Maybe it is just my Facebook feed these days but it seems that yoga and body image is a hot topic. I remember wanting to write a book about yoga and body image in 2001 because of my own struggles with loving my body and because I would hear how critically my yoga students were talking about their own bodies in yoga class and in the dressing room after class.
I wanted to write a book that had images of practitioners of all sizes and shapes and to show a wider range of beauty than what I referred to as The Sleeping World's standards, which had infiltrated the yoga world through marketing streams, etc. Writing the book was cathartic for me and I did my best to write in a way that someone who had struggled with an eating disorder would find themselves and perhaps some of their story in the pages. It was not a particularly easy book to write nor was it an easy book to read, from what I have been told.
So here we are, over a decade later and the advertising and beauty-ideal messaging is worse than ever and the mainstream values of skinny-white-girls-are-the-only-kind-of-beauty-we-acknowledge are being used to sell yoga mats, clothes, retreats, trainings and so on. Additionally, we are plastering these same images all over social media so now we do not have only a few glossy yoga magazines to deal with but an endless barrage of self-published and self-promoted images that seem to be reinforcing the negative self-image and negative self-talk that many people got into yoga to get away from.
But here is a weird thing- I am not so sure it is likely to change. Being that I was writing about yoga and body image in 2001, my book was published in 2003, it is now 2014 and the situation seems worse than ever, I am not so hopeful that we can expect a change at the level of the outer world. Maybe it will happen. But I doubt it.
Don't get me wrong. I think letters to the editor and campaigns that raise awareness are amazing. I think unsubscribing to body- shaming publications is awesome. I think supporting companies that are expanding their views and marketing to be more body- inclusive is great.
And I think that there is nothing inherently wrong with posting yoga pictures on social media no matter what your size. And certainly skinny-white-girls-are-people-with-feelings too so I am not picking a fight about that either.
I also think that the practices of introspection, attention development and mindfulness that are part of the yoga tradition can go a long way to helping those of us who suffer with various manifestations of negative body image. However, I do not think that "yoga helps body image" anymore.
I think yoga can help.
And I think yoga does help some people some of the time.
But I do not think that there is a mystical YOGA out there that helps people feel better about themselves. I think each one of us has to use yoga in a helpful way for it to help us. And I think the task of getting to the helpful aspects of yoga might be harder in some ways now.
Part of being able to use yoga in a helpful way means that we need to see clearly the ways that Madison Avenue has rolled out a mat next to ours and has launched a "not enough" campaign inside our favorite yoga studio. I am not saying the "not enough" campaign is always happening in every studio. I am saying Madison Avenue's ways and means are subtle, sneaky and insidious and even the most well-intentioned situations can be infected with the virus of "not enough". "Not enough" can even happen alone on a yoga mat as we thumb through a resource book and begin to feel inadequate and unable and "not as good as" the person demonstrating the poses in the book. Or it can arise like a thief in the night from our own set of internalized perfectionistic expectations of ourselves and our poses.
Like I said, "not enough" is insidious and sneaky.
Given that "not enough" can come into the studio where I practice with a group, into my personal practice space as I look at a book and can also arise from within with no obvious external reference point, I am only left to consider that in each situation, I am the constant and therefore I am also the solution to the dilemma.
I do not think I am to blame, however, as the seeds of "not enough" are planted early in life and perhaps before life as we know it. Millions of dollars are spent by advertisers to effectively prey on this psychological pattern that exists in so many of us. I am pretty clear that as long as "not enough" remains an effective means of getting us to buy things, well, advertisers are going to keep using it. And so, like I wrote about all those years ago in Yoga From the Inside Out, we have to learn ways to unplug from the machine of Madison Avenue and plug into the direct experience of the body -its dignity and nobility, its fragility and resiliency, its power and its subtleties- and make the inner experience of embodiment our reference point.
Ideally, yoga would be one of those ways of unplugging from outer messages of dysfunction and plugging into our inner sense of wisdom and sanity. And yet, yoga has become a bit of a razor's edge, it would seem.
As I continue to practice and teach the more it seems to me that how I am in relationship to my practice and to my chosen subject or subjects of study is as important, if not more so, than the mastery of the subject itself. For all I might know in terms of the facts and figures of the postures, for instance, if that knowledge creates "not enough" , "less than" and even "better than" (for "better than" is the same story as "less than", just harder to let go of because who likes to give up the warm feeling of superiority that are really just trumped up insecurity?) then my relationship to my subject is off.
And yoga is a tough subject. Yes, there are the ways that practice holds us in its embrace of grace and carries us in ways that seem almost magical. Certainly, most of us have felt the ways that certain patterns shift, reactions slow and new choices come more easefully over time. So there is a way that "yoga does it".
But anyone who has been on the path a while knows that as much as certain things are "lifted" there are many more issues that seem deeply entrenched and even exacerbated by our attempts to overcome them. We might practice for years blind to the ways "not enough" motivated our efforts or "and then one day it will all be better" created a fairy tale-type expectation that has yet to come true. And yoga comes with such a set of high aims and possibilities that even the most self-accepting of persons may fall into feelings of inferiority and demoralization as they trudge the path of ongoing sadhana. One of my friend's Buddhist teachers told her that "we all need to realize we are more enlightened and more fucked-up than we think we are."
When I wrote Yoga From the Inside Out, I had no hopes that the industry would change and I am not surprised that it has gotten worse. But I do know that for me, when I practice the yoga of bringing my attention inward through my breath, alignment, physical sensations as well as the energy flows that inform my asana practice, the discussion of "body image" moves to the background of my consciousness because at the foreground of my experience is my body itself, not an image of it. Positive/negative body image ceases to be my inner location because I am placing myself instead in my body-breath-awareness-experience.
As a teacher, this is rich ground for inquiry in terms of my ongoing offering. I can tell my students they are beautiful. I can suggest to them that the comparison game is a dead-end street because even if you come out on top, you are still playing the same game. I can testify to my students' goodness and capacity. And I do these things. Repeatedly. As anyone who studies with me knows, I love a good sermon.
And yet, I think the solution to the "not enough" dilemma comes when we have the direct experience of our beauty, our goodness and our unity. So in addition to the intellectual, emotional theory and promise of the practice, I need to facilitate the class, the practice, the ongoing teaching in such a way that students are not comparing themselves to others--not because I told them not to-- but because they are riveted to their inner experience to such a degree and that their inner world has subsumed the extroverted tendency of comparing from outside.
For me, that inner-directed experience happens in classes sometimes. More often than not, however, I go to class to learn how to do that inner work for myself at home. But at any rate, it seems to me that working with body image and yoga is an inside job.
More could be said. (Oh wait- I wrote a whole book… I have said more! Kidding. Sort of.)
And I was recently interviewed for a telesummit on Body Image. If you are interested, you can listen to the recording here. See, more has been said.
I think our interview was around 45 minutes long so get comfortable.
Someone told me about a blog entry that a local Iyengar Yoga teacher wrote about Asana Junkies. Anyway, here is the entry and my response.
Thoughts on Yoga and Addiction- You can link to the original entry.
Why I am not a Yoga Asana Junkie (and hope you aren’t either)
We’ve just sponsored a workshop here in Austin with H.S. Arun, a senior Iyengar teacher from Bangalore, India. He spoke for awhile before each of his six classes about yoga (or as Prashant Iyengar likes to call it “Yog”). Two moments stood out for me. First on Monday, his story about Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar advising him to practice and teach “with depth.” During his teaching, Arun ably demonstrated his understanding of depth.
The second moment, from an earlier class, involved his story about a student of his who became so attached to her practice that she boasted to him about doing her salamba sirsasana (headstand) in the toilet on airplanes when she was travelling (!?). He then spoke briefly about the dangers of attachment to asana practice and the challenges of balancing tapas (burning zeal in practice) with upeksana (detachment), More about the first comment in a future post, my thoughts on the second comment are below.
Friends in Central Texas, a hub of yoga excitement (among many others, I’m sure, now worldwide), sometimes alert their students and friends to come to their class/workshop/practice session via facebook, using the header, “Asana Junkies.” I’ll tell you why this makes me, a yoga practitioner and teacher in her sixties, both mad and sad.
I started yoga at 19 as a young mother. My family of origin was afflicted with the disease of alcoholism, though my father had a distinguished career as a Freudian analyst. HIS father had abandoned his family when MY father was only four years old. My grandmother took her four children to an orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio, because she could not support them on her own during the depression. Who KNOWS whether my grandfather was a drinker or not as well? What I do know now is that there is genetic evidence that the tendency to drink and/or drug to excess can be handed down through families.
My mother had grown up as the youngest daughter in a Polish/Lithuanian immigrant family. The only job her father could find in eastern Pennsylvania at the time was working in the coalmines. He drank and abused her sexually when she was a small child. She told no one her whole life long until she told me after my father’s death. She was in her sixties and had been married to a psychoanalyst and been a patient of a colleague of my father’s for years. Just imagine how many other people there out there who ALSO have told only one person (not their spouse or their therapist), or told NO ONE AT ALL and went to their grave with their heavy secret. When I asked Mom why she had not confided with anyone (including of course, HER mother), her answer was: “What good would it have done?” Something to think about the next time you are confronted with a friend or family member’s bizarre behavior or recurring rage.
I raised two children, a son and a daughter. Our family, all four of us, both endured and enjoyed an immature marriage for fourteen years. We battled through some of our demons, then declared a truce and finally called it quits. During all that time, I thank god I had yoga. At the beginning, of course, like most of us, I had a twice-weekly class with a teacher in Porter Square, Cambridge, to keep me on somewhat of an even keel during those early years of mothering and working to help make ends meet. We had moved to Vancouver, Canada, before my ex-husband and I separated. It was there that I started to teach yoga as part of the delightful community in and around Vancouver, BC.
In those years, there was not much recognition that the word yoga includes eight aspects, only one of which is asana. I was lucky to find the writings of B.K.S. Iyengar when my very first teacher mentioned that “Light on Yoga” was one of her bibles. After reading his classic first work, I read his “Tree of Yoga” in the 80’s, which gave me my first glimpse of the gigantic universe of yoga in all its glory. Since Iyengar teaches meditation through asana and pranayama, I studied meditation in other places. His daughter, Geeta Iyengar and son, Prashant, are both amazing teachers of ashtanga (8-aspected) yoga in their own right. I have studied with him and with them during travels to India since 1989. And, after practicing for over 40 years, I have begun to see how the 8 pieces of the yoga mandala fit together. Asana is only one of these pieces! And yes, a devoted practice of asana is essential, but addiction to only asana can lead to imbalance and insanity, just like any other addiction. Could this be why we have not yet seen the deep transformation that the full practice of yoga offers?
It has been the meditative aspect of practice that has helped my family and friends with addiction problems of various types. I would be lying to the world if I were to say that asana practice has not helped me as much as any aspect of yoga’s eight parts. But I have to say that the moral and ethical guidelines that Guruji Iyengar and classical yoga texts have insisted that we practice, and the pranayama and meditation that are now and have long been part of daily practice, are equally, if not more important and sanity-saving.
Fundamentally, perhaps, what we need is a new definition of physical, mental and spiritual health. Yoga practice, in all its aspects, has the power to transform the world, because it can lead to an unshakeable, unassailable contentment and therefore to peace and the ability to serve others. Yoga in its best form is colorblind, genderblind, ageblind, nationblind, and religionblind. After all, as Iyengar has said many times, practicing yoga in the fullness of its eight limbs will make whatever religion you already have stronger. The lasting peace that yoga practice brings may be rocked occasionally with ecstasy from excess of sorrow OR joy, but it does not go away. I can attest to this. We can surely use the incredibly powerful tool that the practice of all the eight limbs of yoga offers us and move beyond addiction to ANYTHING, including asana, fossil fuels, alcohol, drugs, and each other.
Think about this next time you find yourself in an asana-only yoga class. Are YOU a yoga asana junkie? Do you think of yoga or of yourself as JUNK??? Please consider thinking again.
Thanks for your entry, Peggy.
I know that addiction touches many lives in terrible ways. I have had my own bouts with a life-threatening eating disorder and my recovery is due in large part to the wonderful help I got from recovering addicts of all substances and behaviors as well as from the yoga practice and the yoga teachings.
When I began the online course Asana Junkies, it was a light-hearted way for me to say we are working on asana in this course, not philosophy. The course was set up to support people who love doing asana in practicing intelligently, with guidance and connection to a world-wide group of practitioners. We were in the aftermath of the Anusara yoga dissolution and people I worked with everywhere felt not only hurt and betrayed by their teacher, but by the organization they had given themselves to, their friends and their colleagues. Many people had stopped practicing asana, as it was too painful and complicated for them. Most folks were in a dark night of the soul, in deep doubt about their beliefs and how to move forward and many people did not want to get near the philosophy with a ten-foot pole because they felt the words of the teaching had been twisted and applied manipulatively. In a certain way, people were de-toxing. At any rate, I wanted to help people get back to the mat and felt like recovery would happen through the practice, not through talking about it only and certainly not practicing would not help.
I didn't really think the name through and what it wold mean 18 months later. I have written about the name a lot on my own blog and have answered many inquiries and spoke to many people for whom the name landed or lands very poorly. Many people think it is funny and cute and do not take it to mean "junk" or anything like that and of course, some, like yourself are mad and sad. I meant it is a kind of irreverent way to say "We really into the practice." Even on our logo we define junkie to be "someone who gets an unusual amount of pleasure from something."
Perhaps I will change the name. Maybe not. Every time this conversation comes up I consider changing the name as the course is amazing and there is really nothing like it anywhere and perhaps the name misrepresents the great work I am doing. Once a week, people from all over the world have an online meeting with me and I answer questions relates to practice- from how to do an asana to philosophical inquiries to trends in the industry. We review a sequence. That sequence is posted on an online site with pictures, modifications, links to youtube clips about the poses. We have an ongoing Q&A forum so that anyone at any time can log online and ask a question about a pose and get help in a few hours from me. All this for less than one public class each week- all delivered with a tier-pricing option so I can help people with different budgets. Teachers are able to offer their own groups and offset their training courses. They get education, inspiration, community and support without leaving home, disrupting their families and classes. The depth, the breadth and the conversation in this course is beyond any teaching work I have ever done and people's practices are changing and benefiting on and off the mat. I have testimony and after testimony about how much people have learned- all in a time in yoga when teachers everywhere are saying "people no longer want to learn, they just want to do, they are just asana addicts..." Well the truth is, these folks want to learn, they are learning and their love of asana is simply the doorway into a much more profound learning experience.
Some days I think Asana Junkies might be a terrible name. Other days, I think it is a great name because it stands like a bit of a gargoyle at the gate and as a warning that once inside, things are going to rub you the wrong way-- either in my sense of humor, the poses, the teachings, etc. There is some pretty good stuff going on in the course-- amazing really-- but if the name stops someone from participating, asking questions, inquiring more deeply, or speaking to me directly, I think it is just as well-- it wouldn't be the right fit for some other reason eventually. As you well know as a senior teacher and practitioner, yoga never promised to change the outer world so it doesn't offend us, disappoint us, or make us mad and sad. It promises to give us the keys to understand our responses, reactions and change them or accept them from within.
Anyway, my course starts today and we are working on twists so I will bring this to a close and get ready to teach. I have done some of the best teaching of my career in my Asana Junkies course and the format has given me a way to work with folks who love asana and to use asana as a springboard for so much more.
The same word in latin for Spirit is also used for alcohol. As anyone in recovery knows, addiction is a spiritual malady and the longing/dependency for alcohol is often discovered to be a longing for the Spirit. My observation is it is only a matter of time before someone who "loves asana" and even feels a bit addicted to it at times, finds themselves swimming in much deeper water. That is what Asana Junkies is all about.
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