I just saw the article Yoga and Our Bodies: Let’s Cut the Crap and Make Peace with Ourselves published on DoYouYoga, and couldn’t help but write a response. It’s an article that epitomizes a particular type of thinking common in the yoga world, but one that is absolutely incorrect and needs to be turned on it’s head if yoga is going to be a force for social change and empowerment.
I can’t in good conscious recommend people go read the piece because I think it’s that bad, but if you want to check it out follow the link above. The article makes the claim that it was only when yoga became adopted by women in the West that people started to have issues with the type of yoga bodies portrayed. Apparently, according to this article, when men practiced in the past their bodies weren’t scrutinized for being “too thin” or not being representative of yogis as a whole. The author goes on to claim that criticisms of the stereotypical yoga body (thin, female, white, able to do advanced postures) are driven by jealously, that those images should serve as inspiration, and that ultimately the images reflect yogis who have a depth and dedication to the practice that those who critique the images lack.
Hopefully at this point you’re thinking what I’m thinking: Wow! What a load of bull$&^!! Obviously this author is writing from a place of unacknowledged privilege, a misunderstanding of social issues related to yoga and body image, and and oversimplification of yogic history. Let’s unpack some of the problems with this article, talk about why such opinions are so common in the yoga world, and why we need to change our yoga discourse to promote social change.
Problem #1: She completely ignores social and historical circumstance when she talks about yoga history.
I’ve written a great deal about yoga history on my blog, but in general she’s completely ignoring why it was mostly men, and also why they often were thin or practiced in loincloths. At the point in time in yoga history that she’s talking about women were prohibited from practicing because of gender norms prominent at the time. It wasn’t until 1938 that the first woman was accepted as a student at the most prominent yoga school in India and even this early case was exceptional. Indra Devi (previously Eugenie V. Peterson) was a Russian noblewoman, actress, and dancer and became the first woman to learn yoga in India from the prominent yoga guru Krishnamacharya. Devi had traveled to India in 1927, changed her name, and acted in several Indian films. Despite her royal and celebrity status Krishnamacharya still wouldn’t accept her as a student until the Maharaja of Mysore (the man who established and funded his yoga institute) spoke on her behalf. And it wasn’t until decades later that it became acceptable for the average woman to learn the practice; even in America it took the counterculture and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s to change gender norms and draw women en masse to yoga.
Yogis prior to the 1900s were often in abject poverty and were usually religious ascetics that underwent a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals. This meant they often had limited access to food because of poverty or engaged in fasting or other bodily practices that left them quite thin. Such yogis were often stereotyped negatively as dangerous and criminal by the general public both in India and abroad (often with reason, since many yogis were militant and fought against colonialism). So of course individuals weren’t going around wondering, “Where are all the curvy male yogis at? Why are all these yogis so thin? Isn’t this promoting negative body image?”
Making a claim that men weren’t considered in this way in yoga’s past so it doesn’t make sense that women in modern yoga are is anachronistic and doesn’t acknowledge that at the time of history she’s talking about such claims wouldn’t have made sense. And of course she’s also oversimplifying the idea that all yogis were thin men practicing in loincloths, since after the 1900s yoga became tied to physical culture so many male yogis actively worked towards a body common in weight lifting, and numerous prominent yogis of both genders did not have stick-thin body types (including BKS Iyengar’s daughter, Geeta S. Iyengar). Even now, men and women face very different gendered ideal yoga body types, with women facing often unrealistic thinness and minimal muscle definition, while men are faced with the ultra-buff broga stereotype. Both of these gendered ideals are often unattainable for the average practitioner, and are equally problematic for both men and women (I’ll talk about this more in depth in later posts).
I think it’s incredibly common in yoga today to promote a variety of myths about the origins of yoga as well as the nature of “authentic,” traditional yoga and yogis. Yoga has been, and still is, polyvocal and multivalent in that it is not any one thing with a set meaning. At all points in the history of yoga there has been immense variation in the practice as well as the people who practice, but we tend to forget or ignore this in modern yoga because to acknowledge it would complicate the origin narrative that is so vital and important to legitimate something as “real” yoga, or someone as a “real” yogi. Ideas of tradition and authenticity are socially created, but they serve as legitimation in modern yoga, delineating between what is real yoga and what is not, or who is a real yogi and who is not. So while most of these ideas of tradition and authenticity are myths, many in the yoga world still give them credence as if they were hard truth. This article is just another example of that mindset. The false assumption is that if men in the past didn’t face denunciations of exclusivity around body image, why should women today? Well, the answer is because it was a different social and historical moment, so it’s not the same thing and we can’t just haphazardly compare the two as if they had the same sociohistorical context. That’s called ethnocentrism, folks.
Problem #2: The assumption that outward appearance of the body or the body’s asana practice reflects the depth of someone’s practice.
I think this is the most problematic and disturbing part of the article. The assumption here is that if you don’t look like a yoga celebrity you aren’t dedicated in your practice, and that being able to do advanced asanas or have a stereotypical “yoga body” means you are more dedicated and committed to yoga than others. There are so many reasons why this is just completely and utterly wrong. First, it’s contradictory with the idea (that the author herself argues!) that yoga is more than just asana. Someone can have a very deep yoga practice without focusing on asana at all, or without being able to do those advanced yoga poses stereotyped in the above images.
Not all bodies will be able to look like that, or do that type of asana practice, and we shouldn’t all equally strive to accomplish that. We need to meet our bodies and our selves where we are at, and love ourselves for what we are capable of doing without injury. Recent discussions in the yoga community on yoga and aging are a great reminder of this. The fact of the matter is, for some people such advanced poses or that body type come more naturally. This doesn’t mean they are more dedicated or have a deeper practice, it means that they have privilege because it’s more accessible and attainable for them. For example, dancers train their bodies from an early age in ways that parallel advanced postural yoga practices, so many times when dancers start doing yoga they are able to enter into advanced postures with more ease despite only practicing for a short time. Does this make them more dedicated? No. Does it mean their practice is deeper? No. It means they have a body that is conditioned to move in a particular way, and that more naturally fits the stereotypical yoga body image. Is it a coincidence that many yoga celebrities were also once dancers or models? (Examples include the controversial Tara Stiles.) I’m pretty sure that it’s not.
In yoga today this assumption that advanced postures or outward appearance reflect the depth, dedication, or authenticity of one’s practice are common. But it’s not true, and creates a system in yoga where people who are naturally able to fit that body type or more easily access those advanced postures get more prestige and status, and are believed to be more authentically “yogic” than many others that might actually be more knowledgeable about yoga or have a more dedicated and deep practice. But because such folks doesn’t “look” like the stereotype or practice advanced postures they aren’t considered “real” yogis. Such a system directly relates to why yoga is dominated by a particular demographic, and why many yogis of alternative body types or identities feel unwelcome and out of place at “traditional” studios. If we want to create more inclusivity in yoga and really live up to ideals that “yoga is welcoming and accessible for everyone” we need to start changing the system, starting with these assumptions that body type or type of practice can be equated with the depth and dedication of one’s practice.
Problem #3: Such imagery is often an illusion anyway.
Many prominent yogis have come out and shared their experiences trying to create such imagery, essentially saying that these images are something of an illusion. Kathryn Budig has given interviews or shared on social media what goes into actually creating such images. The yogis in these images are being photographed every split second, so the images shown usually reflect only a split second of holding these poses, often while they are greased up with oil, under hot lights, and wearing copious amounts of make-up to look good all while doing advanced poses. Sometimes the images are actually Photoshopped to look more amazing than in real life. And really, anyone who has seen this video should understand that the amazing images we see out in the world (including the world of yoga) often don’t reflect the real, everyday practice of yoga celebrities, let alone most yogis.
Problem #4: The article completely disregards and delegitimates the experiences of real practitioners with body image and yoga.
This article also claims to speak for all yogis, and doesn’t acknowledge the voices and experiences of those marginalized in the yoga community. This parallels a problem that was common with the first-wave feminist movement, where white women would claim to speak for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual identity. Obviously the experiences of white women in a patriarchal society are very different that the experiences of, for example, black women or queer identified women, and speaking for all of these groups rather than giving each group a voice to share their actual experiences is wrong. The same thing is going on here, where a thinner white woman yogi is speaking for all yogis, regardless of body type, gender, race, or sexual identification, without any real understanding or empathy for the experiences of such yogis.
The article assumes that images of thin women doing advanced poses should only be interpreted as “inspiration,” and claims that people who get upset about such imagery are really secretly jealous. In other words, it tells people what is appropriate for them to think or feel, rather than acknowledging the actual experiences of practioners who have been brave enough to speak out about their interactions with body image and yoga. It assumes all yogis want (or maybe should want?) to look a certain way, and interprets their feelings and desires without actually listening to the real feelings and desires of diverse yogis. This is pretty much a textbook definition of privilege, since it assumes the author’s experience and understanding is the norm, and discounts any experience that might not be shared or understood by the author. Again, the only way we can actually make yoga live up to claims of inclusivity and ideals of being welcoming and accessible to everyone is if we actually listen to everyone, and acknowledge their experiences.
Problem #5: The assumption that regular yoga practice will give someone the stereotypical yoga body.
The article also promotes a common assumption within yoga that “if you practice asana daily, your body will become more toned and lean too,” as if this is a clear cut equation. First, there has been numerous research articles that show that while yoga does help with weight loss, it’s not guaranteed and often has more to do with becoming more mindful of what we eat than that the physical practice itself transforms our bodies. Whether or not yoga will help us become “toned and lean” is completely dependent on the type of practice you have, how often you practice, and ultimately on the type of body you possess and what it is capable of, not to mention your diet. In all likelihood for most people it’s pretty much impossible that they would be able to obtain the stereotypical yoga body, even if they could stop going to work and taking care of their families to do yoga 8 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Some bodies can’t and shouldn’t try to practice more rigorous physical forms of yoga, at least without a great deal of preparation, perhaps lasting decades. For example those dealing with injury, health concerns, or those who are older probably shouldn’t practice in the way that would be required to obtain the stereotypical yoga body. Yet in yoga, despite claims that “yoga is more than asana” this is often completely ignored. Recent discussions of yoga and aging draw attention to the fact that our goals in yoga have to shift depending on the body we have now, and what our bodies and minds are capable of in this moment. Adjusting our goals in this way is the heart of mindfulness and self-love, and should be celebrated not ignored or degraded as a lack of dedication.
Problem #6: Gender essentialism that assumes women are naturally better at yoga than men.
The author of this article is also promoting a very common idea in yoga, gender essentialism, when she is making the claim that “women are naturally more flexible than men.” While it’s true that by the time we are older many women are more flexible than men, this is by no means natural or based in biology. It’s because men aren’t encouraged to move in the same ways women are throughout their young lives, so by the time men are older they have focused so much on building strength (per ideals of masculinity) that they often aren’t as flexible as their female counterparts (who are encouraged to be sexy and flexible as part of ideals of femininity).
Ideas of gender essentialism, that men and women are biologically different and complementary in terms of their bodies and also their desires, interests, and needs, is not true. While there are some biological sex differences between men and women, most gender differences are actually because of different socialization throughout our lives. In other words, gender difference is socially constructed rather than natural or biological. Ideas of gender essentialism abound in yoga, and often result yoga being highly feminized and heterosexualized, both trends that contribute to men (and queer identified individuals) feeling unwelcome or out of place in yoga. If we truly want to make yoga more inclusive, we need to stop believing in gender difference and promote a form of yoga that is accessible and welcome for everyone (for real).
I’m not trying to target the author of this article, and I think she made a valiant if failed attempt to talk about an issue that she clearly cares deeply about. But this article illustrates so many misconceptions in the yoga world at large that groups like the Yoga & Body Image Coalition are trying to address and ultimately contributes to the exclusivity and inaccessibility of yoga, as well as various forms of inequality within the yoga world. Not to mention it’s co-opting the body positive movement to promote body hate. Yoga is a practice of mindfulness, and mindfulness requires deep understanding that promotes empathy, something this article is lacking and that honestly is often lacking in the mainstream yoga community. To try and overcome this, how about we start by actually listening to and valuing the experiences of real yogis with body image, no matter how uncomfortable the reality might make some of us who experience privilege in the yoga world feel. Being called out on our privilege is not a pleasant experience, but it is a necessary one, and I think one that will enable yoga to be a force for social change and equality on and off the mat.
Love, light, and… yoga ❤