A few months ago, I went to a networking/promotional event in the fitness and body image field. A woman introduced herself to me and stated, “I’m a body positive fitness instructor.”
Now, disclaimer here: I’ve never considered myself a person who is in sync with the times. I’ve come to understand who and what I am, in that regard, and view myself with respect.
So, when she said this thing, “I’m a body positive fitness instructor” I found myself thrown into a little cognitive disarray, like, wait! What did I miss?
And then I realized…ohhhhh: this is the new hip and trendy thing to say.
And then I thought: what the hell does that mean “body positive fitness instructor,” anyway!?
My own investment in body positivity spans the entire length of my yoga practice and career. It is steeped in concern for understanding my own body, other people’s bodies, injuries, how we suffer, and HELPING myself, and my students.
These core concerns are entirely natural to me, as they are at the heart of Forrest Yoga, and my recovery from distorted body image, compulsive over-exercising, and emotional eating. It’s been startling to realize that now “body positive” exercise/movement/yoga is a “thing.”
I’ve found myself wondering:
What’s the overlap between the body positive movement (whatever that means) and the fat activist movement?
Do I have to be a fat yogi in order to be able to talk about body positivity?
Will anyone take me seriously when I talk about body positivity, seeing as, for the most part, people seem to think my body looks pretty good, and I’m by most standards “thin-ish”?
If you now have to state you’re “a body positive (fill-in-the-blank fitness instructor)” does that mean that everyone else is “body negative?”
I myself have a body positive program called “Adore Your Body” and in the context of these questions, I’ve even felt called to address the question, what does it mean to “adore your body?”
First off, let me say, I think that the space of body positive yoga or fitness is nebulous at the moment, and that’s part of why I’m asking these questions. Secondly, as a student of pedagogy, for me it’s just not enough to claim that you are a body positive teacher. I want to know how you are teaching body positive principles in your classes, and what are those principles anyway? It’s not enough to say I teach my students to love themselves. Oh, really? How exactly do you do that, and are you sure that they all learn to love themselves in your classes? If you don’t have solid answers for these questions, I won’t believe that your classes are as-advertised.
I DO think that saying you are a “body positive” instructor is a backhanded diss to the rest of the world, in a slightly passive aggressive manner. It’s the same bone I have to pick with the people who call their style “Intelligent Vinyasa.” REALLY? Are you so very sure that the rest of the world is unintelligent? And if you have to prove that you are smart by saying it, are you really that smart?
And, I’ll get to everything.
O.K. does one have to be something other than stick thin to talk about body positivity? Here’s what I think: while it is easy for people to understand a fat person might have experienced a dearth of body positive messages in their lives, I also believe that, to follow the line of reasoning that you must “look the part” negates a fundamental truth of the topic.
That truth is: everyone experiences some body negativity of some degree or another, at some point life, some more than others because of circumstances. Even remarkably good-looking people experience body anxiety. Spend some time with some models, and you’ll discover this. And, even people who think that they ought to gotten over body negativity years ago are still plagued by this pesky problem.
Body dissatisfaction is so prevalent as to be achingly, annoyingly, boring. Older people are like why are we still talking about this? while younger people are just starting with the whole messed up journey. Blergh.
And yet, it still is a foundational problem for many people.
I believe that anyone has a right to talk about body image challenges, and also to stand up for the message of healing and awareness. Moreover, we need many voices to understand how this affects so many people. That’s why I founded the Adore Your Body Telesummit.
As for the overlap of fat activism and body positivity, the fat ladies are really leading the charge on dissembling our buy-in to diet culture, a move that we all stand to gain from. So, I think that we all should pay close attention to what those smart and sassy gals are saying.
And even if you’re an unhappy thin person, you should know their message is for you, although it may not seem like it is because you’re not fat. Yes, we need to put a stop to fat shaming. Yes, we need to see the bias towards thin privilege. But we can also include every person in the circle of ideologies that confine, shame, and otherwise maintain the obedience of the populace. Diet culture and the beauty myth are key components to this, and they affect everyone, whether you’re fat or not.
Finally, I realize that my own use of the phrase “Adore Your Body” can cause recoil for some people, for a number of reasons. Some people now feel pressured by the body positive movement to love themselves, like achievement in this area is some measure of their success as a human. Others would like to just stop hating their bodies, and doing that would be a major accomplishment. Adoring is an idea that is beyond reach, and therefore discouraging. Yet, I stand by these words, because they point to an idea about our existence. Body positivity extends far beyond ideas of fat and thin. Globally, it has to do with how we consider our presence and purpose in the world.
At the beginning of my blog “Stuff I Learned at Yoga” I shot videos entitled, “You Are Not Your Body,” and “Your Body is Your Ally,” and “Embodied Knowledge vs. Intellectual Knowledge.” You can go see these new “vintage” videos, which are at the heart of my orientation towards adoring the body.
It’s summed up like this.
The body is something other than YOU. It is it’s own entity. It is part of nature. Would you hate your body any more than you would hate a tree, a mountain, or a river? I hope not. Instead, I hope that you can generate understanding and compassion for the body, this innocent thing born of the natural world, and as such, treat it with the kind of care—adoration even—that you would your favorite living being that walks this planet.
That’s it. That’s adoring.
So, what does it mean to be a body positive yoga instructor?
I hope it’s clear by now: it’s not enough to say that you are a body positive yoga instructor, or any other kind of health, wellness or fitness professional, for that matter. This question (which I’m putting together a conference around, so stay tuned!) is important:
How can we teach yoga in a way that promotes body positivity?
- Adhere to the basic definition of body positive: Accepting your body as it is and attempting to make everyone else feel comfortable in their own skin as well.
- Teach people to Feel. Their. Bodies. Start by feeling the breath. Do this yourself. Model it.
- Teach the value of the pose lies in the journey of learning it, not in any outcome, or perfect form. Do this yourself. Model it.
- Teach people that their bodies are a source of wisdom. They posses their own intelligence, which reaches far beyond what we can understand. Find ways to help them feel their bodies, and talk to them, and listen for its wisdom. Do this yourself. Model it.
- Teach poses in stages. Actually teach. Don’t just show what the pose could look like once they’re advanced like you; break it down. What’s stage one? Stage two? Stage three? Someone can’t do stage one? Find something that they CAN do that will help them to get going. Find the states yourself. Do them. Model them.
- Teach people to pull apart their internal dialogue that tells them they can’t because they’re too old, or young, or fat, or thin, or tall, or weak or whatever. There’s one thing we want to explore in yoga: what CAN you do. Let’s find it, maybe together, and then DO it. Do this yourself. Model it.
- Teach people to respect their bodies by touching them with respect, courtesy, and care when you give hands-on assists. Make sure that when you demo poses, you take care of your own body, and if you touch it, you do so in a respectful way. Speak about your own body with care and concern when you demo.
- Learn about the bodies of people who are not like you. Learn about injuries, and illnesses, different sexes and genders, sizes, shapes, and ethnicities. Be curious. You don’t need to be an expert on everything, you just need to demonstrate interest and concern for another’s well-being.
If you need to find teachers who tend to do this well, I suggest you find a Forrest Yoga teacher. As I mentioned at the outset, the whole “body positive is a trend now thing” was startling to me, because I feel so steeped in it through Forrest Yoga, a practice of deep embodiment. Yes, Forrest Yoga is also a very vigorous practice, and often one of strong and advanced practice, and for some people this is off-putting. Where’s the ease? they ask. But, at its core is a deep concern with the practice being physiologically friendly, made-for-you, healing, struggle-free (that’s where the ease is) and above all, bringing you into your body, and into feeling.
One of the reasons in almost every step listed above I said “Do this yourself. Model it” is because the most important way that we can teach yoga in a way that promotes body positivity is by working on it ourselves, figuring out what we’re doing, and then teaching it to our people through embodiment. See, it’s about body positivity, which means, everything must be embodied. Just thinking good thoughts and saying nice words like “I’m a body positive yoga instructor” isn’t enough. It’s a good start. But change happens through action. If being body positive is a goal of yours, ask yourself, every time you step into a classroom “how do I teach in a way that promotes this core value of mine?” Then, do it.