How Can We Talk About Healthy Body Image In The Yoga Community?
For a practice that's about non-attachment, wow, we yoga folks sure are focused on our bodies and how they look. I teach classes and take classes and often hear men and women talking about their bodies in a way that lacks metta, or Loving Kindness.
I get it: after all, it's human nature to fixate on our bodies. They're how we feel pain, power, beauty, and age. A big part of why I teach yoga is to help people relearn their loveliness, in all its forms.
I know that in the yoga world we hear a lot about this ability to practice self-acceptance.
But do you truly believe it?
There was a time when I was rejected by the dance world because of my body. I was 14 years old and auditioning for LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in leotard and tights and, well, rather large breasts for a girl my age. (Hell, large for any age!)
I will never forget being asked to turn to the side to the back and front again. Even at that age, I knew that something was not quite right with the scenario. It felt crappy to be judged in that way. I will also never forget the students who were assisting that day, laughing at me and my extra-large bosom!
Through the years, this experience has replayed in my mind, as I myself now teach and choreograph and feel that I can understand the importance of actions and words when working with people in this vulnerable state of being on display, to help people rise up rather then break them down.
As a yoga and dance teacher and a woman, I have witnessed the pain and suffering of poor body image among friends and peers. It has made me incredibly sad and angry to feel this in people I love, when I know that if healthy body awareness is instilled from an early age, many people would have suffered less.
I am forever grateful to the people who taught me, at an early age, to love myself. These people (notably my mother and some movement teachers) led by example with healthy eating.
I knew and admired so many different body types, and I want to share this experience of acceptance with the people I come across daily on their mats, many of whom struggle to treat themselves, and their bodies, with kindness.
I have felt the incredible power of transformation through yoga, and I have also cringed at some of the ways we can use this practice of “health” as an umbrella in which to hide some more deeply rooted pain.
I know we all struggle in some way. I am certainly not 20 years old anymore, and I see that "things they are a changing!" I am no longer that girl who wants to walk around in her short shorts. But it has been brought to my attention repeatedly through these teachings that "thought leads to word leads to action."
So I am doing my best to flip those thoughts (I am not as pretty as I used to be), so that I don’t say it around the yoga centers, complaining about this layer or that wrinkle or taking an unhealthy action to change what is always changing anyway.
Try it. Really. When you're looking in the mirror, or on the mat next to some one who is younger, fitter, and has a "better asana" than you, try instead to see your reflection for the love and beauty that you are. Change the words, even if you do not believe them yet.
Or, if I am noticing a shift in my body, I put my hands on that spot I find “aging” or “ugly” and send LOVE through my hands, maybe a bit of laughter, acceptance. I acknowledge the experience and survival skills it took to get me to this point.
As yoga teachers, we need to be super aware of the words we choose to use. Our students absorb it all. Once, right before class, I heard a teacher I love and respect speaking highly about certain techniques to empty the contents of her stomach. I had to say ... what if you have students who have battled eating disorders?
This "stomach emptying" is certainly not for everyone!
Another teacher told a story in class of how a morsel of food that is restricted from her diet found its way onto her plate and that in turn sent her on a juice fast. My heart broke as I looked around the room at all of the wide-eyed students who are trying to be healthy and learn self care. What message were they taking from this?
This is not the greatest advice for everyone, and believe me, people retain the information we give them. Conversations about body image and eating disorders can be difficult and I don't claim to have all the answers. But I know there needs to be an awareness within our community about what IS healthy. And how it's not the same for everyone.
I know my experience is different from others' and that my way is not the way for all. I am aware that one person may be able to juice fast while it may trigger another into a tailspin of unhealthy behaviors.
My wish for our community of light seekers, healers, practitioners, lovers of laughter, and messengers of peace is that we expand our vision and thinking to encompass the whole truth of health.