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 registration, sexually 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.
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!