So this feature was nearly finished, with a completely different opening, 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 with a sage nod, looking me up and down, “so you have no fat on your body.”
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. And some variation of it is a very common one to be on the receiving end of as a yoga teacher.
But why? Why have we decided that yoga = thin? (I do have fat on my body FYI.) Where has this idea of the “yoga body” come from?
When I started practising – 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 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 (four different features in their own right), the image of yoga is painfully narrow. Yoga magazines, websites, advertising – they all echo the mainstream ‘perfect body’ fable, with images of people with model bodies combined with the flexibility of ballet dancers.
And then there is social media. London-based yoga teacher Becky Farbstein says: “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. 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.”
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 – 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 practise yoga. Making people think that you need to be thin to practise yoga is bullying and fat-shaming, and enforcing that if you don’t have a small body you are not wanted in the world.”
Yoga will give you a good body – in the sense that practised regularly it will increase strength, stamina, flexibility, balance, and lung capacity. It may very well lead to weight loss and body sculpting and all of the other things associated with the “yoga body” but, with that as the aim, you will probably miss out on what I think is one of the greatest gifts of yoga – the understanding and appreciation it gives you 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, really sad that yoga has become yet another space in our society that has been taken over by a set idea of how our bodies should look. That it is being marketed and sold (make no mistake, it is now a multi-billion pound industry) as a product to help us “lose weight” or “get the perfect body”. This kind of thinking invariably leads to a deep disconnect from the body, resulting in precisely the opposite outcome of the aim of yoga.
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, Lauren 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’. I wanted to address every reason I could think of why people don’t practise.”
Featuring yogis with larger bodies, disabilities (both visible and invisible) and yogis in their 90s, Lipton 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 Lauren, Valerie, and BoPo activists such as Jessamyn Stanley, depressing stories of teachers making larger or older students feel singled out are ten a penny. 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.”
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 recognise as a teacher – and someone living in this body – that these things are so ingrained, they don’t realise they are ostracising 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 to find their own mindful, embodied practice. But still, like Farbstein, if I spend too much time on Instagram I begin to feel insecure and wonder whether I should lose a bit of weight or be branding myself as a “yoga goddess”, despite being fully aware that it is insane and misses the point of yoga altogether. 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 body, you’re increasing your self-absorption and narcissism, and moving further away from your authentic self. It’s the internal qualities that make a yogi! We know that, right?
Yes we do (I hope), but the thing is, yoga is now a brand and, like any good capitalist brand, it needs an image in order to make you feel inadequate and want to buy stuff. It’s hard to sell socks, after all. In the realms of wellness and spirituality we are firmly back to Naomi Wolf and The Beauty Myth, when we thought we’d come so far…
I arrived on my yoga mat as a young teenager with awful body-image problems, and those classes (which were categorically not full of skinny Lycra-clad girls and in fact included my 50-year-old father) were a safe space for me to practise and (unwittingly) develop self-love. It took many more years for me to put that into practice, 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. As the teachers from YogaWith comment: “Viewing Instagram images of uber-flexible girls in poses defying gravity one might question the therapeutic value of yoga.”
While writing this feature I asked my Facebook friends if anyone practised yoga and didn’t have a traditional “yoga body” and would like to talk to me. 30-odd people replied saying they would, and nearly every single one of them has a slim body. It was another huge eye-opener for me in terms of our collective body dysmorphia and society’s view of the “yoga body”.
The lessons? Curate your personal visual world wisely; demand more diverse representation and visibility from your external world; and finally, work keenly on your inner world. “We’re all so bogged down with superficial thoughts that we don’t even realise they are false,” says Dana. “Wake up and think critically! Increasing self-awareness for the individual is the first step to creating a more inclusive environment.”
Original feature on Refinery29UK