A couple of months ago, I attended an event hosted at Ms. Magazine called “Mirror, Mirror: How Misogyny, Body Shaming and Hypersexualization in Media Skew Modern Perceptions of Female Beauty.” There I met Melanie Klein, writer, speaker and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College. Before the event Melanie, Pia Guerrero (founder and editor of Adios Barbie) and I began a dialogue about body image, race, and feminism. Melanie has recently co-authored a book called Yoga & Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty Bravery and Loving Your Body with Anna Guest Jelley, founder of CurvyYoga.com. Having begun my own yoga practice earlier this year, I was genuinely curious about the book and set out to read it.
Yoga & Body Image contains personal stories about how yoga has changed the way 25 people feel about their bodies, and in their bodies. Women and men of all ages, abilities, races, sizes, sexual orientations, and levels of fitness have opened their hearts to us in this book. We learn that yoga is a way to heal old wounds and learn to trust in one’s body again, or even for the first time. It will challenge you to see how consumer culture, racism, sexism, ageism, sizeism, and ableism work to keep yoga inaccessible. And yet these yoga warriors share with us how they have overcome the impossible and have found peace on their mats.
In the last fifteen years or so, yoga has been sold to us a competitive form of fitness available to anyone, as long they are thin, white, limber and young. Spandex-clad young women and men, with six-pack abs and ripped biceps suggest that yoga is about achieving physical perfection. “First of all, we need to stop thinking of yoga as something that will make us thinner, younger, and richer,” says Linda Sparrowe, a long-time yoga teacher and author nearing sixty. She believes that “yoga can become a powerful antidote to self-loathing,” and that getting on the mat is about learning to love yourself. This was a perspective I could relate to, given my former propensity to fantasize about life in a thin body with a thick pocketbook.
As I moved through the book, much like I do in my own yoga practice, I found that I had much in common with the story-tellers. Vytas Baskauskas, a Los Angeles based yoga teacher and former heroin addict, who found healing and peace from his body image issues through his practice. “It is a difficult task not to feed into the misinformation that is perpetuated thousands of times per day…I don’t have to be like those guys on the billboards to be happy.” Like so many women, Vytas also found himself wanting to the perfect yogi. But years on the mat have taught him that “there is no finish line. There isn’t one pose that will give me enlightenment, nor is there any sort of physical model that I am striving for.”
Nita Rubio reminds us that mainstream yoga is “perpetuating patriarchal paradigms that being beautiful, successful, and, yes, a consumer gives you value and worth as a human being.” The tantric dance teacher talks about the feminine roots of yoga and how they can offer women authentic power in their practice. Rubio acknowledges competition between women as a societal construct that keeps us from tapping into our powerful feminine selves. When we are set free, she says, “we are blood and bone, fire and grit, saliva and sweat, encased around a pearl of such exquisite softness that it puts to shame those who look for the holy grail elsewhere.”
Tackling the issue of pregnancy, is award-winning author and body image expert Claire Mysko. She recounts the intention with which she tried not to obsess over a “perfect” pregnancy, and the pressure “to get our bodies back as soon as that little bundle of joy arrives.” Companies like Spanx, which now has a maternity line, have contributed to the prenatal and postpartum frenzy that demands women look small, even while carrying a baby. And though Claire managed to surround herself with supportive people during her pregnancy, she still resented, “the insidious, oppressive directive to ‘get your body back’.” Yoga allowed her to tune out the noise and get still. She found connection with herself and her child.
Chelsea Jackson’s story is the one I resonated with the most. The educator/blogger/yoga instructor/PhD candidate, confronts the pain so many curvy women of color do in fitness settings. Because yoga is marketed as an elitist form of exercise reserved for a largely white, thin audience, it has been inaccessible for so many people who don’t fit into that mold. We rarely see people of color represented in yoga ads, which sends the message that it’s not meant for us. Chelsea recalls being a dedicated gymnast when she was a child, only to be scolded for having the kind of pronounced and curvy butt so many black women do. This early experience of body shaming led to an eating disorder and major fluctuations in her weight during early adulthood. Chelsea was not a fan of yoga at the outset. “Honestly, I was not sure if it was something for me because I didn’t see a lot of average, not to mention overweight, folks like me showcased in advertisements…” As her practice grew, she shared her yoga postures on social media in an effort to show people that yoga is for everyone. Instead, the feedback she got was that she looked like a stripper. “Comments like these contribute to a discourse that objectifies black and brown female bodies in a way that not only dehumanizes us, but views us through a sexualized lens that I seldom see used on white and thin female bodies that practice yoga.” Instead of throwing in the towel, she continues to practice yoga, using it “as a tool to confront racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.”
This book has given me a new perspective on what yogis look like. As I continue to practice, I will carry with me the positive messages I read, remembering that my body is a good body, capable of so much. I wish I could highlight all the stories in Yoga & Body Image, but I’d rather you come to your own conclusions. Find the stories that resonate with you. Whether you practice yoga or are thinking about taking it up, this book takes an in depth look at how yoga can be used to find self-acceptance, peace, and an understanding of what your individual body wants and needs. It will encourage you to stop comparing yourself to others and to listen to the voice within, begging you to abandon perfection and embrace your breath instead. You will be moved, inspired, and vindicated! The next time you find yourself on the mat, remember that connection with your authentic self is the ultimate goal. Namaste!