Melanie Klein and Anna Guest-Jelley are doing some of the most important work in the yoga community. Both women are committed to writing about the complicated relationship between yoga, body image and feminism. So it’s natural that they should team up and co-edit a collection of essays exploring this tricky territory. Yoga + Body Image will be ready for the world in 2014. Melanie has all the details below – read on!
It is with great pleasure that Anna Guest-Jelley and I officially announce our anthology on Yoga + Body Image forthcoming in 2014.
I first met Anna almost three years ago. I was introduced to her work through her blog post “Welcoming the Curvy Yogini.” Not only did Anna’s words speak to me but I was taken by her brief bio at the bottom wherein she described herself as “an advocate for women’s rights by day, a yoga teacher by night.” Given my work as a Sociology + Women’s Studies professor and my activist work, I felt I had stumbled upon a kindred spirit.
Anna and I had our first phone conversation in 2011 and the synergy was palpable. We immediately realized that we had to collaborate on a project. After a few months of percolating, we realized that it only made sense to collaborate on a book focusing on yoga and body image.
Why Body Image
We decided on this topic not only because it’s something we’re both passionate about, but because it’s one we don’t see discussed often enough in the yoga community. Because for something that is often so focused on the body, yoga classes and conversations rarely include the topic of how we feel about our body and how yoga affects our body image and vice versa.
And to us, that is a major gap in the conversation — not only how individuals’ body image can benefit from yoga, but also how yoga has a complicated place in the conversation about body image, both contributing to negative perceptions via media stereotypes of the “yoga body” and contributing to positive change when the practice is focused on connection with one’s body, exactly as it is today.
While Anna and I could have written a book on yoga and body image on our own based on our own transformative experiences, we were and are fiercely committed to bringing together a diverse collection of voices that span across race/ethnicity, sexuality and sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, sex, class, age and size.
Yoga practitioners and those plagued by distorted body image issues do not come in a uniform mold. We wanted to reach readers of different backgrounds, casting a wide net and allowing people to draw inspiration from at least one contributor’s body image journey and how their yoga practice facilitated that transformation.
We closed a publication deal in January 2013. We’re so very excited and honored to be working with the fine folks of Llewellyn to bring this book to fruition.
And we are thrilled to announce our fabulous contributors, a group of people from the United States, Canada, Australia & New Zealand, who reflect the diversity of experiences we intended to showcase from the inception of the project. We invited each of these thoughtful and inspiring yogis because of their unique perspective and ability to contribute to the critical conversation we wish to create — a wide one about how yoga affects body image. We want this to pique the interest of people who never thought yoga was for them, as well as deepen the conversation among people who are already part of the yoga community.
Without further ado, here are our contributors:
Vytas Baskauskas: Yoga teacher at Yoga Works + Bryan Kest’s Santa Power Yoga, Professor of Mathematics at Santa Monica College
Dr. Audrey Bilger: Professor of Literature & Faculty Director of the Center for Writing & Public Discourse at Claremont McKenna College; Co-editor of Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage; Author of Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen
Dianne Bondy: Yoga teacher, writer about yoga & diversity and founder of Eastside Yoga in Windsor, Ontario
Seane Corn: Internationally celebrated yoga teacher, activist and co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World
Claire Mysko: Speaker, consultant and author of Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby and You’re Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self
Nita Rubio: Priestess of the Tantric Dance of Feminine Power
Linda Sparrowe: Editor of Yoga International and author of A Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness (with Patricia Walden); Yoga for Healthy Bones; Yoga for Healthy Menstruation; and Yoga: A Yoga Journal Book
Joni Yung: Executive producer and host at Yoga Chat with the Accidental Yogist and Associate Editor at LA Yoga Magazine
We are honored to have such a fine collection of intellectuals, educators, activists, yoga practitioners and yoga teachers. We are sending each of these people our gratitude for being part of this dialogue. Big thanks to our agents, Elyse Tanzillo & Frank Weimann of The Literary Group International, too.
Finally, we’re extending our thanks to you, too — for supporting us along the way, and for being part of this conversation as it unfolds.
We’ll keep you updated as we go! To stay connected:
“I can’t enjoy how pretty I look if I don’t feel good.” – Bryan Kest
I’d spent almost two decades trying to have the reality of my body conform to the image that had been created in my head. The women in my family, boyfriends, my peer group and, most importantly, the prolific realm of pop culture, had influenced this image of physical perfection, and its correlating value. The joy of living in my body as a child had been replaced by disappointment.
The women in my family were consumed by their weight and their desire to measure up to mainstream standards of beauty; lamenting weight gain with bouts of depression and self-loathing, celebrating weight loss with great fanfare and sizing other women up. An unhealthy preoccupation with my body and food was set in motion before I hit puberty and manifested in all sorts of dangerous methods to obtain thinness: diet pills, colon hydrotherapy, fasting, legal and illegal stimulants, calorie restriction, self-induced vomiting and excessive exercise. And all along the way, the images around me assured me that the pursuit of pretty by any means necessary would be pay off. After all, baby, you’re worth it.
The routes to freedom presented themselves at about the same time: feminism and then yoga. After wandering around fairly aimlessly for over a year, running away and living in Maui for a period of that time, I had landed in “Sociology 22: Sociology of Women” in the fall of 1994at Los Angeles Valley College. I didn’t know what Sociology was or what it might have to say about women, but it sparked my curiosity. “I’m a woman,” I thought and, “this should be more interesting than meeting my general requirements for a major I’m not too committed to.”
“It’s not you. You’re not an isolated case. It’s systematic and it’s called patriarchy,” said the radical 60-something woman at the front of the room with the “War is not good for children and other living creatures” medallion swinging from her neck. She wore a turtleneck encased in a neat blazer and put one leg up on the seat of the chair for leverage as she lectured with more gusto, authority and confidence than any woman I had ever encountered. I was utterly smitten and completely enthralled, all the while having my mind blown during each and every class. The world was transformed. My paradigm shifted from one that viewed my body image issues as seemingly personal troubles to understanding them as public issues that were (and are) systemic in nature. In short, my soon-to-be mentor, in all her fierce fabulousness, had ignited my “sociological imagination.” And it was distinctly feminist.
My sociological and feminist education included a healthy dose of media literacy, a field of study that was just beginning to blossom at the time. I was offered the ideological tools and skill set to deconstruct mediated images and understand the role of the advertising industry in the creation and manufacture of these endless streams of images and messages that flood the cultural landscape. This allowed me examine my tortured relationship with my body in a systematic and structured way, lifting the clouds of shame and guilt that followed my every move.
Maybe there wasn’t something wrong with my body. Maybe there was something wrong with the messages the mainstream medic culture proliferated, contorted and unrealistic messages that were raking in profits from my insecurity and from the body image issues of girls and women around me. (The mainstream media’s targeting of male body image issues didn’t begin in earnest until several years later.) The realization that I wasn’t the problem was a relief and ultimately liberating. It also left me utterly pissed off.
Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminist sociology had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance; it’s another to embody and practice it, especially after spending decades learning, practicing and perfecting self-loathing.
My friend, Marla, led me to a spacious dance loft in downtown Santa Monica, a space large enough for over 120 sweaty bodies to get their downward facing dog on by donation. The room was bursting at the seams with a sea of bodies and their body heat warmed the cavernous room. A hard-talking high-school dropout from Detroit was leading the practice in the most conscious and loving way amidst his occasional farts, burps and f-bombs. It was 1997, and I had landed in the company of an eclectic group of yogis led by the sometimes delightfully inappropriate and absolutely authentic Bryan Kest.
I knew I had stumbled upon something utterly delicious and profoundly nurturing for me. It had taken me a lifetime to find yoga and over a year of active searching to find a teacher that fit my needs. His street-wise attitude and working-class background meshed with my own and I felt comfortable. I was finally home.
To read the rest of this essay, purchase the book HERE.
This article is an excerpt of my chapter in the newly published anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. In the complete essay, I detail my budding relationship to feminist ideology and my yoga practice. I examine media culture at large and reconcile my experience of yoga as a practice of self-love with an increasingly commercialized yoga “industry.” I invite you to read the rest my chapter, as well as the eleven other phenomenal essays in this book, which discuss contemporary North American yoga and its relationship to issues including recovery, body image, and spirituality. You can learn more about 21st Century Yoga by visiting the website, and purchase a copy either in print or Kindle edition.
Yoga, a derivative of yuj which means “to bind or yoke”, is a holistic system that addresses the whole person- physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically. Ultimately, the intention of yoga is to unify body and mind. This stands in stark contrast to our Greco-Roman tradition that values the power of the intellect over the inherent wisdom of the body. The result is what is referred to as the mind-body split. Susan Bordo describes this duality in her book, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body,p. 144:
I will begin with the most general and attenuated axis of continuity, the one that begins with Plato, winds its way to its most lurid expression in Augustine, and finally becomes metaphysically solidified and scientized by Descartes. I am referring, of course, to our dualistic heritage: the view that human existence is bifurcated into two realms of substances: the bodily or material, on the one hand; the mental or spiritual, on the other.
Not only has our total being been split into the mind, or intellect and the body, or material, but they’ve been ranked in a hierarchy. Of these two planes, the mind has been, and continues to be, more highly valued than the body, a realm deemed synonymous with the “unpredictable” and “dangerous” realm of nature and the feminine. In addition to the devalue of the physical body, the intellect has been placed in charge of controlling the body. In essence, enforcing the will of the intellect and trampling over the body’s innate ability to communicate.
How does the body communicate? Through feeling or sensation, of course.
According to Deborah Tolman, a professor at Hunter College, who studies teenage girl’s desire,”They respond to questions about how their bodies feel-questions about sexuality or arousal-by describing how they think they look. I have to remind them that looking good is not a feeling.
As I pointed out in How Yoga Makes You Pretty- Part I, according to veteran yoga teacher, Bryan Kest, everyone wants to look pretty, or look good according to a culturally constructed and myopic standard, in order to feel good. But as Orenstein and Tolman detail, pretty is not a feeling. Pretty is an outward aesthetic based on an elusive and ephemeral ideal.
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.
“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 revealedtime 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.
I began my yoga practice in 1996 and knew I had stumbled upon something exhilarating, insightful, challenging and delicious. There weren’t a lot of yoga studios in 1996 and I had to truly seek out a practice that fit my personality and my needs. My friend, Marla, led me to Bryan Kest in 1997 and by 1999 I ditched the gym and developed a dedicated and consistent practice with Bryan and Caleb Asch.
My yoga practice was a wonderful constant in a sea of change and chaos. It also provided a truly unique place to get to know my body in a new way. It was the first time I paid attention to my body’s rhythms and desires without imposing my own expectations and will. I became more forgiving, more loving and more in tune.
My teachers and my practice inspired me to give up my obsessive tendency to beat my body during a workout and made movement pleasurable, beautiful and loving. My teachers and my practice taught me how to respect and nurture my body, accept my body and, best of all, love my body.
As a person with a past rooted in dieting, obsessing, over exercising and generally abusing my body, this was new and welcomed territory. The yoga mat had been one of the few places in our media-driven, thin-obsessed and youth-oriented culture that I was not subject to these distorted messages about what I should look like or who I should be. I could just be. Sometimes that meant happy, other times sad, often times tired and curled up in child’s posed without judgement and at other times, fierce and energetic.
As yoga became more and more absorbed by the mainstream and yoga studios popped up around town like Stabucks coffee houses, I noticed yoga’s message of unity and acceptance become filtered through the lens of the dominant consciousness and consumerism. I began making public commentary on these changes in 2003 that I presented at a variety of conferences and public lectures: Celebrity Yogis: The Intersection of Yoga, the Cult of Personality and Consumerism, Yoga and Popular Culture, McYoga: The Spiritual Diet for Consumer America, Consuming Spirituality and Spiritual Consuming: Capitalizing on Yoga, and the McDonaldization and Commodification of Yoga: Standing at the Intersection of Spiritual Tradition and Consumer Culture.
I was particularly interested in the reproduction of mainstream beauty standards in the pages of yoga magazines. All the models were thin and polished. After examining the mainstreaming of yoga for several years with frustration and sadness, I put down the yoga magazines and withdrew from the increasingly commercialized yoga community that had previously provided me with solace and acceptance and made my practice more personal and, in many ways, made an attempt to safe guard it.
Recently, though, I picked up a copy of Yoga Journal and was dismayed to find advertisements for diet pills. I’d noticed more and more corporate ads before I abandoned my subscription but this hit home. Not only had Yoga Journal succumbed to accepting corporate dollars for products that seemed unrelated to a healthy yogic lifestyle but now they had allowed the ultimate self-esteem crusher to enter: advertisements that reinforced larger cultural messages telling individuals that they must lose wight and that they don’t have to do the work of eating healthy and exercising.
Pop a pill.
In so many ways, the proliferation of ads for diet pills confirmed what I had already known for years: yoga had passed through the filter of the mainstream capitalistic consumer culture, and in passing through that filter, had emerged altered.
Yoga had come out thinner, sleeker, more polished with soy latte in hand, designer yoga bag slung over a lean shoulder and a bottle of diet pills in the belly.