What does a yoga body look like? {Adult}

Via on Apr 13, 2011

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

  4. Chelsea Roff Chelsea says:

    I'm so with you, Carol. What a beautiful, messy, provocative paradox, right? Keeps life interesting! Keeps us talking! Keeps us alive. As sick as I get of the derogative messages that come through from consumerist culture, I know it's all part of the journey. There are no right answers, no wrong experiences, just what is. Glad to have people like you, Bob, and all the other wise and wonderful teachers here at Elephant forging forward on the path along with me. :)

  5. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    hi carol! great to see you on here as i take my first fledgling steps.. :)

  6. Yogini5 says:

    "- most of the bodies were very good. Certainly people were toned.
    – nobody was bulked up. Men in particular, did not seem to fall under the classic American definition of "great beauty" because of the lack of being bulked up.
    – there were certainly people there who were overweight but not greatly so. Nobody seemed obese. Not sure if this is cause-and-effect or just correlation (i.e. people already in shape were more likely to attend this class)"

    Could be correlation … an actual movement modality such as Pilates, works faster and with fewer barriers to entry, achievement or advancement … though I had not had the 80 or so extra pounds on me when I'd first taken up Pilates, the potential of regain (and the pitfalls of the body having been able to be that heavy when much younger) never left – the metabolism, mind-set or musculature …

    No matter how involved with yoga I ever get, I will never give up my Pilates … it enhances greatly the quality of how I perform practically all my asanas …. and I might also look into other movement modalities …

    Nature did not bequeath me any core strength … lol

  7. Yogini5 says:

    The irony of these interpretations, would be so thick I would cut it with a knife (and eat it, too); but it probably is too rich to penetrate the minds of the fat phobes dominating yoga today.

    In order to engage in today's modern world, you have to have enough energy to engage in it. This energy, until we evolve into total cyborgs (perish the thought in what's left of my lifetime), has to come in the form of adequate calorie intake.

  8. This brings up the more general question of how do we deal with passages from ancient texts, Yoga or non-Yoga, that we find upsetting, morally reprehensible today, and in many cases internally contradictory within the text itself? Here's a general approach I suggested in regard to the Gita, but applicable to any other ancient text as well:

    Gita Talk #4: Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First?

    You'll notice that this blog generated 172 replies, so I guess it is of some interest.

    Here's an excerpt:


    But it still has a third common problem which comes from the content itself. Within a few pages of starting the Gita, the reader is told:

    –Women who are allowed to marry outside their caste are “corrupt”. (D)
    –If the caste system is violated, society will collapse and those responsible will suffer in hell. (D)
    –Men who refuse to fight will be disgraced forever as unmanly cowards. (D)
    –Reincarnation will be our reward or punishment for our actions. (M)
    –God thinks it’s a great idea to cajole the hero into fighting a bloody war against his relatives. (M)
    –We should be indifferent when someone dies. (E)
    –There is no real distinction between good and evil. (E)
    –We should cut ourselves off from all sensual desires and pleasures. (E)

    Is it any wonder that many readers stop right there and say, “I don’t need this. I’m going to find something more uplifting to read”? It certainly doesn’t live up to the promise of “Falling Head-Over-Heels-In-Love With The Universe”.

    It takes a little effort and insight to be able to handle these and other jarring issues that come up in the text. Eventually, for each unacceptable or repugnant idea, you have three choices:

    1) Decide to simply ignore it. (Mitchell is right up front about this in a way few other translations are. On page 209 he writes, “the Gita contains passages that are culture-bound and should be disregarded by readers who are serious about its deeper teachings”, and he goes on to list the specific stanzas this applies to.)

    2) Turn it into a metaphor. For example, war can be seen as a metaphor for whatever big challenges we face in life.

    3) Further explain the troublesome idea in a way that it eventually turns out to make sense.

    Each of you will have a different way to work this out. There is no correct way. For example, some people believe in literal reincarnation and some do not. The Gita hits us hard with a lot of these problem passages right up front. The effort to overcome them will be richly rewarded.


    I would argue that almost any ancient text is rendered useless if one insists on the literal relevance of every passage today, or even then, since there were often multiple authors from multiple eras and contradictory schools of thought.

    This can apply to whole large sections of a text. How do we deal with Chapters 13-17 (out of 18) of the Gita, which flatly contradict much of what is written so eloquently in Chapters 1-12? Some analysts consider it a later add-on and ignore it, except for historical interest. Others consider it integral and consistent.

    Schweig considers every word of the Gita consistent and holy, but almost completely ignores Chapters 13-17 in his extensive commentary. Feuerstein, in his new translation, refers to Chapters 13-17 as "supplementary". For still others, Chapters 13-17 are the crux of the matter.

    Clearly different strokes for different folks.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  9. Fat mat says:

    We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.  #Nietzsche

  10. dan says:

    I think what goes missing in these discussions are the larger context and other claims about the consequences of the niyamas and yamas; these are sutras, condensed statements arranged hierarchically. Often this intentional structure is ignored to favor saucy critiques (ahem, 2.0s).

    In addition to the more logical-seeming consequences (joy from contentment, vigor from chastity), one is said to get knowledge of rebirth from greedlessness, all jewels from non-stealing, and ahimsa gives a presence that stops hostility. Amazing, powerful, magical consequences, but they are consequences, not the starting point. If you don’t practice cleanliness because you are concerned about the consequences, the rest of the ys is not going to be of much help in the anyways.

    Also, it is with one’s own limbs/parts that one is supposed to become disgusted with, not the body particularly. The body is a ‘part’, but “anga” shouldn’t be dismissed any more than jugupsa, especially given that the term ‘kaya’ (which literally refers to the physical body) is given in 2.43 (as something perfected due to purification from tapas). This may make it an even uglier and unacceptable line, but the parts, the separateness, and co-mingling takes quite a bit of effort to clean, only to need cleaning again. This isn’t about looking good in a swimsuit or poor self-image, but about transience and attachment; if it isn’t clean or edible, it’s just dirty or rotten, not “bad”.

    Vyasa’s commentary (the traditional take) explicitly doesn’t distinguish svanga from kaya, saying that in practicing saucha one recognizes the ignorance of the body, one becomes disassociated with it, and so too with other bodies, as it can’t ever really be cleaned. Still, Vyasa takes it as a practice with a consequence, not something to be practiced on its own. On 2.43 Vyasa says that the perfection of the senses and body enable supernormal powers (minification, clairvoyance, etc.).

    2.41 says that from saucha, “Purification of the mind, pleasantness of feeling, one-pointedness, subjugation of the senses and ability for self-realisation are acquired.” (Hariharananda Aranya) It could be that in compiling the sutras, these two lines came from two different sources, but I don’t understand why a consequence should be dismissed just because it conflicts with our modern “connection”; even the learned cling to life.

    The ys are not about social change, they are a guide for emancipation, and so address at the level of the individual only. If you have a different goal, then disgust with svanga may be “unacceptable,” but when one consequence is dismissed, what else needs “cleansing”? If the ys are to be contextualized into activism, they must be placed at that level as a whole, perhaps making svangajugupsa disgust with our presumption of separateness, and paraih-asamsarga respect for the independence of ecosystems.

  11. Another great example, from a slightly different tradition, just a few days ago on Elephant:

    Exodus: The Rest of the Story—What Do You Think They Did After They Were Freed?


  12. matthew says:

    Hey FM — a thousand different versions and phrasings of "this virtuous practice will make your body loathsome to yourself" would all express a bankrupt idea that has no use to humanity now, and perhaps not then, either.

    You just can't make YS 2:22 digestible.

  13. I agree with you for study purposes, Matthew. Right now I'm taking Georg Feurstein's painstakingly detailed distance learning course on the Bhagavad Gita and reading Edwin Bryant's 600 page treatise on the Yoga Sutra. And I'm loving both.

    But the central message of the Gita is radical simplification, to the point of absolute oneness, infinite wonder, and selfless action. So when it comes to living, as opposed to studying, Yoga is sublimely simple, not complex. That's its main message.

    There's not the slightest thing complex or culturally based about the blockbuster idea of oneness and wonder and action. One finds the same idea in Einstein's secular science-inspired spirituality, Heschel's rhapsodic essays, Rumi's poetry, some Christian mystics and many others down through the ages.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

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