Yoga's Body Image

Body image issues are tough for me to write about, because they are PERSONAL. Like a majority of Western Women I struggle with what my body looks like. Studies find time and again that women in the US are dissatisfied with their bodies. One Brown University Study found 75 percent of college age women thought about their body “all the time” or frequently. It isn’t just college students either, further scholarly work has found that 87 percent of women aged 25- 89 years old prefer a smaller silhouette than that of their current body. What causes negative body images? The media is a often blamed, in my opinion this is just. We are bombarded daily with images and videos of thin, smiling models with "perfect" bodies selling us everything from soda to vacations! The rise of Photoshop has made this phenomenon even more prevalent, as anyone of the cover of a magazine or billboard can be photoshopped into “perfection” removing every roll of body fat, hair, stretch mark etc. My personal hero Tina Fey has documented this phenomenon perfectly.

Fad diets and the “fix it” culture we live in also deserves some blame.“Loose Weight” is one of the most popular New Years Resolutions every year, but how to do that healthily and effectively is unclear.Fad diets and weight loss brands often exploit our insecurities, encouraging with the message that if you just do one thing you’ll have the body (and life) of your dreams. Yet often these diets aren't based on any actual science and can leave practitioners feeling hungry and even malnourished. Rapid changes in body weight, that often accompany quick fix diets, can lead to additional health risks, including high blood pressure and heart disease. Plus frustration when plans didn’t work, people often gain more weight coming off a quick fix diet than they originally lost!

The yoga community isn’t innocent in the issue of body image either.Yoga apparel companies use the same advertising tricks as almost every other company.The “Yoga Selfie” trend perpetuates this, as most “celebrity” yoga selfie- takers (Yogi Selfier?) are super-model-esq with images shot in perfect lighting and angles. As I searched for a stock photo for this post almost every picture I found showed yogis with the same body type. I’ve been through enough yoga photo shoots to know we all do this.And there is NOTHING wrong with wanting to look good in a photo, especially one you are going to share with the world. But when this picture perpetuates that you must be skinny, toned and more to be a yogi we are missing out on the real experience of what yoga can teach us.

Don’t worry, I am not just going to bad talk yoga. That would make this a really bad yoga blog. Yoga can provide great relief for those struggling with any sort of body image issue, including eating disorders (more on that another time, where I can give it the attention it requires and deserves). The yoga community has become more and more inclusive for practitioners of all sizes, with programs like “Yoga for Round Bodies” becoming more popular and more common.

Even if you don’t have a “round body” you may be struggling with dislike or mistrust of your body.The best forms of yoga to promote improved body image and self love include practice include Hatha, Yin and Restorative. Hatha Yoga focuses on building strength, flexibility and balance, rather than changing appearance. Yin Yoga works on being comfortable with the body where it is now, resisting the urge to change it. And restorative yoga is all about self love and care, essential for learning to embrace your body.

While people often come to yoga as a fitness routine they quickly learn that it is much more than that. Yoga Asana (poses) requires strength and flexibility, and this physical practice is most people’s introduction to yoga. For many, including myself, this is a difficult start. Your body may not fit into all of the poses the way you’d like them to, and it is easy to get discouraged, or envious of the teacher or person next to you who looks “perfect”. As you stick with it you begin to realize what your body can do. Hopefully you find a teacher who is skilled in helping you find the ways to help a pose fit your body, not the other way around. Instead of focusing on how to change the body you will become more aware of HOW IT IS. What it can do and what it can’t. You start to become more AWARE. How a pose feels on one side versus the other. How it feels when you do it in the morning versus the evening. How a pose feels when you do it first thing, as opposed to at the end of a practice. How your body feels after a day at the office. You’ll start learning what works for your body and you’ll want to continue to help yourself feel good.

If your practice includes mindfulness (and I highly recommend that it does) you will likely be practicing “letting go”. Letting go of what we can’t control, and letting go of striving.This can mean letting go of striving to touch your toes or striving for that flat belly. This isn’t a quick or easy practice (at least it isn’t for me) but ultimately you may notice it has been a day or a few days since you compared your body to the lululemon models, or the practitioner next to you, because you’ve begun to let go of that anxiety or desire. When you notice you are comparing you treat that with awareness. Was kind of day are you having? How are you feeling about yourself?

You may discover you become more mindful off the mat as well, becoming more mindful with your eating habits. You may find that you’ve been snacking mindlessly at your desk or waiting till you are so hungry to eat lunch that you grab the first thing you see. As you become mindful of these habits you may want to make healthy changes. As you become more aware of how your body feels during yoga you may start to become how your body feels outside of yoga, including how it feels after you eat a specific food or foods. Instead of yo-yoing from one diet fad to another you may start to learn the best way to nourish yourself.

Yoga is the opposite of a quick fix exercise or diet routine. I've been practicing for over a decade and I know there are still days I look at my fellow teachers and wonder how they got those abs or if I will ever be able to do that pose with my hips. I still let myself get "hangry" (ask my husband if you don't believe me) and I still may find myself binging on chocolate after a long day. When I find myself doing these things I reflect back on what went on in my day, on and off my mat. For someone who spent much of her late adolescents not eating (again, a post on disordered eating and yoga is brewing) I think this is a major accomplishment!

The above reasons are just some of the many why I created the Yoga for Women’s Wellness Series. I want to create a space where women can get to better know (and love) their bodies. Where women can be (re)-introduced the amazingness of all they can do. A safe space to meet yourself where you’re at. The first session is entitled “Getting to know your feminine body”. We will work into poses that encourage both empowerment and care. We’ll work on being mindful of the body’s limitations as well as its limitless ability to amaze us.

The first session of Yoga for Women will be held Saturday February 6 14hr-16hr at Radiant Light Yoga, advance sign up is recommended. For Private Yoga for Women session contact me. As always feel free to contact me with any questions.