Here’s a short exchange I had with a friend some time ago that got me thinking. On finding out that I was going for yoga class a vaguely impressed expression passed his face, and he said something along the lines of “but you’re not skinny… you must be really flexible then”. I’m definitely not of Barbie proportions, but did I miss something? When did being skinny and flexible become prerequisites to practicing yoga?
With the increasing presence of yoga and all its modern incarnations in mainstream culture, it’s a shame that the prevailing image of people who practice yoga has not seen a corresponding revision. Too often modern yoga is personified by the lithe, elongated female figure gracefully holding a pose – no sweating, that would be sacrilege.
Unfortunately, commercialisation of yoga embraces this image; maybe pictures of practicing pranayama or sitting tall in meditation wouldn’t sell as well. The asana-focused approach that most yoga classes and studios seem to concur with the image projected by the fitness industry, that in today’s health-centric society being fit should be reflected in an idealised figure.
Maybe it’s the lifestyle that is being promoted by some brands that is what attracts some people to yoga, rather than actually trying to practice yogic principles of yama and niyama. Or maybe they try to incorporate everything together, like the ladies I sometimes see who plant themselves in the front row to practice svadhyaya (self-study) in the wall-sized mirrors literally.
For people with lower self-esteem though, this might become an unwarranted and unnecessary hurdle holding more people from giving yoga a try. Take eating disorders as an example. Even though yoga has been lauded as beneficial in helping people to cope, the image of the lithe female yogi that has been placed on a pedestal by media and marketing may already be unconsciously embedded as what they should look like when practicing yoga. I’ve struggled with bulimia and body image, and initially when I first started not just the poses would be intimidating but the teacher and other students would be as well, especially when I felt and believed that I was of the ‘wrong figure’ and not flexible enough to ‘do yoga’.
Thankfully, over time yoga has taught me how to be aware of my own body. It’s learning to recognise sensations and feelings internally that has helped me to be able to dissociate myself more from forming a personality based on concepts thrown at me from all directions by mass culture. So while I might not be able to comfortably straighten my leg in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana anytime soon, nor make it through one sweat-free round of Surya Namaskara, I like to think that this is santosha (contentment) – I’m content with my body, and happier than I’ve ever been to get into my practice.
200hr TTC Weekday