I’ve just got back from delivering a presentation on the hot topic of yoga and body image at the Yoga Australia Conference on the Gold Coast.
Yoga is now practiced by over 20 million people in the USA, more than 80% of whom are women (85% in Australia). The lure of a product that promises to makes you look and feel better has transformed yoga into big business, turning over US$10.3 billion in 2012. In fact, the aspirational, mass appeal of yoga closely resembles other products marketed primarily to women, such as fashion and cosmetics. It was the presentation slides that compared advertising for these products with advertising for yoga that conference delegates found most alarming. Just to make it clear, the top picture shows advertising for fashion and cosmetics, the bottom picture shows a selection of adverts for yoga studios and products.
The parallels are obvious. Overt sexualisation, women’s bodies chopped up into parts and turned into objects. The images have been photoshopped, de-humanised and depict bodies that are totally unattainable for ordinary women.
When women are sexually objectified in this way, they start to perceive themselves as a collection of body parts instead of a complete and whole person. Self objectification has been linked to the rise in body modification through plastic surgery (bums, tums and labiaplasty, nose jobs and boob lifts) and eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association states that: “Numerous correlational and experimental studies have linked exposure to the thin ideal in mass media, to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating among women.”
Research suggests that 80% of women in the USA have disordered eating or body image issues and 9% of young women in Australia have an eating disorder. If the objectifying imagery of the cosmetics industry has been co-opted by yoga, is yoga now helping or contributing to the body image crisis? The answer is, it has the potential to do both.
Body Image – how yoga helps and harms.
Many people who experience body image and eating disorders find it hard to interpret and tolerate the feelings generated by their own bodies. They can’t ‘feel what they’re feeling.’ By emphasizing internal experience over external appearance, students learn to listen to, and value, the sensations and messages coming from their bodies.
This can be done by inviting students to ‘notice’ what they’re feeling. Can you feel the floor beneath your feet? When you bring your palms together can you feel the temperature and texture of your skin? How does it feel in the back of the body after practicing a forward bend? Continually draw the attention back to noticing immediate physical sensations.
Yoga can also give students an opportunity to experience making choices based on what actually feels good rather than what they think is expected of them. This requires some skill on the part of the yoga teacher – simply telling students what to do and how to do it can reinforce the idea that their bodies are things to be ‘acted upon’ by external influences. Experimenting with many different options and inviting students to discover – and go with – what feels best is an empowering way to teach. That means slowing classes down and throwing out much of what is considered to be ‘correct alignment.’
Because yoga works with the senses – we notice the shapes and sensations created by the body, become mindful of the breath, experience vibration and sound through chant – it offers an opportunity for students to re-integrate the parts of themselves that have become objectified and disconnected. At it’s best, yoga can be a safe and loving path back to wholeness.
However, not all aspects of modern yoga are helpful when working with body image issues. Practices that encourage competition, striving, strict alignment and conforming to a set, inflexible routine can reinforce body-shaming, perfectionism and self-criticism. Detoxes and fasting can be misinterpreted as weight-loss techniques and actually mask the symptoms of eating disorders. In environments where strong asana, cleansing techniques and food restrictions are encouraged, it’s easy to mistake a student with dangerously disordered eating patterns for a dedicated yogi.
While most entry level yoga teacher trainings still do not educate trainees on the potential shadow side of the practices they are being prepared to teach, many experienced practitioners are starting to create real change. Organisations such as the Yoga and Body Image Coalition are changing the way we think and talk about how the physical body is represented in yoga. The ‘body-love’ movement is asking yoga teachers and students to re-evaluate what a yogi looks like by promoting full inclusion for yogis of all ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities and ability.
A skilled yoga teacher can provided a safe, non-competitive environment in which students can enjoy a positive experience of being in their bodies – exactly as they are right now. When taught with care and sensitivity, yoga can be an empowering and transformational experience.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.