November 21, 2012

From “Flaws” to Freedom: How Yoga Led a Budding Feminist on the Body Image Journey of a Lifetime

Filed under: Body Image — Tags: , , , , , , — Melanie @ 7:48 am

The following post is an excerpt from Melanie Klein’s complete essay, How Yoga Makes You Pretty: The Beauty Myth, Yoga and Me, featured in the newly released anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice.

“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 The joy of living in my body as a child had been replaced by disappointment.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 1994 at 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.

Photo credit Sarit Rogers/Sarit Photography.

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.

This post was originally posted at


November 3, 2010

Even Feminists Get the Blues

Filed under: Featured Feminist — Tags: , , , — Liz @ 2:31 am


Once while waiting for the 704 a young man struck up a conversation with me. We ended up sitting next to each other on the bus and he ended up asking after my destination. I told him I was headed to class.

“What are you taking?”

“An intro to women’s studies,” I said.

He rankled. “So is there like, a lot of feminism going on?”

Unfortunately, I expected such a response, but fortunately, practice had perfected my defense. I answered enthusiastically, “Yeah and it’s really awesome! I’ve learned so much. Feminism seeks to address the patriarchy and to be honest, I think the patriarchy harms men like you most of all.”

As I parted feminism from stigma for him, he began to nod in agreement. And whether he intended to merely impress me or had experienced a change of heart, he finally said, “I never knew that about feminism.”

I felt victorious for just the moment he was confronted with it.

August 18, 2010

Feminism, Body Image and Yoga

Originally posted at Elephant Journal, June 2010.

Healing Mind, Body & Spirit.

It was in an afternoon yoga class 10 years ago that I realized my relationship with my body had been profoundly changed.

Gazing up at my legs, glistening with sweat in shoulder-stand, I realized that I wasn’t searching for signs of “imperfection” or scrutinizing my body with the negative self-talk that too many of us have with ourselves on a daily basis—the abusive dialogue I had with myself most of my life.

For the first time I could remember since early childhood, I wasn’t critical of myself.

I wasn’t looking for parts of my body to control and change.

A distorted body image, self-criticism, and the pursuit of “perfection” by any means necessary is a perverse inheritance passed down from the women in my family and influenced by the unrealistic and prolific images manufactured by the larger media culture. Given this environment, I never had a chance to emerge unscathed, self-esteem intact. The women in my family were constantly dieting, tracking calories in food diaries, lamenting weight gain, celebrating weight loss and sizing other women up. An unhealthy pre-occupation 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.

The routes to freedom presented themselves at about the same time, feminism and then yoga. Feminism offered the ideological tools to examine my tortured relationship with my body systematically and deconstruct mediated images. Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminism had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance, it’s another to embody it.

April 11, 2010

“The Cervix is The Seat of The Goddess”

Whatever your stance on goddesses is, as a woman, you can’t deny the power of that statement.

“The cervix is the seat of the goddess.”

I’ve been practicing what is known as The Tantric Dance of Feminine Power with my teacher, Nita Rubio, for 5 years and I’ve had more than a handful of powerful moments in the sacred, female-centered space she facilitates (one of the few spaces in which the “male gaze” is not present). Revisiting my battle with my body after giving birth has been rough to say the least. Instead of basking in my body’s ability to create, sustain and give life, I’ve resorted to full blown body bashing and self-loathing. To hear Nita state, “the cervix is the seat of the goddess,” as I moved into a full body meditation immediately shifted my perspective on my body and my relationship to my body (at least for a few moments) and gave me something to ponder long after class was over that Tuesday night.

In that moment and for several following, my anger, disappointment and frustration was mixed with a sense of gratitude, reverence and respect. Too often we view our bodies as an object to manipulate and control. When our body doesn’t live up to some of our wildly unrealistic expectations, we engage in negative self-talk and equally destructive body practices. The internal critical dialouge and punishing rituals we engage in to force our body to do as it is told is nothing short of an abusive relationship with ourselves.

How would we and how can we treat our bodies differently by shifting our perspective on, our image of, and our relationship to our bodies, bodies that carry us through the world, allowing us to experience life in all its good and bad?

Whether or not you abide with goddess worship, or have a clear understanding of feminist spirituality and the place of the goddess in that tradition, the idea that the cervix is the seat of the goddess, establishes (or re-establishes) a sense of wonder about our physical forms. Instead of seeing our bodies as taken-for-granted physical vehicles, our bodies become a source of magic and beauty.

When I look at my son’s body, see it work, watch it develop, I am in awe. It is pure perfection, beauty, a miracle. I don’t remember the last time I felt that way about on my body. Is my body any less miraculous because of my scar and the extra pounds I’m currently carrying? According to images and messages in the dominant culture the answer is an unequivocal, yes.

Listen, I haven’t reached total body enlightenment. I’m still grappling with the negative fat talk in my head. But, Nita and my son reminded me of the beauty that is me and when I believe it again whole-heatedly, I will truly be whole, truly at peace.