Friday, March 26, 2010

Body Image and Yoga... Fun times!

This post is part of A Green Spell's The Coil, a fantastic supportive, moon-based blog party that explores everything spiritual and personal. Monday (29th) is the Storm Moon, which is aptly named for a rant post... Check out her honest and beautiful post on Yoga Shadows!

Body Image, Yoga and Feminism. Think these are worded in the wrong order of relationship? Unfortunately Western mainstream Yoga is very much influenced by the toxic, sexist body image ideals of our society.

First, just in case you're a skeptic, think that 'feminist crap' is behind us, a quick review. 

Women still only make 78 cents to the mans dollar. We make up a fraction of a percentage in the top 500 professional jobs and salaries as well as political positions. According to the Global Gender Gap Report for 2009 (yep, they still need to make these) Canada doesn't even register in the top ten Countries regarding gender equality, ranking 25th with the US ranking 31st.

Eating disorders affect approximately 10 million women in the United States alone. Disordered eating and body image affect girls as young as grade 5, and eating disorders remain the leading mental health cause of death, with 10 to 15% resulting in death. Think men and women suffer equally? 90% of all diagnoses of both Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia (both subtypes) consist of women, while only 10% of diagnosed cases are men (NEDA).

Disordered eating and body image are a complex issue resulting from psychological, social and physical (among other) stresses. Media that creates a cultural definition of 'beauty' has been shown to have a significant impact regarding the rise in eating disorders. The average US citizen is exposed to approximately 5000 ads per day, 1 out of 3.9 ads have some sort of 'message' regarding beauty, girls as young as 11 years old (prepubescent) have stated they were on a 'diet'.

The advertising industry is a billion dollar industry, for a reason. We are influenced by those 5000 ads that bombard our visual and mental space each day, whether we like to think we are or not. And women are disproportionately targeted with regards to an unrealistic body image ideal. Even ads such as Axe body spray, targeted for men, is a commentary regarding how to attain thin, big breasted beautiful women, regardless of the man's body shape or type. 

(did you know this was Victoria Beckham? check out for frank discussions of recent ads... and how we should stop and take a few extra minutes to consider what they're really saying).

The way yoga is portrayed in the media is also affected by our Western philosophy of body image (read, unrealistic and toxic). Strangely, despite being introduced by men to the western world, Yoga has historically (as much as we can use that word here) been portrayed as a 'female' endeavour, with articles and posts asking 'where are all the men yogis?'. 

Like other female-attributed sports and activities (think ballet, gymnastics, figure skating) yoga was been slotted into the societal expectations and framework. Unlike other sports that attempt to emulate acceptable male sports (like female hockey with their natural strong feminine role models), yoga has been flounced as being for limber, thin and nubile young, white female bodies. Companies like Lululemon were formed to accentuate the 'yogic butt' (see this lulu youtube vid) including products such as 'boob boosters' to wear UNDER your sports bra.

Top yogis in the western world tend to be men or of lesser yogic status beautiful, white, thin women. These yogic 'stars' are the yoga world's role models, and are thrust into this role by the media. Women such as Seane Corn, Shiva Rea, Rainbeau Mars, Tara Stiles, Sadie Nardini, Patricia Walden... I do not doubt that there are strong, non-white, non-stick thin female yoginis in our world (I know so many wonderful women who read this blog!), however the Big Yoginis, those that become our social representatives with the most media 'light' remain beautiful and skinny. What a powerful message.

Even funny, clever blogs such as Yoga Dork (whom I adore!) feature yoga in the media... and if your a reader you'll recognize the trend. For example (although there are many), the article on Chloe Sevigny, with the title that she practices for fitness reasons... but the picture is an extremely sexual, while maintaining the 'little girl' pose, mag spread. I get the emphasis Yoga Dork is trying to make, poke fun at these ridiculous media portrayals, but why not focus their attention on instances where it's done right? A blog post is another form of media. Just sayin'.

Roseanne at the clever Its all yoga, baby posted a few weeks ago about 'Naked Yoga' and mused whether it was a reclaiming of the 'natural' female body. From the clips and photos available and the extremely close ties to porn (whether a celebration of natural bodies or not) it's a bit too close to body objectification for my personal sensitivity. I'm a little sensitive to female bodies as something to be looked upon, as being the 'object' and thus 'an object' as opposed to a person. 

I am a proponent of nude yoga as art, though. I'm thinking Jasper Johal, The Body Temple type stuff (although it took a LOT of searching through muck online to find the photographer's name... which tells me something). Although I can't put them here (another 'something'), I especially love the pregnant belly yoga postures (full, beautiful with child nudity here).

All this to say... although the essence of true yoga is so far removed from all this, the reality of how yoga is portrayed in our western society definitely, sadly, sends mixed messages to our young (and experienced!) practitioners. Yoga fits into that paradigm of 'female activity rules'. Wouldn't it be nice to start speaking about non-gumby, non-white, non-skinny yoginis? Strong, mature and real yoginis that are worth looking up to. Worth admiring. I gotta say, I ADORE Linda-Samas photos of herself practicing. Aren't they gorgeous?

And that is my rant for the weekend. Maybe it was the snow returning....

article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. I for one am always happy to read your rants (you've got snow again up there? Bummer. Guess I'll stop complaining about the rain).

    There's certainly a striking divide in the yoga world, even at the studios where I practice, between stated ideals concerning body image (i.e. getting away from ideal body images to accept and love yourself where you are) and what it takes to pay the rent (i.e. advertising that focuses on incredibly fit female bodies). Ultimately, it's the way that yoga has meshed with western capitalism...moving since the 60's from the relatively small niche market of the psychedelic crowd to the far larger women's fitness market, and, in that sense, being transformed rather than transforming. And thus, in taking part in something primarily practiced by men for thousands of years, I've both had my manhood questioned and been suspected of going to yoga class just to ogle women. Then, should yoga become a huge craze among men, I fear it would be taken up by the competitive sports industry (which, of course, is exactly what Bikram is trying to make happen) (and, in fact, when I hear about yoga in gym classes in public schools, I find I have very mixed feelings--on the one hand thinking that sounds great, on the other really hoping it's not being taught by the kind of people who taught gym when I was in school...).

  2. This is such a wonderful blog post. I found myself thinking 'THANK YOU!!' as I read each of your points.

    I'm bookmarking your blog now. :)

  3. Dr. Jay: that's it exactly! western capitalism, which is steeped in (unfortunately) sexist history, would complete the picture of what 'female fitness' should look like.
    As soon as I wondered, 'why do traditionally female sports such as ballet, gymnastics have historically have issues regarding body image and disordered eating, while other 'female' sports such as hockey don't? When we think of hockey as being an accepted 'male' sport and so the 'rules' of female activity in our society don't apply.

    yep- the snow returned yesterday... thank goodness it's sunny (and COLD) today though.

    teacupdiaries: Thank you!!! I was so nervous writing this, I'm glad it resonated! :)

  4. Wow, THANK you for this post. As a former dancer who is now on the curvy side rather than rail thin, I went through a challenging time, and occasionally still do, returning to yoga after my divorce because I did not have the atypical yoga/dancer body anymore. This last year I encountered my first curvy yoga instructor as well who was phenomenal (and, best of all, had good 'yoga voice' which trumps all aesthetics as far as I'm concerned), and helped me and others see there is diversity in yoga practice. While you are supposed to be focused inward in yoga practice, calming all those outside noises can be challenging, especially when they cram you in those rooms where if you don't place your mat just right, you hit the others with your arms going into various poses. While I wouldn't mind doing yoga in the nude alone, not sure if I want to be in class during some poses - as a photographer who shoots a lot of nudes, I know that 80% of the shots are usually not on the flattering side :)

    Thanks again for the great post.

    PS - on yoga for men (yogaforcynics), the only guys I've ever seen in my class are bad stereotypes, so the more men the merrier (and hey, if i'm not going to be inwardly focused right away...). silly me.

  5. Fabulous, as always! I had to post this on my FB fan page. So thought-provoking! And in many ways, infuriating! The ads thing is on my mind so much these days. I'm sick of the constant media pressure surrounding us. I'm sick of the media trying to tell us what is pretty! (Insert angry expletive here.)

    And I'm sick of the way the industry is trying to make yoga into another beauty pageant. Don't even get me started! But you said it beautifully. I love all those famous yoga teachers and enjoy their videos and teachings a lot, but it does beg the question: Why aren't there "larger" female yoga teachers in the limelight?

    That is something that has always bothered me. I've always felt fat and clumsy because, even when I'm at a good, healthy weight, I still have a very large chest. I'm the kind of yogini who gets smothered by her own breasts when she does Plow Pose. I look at all the famous yoginis out there and some part of me wishes I could small, compact, and light like they are. Then another part of me thinks, "There MUST be other big-breasted yoginis out there. Where are they?"


    Anyway, you should post this to The Coil, if you feel so inclined! It's awesome!

  6. i will say that for some reason i have more anxiety about going to yoga and pilates classes without being somewhat skinny and in-shape first, more so than just going to the gym regularly, which is silly because the whole point of both is to get into better shape. also i just clicked through jasper johal's photos - the nude photos are interesting, i agree about how they are borderline pornographic but also celebrate the body - but it also struck me how hairless the woman are...maybe it's just angles...but if it's trying to celebrate natural beauty shouldn't that include our natural hair? just a thought.

  7. really great rant, Eco Yogini, and thanks for providing the thought provoking & inspiring links! The messaging we get is so constant that we tend to receive it unconsciously now... as more people speak about being consciously aware of & questioning cultural messaging, I have hope that we can embody (literally!) a cultural message that we truly believe in...

  8. Julia: I completely agree, I also thought it was really weird that they were so hairless. I'm actually assuming that it's airbrushed out...

    which leads to my ambiguous feelings about the whole 'naked yoga as art' deal...

  9. Right on--as usual! Why were you nervous? You certainly didn't say anything that wasn't completely true. Very nice observations.

    I find that I always do better with a yoga teacher that I identify with--strong female presence, who's lived some life and has the bumps and dents to prove it. A willowy youngster just won't do it (I assume, I've never had one who does so yet).

    That may not be fair to the male teachers or willowy youngsters, but I yam what I yam. I want to feel like my teachers been where I have and gets me.

    At some point, I might be out of luck, but--for now--I am so over the boobless (I hear ya, Green Spell!)...

  10. What an interesting post! I'm living in Europe, and although the yoga 'culture' here seems in a lot of ways different from yours, your comments on how women are portrayed in the media definitely hit home for me. I'm not much of a blog commenter, but I just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoy your writings. Keep feeding us your thoughts!


  11. Wow, after reading some of the comments, I feel so very fortunate, and I want to reassure you- there IS hope!

    I attend yoga classes in a small urban studio. The instructors are pretty diverse in body shape and include men and women (but, alas, no African American instructors AT ALL). The instructor for the class I attend most regularly is not very tall (about 5'3") and not very skinny ("regular" just like me), and not trying to impress with wild acrobatics. She is genuinely interested in helping each student to achieve a pose in the best way FOR EACH OF US, and to stretch beyond our personal, preconceived limitations. Also fortunately, the class is small enough and the studion large enough that there is plenty of room, and you can practice and focus without bumping or having to fix your gaze on another student's body parts. I have in the past attended a class (at another studio) taught by a male instructor, and my biggest disappointment with him was that he was very athletic and strong and flexible, and seemed to pay most attention to the class members who were most "like him" in those ways. One sample, however, does not a conclusion make, and I look forward to practicing with other male instructors with varying approaches.

    As for the "star" yoginis- I have an aversion to stardom anyway, and am not interested in any videos or books by such stars as Seane Corn and other female or male yoga stars. One of the things about Western yoga from which I actively distance myself is the star-worship that seems to be promoted so heavily by the likes of Yoga Journal. Give me my little urban studio with the warm, compassionate instructors who look like me, any day.

  12. Can I just put in a good word for the skinny and boobless? Cause, hey, it's not our fault!! ;) As a yoga teacher, we work with people of all body types and it should be every teacher's job to make students feel confident about their own unique bodies, including modifying poses when needed. Teachers should remind us that it's not about the poses, people!! There is no "perfect pose" or "perfect body" - unlike the advertisements would have us believe.

    One disturbing trend is that mainstream advertising seems to be adopting Yoga - rather poorly if I do say so - I now see it on health foods and in so many un-related advertisements. Yoga being used to sell vitamins... Sheesh! If that's not ironic, what is.

  13. holy shiva, I did not even know I was mentioned in this post! thanks for the link love, dear...I must say that when that pic was my profile pic on Facebook, I received some uh....interesting...messages from men....;)

    you might be interested in my post on the same subject from three years ago...


  14. p.s. I must say that Nova Scotia would be an interesting place to go to teach a yoga weekend (like what I taught in Africa.)

    so if you know any studio who would be wiling to host me, let me know! then you could see what this old yogini can do....;)

  15. Hi there, I've just found your blog! This is such a great post, and something I've been thinking about recently. I've been practising yoga regularly for nine months and am addicted! I truly love it. But I've been thinking about my yoga instructors; I'm quite fortunate in that the majority of the women I've come across aren't skinny ladies. They are sturdy and powerful, yet graceful. I wonder if the stereotypical western yogini ideals are unique to different types of yoga? Maybe because I practice Iyengar yoga that it makes a difference?

    Anyway, great blog :)

  16. The yoga that takes place in the park every Saturday, that wouldn't be a nude yoga class, would it?

    I have heard quite a bit of yoga lately, but know very little about it. What exactly does it do for you? Also, I'm interested in doing some yoga. Was wondering if there was a nude yoga class or groups around the HRM?

    Thank you.


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