Forget the quest for the “perfect” body and find self-acceptance with yoga
What role does yoga have to play when it comes to body image? Surely this is the realm of psychologists. And what about those countless articles and advertisements selling yoga as a remedy for a better body? “Practise yoga and get Madonna’s arms!” This is not a comfortable message for someone battling with body image issues but, if a person can be encouraged to take that first step onto the mat, the actual practice of yoga would eventually reveal the depth and integrity of what it has to offer.
Certainly, the concept of beauty has been accepted historically as a symbol of power and influence within many societies. The Egyptians had Cleopatra, the Greeks had Helen of Troy and the Native Americans had Pocahontas. While all these women had other attributes that contributed to their high standing — Pocahontas, for example, when just a young girl, reportedly placed her life on the line to save a European man — it has been their beauty, and their desirability, that is most often recounted in the stories.
Yoga teaches you to appreciate your own body as it feels rather than how it looks. In this respect, the discipline of regular practice teaches students how to sense, feel and trust their own bodies, to open their minds and to acknowledge their souls.
It’s not so different today. Without discounting the serious fact that men can have body-image issues, society has tended to value men’s achievements above their appearance, whereas it has considered women’s achievements as being primarily linked to their attractiveness. Much has been written about this portrayal of women — particularly young women — in the media, where the emphasis has been on being thinner, taller and generally more desirable. The diet and beauty industries constantly entice women to use products that will help them achieve these “ideals”. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is tempting to believe that unless you look good to others, you cannot be happy in yourself.
With any form of physical training, be it running, cycling or working out at the gym, you force yourself to reach beyond a certain benchmark, to break through the pain barrier or to go harder than you did the last time.
This attitude is inherent in most people’s lives; keep striving, don’t stop, push harder. We partly do this because we are being told it’s the only way to success. Your own instincts, and your internal responses to such physical and emotional pressure, are pushed aside as your goals are constantly set by others — and they invariably have something to do with how you look. Too often, body image becomes central to how you function as an individual. Yoga reverses that approach.
Yoga and your body
When stepping into a yoga class, you are taught to feel and to honestly observe your sensations rather than react to external stimuli. Your body and, more importantly, your mind are given the opportunity to stop for a moment. It’s often the first time many people are able to appreciate the art of true reflection; that is, “What my yoga practice can do for me and how it makes me feel” rather than “What will it make me look like after I finish?”
When you practise yoga, it’s important to ask yourself why you have chosen to be on the mat. Perhaps one of the best ways of explaining my own answer to this question is to relate when the penny first dropped for me.
The practice of yoga places you in a different mental position so rather than objectifying the body, it becomes merely a vehicle to begin to quieten the mind and commence a deep journey into the self.
I had always been an active person and had played competitive sports for most of my life. Physical exercise made me feel good about myself because of how I believed I appeared to others. So when it came to practising yoga for the first time, I pushed myself hard on the mat, hoping to improve my sense of self through toning my body and thereby becoming more physically attractive. Just like the advertisements said I would. I was on a mission to become fitter and stronger and I had no understanding of the deeper journey on which I was about to embark.
My day of reckoning came when my teacher walked over to my mat and asked me what I was doing. I looked up, slightly confused, and told him I was trying to get the poses right. He asked me how I felt about what I was doing and I had no idea what he was talking about. He then asked me about my state of mind and it was at that moment that the light finally flicked on. I understood that I had been approaching my yoga practice in the same way I approached all other exercise. I was looking to constantly improve by achieving physical results without mentally connecting with my body and allowing yoga to develop in me an overall sense of wellbeing.
I spent the next few weeks of my yoga practice in restorative postures. By no means was this initially a joyous experience as I had spent most of my life avoiding feeling the deep sensations within my own body. Yet here I was seeking to discover a place I had never been before. It felt like a homecoming — nourishing, nurturing and spacious — because for the first time in my life, I was able to sit comfortably in my own skin. I could feel my energy levels lifting and gradually I was able to put into perspective simple sensations such as hunger, tiredness and joy. Rather than running from these sensations, I could simply observe what was happening and then make conscious choices about what I needed to do to look after myself. Most importantly, I was developing compassion and awareness.
On the inside
Unlike many other exercise programs, in a yoga class, you are encouraged to remove the focus on physical exertion and experience what is going on within the body. More than that, you choose to be no longer concerned about how you might appear to yourself and others, which is so often at the root of people’s body-image crises.
For this very reason, it’s rare to find a mirror in a yoga studio. Yoga teaches you to appreciate your own body as it feels rather than how it looks. In this respect, the discipline of regular practice teaches students how to sense, feel and trust their own bodies, to open their minds and to acknowledge their souls.
Yoga teaches students that high self-esteem comes from compassion for oneself and others rather than a relentless pursuit of the perfect body. This is not to say that physical health is not important to yoga practice, but rather that it teaches an appreciation for a holistic approach — one that involves consistent nourishment and understanding.
On the mat
If you are not getting fit, what are you doing on the mat? It’s throughout the practice of yoga asanas(postures) that students have the opportunity to begin to mindfully feel the sensations within their bodies. In most yoga classes, students are asked to stand in tadasana(mountain pose). They are then instructed to feel their feet — all four corners of their feet — pressing down, which may sound simple but actually requires commitment and discipline.
Students are then asked to focus their minds on the sensations they are experiencing and to observe but not judge. Every asana is then connected in such a way as to move the body and mind through a transition from the external, physical environment to one of inner reflection and awareness.
The practice of yoga teaches you to accept being here in the present. It places you in a different mental position so rather than objectifying the body, it becomes merely a vehicle to begin to quieten the mind and commence a deep journey into the self.
Freedom from the “I”
The classical yoga scriptures tell us you suffer because you are bound too tightly to current reality by the five afflictions (kleshas). The first and foremost binding element is ignorance (avidya). As you live farther and farther from the truth of whom you really are and how you participate in your own community, you become ignorant of what makes you whole and you live your life as though you are separate and alone. You forget your magnificence because you tend to be influenced by the other four afflictions that arise out of avidya.
Because of your own “I-ness” (asmita), you identify too much with the body, once again placing too much emphasis on your physical attributes. Out of this identification, the third and fourth afflictions arise: attraction (raga) and aversion (dvesha). You define yourself by what you love and what you hate, and cling to life, fearing change, particularly the final change — death — which represents the fifth affliction (abhinivesha).
In acknowledgement of these five afflictions, yoga encourages students to approach their practice with delicacy, respect, gentleness and awareness. It offers students a chance to visit on a regular basis a place of observation — taking a moment whereby they can refine and quieten. As there is no perfection in yoga, the regular discipline of entering into an asana without judgement allows the practitioner the opportunity to let go of the good and the bad, the likes and the dislikes. Students are encouraged to “work into” an asana, irrespective of how it feels, and to observe any negative thoughts and feelings but not engage with them.
The body is held in a place of respect and the lens of consciousness is cleaned. By setting aside any external thoughts of how the body might appear, each and every asana offers the opportunity to enter into the body and go beyond physical sensations. This is where the breath becomes the lifeblood of the yoga practice.
As thoughts stem from either things you have done or things you think you should do, be they in the past or the future, yoga students are directed back to the breath as a means of stopping the mind from talking. The breath is ever present. By allowing the mind to rest on the breath and bringing it into the moment, no other thought can exist. Thus the student is able to access the here and now — to truly experience the asana.
When you are thoroughly and totally absorbed in your presentation of the asana, forgetting neither the flesh nor the senses — when the five organs of action and five organs of perception are all brought into play in their correct function and relationship — this is pratyahara.
Pratyahara is usually translated as withdrawal of the senses. This means drawing the senses from the periphery of the skin towards the core of the being, the soul. The moment the mind becomes silent, the self rests in its abode and the mind dissolves. Similarly, when the muscles and joints are rested in their positions, the body, senses and mind lose their identities and consciousness shines in its purity. This is the meaning of pratyahara.
By exercising pratyahara through their practice, yoga students are moved to an even higher level of awareness, almost as if they are no longer in the room. This pure state of mind, body and soul, achieved through consistent practice, allows students to focus on the importance of the inner self. But it takes commitment to withdraw from the external messages and senses — many of them negative — that clutter your daily life. Working towards pratyahara is an important step away from the influences that combine to produce in people, particularly women, a poor body image and low self-esteem.
Being at one in the mind, body and soul enables individuals to let go of the ego and the superficial attachments they hold in relation to their images of themselves — images that have more than likely been manifested by others. Having a healthy body is a positive outcome of regular yoga practice. Having a perfect body is a negative and unhealthy outcome of a society too focused on material values.
To fully and honestly appreciate the benefits yoga can bring to an individual, one has to experience yoga practice with devotion, consistency and an open heart and mind. It’s through connection with the breath and a willingness to focus on internal sensations rather than external fixations that you can hope to understand the true meaning of peace. To put it in perspective, peace with yourself is a far greater gift than having arms like Madonna.
A Q&A with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre
We sit down with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre, based in Byron Bay, New South Wales.
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