Yoga as a Tool for Empowerment – Meet Beth Berila

October 14, 2015

The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is committed to building conscious community and highlighting the work that inspiring yogis are doing in their local communities and beyond. We’re pleased to introduce you to Yoga and Body Image Coalition active partner, Beth Berila.

What is yoga’s impact on your body image?

bethYoga has helped me develop a deep familiarity, partnership, and friendship with my body. For the first twenty+ years of my life, my body was a tool that was guided by my head, both of which were too often shaped by internalized messages of what I “should” be. I wasn’t fully embodied, nor did I know how to embrace a fully integrated mind/body/soul self. Yoga taught me how to become embodied. My yoga practice gave me the tools to sink into a much more integrated self that I created from within, instead of a self that was dictated by cultural messages. And while we can never fully escape the ways our culture shapes us, yoga gives me a set of tools that allows me to turn inward, see (more often) when those cultural messages do not serve me, and generate a more empowered sense of self from within. This more empowered self honors my body as it is, as it changes……I finally feel vibrant, dynamic, and worthy.

Do you have a positive body image at all times?

Oh gosh no. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who does….especially women. Especially members of marginalized groups (people of color, LGBT communities, people living with disabilities….anyone who is not included in the cultural construction of the acceptable “norm.”) As a middle class Western white women, I learned early and young to please others. I was much more defined by what I projected that others’ thought of me than I was by any sense of inner worth. This took a deep and painful toll on me. But feminism and yoga gradually helped me challenges that harmful pattern and gave me the tools for creating a more internal, empowered sense of self. I don’t think I will ever be fully immune from those deeply internalized negative judgments, but I now have a practice that let’s me notice the negative messages, let them pass, and feed deeper, more positive ones.

I have also learned not to judge myself when that internal critic arises; I spent half my life learning it, so I may spend the other half my life unlearning it. But each time I choose to feed a more empowering message, I become happier, healthier, and more integrated. What are my go-to practices when I am feeling down? YOGA first, then feminism. I breathe deeply, close my eyes, and turn inward. Sometimes I do a yoga nidra or a short yoga practice. My mat has become a sacred space for me, so even the act of stepping on my mat is a conscious step into self-care and self-honoring.

I used to turn to feminism first when I was not feeling my best, but because that was a more intellectual and political framework for me, it missed the piece of embodied empowerment. Without that connection to my deeper self, my feminism could shift into more judgment and harshness. I need them both. Now that I turn to yoga first and then feminism, I feel that I have a much more compassionate and complete tool set to create loving and empowering transformation, for both myself and for the larger community.

Does yoga promote a diverse, positive and loving body image?

YES. It can and it should. Currently, it does not necessarily do so in the Western yoga world. The trend in yoga in the U.S., at least judging from mainstream media portrayals, is for thin, hyperflexible, middle to upper class white women to do super athletic practices. That is a problematic portrayal that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, the philosophy and practices of yoga are rich, inclusive, and accessible for everyone. While yoga is not a silver bullet that is right for everyone or that “solves every problem,” it can and should promote a more diverse, positive, and loving body image. As the yoga teacher Matthew Sanford has said, “yoga doesn’t discriminate; yoga poses do.” I would add that the culture we choose to create around yoga does. But we create culture and so we can change it. That is why the work of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition is so important. By making yoga more accessible and the Western yoga world more accountable to its role in reproducing alienating spaces, we can begin to create a culture that celebrates and honors every body as beautiful and worthy.

How does your work address body image issues?

Body image is central to my work both as a Women’s Studies Professor and as a yoga teacher. In my college classrooms, I teach about the unattainable standard of beauty for which so many women strive. This media-produced, artificial image works with so many other gendered messages in society to teach women that their worth is defined by external appearances rather than inner talents. Moreover, the unattainability and unhealthiness of this body standard does violence to women, as they internalize the message that they are not good enough, no matter how they look. This self-critical voice can be very loud in the yoga class, as yoginis judge themselves for not having the stereotypical yoga body. The trend in Western yoga culture to push for extreme poses and a boot-camp like exercise mentality too often reinforces these gendered messages, amplifying the self-critical voice so many women know all too well. But yoga, in its more classic sense, offers so many powerful tools to dismantle that inner critic. It offers a way for women to create a more loving and accepting body image. An important first step in that process involves naming the negative messages about body image and noticing where we have learned them.

My Women’s Studies classes deconstruct those cultural belief systems and help students see how they are harmful to all genders. But yoga takes this process a step further by giving us tools to more fully embody a more empowered body image and healthy sense of self. My work blends feminism and yoga because together they offer a way not only to dismantle harmful messages but also to embody a more empowered sense of self. When we can relate to ourselves more fully and compassionately, we are more likely to relate to others with similar acceptance and openness. Individual transformation can fuel collective transformation, which, in turn, fuels individual transformation….creating a dynamic and ongoing cycle. In both my work as a Women’s Studies Professor and as a yoga teacher, I teach critical literacy, so that we become more aware of the cultural messages that surround and shape us. We learn to discern how those ideologies affect different people in our communities in different ways. Once we have that awareness, we then learn how to make more intentional choices about which messages we “feed”—and thereby strengthen—and which messages we dismantle. We recognize that we are all participants in culture, so we can more intentionally chose how we participate. We reflect on how those various messages about body image affect us, both in terms of our self-image and in terms of how we relate to others. When we have that awareness, my feminist and yoga teaching focuses on helping participants learn to create more empowering counter messages. We “flip the script,” rewriting the messages to be more body positive. We learn how to create our own body positive messages, over and against whatever harmful messages the culture around us sends. The more we do so, the more we can change those broader messages. Both yoga and feminism provide powerful tools for creating, sustaining, and growing body positive inclusivity.

My current work focuses on integrating mindfulness into learning and teaching about oppression. Systems like racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, and xenophonia create embodied experiences. They are not merely abstract concepts; we experience their effects in our whole beings. They are learned systems in which we all participate in different ways. So to truly unlearn oppression, we need to blend mindfulness with feminist or social justice practices. Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices help us become more aware of how these systems affect us and how we participate in them. We can then become more intentional about how we engage and disrupt them.

Bio:

Beth Berila, Ph.D., RYT is the Director of the Women’s Studies Program and Professor in the Ethnic and Women’s Studies Department at St. Cloud State University. She is also a registered yoga teacher and a Founding Board member of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. She is currently working on a forthcoming book about integrating mindfulness into anti-oppression pedagogy. Learn more at: http://www.bethberila.com.

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