How to love your beautiful yoga body
Do you think you need to have a lean, lithe physique to do yoga? Does being flexible mean you’re a “good” yogi? What is the “yoga body” and how has “image” become so important in the Western yoga world? Let’s try to untangle this entwining of concepts.
The yoga body
Seane Corn is an American celebrity yoga teacher, founder of Off the Mat and Into the World, an organisation dedicated to conscious, sustainable activism. She is also a contributing writer to Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories about Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body. In the book, Corn apologises for the ways she perpetuated the beauty myth as a young, photoshopped yoga model: “I was thin, flexible, strong, pretty and white. I fit into a mainstream ideal that could be marketed and used to help commercialise yoga.”
Corn and others make the point that yoga is for every body type and, while your body will naturally come into its own balance with yoga, not everyone is going to look exactly like the models portrayed by the yoga industry. In classes, some yoga students seek out and feel more at ease with a teacher who is clearly comfortable in an “imperfect” body, because it makes the practice more accessible. Yet mostly, students will find, in an effective yoga class, how their yoga teacher looks becomes less relevant than what their teacher can teach them, and how they as a student feel during and after the practice.
“We need to evolve the standards of beauty to be more inclusive and representative of the myriad shapes, sizes, colours, genders and ages that exist.”
Traditionally, yoga was brought to the West through a male lineage of spiritual practitioners from India; however, it has been embraced more often by women in Western countries. In 2012, a national Yoga in America study showed that, of the 20.4 million people in the US practising yoga, 82.2 per cent were women. The 2012 results of a Yoga in Australia survey, conducted between 2005 and 2006, also show the typical survey respondent in Australia was a 41-year-old, tertiary-educated, employed, health-conscious female (85 per cent women). Against this backdrop, the “yoga body” has come to be: a mostly thin, young, female, Caucasian, hyper-flexible, athletic body type, practising challenging yoga poses, often in lingerie-like clothing.
Why would someone strive to achieve that “yoga-body beautiful”? We are all affected by cultural expectations, the achievement-oriented, competitive, perfection-driven, status-seeking, “external” focused nature of society. The path of yoga is to awaken and transcend social pressures of how you are meant to look and behave, and come to a deep knowing and acceptance of who you are. That can only happen through practice.
As she continued to be photographed and consumed by the public, Seane Corn felt the pressure. “I felt the insecurity that many women feel — that I didn’t stack up, wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t thin enough, wasn’t perfect enough. I felt inadequate.” She wanted to do something more positive with her celebrity status. As a 47-year-old yoga teacher, she looks back and says, “I’m glad to now be in a position where I can raise awareness … yoga brings us into a deeper relationship with self, but this can never be obtained if we continue to marginalise people based on their appearance. We need to evolve the standards of beauty to be more inclusive and representative of the myriad shapes, sizes, colours, genders and ages that exist.”
In Yoga and Body Image, co-editor Melanie Klein defines body image as “an ideal image of one’s body, an image that is intellectual and subjective. This psychological image of one’s body is shaped from a lifetime of observations, experiences and reactions from others, such as family members, peers and the media. Race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, size, age, class and physical ability all play significant roles in the formation of one’s body image.” Klein explains that, too often, the image in the mirror is a “grossly distorted image of ourselves influenced by our experiences, interpretations and expectations”. A dissatisfaction of the body and compromised self-esteem results, grounded in illusion.
The book seeks to help readers make peace with their bodies and minds through yoga. It voices anorexic issues, dissociation with the body and how yoga brings you home to yourself. It voices the invisibility that larger-bodied women feel in yoga classes, and how to be inclusive. The contributors’ personal stories talk of shame, self-worth, feelings of ugliness and disempowerment, and how yoga can make you whole again. It covers gender issues for men and women, sexual preference, weight, age and ethnicity, and encompasses yoga for all walks of life.
“We’re becoming hijacked by images and are losing the very thing we are trying to uncover. Yoga should set you free, but it has been subverted because of societal norms and a competitive world.”
Its release coincides with a growing movement in the USA, the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, which promotes a t-shirt for all shapes and sizes that says: “This is what a yogi looks like.” In the States, there are conferences on body image and yoga, and curvy yoga teacher trainings designed to effectively teach larger bodies in yoga classes, such as the online classes run by the beautiful women behind Yoga for All.
In Australia and New Zealand, body image is just as much an issue, yet rarely spoken about. The pervasive notion of the “body beautiful” has infiltrated the yoga industry here, not only through the commercialisation of yoga clothes and media images but also through a new generation of young, thin, female teachers using Instagram pictures of their bikini bodies in advanced poses to sell their classes. Nikola Ellis, owner of Adore Yoga in Mosman, NSW, refers to this issue as the “pornification of yoga”.
Ellis notes that you can’t separate yoga from the culture in which it’s practised. “We live in a society with images of women being sexualised, and the cultural baggage is being superimposed on the yoga tradition,” she says. “When you see an image of a woman, you immediately objectify her because that’s how we see women’s bodies.” She doesn’t blame the younger teachers but says, “The majority of mature, well-trained, experienced, knowledgeable yogis are not putting their tits out on Instagram. A younger generation of women and men have grown up witnessing the portrayal of themselves in a particular way as normal, and they see it as a good way of promoting what they are selling.”
According to Ellis, “the yoga industry sets up a ‘just try harder and you can reach nirvana’ ideal”, but this is not what yoga is about. “It is a process of getting over yourself,” she says, a process of working on avidya, which translates as ignorance of the true nature of reality.
The eightfold path
Yoga is many things; an eightfold path set out by Patanjali in the ancient text The Yoga Sutras. The eightfold path encompasses ethical precepts, posture, breathing, withdrawal of the senses, contemplation, meditation and bliss. This unfolding yogic lifestyle liberates you from an over-identification with the body and the mind, and takes you beyond misunderstanding to a spiritual place of peace. Constant images of the “yoga body”, however, have their impact and, as Nikola Ellis points out, people can either strive to achieve the perfect yoga body or turn away from yoga altogether, feeling that this is a practice that is not for them.
When a softening of language is used in yoga classes, and mirrors are removed, practitioners can interiorise rather than looking for external judgements.
Yoga can and does include everyone, welcoming all body types. It needs to feel inclusive in order to affect significant change in society. Yoga can liberate you from negative body image issues, from self-loathing to honouring your body for what it is. To do that, you need to step out of the mainstream influence a little and cultivate listening to your own intuitive wisdom. When body image in yoga is not addressed, it infiltrates classes and community and leads to further separation, competition or disassociation. Yoga is about diversity and unity, a uniting of consciousness where you come to realise that separation is an illusion, and that ultimately we are all one. The yoga industry surely needs to be authentic to the intentions of the practice itself.
Ethics in yoga teacher training
Insufficient teacher trainings contribute to the problem, Ellis suggests. “Ethics isn’t even taught in a 200-hour teacher training,” she explains. Teaching and demonstrating yoga’s ethical precepts of yamas and niyamas (moral disciplines and personal observances) can be an effective buffer against body image issues arising in classes, as these ethics take yoga into relationships and make it a way of life. When they are left out, the practice is devoid of deeper elements of how we treat ourselves and others.
Yoga teacher and PhD student at the Australian National University, Gina Woodhill, is concerned about the damage that narcissism and social media is doing to the yoga industry, saying, “A lot of people get caught up in ego and showing off on social media.” This is a problem because it strips yoga of its real, spiritual goals and benefits. “To be a yoga teacher requires more humility than anything else,” she says. Woodhill calls for a regulation of the industry. Ellis notes that there are guidelines in any other profession but “there is nothing in yoga to mitigate against unethical behaviour”.
Mark O’Brien, owner of Qi Yoga in Manly, NSW, says, “Yoga has become about envy and status and attainment through looking as good as you can as you rock a handstand, rather than how you hold savasana (lying-down relaxation pose).” He explains that, at his studio, “Classes are welcoming and un-pushy. We are strict on safety and injury checks.” O’Brien voices his concern about teachers not being able to provide for students’ individual bodies: “With an explosion of yoga teachers with almost no training these days, most people don’t know how to modify the poses.”
The “yoga selfie”
As the “yoga selfie” rises, Mark O’Brien explains that people get caught up in social media pressure, where the number of “likes” you get becomes a measure of self-worth, and the most beautiful shots get more response. “We become hijacked by images and are losing the very thing we are trying to uncover,” he says. “Yoga should set you free, but it has been subverted because of societal norms and a competitive world … I always teach to never confuse someone who is bendy with someone advanced, as this has no bearing on whether they are happy.”
O’Brien also warns, “Don’t confuse likes, followings and bendability with qualifications of a yoga teacher.” He describes an advanced yoga teacher as: “Someone with resilience in life, who really knows themselves. Self-knowledge or self-enquiry is at the heart of yoga, and is far more important than self-improvement. An advanced yogi can handle themselves in any situation.”
At Qi Yoga, he continues, the culture is unpretentious. “We question men when they take their shirts off. People of all ages are accepted and I don’t care if you are a size 2 or size 20.” The key to yoga, he says, and as a start to break free of the body image entrapment, is to focus on self-enquiry during the pose, to focus on how it feels rather than how it looks.
Linda Sparrowe is an author and well-known yoga teacher, former editor-in-chief of Yoga International and past managing editor of Yoga Journal. She explains in the book Yoga and Body Image that yoga can get stuck on the physical body, often those parts we hate, “when we practise asana devoid of any meditative aspect”. When this happens, “we lose connection with our breath, our intuition and our deeper selves”. Sparrowe also refers to the “bastardisation of yoga”, a phrase coined by Melody Moore, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the US who specialises in treating women with eating disorders. It “keeps us in a state of being ‘not enough’ and tethered to whatever limitations we deem unacceptable”, explains Sparrowe.
Yoga is about surrender, gentle release, peace and freedom so that the sympathetic nervous system reaction of fight and flight calms down, and the parasympathetic nervous system is rebalanced in order for people to experience joy. Then real and immediate difference can be felt in people’s lives.
When a softening of language is used in yoga classes, and mirrors are removed, practitioners can interiorise rather than looking for external judgements. In addition, an attitude of non-harm needs to be fostered with every breath in every pose. It is up to the yoga teacher to foster a sanga, or yoga community, based on liberation and non-harm. If your yoga class is about external body issues, perhaps you need to question whether what you are practising is actually yoga.
A strong practice can be a loving one, with the right intentions. The key is to listen to your body, not demand from it, and tune in to what the body needs. Your body can experience the joy of movement and the challenge of the pose without comparison. Yoga practice needs to embrace sthira and sukha: relaxed effort in the poses and a breathing practice with meditative, focused enquiry. This is what hatha yoga feels like.
Harvard-educated physician and bestselling author Dr Sara Gottfried reminds us to look inward and listen to what our bodies need instead of following what advertising tells us what to do, wear or consume. In Yoga and Body Image she writes, “Can I really blame the media for all these body image issues? No, I blame my tenuous connection to a deeper spiritual core … the truth is that radical acceptance and cultivation of secular spiritual connection require a dedicated effort … radical self-acceptance and self-love are your birthright, and you can reclaim them.”
Yoga, Sparrowe explains, doesn’t promise to whittle down the size of your thighs or smooth out your wrinkles. Yet, “It can radically change your relationship to those thighs or stop you from obsessing about your neck. In order for that to happen, however, you need to spend some time learning how to appreciate the body you have. The best way to do that? Step onto the yoga mat.”
Here are some ideas for how to make peace with your body and your mind by yoking them together through yoga:
- Enquire into your yoga teacher’s training and ongoing explorations of yoga. Find a teacher with experience or, if they’re a beginner teacher, one who is mentored by someone dedicated to their yoga practice and can guide the beginner teacher.
- Seek classes that offer alternatives in poses. This demonstrates the teacher has a deeper understanding of yoga practice and an ability to adapt the sequence to the needs of the students. Look for a teacher who can guide you safely for injury-free yoga.
- Find a class that fosters a body-positive environment that does not push students beyond their limits.
- Practise yoga with an intention for healing, joy and love. Replace negative thought forms when they arise during practice with the breath. The more the practice moves you to peace, the more you can start to embody self-worth and self-love.
- Aim for calm acceptance through softening and yielding in the poses, through a dedicated, spiritual, embodied journey inward.
- Listen to your body. You are the authority on your own body experience.
- Be patient with yourself. If you have spent your life hating your body, it may take some time to liberate from self-loathing. Surrender to the process with a yoga teacher you respect and who is capable of taking your practice beyond the superficial.
- Be part of a peaceful movement that reclaims your body as your own, not an object to be consumed or objectified. Practise non-harm of other women when viewing their images to heal the rift embedded in our culture towards women and their bodies. Practise yoga on and off the mat for an authentic life that leads to your own wholeness.
- Focus on the body sensations and subtle movements in yoga to help internalise the experience. Find beauty within and beyond culture, in the deep core of the self.
When ready, during your practice, remind yourself that love is your true nature. Express your divinity through humility within your yoga body. Say, “I am ready to awaken to the divine expression that I am; a being born of and intimately connected with the entire universe from within. This divinity is light source. I reclaim my yoga body as a sacred expression of divinity. I allow for healing of karmic patterns and conditioning to take place right now through the loving expression of non-judgemental yoga practice. I allow my body to be a natural, health-giving expression of divine love and live from that place inside my heart. I am a powerful, loving, living being of divine proportions, ever grateful for this life in this body as I express and evolve my spiritual purpose with love.”
Om shanti (peace).