Interoception & The Yoga Body: Why We Feel “Fat”

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Like many body positivity activists, I’m committed to creating more inclusionary and diverse images of women in mainstream media. I’m concerned that the increasingly unrealistic, unattainable images of beauty in popular culture are contributing to rising rates of body image and eating disorders in young women. That’s why I’ve been busy developing a documentary that seeks to give the latest icon of “thinspiration” — the yoga body — a makeover.

But lately it hasn’t been going so well. Because after watching the recent “This Girl Can” video (which featured women of all shapes, colours and sizes, leaping, dancing, jumping, gyrating and jiggling with abandon) I’m beginning to suspect that all this focus on image itself may actually be counterproductive.

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Part of a British health initiative to promote physical activity, this video sets out to overcome the most cited obstacle in getting women to the gym, the fear that their butts will not look good in tiny shorts. Its shots of heaving breasts, quivering buttocks and bouncing bellies, overlaid with text like “hot” and “foxy” have been hailed by many in the body positivity movement as ground breaking and visionary. But I am not as enthused.

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I admit, when I first watched the video I wanted to leap to my feet and cry “You Go Girl!” Almost.  I couldn’t understand why the text didn’t reflect the joyful exuberance being seen onscreen — why not words like powerful, free or strong? Sure it’s revolutionary in bringing bodies of differing sizes and colors (and cellulite) to the screen, but it’s still about being sexy.  This ad isn’t selling exercise because it makes us happier, healthier or more resilient, it’s about exercise as performance, one in which sweat and jiggling are the new signifiers of desirability.

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But here is the critical point – it reinforces old disempowering stereotypes i.e. that women exist to be looked at — even when pushing weights. And it conditions us to see our bodies as observers, through the lens of a camera, a mirror and/or other people’s perceptions. This is important because when we view ourselves from the outside in, we dissociate from what our body is feeling, a quality or state of being that neuroscientists call interoception.

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Interoception is our ability to sense our bodies internal states (whether it is hungry, cold, in pain or tired). It is not ‘thinking’ about your body — as if contemplating our physical image in a mirror, but on experiencing what our body is feeling inside. And here is the kicker.  Growing research suggests that poor interoception is linked with body dissatisfaction and body image disorders!

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Vivien Ainley and Manos Tsakiris of Royal Holloway, University of London found that low interception is linked with self-objectification (experiencing our body as an object in our life) and leads to a preoccupation with outward physical appearance. They suggest women with low interoception lack an internal sense of self and this can lead to a false sense of their own body, i.e. they may be slender but view their bodies as large.

In a 2012 paper submitted  to the Psychology of  Women Quarterly,  researchers Marika Tiggemann and Elyse William suggest that young women with eating disorders have, on average, lower levels of self-awareness and interoception than healthy controls. And those women who most frequently thought of themselves from other people’s perspectives – had the most eating disorder symptoms.

In fact, just looking in a mirror, as a study in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found, can hinder how you listen to your body — especially when it comes to food. Researchers asked two groups of women to watch a movie on a computer — but only one group had a mirror placed in their room. There was a bowl of M&M’s placed next to the computer. Researchers found that the participants with the mirror consistently ate more M&M’s than the participants without a mirror.

This research challenges the commonly held notion that self-objectification, disordered eating and eating disorders are due to cultural factors like media and advertising. It suggests instead that women with eating disorders think of themselves as objects because of their impaired interoception.  And this leaves them even more vulnerable to messaging telling them how they can get their “best body”.

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Even more fascinating — and suggestive — is another study from 2006 which found that women preoccupied with how others perceived their bodies were more likely to be distracted and unable to focus on cognitively challenging tasks. Umm —  like critically analyzing the constant onslaught of advertising selling them the latest fat blaster core workout or butt sculpting yoga pants?

So is helping young women develop interoception the real key to developing body positivity?  A recent study in the International Journal of Women’s Health suggests so. It found that adolescent girls with good interoceptive skills had lower rates of body image and eating disorders.

And does this explain why yoga has been shown in countless studies to be a such a powerful therapeutic tool in the treatment of eating disorders? Because doesn’t yoga encourage interoception by directing us to pay attention to what our body is feeling, moment by moment, breath by breath?  Obviously some women in yoga do get caught up striving for the “yoga body”, but I’m curious if any statistics exist as to whether practicing yoga in a studio with a mirror has any impact on interoception or self-objectification?

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And so I’ve been asking myself – is giving the “yoga body” a make-over going to help promote interoception?  By  portraying yoga bodies of differing shapes, ethnicity and abilities (a la this Girl can — without the sexualization) am I not keeping women entrained in a way of seeing their bodies as exterior to their inner selves and inner experience?

Of course it’s important to help young women become more critical and media literate about the thousands of images they are besieged with daily. But is the project of diverse representation enough? Many, many women who already understand how body image in mainstream culture functions to uphold the beauty myth, white privilege, gender stereotypes, the male gaze etc. still suffer from disordered eating and body shame.

Is this just the result of overexposure to one too many unrealistic images of bodies in media? Perhaps. But what if “looking” sets us up to compare ourselves to images (whatever their size, color, age or ability)? Does this encourage us to dissociate from our bodies, predisposing us to self-objectification? Does this suggest that the deeper work of body positivity is about breaking the cycle of images — period?

This presents a challenging quandary – because how do I as a filmmaker use images to bypass image itself?  Do I, on a black blank screen, ask the audience to take a moment to breathe into their belly, to experience one by one (Yoga Nidra style) the sensations occurring in their body, heart, fingers and toes? Could creating this simple moment of being present in our bodies, help connect us to the real yoga body? The one that waits inside each of us, ready to be felt and called into being?

I’m not sure. But lets face it, when comes to visceral impact, it just ain’t going to compete with the “This Girl Can” video – or its message.  For young women already convinced that they need to “look good” in order to feel good, this soft approach is a hard sell.

That’s why my work on the documentary has ground to a halt. Because I need a new direction, one that doesn’t focus on remaking the image of the ‘yoga body’ but on convincing women to get themselves to a yoga class.  And so, once again, dear readers, I ask for your help. What kind of film would be most useful in promoting interoception? Ideas, suggestions -and critiques are most welcome…

How Yoga Changed My Life: A Journey Into the Soul of Nature

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I’ve long been a disciple of yoga. But a year ago a Tarot card reading told me my ‘healing journey’ with yoga was complete — working with nature was my soul work now. Of course I was skeptical. At the time my life and self-identity were too well tied to yoga to imagine our relationship as over. But I can see now, the cards were right. Yoga will always be a part of my life, but its main work, returning me to the life of my body, has been done. And now my body and heart know where they are going. There is no going back.

Arriving to this place of departure took years. As yoga brought me back into my body, I began to discover another place within myself. One that was vast but comforting, sometimes dark, sometimes light, but always peaceful and steadying.

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And I discovered that I could enter this realm whenever I wanted by simply breathing and becoming aware of its presence. As I learned how to more easily ground in this inner space, I became more intuitive and receptive to “energy”. I began to sense and feel things that could not be put into words, but held my attention, wanting to be named. This I noticed happened most often in nature. When walking outdoors amongst the woodlands and hills, a kind of bubbly sweet sensation would burble in my tummy and rise to my chest. This tingly suffused feeling I realized — was happiness!

I decided to cultivate this ‘good energy’ like prana or qi, and began to breathe mindfully fanning the flame. Then like Alice I would feel myself grow taller and lighter, my senses sharpening. I saw the tiny puddles of sun illuminating the incandescent ferns on the forest floor, the tumbling whirling activity of insects and bees, I could hear in sharp relief the songs of the birds, and the sounds of the wind as it rippled through leaves. And all this beauty filled me further, leading at moments to a kind of ecstasy.

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Yoga’s gift was to bring me to this place. Learning to “see” with the eyes of my body, awakened my senses — I began to feel once again. And what I felt in nature was love, a deep reverence for the life that shone in every drop of dew, every blade of grass, and every creature. This was a revelatory experience. An epiphany of a spiritual truth that rung true to my bones. Because without a shadow of doubt, I knew I was in the presence of the sacred.

How had I ever lost sight of this?

The divine isn’t only transcendent, it is immanent, alive in every living thing we behold – and it blazed before my eyes.

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The holiness of nature was a vital spiritual truth for our ancestors – but Descarte’s division of spirit from matter spelled the final death knell of the old religions. The earth, trees, waters and animals were no longer living embodiments of the divine, but mechanistic processes empty of soul. And it is thus that nature became separate from us, existing outside our house walls and city streets, a resource to be used for the extraction of minerals, the building of houses and cities, capital and wealth.

Today the desecration of old growth forests, the appropriation of indigenous lands and national parks for industry, the chemical poisoning of our fields and the genetic manipulation of foods, the death of bees and extinction of species continue unabated. Clearly we’ve forgotten another ancient truth – we are all one. Whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.

I’ve spent much time pondering why so many of us – me included – can go on with our days as usual when we know the forests are falling all around us. Because if we truly loved nature, with all our heart and soul – would this continue to happen?

And so, as an act of personal responsibility, a way to do my part, Gather was born. Its mission is to reconnect us with nature through an important tenet of  “deep ecology”—the idea it will take more than environmental laws to achieve true sustainability. We need to re-establish our personal connection with the earth.

And so I see my new path. To awaken to the ways of the old religions and wisdom of nature, to live in harmony with the rhythms of the earth and honor the spirit of the land. It is the age-old practice of bhakti, an offering of my love, devotion and protection, to the divine embodied in nature – and all of us.

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Yoga is no longer my raison d’etre but a methodology for coming into conscious alignment with the numinous cycles of growth, death and regeneration that drive all life on this planet. The ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ flows through me as well. This union with the essential nature of reality – ananda, or divine bliss – gives me the spiritual backbone I need to stand strong.

In my last card reading my work with yoga was shown in a card filled with a large blazing fire and women dancing and leaping. This card I was told, was one of culmination, of joy and celebration. Then the reader drew another card for Gather showing a dark cave in a forest grove surrounded by wild animals. A large “shining skull” illuminated the scene.  But she said, your true soul work still lies somewhere deep in the mysteries of nature. And she told me to get back to the woods and continue doing whatever I was doing there – and this time I’m listening.

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Bashing Yoga Barbie? Guilty As Charged

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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.

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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.

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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

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“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.