How Westernised Yoga can reinforce Body-Image Issues
It is difficult and rather rare to be living in today’s world and to not be affected, in some way or another, by the cultural pressure around having a ‘perfect’ body, shape and weight. Both men and women fall victims to the bombardment of messages about how to achieve a specific weight, how to shape certain body parts into the promoted ‘ideal’ and what the best products are, promising freedom from low self-esteem and life’s struggles by eliminating perceived flaws of appearance.
These days, we have access to endless amounts of information and facts regarding nutrition, health and exercise, and, nevertheless -or rather, as a result- we find ourselves in a position of being most alienated from ourselves, completely cut off from our bodies’ wisdom. We are highly educated from an intellectual perspective, but quite illiterate still, in terms of our emotions. From such a place of disconnection from our embodied experience, it is very common to project any difficult emotions, insecurities and discomfort we might feel on our body and try to manipulate it into a desired form -it being the only thing we have control over- with the more or less conscious hope that by making our bodies ‘perfect’, the rest of our lives will follow.
Yoga, though admittedly being one of the most complete, rich and powerful systems of physical, mental and spiritual transformation, is not at all immune to this tendency of our times. Certain elements of yoga, as taught and practiced in the West, can aggravate instead of heal one’s own issues with their body image.
The stronger, more vigorous yoga styles, such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Power Yoga, have gained immense popularity and have found their way into almost any gym programme. Even though dynamic yoga is no less complete or spiritual than the slower types, it does more closely resemble a work-out, an alternative way to exercise, and, as such, has been widely promoted as the next fitness trend, with terms like ‘yoga abs’ and ‘yoga butt’ being used to describe its desired, body-sculpting, outcome.
Even though it is not at all bad to set purely physical goals for oneself, when it comes to those struggling with their body and shape, practicing yoga in such a way can only aggravate their dissatisfaction with their bodies. It is anyway quite common these days for yoga to be taught purely as a fitness routine, stripped off of any mindful, energetic or spiritual elements.
The environment in which yoga is practiced can also add to feelings of self-and-body-consciousness. Gym practice almost instantly creates a mindset of not only exercise, but also competition, particularly in those who are more prone or susceptible to it, as it is goal-oriented and there’s a clear motivation to ‘manipulate’ the body and to make it more desirable, more attractive, fitter, etc. Also, gym studios are almost always equipped with mirrors. Practicing yoga in front of a mirror creates too much focus on the outer appearance of the body and the poses, which is totally contrary to yoga’s nature and purpose of connecting with the internal experience and with how the body feels in a pose, instead of how it looks.
Moreover, in stronger practices, whether in gyms or elsewhere, there is usually more emphasis on moving deeper into poses, pushing and overcoming one’s limits, challenging oneself and going into more advanced poses. This is an essential part of a well-rounded yoga practice; however, for people who have a challenging, potentially resentful and punishing, relationship with their bodies, this approach is not at all helpful, as it reinforces the core feelings of being ‘not enough’ and needing to improve/change/adjust themselves and their bodies, in order to be ‘good’ at it. When progress in yoga is measured based on how perfectly one can perform so-called advanced, often acrobatic asanas and how flawlessly their body fits into the ‘yoga body’ standard, one’s practice can easily turn into another battle against one’s true self, with its strengths and weaknesses, abilities and limitations, advantages and flaws.
Under these circumstances, it is very common for many people to be turned away from the practice of yoga, due to feeling too self-conscious and lacking what they perceive as the requirements to participate; strength, flexibility and a certain body type –thus, missing on the opportunity to reap yoga’s many benefits that both include and extend far beyond the body.
So, what type of yoga would be recommended and beneficial for those of us who have faced or are still facing difficulties with our body-image and would like to explore and experience yoga as a holistic path to self-care and self-acceptance?
Yoga for Positive Body-Image
The absolute priority when teaching and/or practicing yoga in a body-positive, self-accepting spirit, is to cultivate a mindful connection with the body, a deep rootedness and grounding in it, and the ability to become aware of and ‘stay with’ the experience in one’s body, mind and heart, with an attitude of openness, non-judgment and curiosity.
In other words, mindfulness on all levels needs to be encouraged and facilitated at all times and in as many ways as possible. There is a specific type of mindfulness that is particularly important to de developed and enhanced, when aiming at befriending one’s body, and that isinteroception. Bo Forbes, renowned clinical psychologist and yoga therapist, defines interoception as the act of ‘attending to momentary bodily sensations as they change from one moment to the next’. People with negative body-image tend to spend quite a lot of time in their heads, detached from any internal bodily sense, which might feel scary, uncomfortable, or too intense to connect with, while obsessing about and trying to control the outside. With practice, interoception builds intimacy with one’s experience, as it manifests in the body, thus gradually developing what is known asembodied awareness; body-based, in-the-body consciousness.
For interoception to be integrated in our yoga practice, we need to engage in it at a sufficiently slow pace, to allow enough time for mindfulness of each movement to take place and for sensations to arise, become acknowledged and fully experienced. Focusing on what is going on in the body allows us to shift our attention from the outside (how it looks) to the inside (how it feels) and let go of the pressure to ‘perform’ yoga poses. It goes without saying that mirrors are best to be avoided and for at least some parts of the asana sequence, it is extremely helpful to practice with the eyes closed, to further facilitate one’s connection with their inner environment.
- Asanas: an opportunity for personal exploration and development
In the same spirit, asanas can be used as an opportunity for personal exploration and greater self-understanding, instead of end-goals, to be achieved at all costs, or fitness exercises. Transitioning in and out of a yoga pose, as well as the time we spend in it can become a gateway into getting to know ourselves on a deeper and more intimate level, by stimulating and revealing our mental patterns and tendencies, our attitudes towards our body and our inner self-talk, which more often than not involves our inner critic voice too. When the appropriate guidance is offered, we can become aware of how we speak to ourselves, on and off our yoga mat, and how we tend to deal with challenge -physical, mental or emotional- and with the unknown. This awareness lays the groundwork for the transformation of these damaging patterns that do not serve us well into healthier, more loving and compassionate ones that can truly support and nurture us. This way, our yoga practice becomes a tool for personal development on all levels.
- Body-based Resilience facilitating Emotional Resilience
With practice, as we strengthen our capacity to remain conscious of our bodily experience, our comfort with and willingness to contain even the more challenging, unpleasant states of being becomes greater too, on both a physical and an emotional level. In other words, as Bo Forbes also points out, ‘body-based resilience becomes a direct parallel to emotional resilience’. Being able to identify, acknowledge, observe and fully embody our emotions is the foundation of emotional health, self-acceptance and self-care, and it is this ability that progressively diminishes the need to project them onto the body and make our physical appearance ‘the problem’.
- Nervous System Rebalancing
There are specific elements of yoga that are particularly helpful to this end, such as breathing, relaxation and restorative, therapeutic practices. These allow the nervous system to relax and become rebalanced, which is crucial, as battling with one’s body, weight and appearance can cause great and, most importantly, ongoing stress. This body-specific form of anxiety, when added to the general high stress levels we all suffer collectively these days, can lead our nervous system to overdrive; therefore, acquiring simple tools and techniques that can be incorporated into our life is an essential first step towards consistent self-care and embodiment.
- Kindness & Compassion Encouragement
Lastly, the guidance, cues and presence of the teacher play a fundamental role in helping the practitioners connect with their internal experience and in holding the space for them to unfold, rediscover themselves and genuinely transform. When we start to explore and experiment with new ways of relating with ourselves, we need ample instruction and reminders to treat ourselves and our bodies with kindness and compassion, as our habitual ways of self-talk and self-connection are bound to keep coming up quite strongly and persistently, especially at the beginning. Therefore, it is paramount for the teacher to consistently provide messages and guidance that encourage respect of one’s limits and limitations, appreciation of one’s body and finding comfort and ease in each pose, instead of struggling to attain the ‘perfect’ presentation of it. Over time and with repetition, this external support and encouragement, as well as this more compassionate, gentle way of practicing, become internalised and owned as parts of oneself, creating an antipode to the harsh, criticising inner voice that gives rise to the negative body-image in the first place.
Yoga has an immense potential to help us develop a more loving, caring and accepting relationship with ourselves and transform our bodies from a frightening, unknown and hostile territory into a comfortable, warm and safe ‘home’, our refuge and anchor. By taking us out of our minds and back into our bodies and by offering a variety of highly effective, healing and balancing tools, techniques and practices, yoga can become an invitation to live a more embodied, peaceful and meaningful life on all levels.
That’s the kind of yoga that you will be taught in the context and container of Body Prema. And it all starts right here, in the body…