’s South Asian bodies that get shamed—fat white woman on a yoga magazine cover or skinny white woman on a yoga magazine cover. And it’s an issue that gets glossed over a lot in discussions about yoga and social justice.
If some of those South Asian yoga teachers, would not learn from white and Hispanic yoga masters and swallow their dogmatism hook line and sinker, they would be more acceptable to some, like me, seeking an eminently non-badass practice. Just sayin’
I mean, a few of the 50 year old South Asians DO understand that some of their students, being white and larger and less wiry than they … may never have open hips. The young, badass South Asian instructors have somehow never learned to IMPORT their practice to anyone non-young, non-badass, who would return the favor in the way they expect. These young badasses want to be fitness instructors with a couple dashes of life coaches … so stupid, but true …
Oh, and in case you missed it, here in New York City, the fur is beginning to fly:
I wrote this in response to the above URL which you provided about wanting our yoga back:
Many years ago devastating floods hit the Carolinas (eastern coast of the U.S.) . On the top half of the front page of the local paper was a large picture of floods swirling around the metal roof of a barn, water up to the edges of the roof and animals who had found shelter on the roof. Almost all of them were cows and pigs. Now I have been told that those two animals don’t generally tolerate each other particularly well. Due to the circumstances, however, they were able to tolerate each other considerably well. None appeared in an adversarial posture towards each other. They were all just lying down, some right next to each other, all relaxed and I guessed just waiting for the waters to go down.
Maybe they were in some kind of communal savasana together, I mused.
As I turned the paper over to the lower half I experienced the most visceral reaction possible. I had to sit down. The by-line of the article read: “Residents of East and West Timor Killing Each Other.” The report went on to describe how this religiously divided island nation’s inhabitants were involved in slaughtering each other, Hindus pitted against Muslims. No one regardless of age or sex was being spared.
I turned over to the top of the page and thought to myself how if I had to choose between becoming a cow or a pig or a human in the next life, I just might be better off as a pig or a cow. At least if the floods hit my neighborhood, I would be safer on some barn’s metal roof with those who were not my own kind than if I were a human with my own kind killing and getting killed on some island.
Is there not room enough on the world’s mat for everyone?
“We may begin our practice to benefit the body; to become healthy, strong, flexible,sexy, or vibrant. We may see yoga on a more superficial level as simply an answer to our boredom or a good way to meet people. Then one day in a yoga class we may experience the mind spontaneously dropping into a state of calm and clarity, a feeling that draws us back again in a search of that natural sense of balance. The particulars of why we come to yoga may take on any number of forms, and all of them are honourable starting points for the practice because each doorway that reveals itself is a path into the deeper matrix of what yoga is, and each entrance reveals that ultimately we have come in search of the mystical experience – a timeless sense of complete freedom and happiness”.
Richard Freeman – The Mirror Of Yoga