Feminism, Body Image and Yoga

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by Melanie Klein

Originally posted at Elephant Journal, June 2010. “Feminism, Body Image and Yoga” is featured in the newly available, downloadable and free, Curvy Voices, a collection of 36 personal body-loving stories at Curvy Yoga. This post is also the inspiration for her chapter in the forthcoming anthology,  21st Century Yoga: Culture,Politics and Practice, available June, 2012 (pre-order here).

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 preoccupation 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.

Healing my relationship with my body took years of practice, years that were recognized that moment in shoulder-stand. That moment, absent of shame, guilt and disappointment, signaled how far I had come since I had stepped on the mat for the first time in 1996. I began practicing weekly and when I met “my” first teacher, Caleb Asch, I returned day after day, eventually canceling my gym membership and practicing with him five to six days per week for years. I didn’t return day after day with the same intentions I had for working out at the gym daily, to beat my body into submission. I returned because I couldn’t get enough of the way yoga left me feeling. Each breath allowed me to rekindle my relationship with my body, to return home fully. Returning to the mat daily, through times of sadness, heaviness, and abundance, I was able to reconnect with my body, to heal the mind/body split, to listen to my body and respect its boundaries.

Feminism and yoga raised my consciousness and led me back to myself, in love. I attribute these two complimentary systems for suturing the emotional and physical wounds and saving my life.

For this, I am profoundly grateful.

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Comments

  1. Nicole D says:

    This is really amazing because you were able to find peace with your body. This is something I have been trying to do for awhile now, and even though I know I am thin, there are still some things I always wish I could change about myself. I realize that these thoughts are probably the influence of the images I see in the media, and remind myself that I would not think there are things wrong with my body if it were not for the media and influence of others. I am cautious of my weight and know many people are extremely obsessed with skinniness, and it’s upsetting to see. I definitely don’t want to be obsessed. I can relate to you because I started yoga a few years ago and it had helped me as well. It always puts my mind at ease and I feel better about myself afterwards. Finding the strength to love your body is amazing and inspires me to do the same.

  2. Yasmine T. says:

    I remember taking yoga senior year in high school with friends just because we had nothing else to do and sounded fun. As someone who has always been an athlete, I have always loved rigorous and intense exercising that involved competition. That was just my thing. But I remember taking this yoga class and admitting that I did take it as a joke for the first couple of sessions, but realized went to the class alone once and realized the power it had on me. With that one session, I felt in peace with myself and exercised areas that I never had with competitive sports. After a couple of sessions, I also found myself more organized. I was much better on deadlines and more focused. After that one time, I attended every yoga session by myself, and really took advantage of the positive effects it had on me.

  3. I agree with the powers of yoga you claim they can have on someone. I took yoga instead of one year of PE just to meet girls. I was too shy to even talk to them at the time, anyways after the first couple weeks I started participating and stopped trying to be the “cool guy” and, took my yoga experience and use it to help with my allergies. At the time any dusty place I stepped into I would sneeze and sniffle uncontrollably and I would always look like Rudolf the Red Nose Raindeer. After mastering some kundelini yoga techniques that helped me with my allergies I had a new found respect for yoga. As far as yoga goes I believe that it should have a better reputation in men’s minds in the Western hemisphere. The typical American male sees yoga as feminine and incredible. While typically women do yoga to get toned and slimmer on a count of our societies cultivation and all the media images women see everyday and alter their minds in seeing something in the mirror that is not there. Yoga is a healing tool in many aspects of life.

  4. I have also taken yoga classes in the summer after i graduated high school and I could not be more in love with that class. All my stress and pain pent up from high school was let free. All my stress about work, diet, my body was left behind the door, the minute I entered the class. The breathing exercises brought me closer to my body as I learned different ways my body responded to different yoga positions. Instead of you judging your body and trying to make changes to it, yoga helps bring your mind and body together so that your body tells your mind what it finds comfortable.

  5. Julianne Insogna says:

    While I have heard many individuals speak about how yoga has saved them by helping them reach self-love, I was never able to reach that point of acceptance and understanding that I often hear others speak of. I am disappointed that yoga did not have this same affect on me because yoga seems to be able to mend people when all else fails. Like many women, I see myself as having many, many imperfections and try to fix them if possible. While I know judging myself harshly is only harmful to myself, I cannot seem to turn the negative self talk into a more positive conversation. Luckily, Women Studies 10 is opening my eyes and informing me about the harsh reality women live in, along with the unrealistic images we try to live up to in a world of double standards. Although I am still far away from attaining a self-loving relationship with myself, this class is helping me move closer and closer to a healthier relationship.

  6. Anna Kleyman says:

    This was such a beautiful piece to read and every word kept me lingering on. I really felt your passion and love for yoga and most of all the self love that it has given you. I truly believe that yoga can change the mind and make you love your body because yoga is such an intense “treatment” I would call it, because you are treating you are treating your body to something great. When you do yoga, it’s like a gift to your nerves. You are taking that time for yourself to focus on your body and the tension you need to release with your breathing. I personally cannot wait to begin a yoga regiment. I have been experiencing a lot of anxiety and everyone recommends yoga. So for summer break my goal is to do yoga at least twice a week! You have to stick to what you love and you’ll be able to do it. Because when it comes to being obsessed with body image and you begin a gym regiment, you easily get tired and give up. But if you indulge yourself in something like yoga or dance, you are more in touch with your body and I think more results, both mentally and physically will be seen.

  7. I never knew yoga could have such an impact. I do agree that women are too harsh on themselves on their bodies. They may say they are not trying to please males, but in reality they are. Males are the one that set those impossible standards of beauty. Women are just trying to fit into societies norms. I never thought yoga could help at all and would wonder what the point of it was. I’m glad you shared this experience because I can see how beneficial it is.

  8. jasmine M says:

    I can only hope to be able to attain the same body satisfaction that you posses. I have been slowly working towards rejecting what society has defined as beautiful and I am also embracing my feminism. In this process I am able to accept things that society have taught me to label as flaws, and it feels great. Reading this entry makes me truly happy that you have liberated yourself from this patriarchal society and gives me hope that I may one day be able to do this as well. It is amazing that yoga promotes such health body concepts and your attitude about your body speaks volumes. It shows women that total acceptance of our bodies is possible and I hope to find myself in this state of mind soon.

  9. Pauline T says:

    I can truly relate to what you say when “[you were] able to reconnect with my body, to heal the mind/body split, to listen to my body and respect its boundaries”. I too practice yoga, not as often as I would like though. I have a gym membership but I do not find working out on machines as satisfying as doing an hour of yoga. Not only does it tone the body, but it also stretches my muscles the way a treadmill cannot. The thing I like most about yoga is that it is suitable for all ages. My mother introduced me to yoga and I am happy that it is something we can do together. Although I do not do yoga enough, the times that I do do it, I feel very good about myself.