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.
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