Friday, June 17, 2011

I Reject the External Yoga Ideal; It's Time to Stop Blaming the Individual

I have a problem with "If you just try hard enough you'll be____" insert unrealistic and externally determined physical attribute. It bothered me when I became aware of the negative effects of body image and the media and it bothers me when it comes to yoga.

Yep, I am comparing the two.

 (Although this ad is 13 years old, it's still relevant today... and I heard it's making the news again recently, which is weird since it's so old...)

I'm wholeheartedly against fitting a person's physical body in a predetermined box. Our media tells us (mostly women, but also men) what the ideal body type and look should be... and we're expected to strive for this. We know, anatomically, that only 5% of the female population, even with dieting and cosmetics, will ever fit the ideal body type. And yet still we get the message: "If you only try harder, workout more, wear a certain kind of makeup/clothing/hair style you'll look better and thus be happier". Every single media advert is based on making us believe that it is OUR fault that we look the way we do (so we should buy their product to help fix it).

I've finally made a connection with why I am so uncomfortable when I hear yoga instructors tell me that someday I will reach= a certain level of flexibility/posture/strength. It's the exact same concept of: "You can't do it now because you just haven't been practicing long enough/trying hard enough/practicing often enough", a blame the individual mentality.

Oh, for the most part it's done with only the best of intentions in mind, to motivate and reassure the student that progress occurs for everyone. At the same time there is a certain extent where I've found some (not all!) yoga instructors believe that their level of flexibility/strength/stamina is achievable by ALL students. Which implies that the only reason the student isn't there yet is due to their own internal faults.

I am a prime example. I'm thin, so I find people automatically assume I should be flexible. Ummm, far from it- as I've said many times it took two full years of regular practice to be able to *just barely touch my toes*. And yes I push myself adequately, thank you very much, I've learned the difficult way just how inflexible my body can be. Due to my extremely non-gumby body, I can easily pull and tear muscles and tendons when pushing through asanas or when they're overheated (um- hot yoga is a no-no for me). Sure I've made progress, but it is completely unreasonable to assume that even after a decade of practice (which will be three years away) that I will be able to fold forward completely in standing forward fold or seated forward fold, even if I practice

And I'm ok with that.

I've accepted that for me, my yoga doesn't have to fit a preconceived physical notion. I also know enough about anatomy and physiology to understand that not every person's bone and muscle structures are exactly the same, and therefore neither should their asana yoga outcomes should be the same. I resent the fact when I'm made to feel like I a) haven't been practicing often/hard enough b) haven't been pushing myself enough (umm several injuries should just be ignored right?) or c) I've just been doing it plain wrong. (Can you tell I had an experience at class last night?).

Last evening I had an instructor inform me that I can go further in "parsvottanasana" (intense side stretch), while she pushed on my back. When I informed her that "Nope, that's as far as I go" with a follow up of "It hurts" when she insisted, she informed me that I still had a curve in my lower back. Yep, that's my slightly curved spine she pointed out, how nice of her. A few more insistent adjustments and loud suggestions ("Why aren't you doing upward dog?" to my baby cobra's followed by insisting on upward dog stating that I would be hurting my lower back more with a baby cobra than an updog), resulted in my practice becoming about letting go of disappointment and anger and fighting the impulse to push my body harder.

I've had enough injuries that way and would hate to pull my achilles tendon or have intense lower back pains from too many strenuous upward dogs and savasanas.

When I approached her afterwards to thank her for her suggestions and time during class, it was to recognize for myself that she assumed even the most basic yoga postures were achievable for everyone and only meant well. (As if one hip opener is really enough to "open up the hips" for ridiculously tight people haha).

Her response was to point out that I had a consistent lower back curve in almost all forward folds and that what was holding me back: "You just have to work on not jutting your bum out". Um... My acknowledgement of "Yes, I actually have quite a natural spinal curve to my lower back" was cut off with: "Yeah, you gotta just work on tucking your tail bone in more".

At that I just thanked her and walked away. Obviously, it had never occurred to this veteran Ashtangi that some people actually have spines that are over-curved. No over tucking my tail bone is going to change the bone structure of my spine- it's not muscle habit that I stick my ass out, it's an actual spinal formation. I resent the fact that she implied I just hadn't practiced hard enough, long enough or pushed myself enough to achieve some external "perfection" that she felt would be the penultimate experience of the yoga pose.

I'm happy with what my body has achieved in the miniscule steps it has taken over the past seven years of regular, dedicated (mostly!) physical practice. I firmly reject the idea that all yoga asana is achievable and accessible to everyone should they just try hard enough/long enough.  

Each person should not strive to achieve an "external yoga ideal" but should find what yoga looks like for them.


article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. So well said. I was in a class the other day, and we were looking through an Ashtanga Asana book, and many of the students were expressing a sense of dismay at their knowledge that they could never do some of the poses. The teacher and I reminded them that bodies are different, and she pointed out that the guy in the book actually has a flexible sternum. Who has that?!?!

    It is so, so important to remember that our bodies are built certain ways, and we can work with that, but never change that. I'm pretty scared anytime I hear of teachers trying to push people too far. There are adjustments to help guide and pushing people past their limits. Yoga teachers should know the difference.

    Thanks for this awesome post.

  2. oh. my. god. that instructor should not be allowed to teach. that is out and out bullying and my chin dropped reading this - yoga is the most individual, personal practice, and i can't imagine a teacher telling me all the things i'm doing wrong! the whole point is the feeling you get from doing it, not by beating ourselves up or competing with others - we all know that we do enough to ourselves mentally, teachers are supposed to nurture us, help us get to where WE want to be, not where they think we should be. ahh, aghast. i'm sorry you dealt with that but you sure turned it into a great post! and i love the picture - the best yoga teacher i had was shaped like me - curvy, and it gave me so much confidence to have her leading us.

  3. @Rebecca: thank you! I know it's not specific to the Ashtanga practice... and i've never actually gotten such an "ahah" click before- but I know sometimes teachers unwittingly imply this, without meaning too. I think it comes from people who truly don't know what it's like to be restricted physically. That said, I know some pretty FABULOUS yoga instructors :)

    @EcoGrrl: Thank you for such supportive thoughts! I wondered if I was being sensitive... I'm glad to know it wouldn't just be me. :) Also- I do think that she honestly thought she was helping me....

    Interestingly enough she teaches yoga at the local IWK (children/adolescent hospital) for individual's with physical restrictions.... LMAO

  4. You're so right about the blaming the individual thing! Thanks for this!

  5. Not overly sensitive AT ALL. I second EcoGrrl, that teacher should NOT be allowed to teach.

    It's one of the reasons I hate hands on adjustments...the physical handling of another person's body is a big no-no for me. I will lay a hand on a spot to focus your attention but I never pull and push and grab and yank. It's more an energy exchange.

    I had a teacher tell me some things she thought she knew about my body and I was infuriated. As a teacher myself, I like to remind students who want TOO much direct that I have never seen an X-RAY of their skeleton so they need to feel it out for themselves.

  6. I'm appalled. That's downright bullying, and that's *so* not OK.

    I used to do capoeira (a brazilian martial art), and my instructor was also a bully. He thought in the same exact way--that everyone is capable of the kind of talent he had, and that if you weren't progressing towards it fast enough, it was your own fault. Nevermind the fact that he's the only one who had an 8-pack and had been doing capoeira his whole life!

    Long story short, when I moved, I didn't go back to capoeira. Bullying really, really affected me, so much to the point where I don't know if I'll ever go back to something that used to also give me joy.

    Maybe you should complain? (Though, I totally get how stressful complaining is--I hate confrontation and would probably choose not going back to the class over making a scene. But maybe you are braver than I am!)

    And by the way, I've finished my 1st year of grad school for SLP! :)

  7. I'm so sorry that you had a negative class experience. No matter what the physical activity it's crucial for people to listen to their intelligent edge! Good for you for taking the high road, even though the instructor was flawed. I truly believe you can't ever change the will of someone like that!

  8. It sounds to me as though you are being overly sensitive, and your commenters are quite enjoying ripping your teacher to shreds. It's true that she shouldn't be pushing on you in a forward fold unless she knows your body/your practice, but beyond that, she was just trying to nudge you to go a little deeper. And you seem to be angrily resisting. If you decide with your mind that your body won't go any further, it won't.

    It also sounds as though either you, she, or both are misunderstanding each other about what exactly the alignment issues are that you're dealing with. Is your low back rounded out or concave? How do you pull an achilles tendon in upward dog? And why would anyone tuck their tailbone in a forward fold?

  9. @Anna: you're welcome :) It applies to a lot more than just my own experiences.

    @Christine: I'm not so sure about not being allowed to teach- I do truly think she had the best intentions and thought she was being helpful. But I also believe that there is a implicit and subtle influence in yoga that progress is a result of personal work and should be limitless. For some reason she truly just didn't listen to me.

    @underbelly: it was pushy, although I'm sure many of her students enjoy her style of teaching.
    I'm sorry to hear that you haven't practiced a martial art that you love!! maybe it's time to find another teacher and try again?? (PS- YAY SLP!!!!! :))

    @Nicole: I agree, me voicing my concerns wouldn't have resulted in anything positive. She had it in her mind that I wasn't folding forward because I was curving my lower back (inwards).

    @Megan: actually- your response is the perfect example of what this post is all about. I don't go further in postures because my own mind is stopping it. If I just got out of the way of my mind and preconceived notions I would be able to progress further.
    Although I can't control how others interpret this teacher's reactions and style, I'm pretty sure I've stated a few times that I knew she thought she was helping (not exactly ripping her apart...).

    No matter how "open" I allow myself to be towards a posture, I can't change the physical structure of my spine and the inherent inflexibility of my muscles.

    If you've triumphed over inflexible muscles and made fabulous progress by opening your mind in yoga- good for you. But my body isn't your body- and I'm really just tired of people blaming my apparent "non-progress" with something internal to me that I can/should change.

    That's what I think needs to be spoken about and acknowledged in the yoga world.

  10. Oh God, teachers like that make me weep.
    This is why everyone does their own inerpretation of movements in my classes, why I show them my own crooked back and dodgy hip and modifications.
    Why I work on core strength, on breath, on stillness in my classes because that is something we all need.
    And why I don't really adjust.
    *weeps again*

    Thank god all teachers are not like this.

  11. It really bothers me when people think they know you better than you know yourself! I have lost friends because of this.

  12. Paul Grilley has a great anatomy DVD out there that talks about how bodies are all uniquely constructed and due to this what we can overcome with work and what we will always live with because of how we are constructed (ie, a spine curvature, or how a hip ball and socket joint is shaped). It is am amazing video and opens the mind to individual differences and boundaries.

    Also, totally off topic but you and all your diva cup posts (which I just found last month) have kinda changed my life (at least for a week a month) thanks for you frankness!

  13. And Megan's response represents everything that angers me in the yoga community. The ASSUMPTIONS.

    It's why I primarily teach intuitive, healing dance. Joy, joy, joy and none of that presumptuous condescension coming from On-High -- as if anyone can know your body, inside or out...and then to think they can make guesses about your mind and spirit! :P

  14. About the pushing hard thing: I actually recently discovered that it's not even a good thing for your practice. What I mean is that I used to push as hard as I can to overcome my lack of flexibility, then I learnt from other disciplines the benefits of the "gentle" approach, and our (and our bodies') natural preference for the "path of least resistance", then one day I had class, I wasn't feeling that well about my condition, so I decided to take it easy, I said "I'll just do my thing as long as it feels good, without pushing hard"...I ended up having one of the best practices of my life, going deeper and more balanced in all the poses.

  15. @Rachel: yes- I'm thankful I've had many wonderful yoga instructors over the years :)

    @Melly: Yep, I agree. A few whispered directions during a yoga class doesn't result in this teacher having the knowledge to know why I'm not folding further in forward folds.

    @Lucy: wow, sounds interesting thanks for the tip! ALSO- YAY Diva Cup!!! So glad it's changed your Moon Time :D Single most best decision I ever made was to buy one.

    @Christine: Your style sounds so inspiring and beautiful. I wish I lived closer!!

    The funny thing is- I LIKE suggestions, guidance and active feedback during a yoga class. What I don't like is feeling guilty about how my body isn't progressing, when I know it's beyond my control.

    I also don't like the assumption that so many yogis make that ALL YOGA ASANA is achievable to ALL YOGIS. (implied, if you're not there yet, it's because of something you can and should change about your practice)

    It's unhealthy and unrealistic.

    Sometimes this is done out of the kindness of someone's heart- either because of their personal experiences they've achieved by working hard enough, or it just never occurred to them that someone else's body would have a different yoga end point.

    But instead of giving hope- it can often serve to increase guilt.

  16. I have the same problem with forward folds, etc. My instructor never says stuff like that though! If anything just gives me a great massage while gently trying to push me deeper.

  17. Amen sister! Since when did yoga make the switch over to yoga perfect, rather then yoga practice. In yoga we learn ahimsa: non harming, and satya: truth. We need to be truthful to ourselves at where we are and who we are. We also need to recognize ahimsa, non harming. We would never want to do anything that could potentially harm our bodies. I am so sorry that you had this experience. That is not what yoga is about. Being present and mindful on your mat is where we all need to be. Come to San Diego and I will give you a better experience. :)

  18. In response to Christine's comment: What assumptions? The questions I posed in my comment were not meant to be rhetorical. Those points didn't make sense to me, so I asked for clarification to better understand the situation. I think, from what's been written, that the cause of Ecoyogini's less-than-pleasant experience is simply miscommunication between her and the teacher.

    I never said I agreed with the teacher. All I said was that the tone of the post was full of frustration, anger, and resistance. These are exactly the kinds of emotions that tend to cause tension and resistance in the body. I also know, from occasionally reading this blog, that Ecoyogini deals with anxiety issues, and so, based on that knowledge, I suggested in my response that part of the reason for her "non-progress" (her words, not mine) could potentially have roots in her state of mind. I don't see the problem.

  19. @ Eco - I think it's great that you can recognise that your teacher probably had good intentions despite your bad experience. However, I don't think it's ever right to push a student if they have asked you to stop or informed you that they are in pain - that, for a teacher, is close to unforgivable. Nor is it right for a teacher to deliberately single out a student and make them feel bad for doing a modified version of a pose.

    At the same time, as a teacher I have seen students - and I have been this student, too - who believe they are struggling with a pose, but are actually struggling with a mental block. And sometimes, when a teacher is able to show me how much of my battle is in my mind, it changes a lot more than my yoga practice. So it is always a fine balance - I expect teachers to push or nudge me a little bit further than I might go on my own - if I didn't, I wouldn't go to classes. But this shouldn't be done in an aggressive way!

    From my perspective, I don't think you're over-reacting by calling this teacher on her disrespect for your boundaries. However, as you obviously recognise, this experience has triggered a much deeper emotional nerve-centre for you, which is about much more than that one teacher or this one experience. I hope you'll continue to explore this personal experience of body image / media / yoga connection and keep sharing with us!

    As an aside, I read this blog post today, and was reminded by it in the way that you express discomfort at the notion of "progress" in yoga:

  20. "I resent the fact that she implied I just hadn't practiced hard enough, long enough or pushed myself enough to achieve some external 'perfection' that she felt would be the penultimate experience of the yoga pose."

    With time and practice, yoga DOES change the structure of the body. I've known people who had scoliosis who came to yoga after being told that the only solution was surgery... and gradually, with time and willingness and lots of hard work, their bodies changed. Bones and muscles shifted, and they began feeling more at ease, and had less pain, more balance.

    Now, whether or not this change is wanted, or even needed, is up to you! We all come to the practice with our own bodies, our own imbalances and imperfections. As my teacher says, we can change the yoga, or let the yoga change us. And in Ashtanga, which is what I practice, this requires a huge commitment, which is also not for everyone. But we're working to change the body and mind simultaneously. Sometimes this means that there is resistance -- physical and mental. And sometimes there is injury. All part of the process of working through the imbalances...

    Anyway, just wanted to share my thoughts on this post. Sorry you were frustrated by this teacher, but I kind of understand where she was coming from, and as you say, most likely had your best interests at heart. :)

  21. @Hisham: Ouu, that sounds lovely :)

    @Meg: thank you- it would be so much fun to attend classes from all the wonderful yoga bloggers out here in bloggyland!

    *****@Megan Walker*******

    Ok- I'd just like to point out, very clearly, that just because you read my blog 'OCCASIONALLY' does not mean that you know me. It also doesn't mean that you're realistically able to assume/state/diagnose an anxiety disorder/issues.

    Even a psychologist (or perhaps I should say, someone actually qualified to make those statements in real life) would never make that assumption from reading a few blog posts about someone's life.

    It's insulting, and honestly just a bit arrogant.

    Megan, we all have postures that make us feel emotions- this does not translate into "Anxiety Issues". As a yoga instructor you should know that.

  22. @La Gitane: thank you- yes the experience did make me think of what I feel is something that is happening at a macro level in the yoga world. I see a connection to our social pressures with how we treat body image and I did react emotionally. Thank you for the link! :)

    @Stephanie: thank you for your perspective! I agree that yoga can change certain parts of ourselves and I also agree that more practice can help. I guess I just don't agree that all yoga asana will be achievable to all yogis- even with oodles of practice. That said- I do enjoy the ashtanga yoga class every now and then and I have had some fabulous ashtangi instructors. :)

  23. Good for you, first of all, for standing up for yourself. :) Again, with the assumptions! Oy! yes, to think that someone can know you through a blog is almost as hilarious and close to as infuriating as thinking someone can know your body by looking at you. Things can be guessed at, but the student is still the number one expert.

    Most yoga teachers have a few HUNDRED hours of education, at the most. A little knowledge truly is a dangerous thing.

  24. Hey Lisa, wow I'm joining this party late in the piece. Oh well!

    One of my students is a mature-age lady and get this: she's been doing yoga for 17 years and still comes to beginners/easy classes. A few weeks ago we had the chance to talk a little before the class and she expressed her frustration with her lack of flexibility. After 17 years. Can you imagine?!

    I think the most that yoga teachers can do is suggest *possibilities* for what could be going on, definitely not absolutes. For example, I spoke with this particular lady about how the mind and body really are one and the same - that it can take a long time to really understand that. And yes, that can sometimes affect a person's so-called flexibility. But what I mean when I say "flexibility" might be different to what someone else thinks it is, too...

    This is certainly not the only reason, however! Cora Wen put some photos of pelvises up on Facebook a while back - men and women have very different shapes. But also, there is of course a huge variation in shapes and sizes of female and male pelvises. None of us have to be geniuses to observe that!

    Then there's stuff around previous injuries, a pre-disposition for things like arthritis, neurology and who knows what else?! There are so many factors that allow a human body to move, that assuming from a simple external observation that we know what's going on for someone else... well its just ludicrous.

    I rarely provide adjustments, and if I do it's more of a light touch to suggest movement. I'd never force anyone's body to do anything!

    Most of the best teachers I know of also work this way. That's not to say I think all adjustments are wrong, but I'd like to have many more years teaching experience PLUS more anatomy and physiology training behind me before assuming anything about someone else's body.

    In my classes, I ask people to explore where their body is at in various poses. Not to try and fight their body into doing something it can't do. But to be right there, and accept where they're at.

    And in the yoga classes I attend as a student, using ANY force to get into any posture is considered to be a no-no. If your body can't do something without being pushed into position, then it's not ready. But also, if you force your body to do something that's "cheating". Instead, we are asked to build the right kinds of awareness and movement. Its changes a lot of things about the way I practice yoga, for the better.

    The main teacher at yoga studio I was going to before was a bit like the teacher you've described. She'd come around and tell me my head wasn't down far enough in uttanasana, for example. But hey, when you've got a rather large bust, there's only so far forward your body will go in a forward bend. Trust me on that one! But still, every week she'd come around and try to push me a little more forward. What's with that?!

    I think you're doing the right thing for yourself. You need to have a practice you're comfortable with, not one that makes you feel like you're not good enough. Mark Whitwell says if yoga isn't making you feel good, then it's not yoga.

    I tend to agree!


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