In 2001 I wrote Yoga From the Inside Out: Making Peace with your Body Through Yoga. Having struggled with body image isses, food addiction, and self-hatred for much of my life, I had experienced a moment of clarity about my relationship with my body and wrote a book how to use yoga to create a covenant of peace. I suggested that endless dieting and practicing yoga as a workout only could keep a war-with-self alive rather than be a practice that would serve as an agent of healing, as a peace offering.
Throughout the book I cautioned that the yoga industry was selling yoga to us with the same distorted images of beauty that the fashion industry used and that these narrowly defined images were as much a problem in yoga magazinea as they are in fashion magazines. I suggested that if our dominant cultural values come into yoga practice we can expect eating disorders, self-hatred and addiction to follow us into yoga and get worse instead of better through our practice.
I wrote Yoga From the Inside Out in 2001 and it was published in 2003. Here we are in 2015 and body image in yoga is a very hot topic. Every day I see an article, advertisement or commentary in my social media feed about Body Image and Yoga. While I am not an activist, I am happy that people have joined together to confront the damaging stereotypes and to create a narrative that is more positive, affirming and inclusive. When I wrote about my struggles and insights, I never thought that the industry would change. I figured it would continue on much as it always had, and my only hope would be to identify the negative influences and “reprogram” myself through my inner work.
I think maintaining perspective about body image may be harder now than it was when I first wrote about it. More people are doing yoga than ever before and with the advent of social media, we are bombarded, not just once-a-month with a thin, white, leggy model posing on a magazine cover, but all-day-every-day through image-based streams on our computers and phones. There is an entire generation of yoga practitioners whose yoga has never not been broadcasted across the world wide web and who have never had the joy of yoga as a counter-culture experience where vanity, image and the pursuit of celebrity didn’t dominate the discussion.
I think it would be lovely for yogi’s of all sizes, shapes, ages and colors to see images that reflected a more diverse picture of beauty than what we have had so far. I can imagine a world where our daughters and sons and aging parents and everyone in between was invited into an accepting relationship with their unique physicality through more inclusive marketing campaigns and more consciously created educational materials. Clearly, it is time. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars are wasted every day in self-obsession, self-hatred and their accompanying self-destructive behaviors. While some folks live wrapped up in an inner, negative body-image fueled torment that leads to anxiety and depression, others binge and purge, starve themselves, overeat, and can’t sit down to a meal without it being “clean.” While I am a fan of eating healthy food, I am a fan of food becoming less of an issue, not more of an issue. So while we are imagining a better world here, let’s not forget to imagine a world where we lived free from the obsession with food—even “clean” food.
I love seeing people stand up to a dysfunctional cultural paradigm and band together to speak up for the kind of world in which they want to live. My hope is that the work on body image doesn’t stop at getting different images on magazines, as positive as I think that outcome is. Because I believe the value of a yoga practice is deeper than image, my hope is that we can eventually step off the conversation of body image and step into the conversation of who we are beyond the body. I don’t mean that we engage some bizarre “the body is an illusion” rap here either. I do, however, mean to call us to a direct relationship with the body, not with the image of our body, and to the remembrance that from the yoga persepective, the body is not limited to our physicality, but includes who we are at increasingly more subtle energetic layers.
The physical body, no matter how fat or thin or how affirmed or disregarded, is going to go. Very few of us, regardless of how awesome we are at asana and how great our diet is are going to be breathing our last breaths in a yoga posture while sipping on a kale smoothie. Let’s face it, if BKS Iyengar died in a hospital bed, I am pretty sure, I am not dying on a sticky mat. So I figure that if I don’t move beyond the image of my physicality and into the experience of my energetic bodies, I am going to miss the huge opportunity that yoga practice has for me. The value of a life in yoga is to tap into the aspect of us that is eternal and that is not dependant on a cute ass, a flat stomach or affirming media campaigns. In fact, the promise of yoga I am going for is off that topic entirely.
My spiritual teacher once told me that the cure for self-hatred wasn’t self-love. I looked at him disbelievingly. He told me, “Well, when you realize you are not actually a self, what will there be to hate anymore? When you realize you are not your body only, your preoccupation with its image will be obviated.”
He also told me that having a healthy body image had nothing to do with sadhana. Again, I looked at him disbelievingly. He said, “Practice on the Path is about Reality, not about an image. Now, ask me what a healthy body has to do with sadhana and I will give you a different answer.”
So clearly, these types of recognition are Life’s Work, not easily achieveable or immediately accessible. However, they are my governing context for how to work with body image issues as a yoga practitioner and teacher. I would rather spend my life energy pursuing who I am Essentially than improving my image about my body. If, along the way to my Essential Self, I need to do some work on my self-talk, some work on the communal narrative or dive into my personal history where some of the old wounds live, this reclamation work is also my yoga. I do not mean to imply an all-or-nothing stance on the topic or an either-or approach.
I think the world will be a better place with a more inclusive narrative and I applaud the activism that some great yogi’s are spear-heading. I am a huge fan of self-love and self-acceptance. The yoga teachers, bodyworkers and psychotherapists who are working to help yogi’s practice with greater compassion and care have my gratitude and respect. And I think that there is a spiritual malady inside self-hatred that will only heal when we know ourselves in a deeper truth than image, culture and conventional values—when we know who we are in Spirit.
More could be said. More can always be said.
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