What does a yoga body look like? {Adult}

Via Chelsea Roff
on Apr 13, 2011
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via Yoga Modern

The church says the body is a sin.

Science says the body is a machine.

Advertising says the body is a business.

My yoga practice says the body is ____________.

There’s been an explosion of commentary in the yoga blogosphere as of late about yoga bodies— Slim, Calm, Sexy YogaA Plea from Curvy YogisJudith Laster’s Shellacking of Naked Bodies in YJ, and the new Yoga Journal Talent Search. With the emphasis on asana practice in modern culture, it seems that Western conceptions of what a healthy body looks like have snuck their way into the yoga room as well.

A few weeks ago, I shared some truly eye-opening photos on a blog I where I serve as editor, Yoga Modern, that depict a surprising diversity of bodies in what many might expect to be a very elite and homogenous group of individuals– Olympic athletes. The pictures elicited quite a bit of discussion from readers about the conflicting messages we get about our bodies in society and in the practice room, so when I stumbled onto this piece of art I felt it too provocative to share. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the artist/photographer cited anywhere, but the quote is from Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.

Click here for more images

Discussion around the body in yoga is certainly not unique to our time; sages have been debating the role of  the body in spiritual practice since time immemorial. Just last week at a Yoga Sutras discussion group I help facilitate, we discussed Patanjali’s concept of saucha in the Yoga Sutras:

2.40 Through cleanliness and purity of body and mind (saucha), one develops an
attitude of distancing, or disinterest towards one’s own body, and disinclined towards
contacting the bodies of others.

To be completely honest, I was a little surprised when I finally saw saucha mentioned in its original context. So often I’ve heard the yogic concept of purity/cleanliness referred to as a practice we cultivate in order to make progress in our asana practice or develop a more loving/respectful relationship with our body. I was comforted to hear from others in the group that I wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by this verse.

Patanjali almost seems to be implying here that yoga encourages us to distance ourselves from our bodies, to begin to sever the mental attachments we have to our flesh. Woah. So if yoga is all about union, bringing together body and mind, making one of opposites… what the heck is this?

Now mind you, Patanjali was writing from the perspective of the classical yoga tradition, and many believe the Tantric yogis had a significantly different attitude toward the flesh. I wonder sometimes if when we lift up these texts– or any spiritual scripture for that matter– as “sacred” or handed down from the Divine… I wonder if we realize the consequences that come from mindlessly applying them to radically different contexts. We live in a different world than the ones Patanjali, Jesus, Mohammed, and others were originally speaking to. That’s not to say that the ancient wisdom texts have no relevance for our modern world– quite the contrary in fact– but I do think it means we have to be especially vigilant about the way we interpret the teachings’ application to our current context.

What happens when a young woman who has come to her mat to begin the process of healing from sexual violence hears her teacher encouraging the class to cultivate purity  in their yoga practice? Or when a 17-year-old girl who’s trying yoga because her therapist recommended it as a way of reconnecting with her body and healing from an eating disorder hears her teacher going on about how boat pose will give her washboard abs? Have no doubt, they’re in there. The question for us, as yogis, is whether we’re willing to talk about it.

I’m passionate about shining a light and developing a dialogue around the topics that are often skirted in mainstream discourse. All too often the quiet, gentle voices asking us to look at something we’ve been missing are trumped by the hoots and hollers of angry, power-hungry dissent. So here, I’d like to create a safe space for curious reflection. Tell me, what does your yoga practice tell you about your body? What message to you get from the wider yoga community– from your teachers, from Yoga Journal, from your fellow practitioners– and does it differ from your experience on the mat? Does yoga bring you into greater connection with your body or does it make you less interested in your physical self?

I encourage the community here at Elephant Journal to share in the discussion, contribute to the dialogue, build a bridge between people and communities that may not otherwise have heard one another’s voice. We may live in different places, walk different paths, inhabit different bodies… but we’re all in this together, right?

Check out What Does a Yoga Body Look Like? Part 2 & Part 3


About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author and speaker, and the Founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders. In September 2013, Chelsea raised $50,000 on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to kickstart her non-profit, Yoga for Eating Disorders. The program is currently being offered in treatment centers and yoga studios around the country at no charge, and she is working with researchers at UC San Diego to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in treatment. Chelsea is known for her intelligent, inspiring, and tell-it-like-it-is speaking style, and for weaving together profound personal experiences with her scientific background to deliver deeply moving insights. After nearly losing her life to anorexia and a subsequent stroke when she was 15, she has became a national advocate for community-based mental health interventions. Her work was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and she’s been keynote speaker at 92nd Street Y, The Omega Institute, and at various universities and conferences around the country. Chelsea currently lives in Venice, California, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.


73 Responses to “What does a yoga body look like? {Adult}”

  1. Melinda says:

    I love this topic! I am a recovering anorexic, and I fell in love with yoga while living in Thailand. The class I regularly attended was all locals,but foreigners were welcomed as well. My teachers spoke very little English, and I felt that this gave me time to listen to my body. If there was any talk about "washboard abs," I had no idea…and that's probably why I ended up loving it so much. In my mind, class was never about physical appearances, it was about personal progress and connection.

  2. Alyssa says:

    Asana practice has helped me realize that my body is not the Self, but an instrument for remembering the Self. I've had several experiences in and out of class of being everything, of knowing I am in all and all is within me eternally. There is nothing that can severe that connection. Obviously, that can't apply to the body, but to the mind.

    I find that what many consider "thinking" is really judging, which is like an aborted thought. True thought is inclusive; judgment is exclusive, and one can only believe in exclusivity in a world of bodies. Without bodies and form, outside of time, there can be no judgment. If there is no judgment, there can be no guilt, no shame and no sense of condemnation. There is only Life. True thought carries with it the certainty of freedom, while judgment is the request for condemnation and imprisonment. Forgiveness [non-judgment] is the bridge between imprisonment and freedom.

    My teachers talk about celebrating the body and "really being in your body" so that one can live more fully, be more fully present, etc. But one will only work to rectify these things if one has already judged oneself. Yoga is pause. A pause in which to question, "Is what I believe really so?" And there we have openness of mind.

    I use asana and meditation, not to enhance my body's strength or form [a learning instrument is not a goal], but to release myself and all of those within the world I perceive from the burdens of judgment. Yoga is not for the body; yoga is for refinement of the mind. This does not at all indicate that the body is bad or evil or sinful or whatnot. The body cannot be meaningfully imbued with either good or evil attributes; both are judgments. But the body can be helpful in learning that freedom comes when judgment is laid down, and that the judgment we have willfully imposed upon ourselves is far from the truth.

  3. Jinny Nash says:

    Thank you, a very interesting and timely piece as many of us are reading and writing along these lines.

    In my experience the world is full of contrast because we are and this will never change while humanity is created as it is.

    Since I attended Trauma Sensitive Yoga training I have reviewed some of my teaching language and practice and this informs how I approach every person in my class with more care in what I say and do.

    Let’s keep talking, looking at the bigger picture, not getting caught up in the details and the points of view and make yoga relevant to what we’re doing and allowing the contrast into that x

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