Feminism, Body Image and Yoga.

Via on Jun 8, 2010

Healing (my) Mind, Body & Spirit.

It was in an afternoon yoga class 10 years ago that I realized my relationship with my body had been profoundly changed.

Gazing up at my legs, glistening with sweat in shoulder-stand, I realized that I wasn’t searching for signs of “imperfection” or scrutinizing my body with the negative self-talk that too many of us have with ourselves on a daily basis—the abusive dialogue I had with myself most of my life.

For the first time I could remember since early childhood, I wasn’t critical of myself.

I wasn’t looking for parts of my body to control and change.

A distorted body image, self-criticism, and the pursuit of “perfection” by any means necessary is a perverse inheritance passed down from the women in my family and influenced by the unrealistic and prolific images manufactured by the larger media culture. Given this environment, I never had a chance to emerge unscathed, self-esteem intact. The women in my family were constantly dieting, tracking calories in food diaries, lamenting weight gain, celebrating weight loss and sizing other women up. An unhealthy pre-occupation with my body and food was set in motion before I hit puberty and manifested in all sorts of dangerous methods to obtain thinness: diet pills, colon hydrotherapy, fasting, legal and illegal stimulants, calorie restriction, self-induced vomiting and excessive exercise.

The routes to freedom presented themselves at about the same time, feminism and then yoga. Feminism offered the ideological tools to examine my tortured relationship with my body systematically and deconstruct mediated images. Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminism had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance, it’s another to embody it.

Healing my relationship with my body took years of practice, years that were recognized that moment in shoulder-stand. That moment, absent of shame, guilt and disappointment, signaled how far I had come since I had stepped on the mat for the first time in 1996. I began practicing weekly and when I met “my” first teacher, Caleb Asch, I returned day after day, eventually canceling my gym membership and practicing with him five to six days per week for years. I didn’t return day after day with the same intentions I had for working out at the gym daily, to beat my body into submission. I returned because I couldn’t get enough of the way yoga left me feeling. Each breath allowed me to rekindle my relationship with my body, to return home fully. Returning to the mat daily, through times of sadness, heaviness, and abundance, I was able to reconnect with my body, to heal the mind/body split, to listen to my body and respect its boundaries.

Feminism and yoga raised my consciousness and led me back to myself, in love. I attribute these two complimentary systems for suturing the emotional and physical wounds and saving my life.

For this, I am profoundly grateful.

About Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein, MA is a writer, speaker and Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College, teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies. She attributes feminism and yoga as the two primary influences in her work. She is committed to communal collaboration, raising consciousness, media literacy, facilitating the healing of distorted body images and promoting healthy body relationships. She has worked with the new citizen journalists of the LA Academy of Global Girl Media and the peer-educators of J.A.D.E (Joint Advocates on Disordered Eating) on ways to tap into the power of their own voice. She is an expert contributor in the areas of media literacy and body image issues for Proud2Bme, a NEDA project. She is the adviser of the Santa Monica College Leadership Alliance and the founder and co-coordinator of WAM! Los Angeles. She founded FeministFatale.com and is a contributor at Adios Barbie, Intent.com, MindBodyGreen and Ms. Magazine’s blog. Her essay on yoga, body image and feminism appears in Curvy Voices and her extended chapter on the same topic is included in the anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice. She has been featured on HuffPostLive, KPFK’s Feminist Magazine and The Point on The Young Turks. She is featured in the forthcoming book, Conversations With Modern Yogis. Twitter: @feministfatale

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31 Responses to “Feminism, Body Image and Yoga.”

  1. Lasara Allen LasaraAllen says:

    Beautiful, Ms. Klein. Not to dive into self-promo, but you may be interested in/enjoy reading my book, Sexy Witch, published by Llewellyn, 2005. (Last name Firefox at the time, not Allen.)

    Thanks for writing this piece.

  2. Melanie Klein Melanie Klein says:

    I'd love to! Thanks for suggesting it.

  3. I have found that yoga provided the same passageway to acceptance for me as well, healing an eating/ body image disorder that I had given up on ever ridding myself of. 3 years of yoga has undone 20+ years of wasteful negative habits and self-perception. My discovery was much less poetic than yours, and it didn't happen on the mat – it was while looking in a mirror, waiting for that hateful voice to criticize something…and it didn't. I was so moved by that experience (which has only continued on that lovely path) that I researched books on the topic, thinking surely I can't be the first one to have my eating disorder healed by yoga! I didn't find anything specifically dealing with this topic, other than a study done in 2009 (published this past April) on ED patients, which shows that yoga has promise as an adjunct form of treatment (http://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X%2809%2900334-6/abstract). A TIME magazine article about the study writes, 'Some subjects even expressed this idea directly to the researchers, saying “This is the only hour in my week when I don't think about my weight.'" How powerful is THAT?!

    Well, it was powerful enough for me to begin the process of opening a yoga studio for the family in my corner of the world, hoping that I can get these kids on their path to self-acceptance at an early age. My 6-year-old daughter is already showing signs of becoming aware of America's crazy quest for perfection, and of how she is perceived in the world. This also shocked me into action. I want my girl to love herself and know that she is perfect just as she is – there's no need to "beat her body into submission" (LOVED this line!).

    Thanks for your eloquent and powerful words.

  4. Melanie Klein Melanie Klein says:

    Thank you for your amazing comment, Amanda. It was absolutely moving to read. All the best for your studio!

  5. Kaoverii Weber Kaoverii says:

    Thanks for sharing Melanie, great article. Feminism and yoga make a great combo platter. Feminism healed my mind in a major way, but without yoga/meditation I think it’s difficult to raise consciousness out of the pseudo-culture which oppresses women and, mostly serves as a way to keep us sufficiently self-loathing in order to get us to shop more.

    We still have to contend with the tsunami of body-image oriented media flooding the yoga world. And there are some seriously mixed messages – especially when so many yoga teachers have body-image/ED issues. When the collective consciousness is raised to the point that the most famous teachers do not all appear to be anorexic (or airbrushed to perfection), then we will have overcome something significant.

    Until then, we still have a lot of consciousness raising to do.

  6. Melanie Klein Melanie Klein says:

    Kaoverii, yes! Thank you for raising those issues. The practice is one thing, yoga culture is another. I have a list of upcoming posts devoted to that topic. Sadly, Yoga Journal covers are extremely homogeneous (thin, white, perfectly "polished" females) and mimic the larger culture. That has been a huge issue for me. In fact, I tackle it here: http://feministfatale.com/2009/03/selling-out-yog

  7. Brava, Melanie. You've put into words the "it" that has kept me coming back to yoga for the last several months. IT makes me feel so good, so whole. Brava.

  8. Randon Merriweather says:

    Wow! I really enjoyed that Ms. (Mama) Klein. I never would have thought that you had contended with those issues. You are so comfortable in your skin that it would have never occurred to me. Bravo, Mme. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Lasara Allen LasaraAllen says:

    I tried to comment on your blog, but it's not working. Let me know when it is, and I'd love to put some words up over there!

  10. [...] and worth in a deep and profound way. While my blossoming yoga practice was transformative and healing on multiple levels, the spiritual lineage was, and is, male-dominated—leaving me (and many other [...]

  11. [...] yoga industry is not free from misrepresented body images, idolized relationship or self-consciousness, but a yoga practice can be a moment of clear vision [...]

  12. [...] in a sea of change and chaos, a place of solace.  It also created a unique space to get to know and love my body in a new way. It was the first time I had ever paid attention to my body’s rhythms and desires without [...]

  13. Lance Brewen says:

    Let me tell ya, if u really into this stuff, u should check out this Hypnosis & NLP course

  14. [...] whole when I have silenced the critic in my own head, limited my level of mediation and engaged in loving practices that allow me to cultivate respect for my body as opposed to deepening my disdain and [...]

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  19. Holly A. says:

    What an interesting story. I too am around family members who constantly diet, count calories, obsess about weight, and work out religiously. I myself have been a member of the gym for about 6 years and have been doing nothing but working out, but something just doesn't click! After reading your article, I will definitely try the yoga class offered at my gym. I think for one to truly feel good about themselves their mind must be one with their body when working out. Running on the treadmill and lifting weights don't really do much. I really hope yoga's slow paced concentration will be much more successful.

  20. Nicole D says:

    7.This is really amazing because you were able to find peace with your body. This is something I have been trying to do for awhile now, and even though I know I am thin, there are still some things I always wish I could change about myself. I realize that these thoughts are probably the influence of the images I see in the media, and remind myself that I would not think there are things wrong with my body if it were not for the media and influence of others. I am cautious of my weight and know many people are extremely obsessed with skinniness, and it’s upsetting to see. I definitely don’t want to be obsessed. I can relate to you because I started yoga a few years ago and it had helped me as well. It always puts my mind at ease and I feel better about myself afterwards. Finding the strength to love your body is amazing and inspires me to do the same.

  21. Melody S. says:

    I experienced a the same type of enlightenment when I began doing yoga before starting spring semester this year. I loved seeing myself grow and become more flexible with each class. I loved the fresh feeling of life I had after leaving the studio feeling as if I could take on the world. I also loved the quiet relationship I began to establish with my body as I did the various poses. Yoga studios should replace gyms because it is a practice that encourages personal growth and embraces individuality instead of the gym which is centered on western ideas of competition. I'm not saying everything is perfect now seeing as those I'm the only ethnic person in the class and not to mention chubby girl among a class of model status blondes with flawless, tone bodies. I still feel like I stick out but it does not matter because I am different and I'm glad of it. I'm trying to be the best I can be which is all I can ask of myself.

  22. Mary Marrone says:

    This article reminded me of the Looking Glass Self assignment that we were given in our Women's Studies 10 class. For this assignment, our professor instructed us to observe ourselves in the mirror both clothed and nude for 15 minutes without daydreaming, drifting off and / or fantasizing. Then, we must report all feelings. I will admit that when receiving this assignment I was a bit pessimistic and uncomfortable.
    For the clothed portion of this experiment, I was wearing lose fitting clothes, clothes unflattering to my body figure. I was wearing short shorts and a guy's large T-shirt (lazy clothes). I felt more comfortable with clothes on rather than being nude. When I was nude, I felt vulnerable. When clothed I tended to criticize parts that were visible; when nude I criticized my body as a whole. I had to resist from sucking in my stomach, posing, and flexing. The mirror was not kind to me. It showed me the physical unflattering parts about me. But, I did get to learn more about my body from this experiment.
    I learned that I have a pear shaped body, meaning that most of my fat is held in my stomach, thighs, and butt. When looking at myself nude, I wished that some of the fat in my stomach, butt, and / or thighs would somehow transfer into my breasts. I realized my breasts are small. I wished that my fat would somehow “magically” be distributed evenly throughout my body.
    I tried to have a clear and empty mind while doing this experiment, but at the same time my mind began to race. I kept thinking about this assignment and what was expected. I was not sure whether or not movement was required. I didn't know if within the 15 minuets we were allowed to twirl around and look at our backside as well as our front. To be honest, the longer I stared at myself, the more I hated myself.
    Now I know that her yoga class gave her the idea for the assignment.

  23. [...] from Feminism, Body Image and Yoga by Melanie Klein You are [...]

  24. [...] both know, I attribute feminism and yoga as the two most influential aspects of my life and have written about their intertwining influence frequently, notably and most recently in my chapter on feminism, [...]

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