Don’t look at my ass in asana

Jessica demonstrating Uttanasana

Jessica demonstrating Uttanasana

There are times I fully embrace and enjoy in the relatively hype-free existence of yoga in New Zealand.

Coming from Seattle – granola metropolis, yoga studio a stone’s throw in any direction – the lack of flash, and preoccupation with being seen as a yoga practitioner is a relief.

How can I worry if I’m wearing the wrong brand name practice pants when there are no brand name practice pants to be bought?

In comparison, the American online community – primed by yoga ‘rebels’, issues around training standards, certification and registrationsexually explicit yoga advertisements, men on the cover of YJ, and the desire for variety in a yoga model search – is restless.

Living here, I’ve been able to escape the promotion of a pop culture perfect body as the raison d’être of yoga.

When it does surface, it appears garish and laughable.  And very, very dangerous and harmful.

Jessica demonstrating Parsvottanasana

Jessica demonstrating Parsvottanasana

Here I am a normal person doing yoga.  And feeling less than represented by the yoga media.  Feeling, in fact, ashamed not to live up to its pedestal high physical ideals.

I am one of many  marginalized people, I believe.  The ones neither socially slender enough to belong to the ‘pretty people’ body ideal nor rotund enough to be dismissed as fat.  In other words, I’m normal.  I’m a US size 14, or 16, as often as a 12, or a 10.  It depends on where I am in my life, how active I’ve been, what my stress level is, the brand of clothes, yadda yadda.

Admittedly, when I began yoga I was unhealthy.  I was surfacing after ending an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship.  I was not happy in my work and couldn’t find the time to eat fresh foods or energy to exercise regularly.

The mindfulness of yoga, the connection of physical body and emotional experience, created a healthy waterfall effect.

I was able to see that indulging on seasonal raspberries was more satisfying than my familiar dinner of potato chips and dip.  I was reminded how I love the outdoors and walking under trees. I found how satisfying an extra hour of sleep was compared to internet surfing or late night television viewing.

It didn’t hurt that I had joined a gym across the street from me to practice yoga at and, since I was there already, I took other classes.  As I got stronger in my asana practice, and the spirit of countless warrior poses seeped into my bones – my courage grew, I tried more and more other classes.

Then, what started as healthy reintroduction to my body turned into physical obsession.  I took a job that allowed me scheduling freedom and I regularly managed about 4 hours a day of exercise.  An hour each of walking, yoga, cardio class, and then weights.

I looked great, but I still wasn’t deeply happy, much less living a balanced life.  At my fittest US size 10 I was still empty inside.  That bleak space was barely distracted by all the motion.  It was a blessing to return to full time work and release the constant attention on my body.

I kept practicing yoga, creating a schedule so my regular classes continued, two to three days a week.  If an item was required from the stock room I’d use the elevator ride to practice Uttanasana, Vrksasana, or Utkatasana.  People got used to seeing me in funny positions in the break room.

I got up early to take my favourite walks, or changed into my gear and went straight after my shift.  When a farmers market started blocks from my house I shifted my schedule to insure I could do my grocery shopping there.  I found a healthy place to be in my body, to care for it.  I was happy in myself, yet not in my circumstances.

I realized that while I loved the customer service aspect of my job, I hated a larger part of it.  The selling of cosmetics and skincare to increase the appearance of youth…

…the daily interaction with women who didn’t view themselves positively on any level…

…who wanted nothing more than to change who they were and what they looked like…

…who required validation from outside sources because they could offer little to none from within…

…to conform to the expectations of friends, family, partners, and society as a whole…

I thought about yamas and niyamas all day, struggled to incorporate them into my work.  I realized my work needed to be something beneficial for the individuals I came into contact with through it.

So I quit.  And took my first 100 hour yoga teacher training.

In the introductory meeting with the director she assured me that with dedication and practice I would be able to find a slimmer weight and leave behind my body image issues.

Body images issues I had: but it was accepting myself, not wanting to lose weight that was the concern.  I felt great, but I didn’t believe I looked great. I have a handful of photos from that time.  When I look at them I’m astounded: I’m healthy and fit and look wonderful.  So why did I, and this woman across from me, support the idea that I was failing to match some ideal exterior?

During a monthly mentorship meeting with one of the main teachers, it was recommended that I not pursue Yin practice as it was obvious from my body that I was too kaphic.

My healthy size 12, or thereabouts, was thus dismissed as fat and lazy.  The three times I’ve consulted with ayurvedic practitioners I’ve been declared pitta-vata constitution every time.  This is also the case whenever I’ve done the tests for myself.  So why was my body visually taken as the whole story?

It was suggested that female instructors be sure to dress professionally and particularly to reduce the amount of cleavage showing.

This advice was given by a woman who regularly taught in a sports bra top with her midriff exposed and had, I’m guessing, B-cup breasts.  I never wear bra tops, though a shirt might ride up to show off my stomach; I have always had double-D breasts or larger.  It was the first time I felt ashamed of my breasts.  I was 26.

That was my first training.

I can’t say it’s gotten better.

As a whole, I’ve found more body-bashing in the yoga community than I found in the oft-stereotyped land of cosmetics.

This is part of why I choose, in Seattle, to teach in gyms.  Where students didn’t see yoga as the end all, be all of exercise.  It complimented the other activities they were engaging in.  Where, in the absence of a boutique filled with Lululemon, Prana, and Be Present pants, they wore comfy sweats and leggings.

It’s why I’m increasingly upset with insane advertising to yoga practitioners for detox supplements, diet pills, and shoes that will shape our asses.  Why, when I became a teacher I decided not to advertise photos of me doing asana.  Why, when people ask if I do yoga everyday, I make it clear that yoga is not only asana practice.  Why I’m experiencing fear of getting up in front of new students at a local studio.

Because I’m not an ex-dancer with great external rotation and nonexistent hamstrings.

I didn’t come to yoga to escape the hardships of my jet-setting model career.

When I reach back for my foot in pigeon pose I can feel the folding of flesh on my back.

Because I look like a normal person doing yoga.

Even I, who feels intense joy watching the myriad body shapes of my students move and breath through asana, have been trained visually by media to reject images of normal people.

Which then means I’ve been trained to reject images of my normal person’s body.  So of course I don’t want full body photographs of myself in asana.

We say that yoga is for everyone, but we don’t want to see everyone doing yoga.

Say all you want about how a slender frame shows the lines of a pose best.  It doesn’t erase the striving towards an ideal that is fabricated.

The images in magazines are selected to feed us a fantasy.  We’ve consumed this fantasy so long we don’t see it as anything but essential viewpoint.  Part of a valid social belief system.

We don’t look at the ads and cover photo and think only, ‘I want to buy that and do that pose’, we buy the underlying thought that we should mirror the appearance of the person selling the product, doing the pose.  That purchasing the product, or doing the pose, will help us to mirror the appearance of the person.

I’m not against slender yoga practitioners, don’t mistake me.  I’m against the limited view that they alone people the yoga world.

In effort to work against this, I’ve decided to build a visual library of my everyday body doing everyday yoga.

I expect to cringe a lot looking at the images.  To denounce the visual proof that the past two years have been immensely stressful and that long term cortisol has accumulated adipose tissue.  To see areas in asana I have trouble feeling.  To judge, and judge harshly.

I hope this exercise will remind me of the love and reverence I have for my body.  That it will retrain me to appreciate my body visually.  Be a deprogramming practice.  Show me the lines of energy that flesh cannot cover. Highlight the grace of spirit embodied.

I know the power of images and am going to embrace that power for my own well-being.

Camera, lights, action, me!

Loving this website? Become a member of the community. Sign Up Now.

Subscribe & receive a printable Forty Days of Yoga Calendar to help track your daily yoga practice.

Comments

  1. Erica says

    Thank you Jessica, well said and I am very sure all of us normal women know what you are talking about. I too have been worried about my appearance in a yoga class or workshop while being a size 12 or thereabouts (depends, as you say…)
    loving yoga in Golden Bay, where the lifestyle is laid back and appearances matter even less…

  2. Nick says

    Great article!

    Its Surprising how much stereotyping effects our daily direction and motivations.

    I struggle with being one of a handful of male yogis in a deep south community where killing venison and drinking beer is the accepted role of a male. I never considered the Implications of stereotypical advertising from a female perspective.

    very enlightening,

    Thanks for keeping it real!!!

  3. Julie Taylor says

    Thanks Jessica for your article. I can relate to all of it. I struggle with my own worthiness amidst the culture you describe. Now that I am in my mid-forties, it seems even more pronounced (the branding of yoga through clothes and appearance and which arm balances you can achieve) and so I now seek out teachers with no less than 25 years experience, and peers of a similar age. The ebb and flow of our bodies and how they respond to the daily stresses of our lives must be addressed in our practice so we honor where we are right now, not where we used to be or where we want to be in the future. I have had experiences where new students have looked me up and down, assessing my suitability as a teacher based on an external appearance. In those moments I have taken a deep breath for me, and the person in front of me, knowing that my limitations as a teacher are expressed in how well I know or have experienced something in Yoga asana and how best I can teach that, not in that I may carry a bit of extra weight on my belly and thighs. I have experienced natural toning and weight loss through Yoga asana, as I have experienced my patterns of over-eating and anxiety related issues around food. Awareness here is the key. To practice with what is good right now, in any given moment, despite the negative self talk, is really an effort to connect to a place within that is beyond all this internal struggle; to accept ourselves, our strengths and our limitations as all part of one beautiful, dynamic whole that is completely worthy to be.

    • Jessica Powers says

      Julie – I love your centering breath when you feel the pressure to meet and exceed physical aesthetic expectations as a yoga teacher – how wonderful for you to expand that breath to include all involved! I can just imagine how wonderful that sort of action is when you are being verbal in your teaching – rock on!

  4. adan says

    i debated posting a comment, mostly at first cause i agree with so much of the article, and it’d just be me saying, yea great! i think the same thing, so this is a good article ;-)

    stuff like, “…to teach in gyms. Where students didn’t see yoga as the end all, be all of exercise. It complimented the other activities they were engaging in.”

    but then a bigger problem emerged for me, cause i’m always questioning and wondering and comparing stuff -

    and the question of what really is a “normal” person, image wise, came to the fore with your, i believe, very solid reasons why you’re so right to say –

    “I hope this exercise will remind me of the love and reverence I have for my body. That it will retrain me to appreciate my body visually. Be a deprogramming practice. Show me the lines of energy that flesh cannot cover. Highlight the grace of spirit embodied.”

    i myself am short, older, and kinda, ok, mostly bald ;-)

    but the question of whether either of us is “normal” visually, is, i think, maybe the wrong question?

    in the same way you say you don’t begrudge thinner ladies (or people in general), i feel i don’t (usually) begrduge the guy with a great full head of hair, though the ladies are often portrayed as finding the latter much more appealing ;-)

    i wonder, then, about the label “normal” when i look at photos here in galveston, of crowds at the beach either prior to or after the great 1900 storm that almost destroyed galveston

    for years, i always marveled at how people could wear the amount of clothes they had on in a climate such as ours (it’s spring here already, ac units all around the complex humming mightily along already)

    then, recently, maybe because my wife and i have made such a much more conscious attempt to eat more healthy, exercise with more balance toward our energy systems, etc, i kinda, shockingly, realized that every single person in every single crowd scene, covered in layer after layer of clothes despite the heat, was thin, almost skinny!

    sure, food was purer, less or no additives, cleaner protein sources, people walked ran climbed rode horses and had no electronics remotes or noisey ac units outside their windows

    so times were different

    like in the middle ages when only kings and royalty had heft and weight, cause they were rich, and could eat what almost no one else could, ie, anything they wanted

    normal, back then, and even 50, 60, 70 years ago, was thinner

    normal, today, is heavier

    so normal changes – evolves? i don’t know about that, i really don’t…

    so my current stance, always open and suceptible to change with new info, is that, yes, we desperately need to reclaim an authentic caring for ourselves, as we are now -

    but that, yes, also, normal may need to be more about fitness and enjoyment and quaility of life, in some more merged gestalt way, than currently – more so, “all” that, than “merely” image

    my guess is, jessica may be more along the right way of looking at things, than, say, i was at age 30, running 3 miles a day, without fail, thin and taut, but not very happy, or healthy (in the sense that most my health was aerobic, with little strength or flexibility)

    i agree, “Show me the lines of energy that flesh cannot cover. Highlight the grace of spirit embodied.” – and i think what ever your body image is, or is to be, “will” be…

    thank you for your patience kara-leah, i know you know my posts sometimes ramble on, but they help me you know ;-)

  5. Jessica Powers says

    Thank you all – Merel, Blessed, Kristy, Erica, Bron, Nick, and Adan, for your comments!

    I think Adan hits on a pertinent point about ‘normal’ – it does change; it is a generalization, which I’m not 100% comfortable with. As a teacher and practitioner I know that every body has it’s individual variations and uniqueness. So, really the heart of the backlash against the stereotyping of images is a lack of diversity. And the way that the extremely limited visuals can, in addition to other factors, discourage, dishearten, and demoralize those outside the narrow scope shown.

    What I’m even more uncomfortable with is the common usage of the word ‘fit’ to mean ‘attractive/hot/sexy/et al’ – something I’ve noticed becoming more wide spread over the past several years. Fit to me is healthy, not sexy or attractive, though any biology or sex ed class will allow that shiny hair, certain body proportions, white teeth, and a variety of other markers of health and fitness often equate to attraction since they are markers of good breeding stock (ah, the joys of being animals, even if human!). A good friend of mine combats this whenever she reminds herself or a friend (it’s been me more than once) that instead of saying “I feel fat” to say “I feel unhealthy” – because that really is the problem, the state of our physical form, not our size!

    Can we turn media away entirely from the unconscious and subconscious instinct of procreation and towards a body awareness that is geared towards health and wholeness of the entire being – body, heart and mind? Perhaps not, but it’s nice to go walking, lift weights, ride a horse, flow through Surya Namaskar, climb a mountain, or what have you – simply because the body can do it…and there are rewards for the body of strength and well-being via a host of particular benefits. If that sort of intention begins to gain ground, in individuals and groups, then I think those advertising implications will lessen their pull and tension on us.

  6. zanet says

    Hi Jessica

    I’m in my 40s and I’m kinda going through my body problems…I was killing my self 3 months last year with spinning classes and Vibro Gym and yoga class and you know what the scale didn’t move. ;-) Yes ,
    I would like to look like I was 10 years ago ,before 2 pragnances but I’m avare it will never hapen again. Iwas (I’m not happy with that) . But at the time when I started doing yoga, I Iearned to accept my body .And then the less yoga I was doing the less I like(d) my self. Oh and it so true the pictures you see all around you , make you wish for it to bee and start to hate who you are. I’ so happy finding there are people same as me so ….This was so inspiring and I’m sorry You are not here in Wellington: would love to cometo your classes…..You never know :-)
    Kind regards and hope to see and read more from You
    Zanet

  7. zanet says

    Hi Jessica,
    just a little PS
    I was wondering milion times at my class :”what were the girls ( 20 years younger and 25 kg less then me) thinking by staring at my but, when I was doing my asanas?”…:-) I wanted to go so many times in the back of the class ,but my wonderful teacher would say :” No no, stay here.” I wonder why…Where I didn’t like and still don’t like seeing my self in the mirror! What I ment by saing being happy to read about the people they are same as me : I didn’t ment just phisicly…I ment all the people that love doing yoga and live yoga
    Regards
    Zanet

    • Jessica Powers says

      When I’m in the back of class I never find that I’m looking at other’s bottoms – I think this is a fear we have, an ego-driven fear. If the whole world revolves round us then they MUST be looking and judging our asses, but really, most people are so worried about others’ judging their ass they don’t bother to go out and judge anyone else’s much anyway. Does that make sense written out?

      And, like you, I find that the less yoga I do, the less kindness I have for my body. Which is sad, as our bodies are amazing and do so much for so little recognition and thanks!

      See you down the path!

  8. Anna Guest-Jelley says

    Jessica, I love this post SO much! I can also relate to much of it–especially being told that if I just do this or that with my practice then I’ll finally lose weight and be happy. There’s so much assumption in these statements!

    This may be my favorite line (although it’s hard to choose just one!): “I’m not against slender yoga practitioners, don’t mistake me. I’m against the limited view that they alone people the yoga world.” I really appreciate you sharing this and am excited about your project!

    • Jessica Powers says

      Thanks for the support, Anna – I’ll be thinking of you and following through on my project for sure because of the support I’ve garnered for it, and you were a big part of the inspiration!

  9. Gayle says

    Hi Jessica- I have had a 10 class pass for a local studio for almost 2 years. I want to go so bad but I let my body image hold me back. It is time for me to take a stand against myself :) and get to the studio! Thank you for this great article that hit so close to my heart!

    • Jessica Powers says

      Gayle, I’m glad this sparked your heart! The funny thing is that our minds hold our body’s back, don’t you find? I mean, your body will groove through the 10 classes, you just have to love yourself in your state of imperfect perfection to get it there!

  10. Svasti says

    I looked at your photos and although not exactly I thought: “oh wow, I recognise those thighs, those boobs”… WOW it’s another yoga teacher who looks something like I do. Hooray!

    Much of what you’ve written here is stuff I could’ve written myself. Except for the part about the teacher trainings with teachers who commented on your body. Thank goodness I’ve never had that! But I have in the past taken yoga classes where the teacher has rudely pointed out my different body shape to me and how I need to move differently as a result. Mean!

    But that didn’t stop me from judging myself and my body as “not being the right shape”. That training as you say, is pervasive, and I still struggle with that frequently. But I also revel in being a normal shaped person doing and teaching yoga, because I think it has to help other people see that body shape and type doesn’t matter.

    Fantastic post, Jessica! I’m so glad to have read it :)

    • Jessica Powers says

      Amen sister! I love it when I can tell women when and how to shift their breasts around a pose, or remind the guys that they are free to move and adjust their bits – the body is a magnificent thing because of its variety, and it is great to know and be a teacher showing some of that to students!

  11. Nora Laughlin says

    So proud of you Jesse! I loved the article and everything it stands for. It reminded me a lot of some quotes of Sharon Jones, an amazing performer who was not 20 and a size two, and was constantly remined of that, but is one of the most powerful voices in music. Brava my dear!!!

  12. Premratna says

    Thankfully my introduction to yoga was far more awareness based in a place where baggy outfits were far more welcome than tight! I was quite happy about this as I’m not a model size either. Remarkably, this was even in North America. When I returned to NZ, I was grateful to become involved in a yoga community that is similar in this respect. There is a swing the other way towards flowing and non-shape-defining clothes when I look with my fashion eyes on.

    Because of finding my way to awareness based classes and traditions, my self-worth has grown enormously and the voyage of yoga for me continues as discovering deeper layers of acceptace in all facets of life.

    As Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh said, “Give up fashion now!”

    • Adhyatma says

      Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh and his close disciple Swami Satyananda Saraswati were both immensely powerful Yogis and both had big bellys. (Ive heard them be called Prana bellies!) This obsession and identification we have in the West with our bodies may be a good thing in that it gets us into asana which is a great in. Sadly many people stop there rather than explore all the many wonderful branches and aspects of Yoga including Karma Yoga – Yoga in action or attitude of selflessness that once developed can be practised anywhere and anytime. Living consciously, adapting, adjusting and accomodating to what life brings us and becoming more postive, creative and spontaneous is the real yoga regardless of size, shape or colour.
      Yay!

  13. Toni says

    Jessica,
    Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…….Thank you so much…though I’ve been practicing for quite a while, and also teach, I was until recently stuck on the “when I lose weight….” The journey of body acceptance is just beginning for me, and I so appreciate the community I’m finding out there of people who are on the same path…it has been a blessing for me though, that my experience in the studio has been very positive…thanks again.

    • Jessica Powers says

      Toni, I just read a line today about how our life is now, not ‘five pounds from now’ – isn’t that true!?

      Glad you’ve found a positive studio to base yourself and your growing practice in!

  14. Yogini3 says

    I have written and written volumes of comments on the nexus of cosmetic beauty obsession and yoga as practiced in New York City. I am formerly obese – keeping off about 80 or so pounds – with an arrested eating disorder, and who is now a U.S. size 12, and have been made to feel “less than” at yoga studios, previously. Been made to feel that something is lacking because I have little interest in pursuing some parts of yoga asana. I am actually a kapha-vata dosha.

    I have to shut up now (that vata part). You’ve said it all for me, and for ever.

    My name is Tina.

    • Jessica Powers says

      Tina, thanks for sharing – it’s awful to think that the west has created a culture where there are expectations for our practice whether that be a pursuit of particular asana or whatever else. I love yoga for the individual experiential aspect. I hope you’ve found a place where you and your kapha-vata groove can flourish!

  15. Pheather says

    Thank you for posting this. Though my experience is not the same, I have had similar experiences in yoga class. I appreciate your making space for those of us with normal bodies to declare we practice yoga too.

  16. Jennifer says

    Awesomeness!

    After teaching fitness for a very long time and yoga for a few years I’m now creating programs for women that involve yoga, dance, fun fitness, & Ayurvedic nutrition. I’m disconnecting the idea of exercise from weight loss – its all about how good it feels to move, play, and dance. We will explore foods that make us feel good not help us to slim down like the media tells us we should want to do.

    Its gross that your yoga training director told you you’d achieve slimness through yoga – did she just assume that slimness was what you wanted? That you couldn’t feel whole and complete if you didn’t fit the current yoga journal cover image? Time for her to search a little deeper into herself. I’m so glad my yoga teacher trainers didn’t talk about weight loss.

    I am a teacher, not a fashion model. Nor am I an asana model. I coach students to find their own yoga. If they come to my classes looking for flash, they don’t last very long. I attract (and keep) the students who seek something deeper than the latest lulus. There are lots more out there and we are finding each other.

    • Jessica Powers says

      I love how you say those looking for ‘flash’ will come and leave – I feel just the same. Yeah, sure, I can pull out the flash, and sometimes I like a little yoga bling, but it’s context is paramount and a lot of the group class environments are just not appropriate (the plethora of ‘all levels’ classes is part of the why).

      Here’s to people teaching as themselves, in themselves, happy and whole just as they are – because really, isn’t that what we want for our students? To be happy and whole just as they are?

  17. Thomas says

    Good deal there lady! There’s not much more demotivating stuff than seeing ‘perfect bodies’ in yoga magazines doing such amazing and wild asanas. My god, who really cares and how important is it really if one can do a lot of yoga tricks and so what you look like a model because you are one. I think as a teacher that the people that come and try my class that are not models or have such ‘perfect bodies’ are way more interesting and down-to-earth.

  18. Cheryl says

    All I can say is agree. I struggle with body image because society in yoga says clearly, if you are not a size 0 then you can’t do yoga.There are no yoga tops for women with breasts but yet, they want a woman do do yoga. then why not show women, in a regular size, regular age doing yoga in all it’s beauty also?

    • Kara-Leah Grant says

      Hey Cheryl,

      I agree – most of the images we see of women practicing yoga are young & slender. On YLB we use all our own photos as much as possible, from a couple of photoshoots I did with friends a few years back. Those shoots then show my friends, as they are – I wouldn’t say size 0 per se, but not larger sizes either. I’m always looking for yoga photos I can use though, and don’t have any preference on the size of the people in the photos. What I’m concerned with is the quality of the image and how suitable it is for the article. So if you have any photos you think I could use, please email them through to me.

      Many blessings,
      KL

  19. Jennifer says

    I am 5’11″ and near 160 lbs. I am a yoga instructor.

    This article is precisely what I needed to SEE and read after attempting a Shiva Rea video this morning. My training is Iyengar-inspired, so I was expanding into something more flowing. I wound up feeling like a clunky fraud after failing to do the many arm balances she displayed.

    I also wonder if my less-than-ideal figure and less-than-gymnastic style is what keeps younger people from my classes. Middle aged and elderly people come. The young ones do not.

    Reading your piece is a salve on that perceived wound. I don’t want people to come because they hope to emulate me. I want them to come to emulate their better selves.

    Thank you for sticking your asana out for the rest of us.

    • Kara-Leah Grant says

      Hey Jennifer,

      yep – Shiva Rea teaches beautiful yoga but her videos are challenging as all hell… and I’ve trained as a Prana Flow Instructor! I’m glad Jessica’s article hit the spot for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>