Yoga for body confidence

written by Lucy Cormack

Yoga for self-love and body confidence.

Credit: Christopher Campbell

Yoga and how it can positively affect mental wellbeing has been closely examined by psychologists as well as the media for decades. Results from a number of studies demonstrate many of the numerous therapeutic effects, benefits and profound healing powers of yoga.  Recognition of yoga as a tool to specifically promote body image, however, still leaves many people perplexed.

Yet yoga’s body-confidence-giving effect is a growing phenomenon. Ask those who have been practising for some time and they’ll tell you that a more positive body image is definitely a byproduct of the practice. In fact, there are now countless studies that show yoga to be a powerful therapeutic tool in the treatment of eating disorders.

“Panda bear” vs “shining knight”

Many people are uneasy about the size and shape of their bodies, and this self-doubt can often be heightened when each of us is under the illusion that we’re alone in our insecurities. That’s not the case.

The scale of insecurity does, however, vary from person to person with the “panda bear” at one end and the “shining knight” at the other. The panda bear naturally wants to hide out in the back row of the yoga class, preferably in the corner, and is wearing dark, unfitted clothing in their best effort to appear invisible. The shining knight, on the other hand, is naturally the confident leader or hero of the class, believing him/herself to be in good shape and master of the asanas!

Yoga, of course, is for everyone on that scale — and it can help foster the self-acceptance you need to remove yourself from the competition entirely.

The transforming yogi

The image of yoga has itself undergone a shift in recent decades, at least in the West. In the past, yogis were characterised as spiritual elders sitting in lotus position meditating. There was the old, bearded man wearing white robes and a mala around his neck, the longhaired dude with baggy tie-dye pants smiling creepily with his eyes closed, and the middle-aged woman in a leotard executing supreme steadiness in a familiar yoga pose. These days, though, a yogi is much more likely to be photographed wearing very little as they perform some kind of super-core-controlled arm balance.

In the past, yogis were characterised as spiritual elders sitting in lotus position meditating. These days, though, a yogi is much more likely to be photographed wearing very little as they perform some kind of super-core-controlled arm balance.

The depiction of the slim athletic yogi has really taken off in the social media age, where mobile phones have cameras and apps as standard features. The different body types you see in a regular yoga class — where, no matter your shape or size, you will be guided by your teacher to develop strength and flexibility according to your structure — are replaced by glamorous yoga bodies on idol-inviting platforms for the whole world to aspire to.

The way in which the profiles of some yoga teachers on social media convey a message that yoga is a way to get that body-beautiful image is bewildering to the yogi who sees the practice as a way to train the body and mind to self-observe in order to become aware of one’s true nature. It’s reasonable to say that yoga is often portrayed on social media as a way to develop, promote and support a strong physical body. There’s little attention paid to showcasing images of some of the more accessible postures and very often a failure to reflect the full range of human diversity.

Some criticise the use of such platforms as Instagram and Facebook for the way they objectify the vision of what a yogi should look like. The more these images are broadcast and publicised, the more damaging it could potentially be to the common understanding of what yoga is, what body shapes and sizes can practise yoga, and how yoga could in fact be beneficial to someone who has issues with their body image and sense of self-worth.

Going beyond the surface

Sadly, the popularisation of yoga has made it into a commodity of self-identity for some. In the same way that people associate themselves with certain diets, clothing brands and places to be seen, the style, intensity and frequency of one’s practice can become just another embodiment of the ego. In reality, however, yoga is profound in that it teaches it’s not necessary for you to change anything about yourself in order to become a better person.

It can be tricky to balance on one leg so, remember, it’s OK to fall out! Falling out of balancing poses is normal. That’s one of the main ways in which we learn.

Just as your body naturally responds to the physical changes that take place, over time your mind, too, will change, allowing you to fully understand and accept the essence of your unique space in the world.

Unlike the more personal ambitions we often set ourselves to become fitter, more flexible, or to sleep better and feel less stressed, becoming “consciously conscious” is what some yoga masters have described as the ultimate goal of yoga. It’s a sense of completeness and knowing you are OK being you that strengthens your sense of self, rather than the physical changes you may see or feel through practising yoga. It’s this inner sense that enhances your confidence in your own identity and understanding of who you are and how you fit in with the world around you.

In other words, yoga allows you to go beyond the one-dimensional surface layer of life and its superficial understanding of reality, helping you to move towards your essential nature: a greater, more sophisticated and liberated awareness of reality.

Yoga for self-acceptance

There are many things you can do to gently take responsibility for how you see yourself physically. You can be your own role model with a little mindful conditioning as you learn to become present in the moment, really embodying your own practice as you find your unique space on the mat.

Be imperfect

Practising yoga starts with recognising that you are perfectly imperfect. As negative self-talk turns into positive thinking, your desire for perfection in your postures will dissipate.

According to Baron Baptiste, whose style of Power Flow Yoga has spread throughout the US, Australia and the rest of the world, true transformation occurs after you get into a yoga pose: spiritual and emotional growth for inner and outer transformation being a result of overcoming difficulty and following intuition. “Put your thoughts, efforts and resistance aside and let the universe work on your behalf — if you are relaxing, you are receiving,” he says.

Honour your body’s differences

Some people are inherently designed to be slimmer, heavier, shorter or taller than others and all are accepted on the path of yoga. Enjoying the practice is its own reward on this non-competitive path to health, learning self-acceptance along the way to nourishing the mind, body and spirit.

Don’t get caught up in negative thoughts

If you’re someone who struggles with body-image anxieties and negative self-beliefs, you may suffer with recurring thoughts or behaviours that serve no purpose and don’t benefit you in any way. If you notice any of these coming up in your practice, make sure you take a moment to pause and observe them, then let them go, clearing them out to make space to move on.

Aim to relieve stress

You may relate to a vicious cycle where times of increased stress lead to more self-criticism, leading to further preoccupation with your physical appearance, leading to more stress. Not only can yoga reduce stress, but it can also teach you the practice of self-acceptance when you need it most.

Let self-love live

You can become a healthier, happier and more relaxed person through yoga. True beauty comes from within and a simple, relaxing meditative practice might be all you need to let that light of self-love shine out. Self-love is not egotism but rather an honest respect for yourself, regardless of any flaws you may think you have.

If you are disturbed by body image anxieties, discuss them with a friend or family member for some friendly support or see a health professional if it’s causing more serious concerns.

Humble warrior

From a lunge position (or warrior I) release your arms behind your back and interlink your fingers. Bend forward from the hips and let your head drop. Keep the legs in the warrior position so the front leg stays bent and back leg stays straight. If you’re a little more flexible, make sure the hip of the bent front leg hasn’t gone out to the side; you could use the pressure of your shoulder against the inside of your knee to keep that leg in line. Relax your face. Soften your jaw, soften your tongue and allow your head to become heavy. To exit the pose, either come back up to standing or release the hands to the floor and step back to a downward-facing dog.

While you’re in the pose, feel your feet connecting you to the Earth. They’ve supported you thus far. Be grateful for all the stability they’ve provided you with up until this moment.

Dolphin (forearm dog)

From your downward-facing dog, bring the tips of your thumbs to touch and then lower your elbows to the floor. You could perhaps then walk your feet in a little more towards your elbows as you continue to spread your fingers wide. The shoulder muscles are definitely engaged in this pose, but see if you can soften them just enough to spread your shoulder blades apart and allow your shoulders to lift further away from the floor. Keeping this shoulder-blade protraction, if you want to make it a little stronger for your core, keep pressing down into your forearms and walk the feet all the way back so you’re in a forearm plank pose. Stay with your breath and, when you’re ready to come out, take a rest in child’s pose.

The more challenging strength-building postures in yoga can either be fun or really annoying! It’s like learning the steps to a dance. You can’t expect to know the whole choreography straight away. As you begin to learn the steps, you make mistakes and it can get annoying. But, if you love to dance, you keep doing it and eventually it becomes an effortless flow of movement. Your body and the way it feels in different yoga poses can be something you choose to love or something you find annoying. Learn to love the sense of strength you find with dolphin pose.

Dancer’s pose

Stand on your mat then bend one knee and take hold of the inner edge of the foot as you reach the opposite hand to the sky. As you press your foot into your hand and arch your back, lean forward slightly and aim to keep looking up so your energy stays uplifted. Allow your elbows to bend slightly so you can draw your shoulders back as you lift and open your chest, showing your courage and fearlessness. Aim to bring breath and life into the pose, so prioritise breath over balance. Release the feet together and do the opposite side.

This pose builds heat and makes you feel more awake. It can be tricky to balance on one leg so, remember, it’s OK to fall out! Falling out of balancing poses is normal. That’s one of the main ways in which we learn … even babies learning to walk and stand on their own two feet fall again and again. Falling out of poses often brings a sense of aliveness into your yoga practice.

Twisted dragon

From downward-facing dog, lower one knee to the floor and step the other foot forward into a low lunge. Twist towards your front leg and, if you like, you can bend your back knee and reach back to grab the foot, drawing your shoulder back to open your chest. For more of a hip opening, you could roll onto the outer edge of your front foot. As you release out of the pose, just take whatever movements feel good. And then come back to stillness, either on all-fours or pushing back up to downward-facing dog. Repeat the other side.

This pose, which can be held for up to 35 minutes in a yin class, stretches the psoas muscle of the back hip and thigh. The psoas is connected to the diaphragm through connective tissue or fascia, which affects both the breath and fear reflex. A chronically tight psoas is linked to physical and emotional stress and tension. A relaxed psoas manifests a sense of playfulness and creative expression.

Bridge

Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and your arms alongside your body with your fingertips barely touching your heels. Press down into your palms and feet to lift your hips and then interlink your fingers behind your back. The buttocks will be just a little bit engaged here, but you want to bring more of the engagement into the thighs, and you can do this by pressing down more into the feet. Breathe deeply. To release the pose, release your arms and lower yourself down along the spine, vertebra by vertebra.

This is a really nice pose to focus on prana, the life force within your body. The act of being in the pose is like putting a lid on a pan and sealing the heat inside to cook a pot of soup. When the soup is ready, you release the lid and the heat and aromas of the cooked food flow out in the steam, filling your senses with the vitality of the energetic concoction of food you are about to enjoy. As you release your bridge pose, think of prana flowing freely throughout your entire body, filling it with vitality and life-giving energy.

Effortless rest pose

Taking your feet to the edges of your mat and letting your knees fall together is a nice resting pose to take after your backbend, so close your eyes and feel your breath calming your mind. Notice if, when you come out of your backbend, you immediately want to hug your knees into your chest or come into a twist. This is because the muscles are stressed, so they immediately want to go the other way in order to feel balanced. If you don’t overdo it, though, then you can rest after you come out of the backbend, without feeling uncomfortable.

Throughout your practice, notice if the rhythm of your breathing becomes a little quicker or if you can feel your heart thumping heavily in your chest. When you’re more aware of what’s going on in your body, this enables you to be alert to those moments when you’re overdoing it. By taking note of any tendencies to push yourself on the mat, you can then enhance your ability to take note of those same tendencies to overdo things in your everyday life.


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Lucy Cormack

Lucy Cormack is a yoga teacher and writer. She believes that the five yogic principles as identified by Swami Sivananda, including proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet and positive thinking and meditation, are the key to health and happiness.