I was listening to the Body Kindness podcast the other day with guest Melanie Klein, author of Yoga and Body Image. They discussed how yoga helped them both in healing disordered eating and finding self-acceptance and body confidence.
After having just completed a 5-day DIY yoga retreat in Bali, I can absolutely relate to the podcast and understand how yoga can help with body image and acceptance. Yoga is such a unique practice to other forms of exercise. It’s deceivingly intense. While you might find your mind wandering during a run or while lifting weights, it is almost impossible during yoga. It takes a lot of concentration to get into a pose correctly, hold it, and focus on your breath. Yoga forces you to stay present and it teaches you to take this off your mat into your daily life.
The teachings of yoga focus on respecting your body. You are taught that yoga is a practice and you should not expect to be able to do any of the poses right away. You should not compare yourself to the person next to you because you are all on your own journeys and at different parts of your practice. You are taught to respect your body and its limitations. Don’t push past what you’re capable of and if your body needs a break at any time, take it.
I find these teachings so empowering. I walk out of a yoga class and I feel like I can take on the world. But unfortunately, it seems there is a disconnect between the teachings inside a yoga class and the culture waiting for you just outside the door. Somewhere along the line yoga got wrapped up in diet culture, striving for the perfect body and a whole whack of pseudoscience.
Yoga and Diet Culture
Vegetarianism and yoga have been linked for centuries because yoga teaches the principle of Ahisma which translates to non-violence. I have no judgment for people who choose vegetarianism based on this spiritual principle, however, I would be willing to wager that many yogis who have chosen vegetarianism have not even heard the world Ahisma and are instead influenced by the peer pressure that surrounds the yoga culture.
And while vegetarianism may have deep seeded roots in yoga history, the concepts of raw food, gluten-free, organic, sugar-free and non-GMO are not and yet they are ever present. There is an idea that yoga is healthy and therefore you must eat healthy too. There is a defined line of right vs wrong foods to eat and if you’re not eating the right foods you may feel as though you’re not a true yogi.
But what is health? Who says that health is defined by vegan, organic, gluten-free or any other label? Recognize these labels for what they are – diet culture and marketing. These items all come at an inflated price, preying on your goal to better yourself.
Just because a food has one of these labels does not mean it’s any healthier than a food that does not. A gluten-free brownie is not any healthier than a regular one but I can bet that it tastes worse and costs more.
So instead of getting caught up in the diet culture that surrounds yoga, do what the yoga principles teach and trust yourself and your body. Listen to what your body truly craves. If it wants a big kale salad then go for it but if it wants a big juicy hamburger that’s okay too.
Seriously I wanted to rip this menu up when I saw this. Food and drinks should always be for the taste!
Yoga and Body Image
As yoga became more popular in western society, so did the concept of a yoga body. Suddenly everyone wanted a high lifted booty to look good in their oh-so-expensive yoga pants.
While we’re taught in the room that everyone can practice yoga and it’s all-inclusive, we only see two types of yogi-bodies portrayed in pictures and the media. Thin white women doing backbends or shirtless men with rippling muscles doing handstands. We do not see examples of different races, body types, or ages represented in yoga. So if you don’t stack up to the images you see, once again you feel as though you don’t belong. The all-inclusive space suddenly becomes very exclusionary to all but a certain subsection of the population.
I know for myself I had a hard time ever using the term yogi. I would always talk about going to yoga with the comment, I’m no yogi. That’s because I felt I didn’t measure up to the term. I can’t do the perfect back bend or straight-legged poses so I’m not really a yogi. But the truth is, there is no one way to be a yogi. If you have a body (any body – regardless of race, size, age, etc.) and can breathe, you can call yourself a yogi. Own the title, the more diversity we can generate in the yoga world, the more it will begin to feel more inclusive again.
I highly recommend checking out the Yoga Body Image Coalition and perusing and using their #whatayogilooks like on social media.
Yoga and Pseudoscience
There is more pseudoscience that surrounds yoga that I can possibly shake my head at. It’s a strange phenomenon but I think it’s perhaps because yoga has deep spiritual roots that most people simply don’t understand. Because of that, it’s easy to take advantage of people by offering things like detox cleanses, juice fasts, colonics or tonics by making claims that they are ayurvedic, natural, ancient, or healing.
But what message do these “science” rituals send? That we are unclean, unpure and that something is wrong with us. But not to worry, all your wrongness can be healed with one of these expensive treatments.
To that I say bull. We have amazing bodies that detoxify wonderfully, no tonics, elixirs or unpleasant colonics necessary. You can put your body through hell and it will bounce back quickly with just a few changes. Just ask any recovered alcohol or drug addict. So instead of spending your money on these “fixes” that do nothing but eat up your cash, spend your money on buying more vegetables, treating yourself to some self-care practices like a massage or a new water bottle to increase your hydration.
So What to Do?
Seeing all of this messaging around yoga truly makes me angry. It’s such a beautiful practice that can be so healing for the body and mind but because it’s become so wrapped up into diet culture people may feel the need to conform to these messages to fit in. So what do we do?
Ideally, find a yoga studio that’s a safe space. A place that doesn’t sell you on useless cleanses, detoxes, etc. A place that doesn’t mention anything about weight, health, or diets within the class. And a place that has diversity within their instructors and participants where you feel represented. It might not be easy to find this space but I think if you try out a few studios you will find your haven.
And if that doesn’t work…go to a studio for the practice and ignore all the B.S. that surrounds it. It’s not always easy when we’re surrounded by these messages but remember that you don’t need to eat a certain way to be a yogi. You don’t need to have a certain body shape to be a yogi. And you certainly don’t need a colonic to be a yogi. If you practice yoga – if you enjoy the physical and mental challenges it brings you, you are a yogi.