The Myth Of The "Yoga Body"

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
So this feature was nearly finished, with a completely different lede, when a woman I had just met at a party asked what I did for a living. I explained that I taught yoga and worked as a writer.
"Ah," she said, nodding and looking me up and down. "So you have no fat on your body."
It wasn’t a question; it was a statement. And as a yoga teacher, I'm often on the receiving end of statements like this one. (For the record: Like any living, breathing human, I do have fat on my body.) But why have we decided that yoga = thin? Where has this idea of the "yoga body" come from?
When I started practicing more than 20 years ago, I understood the yoga body only in relation to pictures of middle-aged Indian men, looking serious and focused. Now, there are 126 million search results on Google for "yoga body," and they almost all show the same thing: a young, thin, tanned, flexible woman, who is probably also beautiful and radiantly happy, and quite possibly semi-clothed on a beach. (There are also a few men who come into this category; invariably they have a top knot.)
We’re at this strange juncture where yoga is both more inclusive and more exclusive than ever. There is wide availability — with studios popping up by the minute, and online classes gaining in popularity — but the sometimes eye-watering prices per class, combined with the tapered visual identity, have simultaneously made it feel much more intimidating and alienating.
Leaving aside the systemic issues around class, race, money, and privilege (all of which merit their own deep dives), the image of yoga is painfully narrow. Yoga magazines, websites, advertising — they all echo the mainstream "perfect body" fable, except they add onto that the flexibility of ballet dancers.
And then there's social media. "I scroll through my social media feeds, full of yoga teachers, yoga practitioners, and other members of the health and fitness profession, and I feel like I'm paging through a digital version of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue," Becky Farbstein, a London-based yoga teacher, recently wrote on her site. "When I step away from the internet, I know I am healthy and strong, but in the myopia of social media, that perspective gets fuzzy."
But the thing is, this "fuzzy" perspective is really dangerous (just as mainstream advertising is), because we are excluding and alienating huge swathes of society from our visual world, perpetuating the ridiculous myth that the most important thing about a woman (and increasingly a man) is how they look. And — here’s the key ­— we're communicating that, above all else, they must be thin.
"Here in the Western world, we are obsessed with weight loss, which then translates over to yoga," says teacher and BigGalYoga founder Valerie Sagun. "We don’t have to be thin (or even fit) to practice yoga. Making people think that you need to be thin to practice yoga is bullying and fat-shaming, and enforcing that if you don’t have a small body you are not wanted in the world."

Making people think that you need to be thin to practice yoga is bullying and fat-shaming, and enforcing that if you don’t have a small body you are not wanted in the world.

Valerie Sagun, Big Gal Yoga
Sure, yoga can give you a "good body" — in the sense that, regular practice has been linked with increased strength, stamina, flexibility, balance, and lung capacity. But when we focus on weight loss and/or body sculpting, we miss out on what I think is the greatest gift of yoga: the understanding and appreciation you gain for your body.
At its very core, yoga asks you to connect (or for most of us, reconnect) with your body. It invites you to get to know yourself a little better, to develop awareness from the inside out, rather than view the self from the outside in. So it’s really quite sad that yoga has become yet another space in our society that has been taken over by a set of ideals of how our bodies should look. Yoga is now marketed and sold as a product to help us "lose weight" or "get the perfect body" — make no mistake: Yoga is now a multi-billion dollar industry. And when we buy into these ideals (both literally and figuratively), we disconnect from the body, resulting in precisely the opposite outcome that yoga was created to achieve.
This is something author Lauren Lipton is seeking to combat with her new book, Yoga Bodies. Featuring 80 different yoga practitioners of all ages, shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and skill levels, Lipton created the book because she "know[s] so many people who could benefit from yoga, but it can be intimidating to those who have never tried it. People say, 'I can't do yoga because I'm not flexible,' or, 'I'm not in good enough shape for yoga.'" The book features yogis with larger bodies, yogis with disabilities (both visible and invisible), and yogis in their 90s, and Lipton says she would like readers to "look through this book, find someone who looks or thinks like them, and say, 'If that person can do yoga, so can I.'"
Despite the efforts of women like Lipton, Sagun, and body positivity activists (such as Jessamyn Stanley), depressing stories of teachers making larger or older students feel singled out are all too common. Kim, a 30-year-old copywriter, had a horrible experience at a recent aerial yoga class. "A new teacher asked me to move closer to her. I said I was fine and explained I'd been doing the class for six months, but she insisted that she needed to 'keep an eye on me.' She didn't move any of the slighter girls who had never actually done the class before. It was mortifying." And John, a 53-year-old secondary school teacher explains: "I’ve done yoga for more than 20 years, but at almost every class with a new teacher, I will be the only person handed blocks and bricks for support, even though I don’t need them. And I’m often asked if I’m 'okay.' It feels condescending, though I try to just laugh it off."

When we buy into these ideals (both literally and figuratively), we disconnect from the body, resulting in precisely the opposite outcome that yoga was created to achieve.

We make split-second and grossly unfair assumptions about people based on how they look, and yoga is no different. Even internationally acclaimed teacher Dana Falsetti has experienced "quite a bit of subtle discrimination" on account of her size. "When I take a class, teachers assume I’m a beginner — none of them ever think I’m a teacher! But I recognize as a teacher, and someone living in this body, that these things are so ingrained, they don’t realize they are ostracizing someone."
Ingrained indeed. I know that we are all distinct and individual, and I know that yoga is not about what you do on the mat, but about how you treat people off it. I’ve taught 3-month-old babies and wheelchair-bound veterans, and I know that all you need is the breath — and that physical asanas can be adapted to help any person of any age, body type, or skill level. But still, like Farbstein, if I spend too much time on Instagram, I begin to feel insecure and wonder whether I should be branding myself as a "yoga goddess." There is nothing wrong with self-improvement, or striving to be a better, healthier, stronger version of yourself. However, if you’re losing sight of self-acceptance, and focussing only on the physical appearance of the body, you’re increasing your self-absorption and narcissism, and moving further away from your authentic self. And again, that totally defeats the purpose of doing yoga in the first place.
For me, I arrived on my yoga mat as a young teenager with body image issues, and those classes were a safe space for me to practice and (unwittingly) develop self-love. It took many more years for me to to truly love myself, but the seeds were sown in, and grew from, yoga. If I were 12 now and coming to the practice today, I seriously wonder whether I would have the same experience.
This is why I think it's important to curate your personal visual world widely, demand more diverse representation from your external world, and work keenly on your inner world — whether or not you practice yoga. "We’re all so bogged down with superficial thoughts that we don’t even realize they are false,” Falsetti says. "Wake up and think critically! Increasing self-awareness for the individual is the first step to creating a more inclusive environment."
Lily Silverton is a London-based yoga teacher and writer.
It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

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