Yoga and Body Image Book Review

Yoga and Body ImageI love to read. Every once and awhile I’m asked to read and review books. Here’s my review of the book, Yoga and Body Image.

Body image is the new hot topic, and many yogis who previously showed no interest in it at all are leaping for the limelight. Lift the lid and you’ll quickly discover that body image issues are more complex than you might think. I discovered this myself as I tried to articulate my own experience and began developing useful tools for others’ recovery. At any turn you might find yourself ensnared with complications from eating disorders, pressures from the media, physical disabilities, or gender and sexuality, just to name a few thorny accomplices to body image negativity.

Few if any of those yogis who have rebranded as “body image positive” have the scope of perspective or depth of inquiry contribute intelligently to the conversation. This is why it’s such a relief to see someone who has decades in the field as a yogi, a critical thinker, a visionary, and an academe spearhead this topic with such organization and insight. Melanie Klein is the lead voice on this project, and she partners with Anna Guest-Jelley (founder of Curvy Yoga) to bring a curated collection of essays about body image into one volume.

The table of contents alone promises an even-handed, eyes-wide-open look at the ways that body image cuts across many different topics.

Part One contains general articles about “finding home” in the body, and making it a safe place to inhabit. Part Two addresses being on the “margins” of yoga: an addict, a black woman, having cerebral palsy, living with HIV/AIDS, and being a middle aged yogi. Part Three covers yoga and the media with essays on the beauty standard, power and privilege, and the pressures of the entertainment industry. Part Four covers yoga and parenting, from the experience of being a pregnant yogi, to teaching children yoga. Finally, Part Five delves into gender and sexuality, with essays about masculinity, growing up Puerto Rican and the sexual stereotypes attached to certain ethnic groups, being male and “disabled” and how that affects a person’s sense of gender identity, and being an athletic lesbian.

In its sum, the volume very thoroughly examines the myriad of ways that body image challenges show up hand-in-hand with other topics. It never stands alone.

My own body image challenges stand at the intersection of my understanding of “femininity,” sexuality, eating disorders, and media. So, it was with an interested eye that I read those contributions.

Each of the essays is a personal account of the author’s relationship with body image and specifically how they have found solace and healing in the practice of yoga, if not always within the “yoga community” itself.

In her assay “Yoga is More than Just Workout” Dr. Sara Gottfried contributes a chapter weaving her own life experience with her vast medical knowledge of the woman’s body. She names a truth: that “while most of us don’t have a diagnosable ‘eating disorder’ far too many people suffer from a distorted body image. For lack of a scientific name, I like to call it Fear of Fatness” (p. 25). She goes on to link this to a bigger personal problem, one that yoga can address: her own tenuous connection to a deeper spiritual core. It’s far easier to focus on the externalities of the body than to do the deep work on one’s inner self.

Dr. Melody Moore builds on this theme in “Too Much is Not Enough” delving into the correlation between body image, eating disorders and the capacity to feel. Anorexia, she writes, is a way to starve out of feeling. People who binge eating, or bulimics, eat to soothe themselves through what they think that cannot tolerate to feel. “Yoga is a tool by which we can develop the capacity to sit with and through discomfort” (p. 49) and eventually handle our own inner selves with measure and maturity.

In “Yoga from the Margins” Teo Drake writes with clarity about the experience of being a trans person in yoga class. “Every time I enter a mainstream US yoga studio, I feel barraged by an emphasis on pretty spaces and pretty clothes and pretty bodies…When I’ve approached studios about catering classes and spaces to queer and trans folks, I’ve had to hear ‘Everyone’s welcome! We don’t need a separate class for queer or trans people!’ Yet I can’t even get into my yoga clothes safely to make it to class” (p. 97).

Chief among my quibbles with the yoginis who have been leaping for the body image limelight, is that they seem completely unaware of the ways that they themselves have contributed to the beautification of yoga as a practice, in the very way that make Teo Drake feel in danger in a yoga studio.

I am not saying that it is not O.K. to be beautiful. Yoga has a sweet way of shining up your light, increasing innate beauty and radiance.

What I am saying is that it is important to have a perspective of your own beauty, and how much of it is inherited, and how much of it is the product of your own hard work on the mat, and how the sum total of these things might make other people feel.

I am aware that I was blessed with good genes. My beauty is in part the product of my biology. Other aspects of it are from my own work on my inner self and my body. What I look like makes certain people more comfortable, and others more uncomfortable. As a yoga teacher, I believe that it is my responsibility to understand these dynamics.

In her essay “Power, Privilege, and the Beauty Myth,” Seane Corn examines the ways that she, herself, has contributed to the beautification of yoga. This is a must-read contribution, for her bird’s eye view of her career development, and her own acknowledgement that the way she looked had much to do with it. Corn realized that she received opportunities that other, more talented teachers, would not be awarded, because they didn’t look the part. Yet, she did something admirable: she turned her position of privilege—awarded to her thanks to her societally approved looks—into a platform for leveling the playing field.

As if her admissions weren’t enough, Corn takes a step the “new” faces of yoga and body image have not paused to do in their race for “the next thing.” She apologizes. Corn writes, “I apologize for the ways I perpetuated the myth that beauty is a certain size, shape, and color.”

Thank you. Apology accepted. Respect.

In another fascinating inside look at privilege, and the cost of attaining it in the music industry, Alanis Morissette speaks with editor/contributor Melanie Klein in an interview about the toll the music industry took on her sense of self, and the extreme controlling environment: “The unsolicited feedback about my weight and food intake severely impacted my self-esteem and my relationship with food…Every version of hunger ever known to humankind came up for me…Not only did I enter a state of anxiety, but my response was to eat alone and secretively, by the light of the fridge at four in the morning—only to be admonished for it the next day” (p. 161).

Whenever a person wishes for fame, it’s circumspect to bear in mind the personal cost. Morissette’s story gives a little peek into the price she paid.

In a story of beauty, she goes on to tell how her brother helped her to find her way to a healing practice of yoga.

One of the few other academes to contribute to the volume is PhD candidate Chelsea Jackson, who writes on the historical representations of black women in the United States, and the impact it has on the psyche of the people portrayed:

“Aside from the hyper sexualized images that objectify black women, we have also been presented as people who are not in control of our own emotions and usually resort to aggressive attitudes or physical lash-outs when confronted by stress or trauma. Not only does this incomplete narrative illustrate a story that is imbalanced, but it also begins to construct an illusion that is our only reality. Images become internalized, thus creating our reality based in incompleteness” (p. 155)

Ms. Jackson is talking specifically about black women, but her observation about fractured representations extends to all of yoga culture. When the media narrows in on representations only of thin, young, white women, it not only disfigures white women’s sense of self, it also disfigures that of everyone who stands outside a very small circle of inclusion.

She relates the historical representations of black women to current experiences in the world of yoga: “I regularly post photos and videos of myself moving through yoga postures on various social media platforms, and I often receive comments on how impressive my ‘stripper moves’ are from both men and women” (p. 156).

These sorts of comments are shockingly inappropriate, particularly in the context of yoga. My own body has been the battleground of these sorts of wars, but Jackson’s account and academic analysis suggests that black women experience a certain tone of sexual commentary that women of other skin-types do not.

Each essay has so much to contribute to this conversation; I could go on, and on. And this is just the point of bringing all these voices “under one roof”—no one voice can be the voice of yoga and body image. The topic is just too huge. And when we come at it from only one angle—eating disorders, blackness, or gender—we actually do a disservice to the topic itself, and disengage people who could find healing in the conversation.

This volume is a tremendous contribution to the literature on body image, and in yoga. It is an incredible gift to our ever-evolving yoga community, a community that increasingly must fight to hold up the ideals of non-violence and inclusion in ever-more complicated ways as our yoga world grows and becomes commoditized.

In short, Yoga and Body Image is a “must read.”

One thought on “Yoga and Body Image Book Review

  • January 14, 2015 at 12:42 pm
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    Erica: Well thought out review of an interesting topic associated with some yoga users.
    Maybe its my age and/or station in life, my own personal body image has been my own problem since I was 12. (Now 84) Long before I knew of yoga.
    Before yoga, there was jogging in the park, lifting weights, going to work out classes and playing tennis and squash, all of which was done in the name of polishing ones body image.
    Now that we live here in New York in a middle class, there is time to think sometimes of yoga and body image. Many times I see some ones body I think, if I had that look I would throw away my own. So much for day dreaming. Back to work and family and the real world.
    Thanks for the good review

    Reply

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