A new student approached me after her first yoga class and asked me to write down my complete teaching schedule so that she could attend my class every day. My ego was honored, but my mind was surprised. This newbie had a grand total of 75 minutes of yoga experience, and we were talking about a huge commitment. Maybe she'd tasted the peace of being deeply connected, in the perfect place at the perfect time? Perhaps she'd sensed the possibilities to be discovered in a yoga practice? This is why every teacher works hard: to open the gate for a student to realize she can create the life and the health that she wants. How wonderful that, in this case, it had clicked so quickly. As I wrote out my schedule, I asked, "What's your goal for your yoga practice?" I expected to hear about a deep revelation, which is why I was speechless when she said, "I want the definition in your arms." Oh. Of course.
I’d forgotten, “Strong is the new skinny.” This catchphrase seems to be popping up in my world a lot lately. It’s on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and the window of a local yoga studio. The first time I heard "strong is the new skinny," I was enthusiastic. In theory, I'm all for strong men and women! However, I've come to see an insidious side of this concept in the way it’s being adopted. What could have been an empowering approach to body confidence has become another way to prioritize unrealistic body image; we've just replaced one cultural standard (thin) with another (ripped muscles). Sure, strength is important. We need strength in order to live our lives, to care for our self and the people who mater most. Ultimately, when we get strong in our bodies, we can apply this strength to the actions we take, the degree to which we become masters of our minds, and our approach to living our lives fully. When I think of "strong," I think of my students who approach radiation treatments with optimism and courage. I think of my mom supporting two kids on her own. I think of my friend who felt unfulfilled in his secure career, so he left to pursue a job that ignited his passion. True strength can't be measured by how many pounds you lift on a barbell, but it can be measured by how many spirits you lift. Unfortunately, “strong is the new skinny” isn’t necessarily being adopted to encourage this type of strength. Turning the slogan into a focus on an ideal outward appearance can trigger a negative internal battle that diminishes, rather than builds, strength. I have experienced how this can happen. In my teens and twenties, I used to model. During that time, I went on some bizarre diets. (Tip: if you eat nothing but string beans and hard boiled eggs for a week, fainting is a foregone conclusion.)
I turned to extreme measures in an effort to achieve an idealized version of what I was supposed to look like. Because thin was in, if the scale read two pounds over my goal, I’d put myself down. Eventually, I realized that my body wasn't built to sustain a waif-like figure, and holding myself accountable to an unrealistic goal often made me feel like a failure. Similarly, by making “strong is the new skinny” all about striving for a visible six-pack and shredded triceps, it’s not a step forward on the path to true strength. We're not trying to actually get stronger, healthier, or raise our levels of self-esteem. We've just traded one potentially unrealistic and unhealthy external goal for another. Both paths lead to the same end point: self-criticism. I like the definition in my arms. They aren't huge, but they are strong enough to hold some really fun arm balances. I especially like my arms because they stuck with me while I developed the patience, focus and self-acceptance to learn those same arm balances. My arms represent the strength of commitment and perseverance without self-sabotage. If a new student tells me this is her goal, my arms have a really big hug for her.