A Reflection: NYC Yoga and Body Image Discussion, Part 1

September 10, 2015

The following article is part 1 in a two-part series: a reflection on the NYC Yoga and Body Image Book Discussion, written by Jessica Andersen.

Making Choices and Creating Change

Last month a great friend, Tess Avitabile, and I hosted the NYC “Yoga and Body Image” book discussion at Hosh Yoga in Brooklyn, New York.  A small group of yoga teachers and students gathered to address key themes in the context of our personal practices, our local communities, and the larger yoga culture in general. Before diving into the discussion, we opened the gathering with a few grounding breaths to better direct our intentions and to offer up a safe space for dialogue.

 

Yoga-Body-Image“Inhale the moment, Exhale your day.

Inhale clarity, Exhale doubt.

Inhale compassion, Exhale judgement.”

 

Our first activity, called a Power Shuffle, began after some brief introductions. Tess had the idea from some of the Fem Sex workshops she used to organize in college. We pulled out a variety of I-Statements from “Yoga and Body Image” and read them as participants walked across the room at a distance that symbolized how much they identified with the statement.

For some statements, all of us walked fully across the room. The quote “Without a certain approach, it’s so easy to use yoga as just another way to beat yourself up,”  from Alanis Morissette’s interview with Melanie Klein was one that everyone could relate to. For other statements, only some walked fully across the room, while others hung out somewhere in the middle. It was a powerful way to begin, while also getting a glimpse of what experiences were being brought into the conversation.

“As it’s practiced in the West today, yoga has the possibility of becoming a way into a deeper more positive relationship with one’s body — and it also has the possibility of reinscribing limiting beauty and body norms,” as Melanie Klein’s introduced Part 1.

To explore this idea, we asked, “How can yoga help — or hinder — one’s relationship with their body?” We then filled out the following table together.

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Some words in the table were easy to agree on. Everyone in the group had experienced increased body awareness and body appreciation as part of their yoga practice. Other aspects of the practice, however, were harder to categorize. When one person put Progress, in the Help category, I decided to share that my experience of Progress was not as simple. Just a year ago, some of the physical progress made in my yoga practice actually triggered my tendencies of over exercising and diet restriction. We agreed that Progress could be included in both categories as something can Help or Hinder.

Another entry in the table that stood out to me was the Disguise of Wellness that we put in the Hinder category. People often come to yoga for its claimed therapeutic, healing, and stress relieving benefits which means that unearned trust is given to instructors and their teachings. The trust isn’t always undeserved, but it can sometimes cloud our judgement of a situation. Even in classes where we feel excluded because of our size or body type, even when we hear language that may reinforce body shaming, those who are fooled by the Disguise of Wellness can have the tendency to say, “But this must good for me.” This can be true even when the reality is that it’s not. When we place our experiences in the framework of our expectations, we can’t always make fully informed or safe decisions for our bodies and selves. Most teachers and practitioners I know agree that yoga certainly comes with its fair share of expectations.

On the Margins

In this section of our discussion, we talked about feeling like an outsider in the yoga community. Our specific conversation centered on how these feelings are often derived from personal and cultural expectations we have about the Yoga Body. A member of our group shared that she had grown up practicing yoga with her Dad, using 1990’s Ashtanga videos. In high school, she decided to start a yoga club, at which she would teach yoga to fellow students. She had this idea that she needed to excessively work-out and develop a “sculpted body” so that the other students would feel like she was a good teacher and be impressed by her. When she approached her Dad about this, he replied, “Yoga is about obtaining a soft body, not hard body.”

The entire discussion group appreciated the wisdom of this phrase. It makes me think about what I sometimes say while teaching a Restorative Yoga class. During the moving, heat-building portion of our yoga practice, the challenge is muscular action to maintain safe physical alignment, but in the gentle, cooling portion of our yoga practice, the challenge is softness, relaxation, and, ultimately, release.

Culture and Media

To address the section on Culture and Media, we talked about Rolf Gates’ experience of changes in the yoga community over time. He wrote that with the rise of popularity of yoga and the emphasis on asana, “the healing context and the intentional community held together by mutually agreed-upon principles” have diminished. We asked the group to comment on their experiences of this. Almost all of us have heard stories about the mythical 1970’s-1990’s yoga scene: a small sub-culture concentrated on dedication to both physical and spiritual mindfulness practices.

So what has happened to the yoga community, and why has it happened? The group brainstormed about central aspects of intentional communities and we paused when someone brought up the importance of mentorship from older generations. Most of us in the group had experienced a serious lack of this during our Yoga Teacher Trainings. One person shared that her teacher training had felt like “Kids teaching kids”, and I could definitely relate. So where are all the grown-ups in the yoga community? Why have I only been able to find 1 or 2 studios where there are teachers who have been at it for 20+ years?

This part of the discussion got me thinking about the Power Yoga trend that we’ve become totally obsessed with in Western Yoga, and maybe even especially in New York City. It’s definitely not an accessible style for most aging or elderly bodies. In this vein, does anyone want to teach a style of yoga that’s not part of their personal practice? To cultivate a yoga culture that includes mentorship and learned wisdom taught to younger generations, we first need to value the experiences and styles that older teachers have to offer.

Be sure to check back for the second installment in Jessica’s reflection on the NYC Yoga and Body Image Discussion.

Please do keep the powerful conversations going; download the discussion guide to facilitate your own book discussion group and we’ll happily share a reflection on your experience on the YBIC blog.

Short Bio

Jessica Andersen

Jessica Andersen is a body positive yoga teacher and kids yoga teacher in NYC. She is truly dedicated to making the practices of yoga and mindfulness available to all, teaching at a sliding scale studio in Brooklyn and community classes at her home. Jessica is also a part-time engineer and co-founder of My Body Does, an affirming body positive community inspired by the inherent value of all bodies. But mostly, she teaches, practices, sequences, and obsessively talks about yoga. www.jessicaandersenyoga.com

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