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:
It’s based on Melanie Klein’s essay on feminism, yoga, body image and the media. In her essay, she distinguishes between the practice of yoga and the culture of yoga, including the rise of the increasingly commercialized consumer industry of yoga of the last decade.
This post specifically seeks to delve further into this dichotomy, exploring the roots and implications without drawing any firm conclusions. As the book was a collaborative effort, showcasing a myriad of voices and opinions, we hope you’ll comment and create a dialogue in response to this hot-button topic.
Sad, but one day our kids will have to visit museums
To see what a lady looks like.
Admittedly, I was a bit tipsy. Actually, I was drunk.
“All these women around have the same face. Why do they all have the same face?” I inquired holding my third glass of red wine precariously askew.
I was leaning heavily on the table with my right elbow as I sat at my sidewalk table at Porta Via in Beverly Hills. Even though it was years before the rise of the “Real Housewives” franchise, today one would have assumed that they were casting next season. Women between the ages of 20 and 75 walked up and down North Canon Drive with high-end designer outfits and eerily similar features.
“I mean, they all have the same face. It’s like the twenty-first century version of The Stepford Wives around here.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting or looking for an answer for the surreal parade I was witnessing that summer evening. As a sociologist with an emphasis on gender and media studies, I already knew what I was seeing. While Los Angeles is certainly a parallel universe to the rest of the union in many ways, the astronomical increase in both surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures isn’t limited to the 90210.
Increased requests for vaginoplasty and vaginal rejuvenation, anal bleaching and virgin waxing joins the rise of the more “conventional” procedures—botox (including those in their early 20s) and other fillers and plumpers, liposuction (often given as graduation gifts), breast implants and facelifts (again, on the rise for those in their mid-20s to the their mid-30s). And this is happening across the country with those on limited budgets going into credit card debt, cashing in on military discounts or competing for a slot on make-over reality shows.
And this trend is indicative of our cultural climate, not the individual women (and men) who chose to voluntarily go under the knife or get injected.
This discussion is not intended to mock or blame the individuals who pay thousands of dollars for their insecurity or vanity (or both).
This is not an individual phenomenon anymore than it is an individual choice.
I’m not discounting individual agency but people make choices within a given cultural environment, one that is sociohistorically specific and variable. That cultural landscape’s taken-for-granted norms and values play an influential and powerful role in determining what we consider desirable/undesirable, good/bad, beautiful/ugly. And the images that shape our desires, aspirations and notions of beauty are inescapable. We’re soaking in them. Both the claim that people are foolish for taking out loans to increase their bust size or to have those individuals claim they’re only doing it for themselves dismiss the environment in which those seemingly individual decisions are being made.
It’s awfully challenging to “love yourself” and defy beauty norms when all around you you get the message that you’re just not good enough. But you can be if you buy this cream/filler/diet pill/body sculptor/pimple cream/fill in the blank.
As Taylor Kirkham writes, “It’s human nature to crave feelings of acceptance from our peers. The problem is that we are continuously fed the myth that we’ll gain this approval not by accepting ourselves, but by battling our bodies and tearing our self-image into shreds.”
It is a waste of time to hate a mirror/ or its reflection/ instead of stopping the hand/ that makes glass with distortions.
~ Audre Lorde
Yoga celebrities didn’t exist when I started practicing yoga in 1996. Yoga pants hadn’t been invented and there were just a few studios operating in Los Angeles County. My consistent practice developed in an old dance space with wooden floors brined by decades of sweat. I’ve always been drawn to the grittier elements of life and the raw, authentic and noncommercial flavor of Bryan Kest’s style and studio space resonated with the street-wise, punk rock valley girl I was in a former life. The enormous room teemed with people of all ages, sizes and ethnicities. Nobody donned designer spandex. Most people didn’t even own “mat bags.”
As yoga gained in popularity at the beginning of the new millennium, the practice inevitably filtered through the lens of the popular culture.
The yoga industry began to pick up rapid speed and yoga began to take on a new look. As Julian Walker details in his chapter of the book, alongside the practice and community of yoga, “a small group of advertisers, designers, and magazine publishers promoting a fairly narrow aesthetic that is about technical perfection, youthful beauty and impressive gymnastics” cropped up. In a fairly short period of time, the industrialized consumer culture of yoga began to reflect many of the mainstream values and norms, including its narrow beauty ideal.
I immediately felt threatened by the encroachment of the dominant culture’s influence on this safe haven I had found in my practice and my community. It had taken me decades to find healing from my own distorted body image, one that was in large part forged at the hands of the prolific and repetitive images of unattainable beauty alongside the influence of the women in my family. I wanted to take the practice and community I loved (and continue to love) so deeply and hold it protectively against my chest.
Since my sociological imagination and feminist radar first went on high alert, many other yoga practitioners have asked critical questions about the objectification and sexualization of women to sell yoga products, standard advertising themes when it comes to the representation of girls and women. Those critical questions have not always been met with critical and constructive dialogue. In fact, the responses were often hostile and defensive. Personally, I was disheartened by a “conscious” community that frequently speaks out against animal cruelty, genetically modified food and environmental issues that didn’t feel equally compelled to address the exploitation of women and their bodies.
I’ve always felt obligated to ask questions about the communities I’ve been a part of. I appreciate the other outspoken and thoughtful yoga practitioners, like my fellow book contributors, who feel compelled to pause, look around and engage in critical dialogue about North American yoga in the 21st century. As Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio notes in his chapter of the book, “…there’s a reason that ‘intention’ comes after ‘understanding’ in Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: intention alone without understanding, can cause much suffering.”
For me, my sociological training and feminist ideology married well with my yoga practice. They are committed to raising consciousness and digging deeper. They’re about understanding.
I don’t want to leave it up to the universe. I want to engage critically and thoughtfully in what is emerging around us. The yoga community is not immune from the rest of the culture or the mainstream images that have been replicated in the subculture of yoga. Just because you throw some mala beads on or pose in anjali mudra doesn’t make objectification and sexualization any less so.
And yoga isn’t immune to eating disorders, disordered eating (which is not the same as a clinical eating disorder) or fractured body images. As Chelsea Roff remarks in her essay, “Eating disorders are prevalent in the yoga community, I would argue even more so than the general population. Many hide their self-destructive behaviors under the guise of detoxing, cleansing or a pseudo-spiritual path to enlightenment.”
While the practice has the capacity to heal, the yoga industrial complex upholds unrealistic representations of beauty present in fashion magazines and mainstream advertising.
I appreciated Kathryn Budig’s candid remarks about her own body image issues in a recent interview. The interview didn’t include a conversation regarding the notion of the “yoga body” and it’s proliferation in much of the popular yoga photography or the advertisements and images populating many of the major yoga magazines. But I appreciated the honesty and courage to be vulnerable. (I also appreciate her photo shoot with Daniel Stark that produced images that are much less digitally altered and polished than most).
And this body insecurity isn’t limited to women. One of the most popular (and drooled over) male yoga teachers in Los Angeles, replete with chiseled abs and perfectly sun kissed skin, recently confided his own body insecurity to me. “Do you know how much pressure there is for me to fit the body ideal of the male yoga teacher down to having zero percent body fat?”
Yoga is a subversive practice in so many ways. In a culture that repeatedly tells us we’re not good enough and that we’ll be happy when we lose another five pounds or if we buy fill-in-the-blank, yoga lets us be exactly as we are moment to moment. Yoga doesn’t ask us to change because we’re fine just the way we are. In the same way there is no such thing as a perfect asana, there’s no such thing as a perfect ass because we’re all individuals.
I’d like to preserve the unique face of yoga before she is unrecognizable.
We have the ability to consciously direct the culture of yoga, creating something subversive, powerful and real that reflects the uniqueness of each one of us just as we are.
For the women in my family, the body was a sFor the women in my family, the body was a source of anxiety, shame, a measure of discipline and worth – something to fret over, scrutinize, and punish for bad behavior. Food invoked anxiety and fear. Calories were meticulously tracked and exercised away as quickly as possible.The women openly complained about their “flaws” and lamented the numbers on the scale, while many of them ravenously ate a couple extra hundred calories in secret. I learned that life began five pounds (or, in my case, 10 pounds), from now.
I didn’t grow up feeling comfortable in, or good about my body. The body as a source of joy and vitality was an alien concept most of my life. I enjoyed food and wanted it, but I knew that made me weak, undisciplined and “bad.”
It didn’t help that I inherited my height from my father’s side of the family. I learned that beauty was a beast, one I had to conquer in order to measure up and feel good about myself. And that I had to conquer it no matter the costs because, hey, baby, you’re worth it.
My mother and the women in her family were all diminutive women with tiny feet, tiny hands, bird-like shoulders, and bitty waists. They were delicate flowers that liked to remind people that they were “petite.” From the time I’d entered fourth-grade, I was referred to as “big-boned,” “solid,” “big like her dad’s side of the family” and in need of “losing a few pounds.” I had surpassed my great-grandmother in height by the time I was 11. By seventh-grade, I was taller than my mother and grandmother. Measuring 5’3” and weighing 130 pounds, I was an “Amazon,” that poor freak of nature that had inherited the wrong set of genes.
I knew none of these comments were compliments. In fact, most little girls want to secretly flip someone the bird when an annoying aunt or family friend hovers and croons, “My, she’s gotten to be such a big girl!” “Big” and “girl” don’t go together well in our culture. But I didn’t have the confidence or wherewithal to say, “Whoah, whoah – back the hell up. Don’t you all know you’re talking about my body right in front of me? Don’t you know your tones are either derisive or filled with worry about my size? Don’t you know this kind of body talk objectifies me and makes me feel like shit?”
Nope, I was too deeply mired in my own shame and guilt about my body. Oh, why oh why wasn’t I born short with a delicate bone structure? Plus, these were my family members and adults in my life that I respected, admired, and trusted. I believed they had my best interests at heart. And they did. They really did. I don’t doubt that for an instant.
My mother and my grandmother, the two women I idolized more than anyone else and who loved me deeply, were projecting their own anxieties and insecurities on me because they didn’t know any better. We’re all prone to absorbing the socially constructed images and messages in our cultural environment.
And they’re no exception.
Like me, their own families, peers, and the society they grew up in influenced their sense of self and their measure of worth as girls and women. Like me and legions of other girls and women, they internalized the notion that what matters most, aside from any other skills or talents, is how pretty they are (and in our culture, pretty is synonymous with skinny). Not how they feel, not what they can do, not how healthy they are.
And, let’s be honest, there are lots of skinny people who aren’t healthy. In fact, health never entered the conversation in my household. Losing five or ten pounds was never a matter of health, but a matter of aesthetics.
I mean, ceaselessly dieting, from the Atkins diet to the pineapple diet (where you consumed vast quantities of pineapple because pineapple would “eat” away the extra fat you were carrying), over exercising, diet pills, caffeine, and excessive calorie restriction isn’t exactly the yellow brick road to optimal health.
After years of compulsive and punishing exercise (my mother got me a gym membership when I turned 12), severe calorie restriction, bouts of binging and purging, and Slim Fast shakes for breakfast, I stumbled into a yoga class led by Bryan Kest.
It was the mid-nineties, I was 24-years-old and my life was about to radically change. Everything I knew about my body, everything I felt toward my body, and my negative self-talk was about to undergo a seismic shift. For the first time since early childhood, I was about to learn how to be comfortable and radiant in my own skin. For the first time in my life, I was about to learn how to love my body.
I settled in on my mat in a space that would become the rare and sacred space devoid of competition. A space uncluttered by external chatter, removed from the world of advertising and one that would quiet and soothe my own self-critic. Kest began that first class by inviting me back into my body. “Welcome to your bodies. Welcome to yoga.”
Girls want to do ballet in preschool. And that can be fine. But most of them won’t want to do it anymore once it gets “real”–and given the body image concerns about ballet, most of us don’t want our daughters pursuing it anyway (I don’t mean to put a knock on ballet, which I respect, or certainly any other form of dance, I’m just saying the world of ballet can be very tough. I’ve seen “Black Swan….”). Anyway, in addition to, or instead of, ballet how about kids’ yoga? It’s graceful, you can wear a leotard if you want, and it’s something that can actually be the building block of a lifelong healthy practice that promotes POSITIVE body image, confidence, competence and inner strength. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
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.
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.
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.