A Reflection: NYC Yoga and Body Image Discussion, Part 2

September 15, 2015

The following article is part 2 in a two-part series: a reflection on the NYC Yoga and Body Image Book Discussion. For part one, see here.

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. The following recaps the end half of our discussions.

Yoga-Body-Image

Parenting and Children

Because there was no one in our group who had ever been pregnant or had children, we decided to talk generally about significant body changes and how personal experiences of these had affected our yoga practice. Someone in the group shared their experience of a knee surgery. The student had used yoga as a recovery tool and when she first came into the studio she had to modify Child’s Pose by keeping one of her knees unbent and laying on the floor beside her. Eventually, combined with other healing methods, she was able to fully bend her knee and rest completely comfortably in a Child’s Pose.

So many of us have experienced physical transformation through our yoga practice, and with the use of social media is usually well documented. What I think is really beautiful about the above story, is that this woman wasn’t celebrating a complicated arm balance or inversion accomplishment. She was proud of getting to the place where she could simply bend her knee to rest on the floor — which for her wasn’t a simple thing at all. So while yes, yoga does sometimes bring out the athletic, contortion-obsessed side of us, it also holds space for healing and recovery, for resting and breathing, and for people to be proud of their own unique bodies.

 Gender and Sexuality

The final portion of our discussion focused on how yoga shows up for people of different gender identities and sexual orientations. We decided to ask the question, “Since yoga is not an inherently gendered activity, when do you become aware of your gender in yoga?” One of our participants was a teacher who values giving adjustments and assists in her class. She shared that in some of her classes, she has been harassed by male students. This made her feel misunderstood, vulnerable, and confused. It unfairly forced her to ask the question of whether or not she should be giving adjustments to male students. Should she continue to partake in what she believes to be an important and nurturing aspect of her teaching, but risk being misinterpreted by students who may sexualize her role in the classroom?

Snowball

“What is one insight you had about Yoga and Body Image during the discussion tonight?”

We used this prompt for our Snowball activity. During the activity, each participant wrote down their answer on a piece of paper and threw it into the center of the circle. Everyone then retrieved a different paper from the circle and we read aloud someone else’s answer to the rest of the group. The results were both insightful and uplifting. I think I’ll let the contributions speak for themselves:

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“In all of my anger at yoga culture for the ways it’s reinforced my negative body image, I’ve forgotten about how my yoga practice has cultivated a positive body image. During the Help/Hinder exercise I saw how many helps there were and realized my list would look exactly like that — I have actually been truly helped by the practice of yoga.”

“Yoga as a disguise of wellness. How people can trick themselves into thinking that too much is not enough. How can one be self aware enough to ‘pull themselves out of it?’”

“Situations + feelings + experiences are so often shared + noticed by so many people, the more we talk + the more we share the better our communities will become!!”

“The conscientious healing community of yoga is not totally lost. You can still find studios and individuals that truly care about self-compassion and critiquing mainstream culture. It gives me a lot of hope that people are thinking about these things and wanting change, so that yoga can fulfill its healing potential.”

“That yoga practice can actually trigger more body shaming or overworking almost as a punishment. As a yoga teacher becoming aware of language and how we perceive different bodies are very important and it can have a very lasting impact on the student.”

“How much of a microcosm the yoga ‘culture’ is to the greater culture. It was refreshing to discuss various issues related to body/gender/sex in and out of yoga. Also, it gives me hope that the yoga community can serve as a starting place for change in the world <3”

Red, Yellow, Green

We closed the evening with a simple exercise called “Red, Yellow, Green”. During this activity, each participant shared whether they were feeling Green, Yellow, or Red — Green meaning, “Good to go”; Yellow meaning, “Still processing, but I’m alright”; Red meaning, “There’s something I need to share or discuss before leaving”. Almost everyone in the circle was feeling Green or Yellow, but one person was feeling Red.

This person felt compelled to ask, “Where do I go from here?” It’s an important question. We spend a few hours talking about the complex issues that our community faces and verbalizing our own encounters with them. Some participants asked, “Can we do this again?” or, “Could we have an online group?”. Overwhelmingly, the feeling seemed to be that we need a community. It comforts everyone to know that they’re not alone in their feelings, and that they don’t have to try and tackle these issues by themselves. But it has me thinking about what comes after community? Maybe gaining new understanding through different perspectives is helpful, maybe sharing our personal experiences is cathartic, but what’s next? How do we carry what we know out of these discussions and into the world?

I’ve combined some things from our discussion group, with some things that I also find helpful for placing my practice and teaching at the intersection of yoga and healthy body image.

  • Support studios that celebrate all bodies

If you’re a student or a teacher, consider finding and supporting a studio that celebrates bodies of all types and sizes. A good place to start is following yoga teachers in the body positive community online and finding out if any teach near you. You could also start by checking out some studios in your area and asking if they teach with props. I find that a studio’s answer to this question says a lot about them!

  • Sequence your classes and plan your language to be inclusive of all bodies

If you’re a teacher, examine the classes you teach. Do you teach variations of poses for different body types? Do you use language that shames students who are larger, less flexible, or who don’t fit into the gender binary? Do you actively normalize the use of props? Starting with these questions is a great way to integrate your body positive intentions into your classes.

  • Share stories!

This might be my favorite, because it’s by far the easiest way to get involved in the body positive yoga community. First step is follow people in the yoga community who are sharing experiences that differ from the dominant narrative. The next step is to “like”, comment on, and share their work! Even if it’s as simple as sharing a facebook article from one of your favorite body positive teachers, this is important! Use any platform you have to support and elevate the voices of marginalized people in our community.

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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