January 30, 2011

How Yoga Makes You Pretty – Part I

Originally posted at Elephant Journal.

The Wisdom of Bryan Kest and The Beauty Myth

This post is the first post in an ongoing series, The Wisdom of Bryan Kest. This series seeks to chronicle what I have learned in my yoga practice with Bryan Kest since 1997.

We’ve been told that “pretty” is the magical elixir for everything that ails us. If we’re pretty we’re bound to be happier than people who aren’t pretty. If we’re pretty, we’ll never be lonely; we’ll have more Facebook friend requests; we’ll go on more dates; we’ll find true love (or just get laid more often);  we’ll be popular. If we’re pretty, we’ll be successful; we’ll get a better job; we’ll get rewarded with countless promotions; our paychecks will be bigger.  In short, “pretty,” something Naomi Wolf refers to as a form of cultural currency in the feminist classic The Beauty Myth, will buy us love, power and influence. And, in the end, “pretty” will make us feel good.

And who doesn’t want to feel good?

The media juggernaut that actively shapes our 21st century cultural environment sells us this promise and perpetuates this myth beginning in childhood. The assault continues as we move through adolescence and adulthood, meeting our gaze at every turn through fashion, television, film, music,  and advertising. These images and messages are practically inescapable, even in yoga publications, and the peddled products entice us using sleek, sculpted models and celebrities in computer retouched photos.  Advertising is specifically designed to appeal to our emotions and shape desire thereby constructing cultural values, identities and lifestyles in order to sell a gamut of products and services from beer, luxury cars and designer shoes to yoga mats, DVDs and diet pills. Ultimately, we’re spoon fed streams of unrealistic images in a virtual onslaught that tells women, and increasingly men, that the most valuable thing we can aspire to be is, well, pretty.

And the tantalizing promises of a better, prettier, you are absolutely everywhere. The idea that we can simply “turn off” or “ignore” these messages is narrow in scope and short sighted. Unless you’re living under a rock-wait, make that a hermetically sealed bubble- you are affected in one way or another and so are those around you. Unfortunately, we’re being sold a superficial bill of goods that doesn’t give us the complete picture.

As my teacher of 15 years, Bryan Kest of Santa Monica Power Yoga, says time and time again in his jam-packed yoga classes:

“Everybody wants to be pretty because that’s what they’ve been told will make them feel good even though there’s no proof that people who are prettier are healthier and happier. So why don’t we just cut to the chase and go straight to what makes us feel good?”

Kest circumvents the chatter and speaks truth in simple terms accessible to virtually everyone. He is consistently “prodding and poking” his students by exposing the absolute lunacy of our increasingly and ubiquitous media culture . He challenges students, including myself, to confront the demands of our egos. He challenges us to do the work of doing raising our consciousness.  Ultimately, Kest assists us in untangling our psychic, emotional and physical knots.

When we practice yoga, we feel good even if the journey through a particular practice is emotionally and physically arduous  and confronting, as it usually is.  As Kest, who has been practicing yoga for over three decades, says, ” I don’t like yoga. Who likes yoga? But I appreciate yoga and the way it makes me feel.”

There is no denying the sense of mental and physical lightness, openness and freedom one feels after after quieting the mind, gazing inward and moving through the body in a sensitive, conscious and loving way. Yoga is a moving meditation and, as many studies have revealed time and time again, meditation makes you feel good. Competition, a fundamental national value,  that characterizes most of our encounters in the workplace, within our families, among our peers and ourselves is not a part of mature and healthy yoga practice. Essentially, you’re bound to cultivate inner peace and feel fantastic practicing yoga if you’re able to let go.

The only time you probably won’t feel good is if you carry your baggage into your practice, strengthening and honing  external stressors. As Kest says, in his usual elegant Kest fashion, “If you bring your shit into yoga, you turn your yoga into shit.” As with anything else, how you use a tool makes all the difference. After all, you can use a knife to butter your toast or stab someone.

Yoga is a pathway to cultivate self-love allowing us to shift our sense of validation inward, as opposed to the standard practice of measuring one’s worth based on external definitions.  In fact the cultural validation we are encouraged to seek often fans the flames of further discontent since we can never be thin enough, muscular enough, wealthy enough or pretty enough by mainstream standards. Even if we are a waify size-zero, a bulked up mass of muscles, a millionaire or a picture-perfect model, happiness isn’t a guarantee. There are plenty of depressed, disgruntled, unsatisfied “pretty people”  with low self-esteem and we know that a slim body with a pretty face isn’t necessarily a healthy body, mentally or physically. In fact, in my own work as a body image activist, many of the most “beautiful” women I’ve met have had some of the most dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships with their body. Too often this has been marked by eating disorders, disordered eating and dangerous beauty rituals to maintain the outward facade. In the end, there isn’t a direct correlation between being pretty and being happy and/or healthy. Pretty hasn’t delivered and what has been defined as pretty isn’t even real or sustainable.

Remember, Naomi Wolf called it the beauty myth for a reason.

Barbie mural photograph taken by the author at Fred Segal Salon in Santa Monica, CA.


8 Comments »

  1. [...] Cross-posted at Feminist Fatale. Melanie Klein is an Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College, where she teaches classes in Sociology and Women’s Studies. She attributes feminism and yoga as the primary influences in her life and fuses her academic background with her studies and experience in the healing arts. She is committed to promoting communal collaboration, raising consciousness, promoting media literacy, and facilitating the healing of distorted body images and healthy body relationships.She blogs at FeministFatale, tweets @feministfatale and may be found at the Ms. Magazine blog and Women in Media and News. [...]

    Pingback by How Yoga Makes You Pretty – Part I | elephant journal — January 30, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  2. [...] Feminist Fatale, How Yoga Makes You Pretty – Part 1 [...]

    Pingback by Body Loving Blogosphere 02.06.11 | medicinal marzipan — February 6, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

  3. Thanks for sharing this! As a curvy yoga student and teacher, I couldn’t agree more!

    Comment by Anna Guest-Jelley — February 6, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

  4. It’s difficult at first to clear the mind. One of the reason why people do yoga is to get fit but sooner or later, they can develop their meditation skills and obtain the benefits. Thanks for sharing…

    Comment by Yoga Instructor — May 12, 2011 @ 4:59 am

  5. @Yoga Instructor: You’re absolutely right – clearing the mind sufficiently for meditation is difficult to begin with. I started 4 years ago and have helped family and friends to learn. I started with a guided meditation series, that is not dissimilar to self hypnosis, but is an excellent way to hit the ground running. I only took up yoga myself in January this year and is on a par with meditation and advise anyone doing one to seriously consider the other to fully reap the benefits. Great share, many thanks Jorge Collina, Seattle WA

    Comment by Benefits of Meditation — October 4, 2011 @ 7:29 am

  6. I despise pop culture. Listening to extreme metal genres and taking interest in subcultures makes me feel good about myself.

    Comment by Dark Rose — January 6, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

  7. I agree that we are sold the idea that pretty will make us happy. But I am afraid that we are now being sold that healthy will make us happy. And the modern definition of “healthy” looks suspiciously like the old definition of “pretty.” Much of the media criticizes fashion magazines such as Vogue and Glamour for highlighting skinny models. However, women’s “health magazines,” such as Shape and Fitness, and unfortunately Yoga Journal, also use skinny models to demonstrate their exercises. The mission of these magazines is supposedly to help women achieve a healthy body rather than the stick figures other women’s magazines promote. However, I think they also represent a new, scary trend in the media. Because there has been so much feminist outcry against the model thin image, women are now being bombarded with the need to “maintain a healthy weight.” Isn’t this the same goal just in a different guise?

    According to the US Center of Disease Control, one-third of Americans are clinically obese. I live in a state, California, where 24% of the population is obese. How is obesity defined? It is defined as a BMI (body-mass index) of more than 30%. BMI is a simple calculation based on weight and height. It does not include any consideration of amount of musculature, which weighs more than fat, or age. So despite its prevalence in medical and epidemiological reports, it is not a very accurate measurement. Is this a response to feminist outcry against the aesthetically based need to thin by replacing it with the “medical” need to be healthy, which is defined as thin?

    I am not arguing that being significantly overweight does not have negative impacts on your health. But is the definition of overweight truly medically defined or aesthetically defined? I do one hour of cardio (run at a 10 min. mile pace or participate in a spin class) five days a week, lift weights for one hour three times a week and try to eat healthy with lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Yet I am clinically overweight at 27% BMI. When I look in the mirror, I do not see myself as clinically overweight and when I walk around my town, although few are model thin, I would not define one-fourth of the women I see as clinically obese. So I wonder if the medical profession has not been co-opted into supporting the social norms.

    Comment by SandraR — January 22, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

  8. Everyone wants to be conventionally defined “pretty,” and this want/need becomes central focus of our lives. So We are very caught up in what other people think. Because we cannot satisfactorily fulfill the beauty myth, we feel insecure about ourselves and eventually we lose self-esteem. However, we need to focus on our internal beauty by cultivating spirit and minds, instead of placing the physical aspects of
    beauty on such a high pedestal. And I agree that yoga is a great way to begin the self-love process as I myself experienced it. When I first began practicing yoga, I hoped it would help me relieve stress. And I still don’t know how/what about yoga helps you internally. But yoga did help me reconnect myself with my own body, spirit, and the nature. Though I’m not the most faithful, devout practitioner of the all principles, my yoga instructor said, I already began the process of learning myself, embracing my problem, and reconnect with the surrounding. And this process can lead to be more alert and present. In addition, meditation really refreshes your mood.

    Comment by Jin Min — February 7, 2012 @ 4:44 am

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