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. Great provocative blog, Chelsea. Let's get the word out and get the discussion going.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  3. Stephanie says:

    great topic. so challenging. Yoga has made me appreciate my body in many ways. I am more in tuned and conscious of the the gifts my body provides. I feel the most beautiful when I practice. However, when I go to a place with a mirror that beauty seems to disappear for me. All see is a slightly overweight 40 year old woman and longingly look over at the 20 something perfectly muscular and thin bodies who represent grace and yoga to me. Need to change it to appreciation for the both of us,

  4. yogiclarebear says:

    This is so important. As a younger woman, 7 years or so ago, I took my first yoga class at the onset of an eating and over-exercising disorder. The class was "boot camp" style "yoga" geared to whip my body into bikini season shape!

    For some reason I stayed with it. I suppose eating disorder really liked hearing this kind of body perfeciton talk and this fitness craze approach, but I know that it was the grace of God that kept me on the yoga path. Since then, my practice has transformed hugely into a emotional and physical healing force and a way of life that has helped me climb impossible recovery mountains so far.

    Of course yoga is very much about the body. We have to be in the body, we have to work with it, we have to find our own way in it. But when body becomes the way and what we are seeking as well…yikes? I stay far away from teachers or styles of yoga that make yoga about the fab abs or toned this or that.

    "Does yoga bring you into greater connection with your body or does it make you less interested in your physical self?" YES.

  5. Hi, Chelsea. I just happened upon this highly relevant quote from yoga 2.0's blog on the Yoga Sutra just published today:

    With many authors come many stories. The contradictions of the Yoga Sutras are plentiful, and most apparent between the four books. Sutra 2:22 states that the objective world ceases to exist for the yogi in samadhi. Sutra 3:3 states that samadhi occurs when the subject disappears and nothing but the object remains.

    This is either really bad philosophy, or a divergence in views within the same writer, or many authors and views duking it out. But to claim that a text like this holds a consistent truth claim is absurd.

    Every modern practitioner has to make choices about what truths yoga speaks here and now.

  6. Abigail Clarke says:

    Hi Chelsea
    Thank you for the great article, and for igniting an important discussion. I recently posted an article here on elephant journal that relates to this topic: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/04/a-desire-t
    I'd love to enter into the conversation with you and anyone interested.

    • Chelsea says:

      Wonderful, Abigail! Thanks for sharing. Definitely along the same lines, and I'm looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on EJ in the future.

  7. Corti Cooper says:

    Really great. I have to go to bed or I would engage in this. Needless to say, I want more!

  8. Susan says:

    Excellent post. I too am turning in for the night-hopefully check back in tomorrow.

  9. yogijulian says:

    great blog chelsea! i am about to publish something on here about exactly this angle regarding the problem of reifying patanjali as a "scripture" and how the "philosophy" segment in most teacher training is a kind of bible study for yogis using the dualistic, classical, magical thinking, anti-body, psychologically brutal sutra as the be-all-end-all statement of what yoga is…. "saucha" has always been for me the epitome of what is misguided in this transcendentalist aesthetic.

    often we forget that the western romance with yoga begins in the body-postitive, sexually liberated counter culture movement of the 60's and the desire to throw off the old world repressions of the judaeo-christian and american puritan tradition….. and we end up simply replacing this with hindu puritanism.

    given what we now know about the psyche, brain, sexuality, somatic psychology, physiology of trauma etc it seems at the very least we could have some texts that contrast with and flesh out the old world position of patanjali.

    i also am very much in favor of bringing in lorin roche's translation of the vijnana bhairava tantra called the "the radiance sutras" as a contrasting text! it talks about orgasm, eating chocolate and dancing till you fall over as doorways into the ecstatic! 🙂

    i applaud your piece and am very much in favor of inspiring/instigating a more discerning attitude toward the underlying philosophy of what yoga practice is/can be about in this contemporary cross-cultural experiment!

  10. yogijulian says:

    oh – love the galeano poem too – i use it in class, first heard jack kornfield recite it!

  11. AMO says:

    I love great questions that can't really be answered. All bodies are yoga bodies if they are doing yoga, of course, and, there is an expectation in the community, in our minds, in the minds of all the people who never come in to a yoga studio, what a yoga body is "supposed" to look like. I feel frustrated and will speak up when I hear yoga teachers talk about body size and shape and appearance as if they matter. I heard a Bikram teacher once say, on FB, where all her students could read it, that she doesn't drink water in class because she can "see it on my hips in the front mirror" – we're talking about WATER here. I called her out, right there, challenged the thinking and the saying of such a thing, she did not repent, though I hope I planted a seed….

    • Chelsea says:

      Oh my gosh, AMO. That's abominable. And yes, I love to ask questions without answers. It's the in the not knowing that we contact the beautiful Mystery of this life. 🙂

  12. Dace says:

    My yoga practice connects me more to my body and my soul. This connecting brings me into more feeling and expressing myself.

  13. Cyn says:

    My yoga practice has made me much more kindly disposed toward my own body. One day I realized that I had stopped thinking of it in terms of what I didn't like and thinking about it in terms of the amazing things it can do and how good it is to be healthy. I rarely look in the mirror these days and think I wish I was this or that or that I wish I *weren't* this or that. It feels like being released from a self-imposed prison.

  14. gulnaz says:

    i have come to yoga practice just lately, very recently and i love it. do it from a couple of videos on you tube and off the net / book… and what i get from it, is how you have to focus on your breathing at all times, at least try to.. how that is the focus, to be mindful of your breath as you do the asana and that helps in calming hte mind, the rest is a bonus 🙂

  15. yogijulian says:

    thanks for the inspiration chelsea – here is my tangential but related article that seeks to begin a dialog about patanjali and a more integrated contemporary yoga philosophy:

    • Chelsea says:

      Wonderful article, Julian. What an interesting perspective you bring to the topic as an immigrant from South Africa as well. I recommend everyone check out Julian's heart-felt and thought-provoking blog.

  16. yogijulian says:

    hala and i are teaching partners! we have a training at exhale, venice in the late summer/fall. 🙂

    oh yea i am with you – i think that there is a reason why the most widespread version of hindusim in america (hare krishna movement) happens to have the most in common with fundamentalist christianity…

    there is likewise a puritanism here that jibes really well with dualistic yogic texts and is still perhaps resistant to the tantras.

  17. Kimberly says:

    I appreciate my body for it's budding strength and flexibility as I practice however to me, the six pack abs and rockin' triceps are a side product of spiritual exploration and self-inquiry through yoga. As I connect to my body through my breath and asana, I naturally feel more vibrant and available to the world around me off my mat.

  18. Chelsea says:


    I just discovered a very interesting and relevant study released in the latest Current Anthropology journal. Main finding:

    "…these analyses suggest that norms about fat-as-bad and fat-as-unhealthy are spreading globally and that cultural diversity in conceptions of ideal or acceptable body size appears to be on the decline."
    More: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/659309

    Hmmmm. I think this entire discussion points to the importance of non-attachment, non-judgmental acceptance, and mindfulness in both our yoga practice and broader societal discourse. Thank you all for sharing your experiences, they're incredibly inspiring for me personally to read. Much love.

  19. yogijulian says:

    for me the key distinction is between a yoga that is about overcoming the body, disconnecting from our emotions and attachments, silencing the mind and attaining to some transcendentalist perfection vs a yoga that is about loving and more fully inhabiting the body, bringing compassionate and courageous awareness to the emotions/psyche, bringing the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind into greater harmony, and finding integration as a mortal human being!

    i think the consumer hijacking of yoga into being about the "perfect" body type and even the cirque du soleil asana that only a tiny percentage of people will ever achieve is linked to the puritanical heroic iteration that sees it as a practice of becoming superhuman in a way that implies not only being able to do very impressive things, but also being less vulnerable to the needs and fragility of being human…. which of course is linked to the pernicious magical thinking that also is such a big part of the yoga zeitgeist these days.

    • Yogini5 says:

      Actually, it's very ancient [predating Puritanism/Calvinism/Emersionianism] self-mortification techniques (just ask any Ashtangi worth his salt) made modern (streamings; questionable nutritional "advice") and marketable (those intimidating-cum-intriguing – to the semi-beginner – kick-asana poses that the yoga teacher "demonstrates" at the front just before teaching the Beginners' class; the YJ and Bikram competitions) …

  20. anniegirl1138 says:

    I always thought the point was not confusing your "self" with your "body". The body is temporary while the self is eternal and the actual point of anything we do on this path they call enlightenment. The body is important b/c it houses us and maintaining our dwellings is a good idea. But it's not permanent which gets us back to non-attachment, which in my mind means being prepared for letting go of it (or other people's physical forms) when the time comes – as it will for everyone.

  21. renegadecd says:

    " Does yoga bring you into greater connection with your body or does it make you less interested in your physical self?"

    Yes to both. Yoga has helped me physically develop a stronger body and I appreciate and love the connection that has to the spiritual realm. I have found myself more open to spiritual lessons. To receive those lessons one must have a strong vessel and I think yoga is what helped me create that. At the same time I am letting go of ego-centric judgments of my body so in that sense I am less interested in physical self. It's a vehicle for my spirit and its my job to keep it healthy so it can keep housing more and more of my spirit. That's it.

  22. yogijulian says:

    sooooo great that you point out that we will all have abuse survivors and people with the whole range of psychological challenges in class! this is the human condition – so the question becomes; is our philosophy and tool box adequate to the task of meeting reality and the experience of people who are actually in the room with us, whether we explicitly know their stories or not?!

    for me, neither the dualist/ascetic notion of purity and distancing oneself from the body and from physical contact with others through a kind of self-hatred – nor the overemphasis on looking like a fitness magazine cover model strike the chord that i know our communities very much need to hear..

    • Yogini5 says:

      Likewise, conflating the two raises questions …
      Does "I am not this body" mean that I can withstand bodily pain (inflicted by the practice; inflicted by life) better than most mortals .. and/or can I/should I learn how to do so?

  23. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  24. Karen says:

    Great and very timely article. Yesterday in class I was talking to my teacher about my frustration at not having the body and ability I had years ago. I used to be a dancer and had great flexibility. Now flash forward: I am 45, have had three babies and now have the tummy to show for it, and the sloth metabolism that comes from middle age. At night I dream I can again do a real bridge, and contort my body in amazing asanas. Then I wake up to reality. But the truth is, I am exactly where I am meant to be at this moment. My curves and changes were made to create a dwelling place for my children in their conception; each mark on my belly tells a story all its own, and my breasts fed all three exclusively for the beginning years of their journeys. How can I be disappointed knowing that? My teacher reminded me as always that this is MY practice, my yoga experience, and that where I am is fine…to aspire to great heights implies ego at work. So I stay present and I breathe and I accept that my body is doing what it is able to…in the end, it is more about the mind, no?

    • Vanita says:


      I love your last question.. "it is more about the mind, no?" YES! This debate generates much traffic and no small measure of judgement and anger, but after all, it is not even about the body.

  25. connie says:

    I am 63 yrs. of age and have been practicing Anusara Yoga for 21/2 yrs. I began Yoga to tap into a practice that would give me the ability to feel better,move better,be healthier and open up a spiritual practice that enhances my capacity to love myself and others. How my body would look was never an issue. I am aware that when I am inverted,my loose skin folds sag,my face is flushed and wrinkles are all about,but to me,that is not a bad thing. I feel gratitude that my body has served me well after all these years and all the not so good choices I have put myself through in the past. The comfort and confidence and love I feel for myself and the amazing contentment and gratitude that Yoga has opened up for me in this third third of life is truly a gift. I wear my outer and inner self in truth and love,and hey,if my butt is tighter,or my arms more toned,well,I'll take that "icing on my cake" . !
    began .

  26. In response to your answer, my practice tells me that my body wants to be taken care of. My teachers tell me that my body is the temple of my soul.. I find this very beautiful & try to honor these truths every moment I can.

  27. […] What does a yoga body look like? {Adult} […]

  28. ARCreated says:

    my yoga taught me to love my vehicle. I grew IN LOVE with myself inside and out through yoga I do NOT ever teach to a physical outcome in my class…it's how I roll…it's all about feeling and connecting and listening…and a favorite line? where you are today is perfect because it is exactly where you are. 🙂 it makes 'em giggle…and well that's more important to me than any thing else! But I also do not "teach" the sutras — I find them a bit to "dualistic", I study them as a student of the philosophy but I prefer things a bit more tantric 🙂

  29. TamingAuthor says:

    Patanjali was speaking to someone who was seeking a more enlightened state of being, a more accurate sense of what is. His comment would probably make little sense to anyone who had not separated from the body with full certainty they were not the body. His comments would mean little to anyone who was attached and clinging to the body. Therein lies the challenge of the practice… how does one gain the patience that allows one to avoid analyzing or interpreting Patanjali until one has the experience that makes his words come alive? Would be valuable to start a journal and note every three months… this month Patanjali means this to me, this month Patanjali means this to me… and so on, logging and documenting one's change of awareness.

  30. Stefanie says:

    Do you know sign language? Ask someone who does what the last photo means.
    Kind of turns the conversation a little to the naughty end of things.

  31. […] from a link on Facebook. I checked it out and found some really cool articles, including this one, What does a yoga body look like? (warning: the link opens to an article, but the picture at the top involves […]

  32. […] recent question to the yoga community, What Does a Yoga Body Look Like? I’ve been so inspired the comments– women declaring “my curves and changes were made to create a dwelling place for my […]

  33. Rebecca says:

    Chelsea, thank you for asking the questions. Too often, we get caught up in the "right" way to be, whether we must accept our bodies as they are, or we must be thin to fit in. I find myself struggling between the two. I was really, really thin for several years, and also unhealthy (though without an eating disorder, just a thyroid issue), but as that got better, and I gained weight, and people noticed, I felt out of place – nowhere more than in the thin yoga community. I struggle with it daily. Yet, outside of weight, yoga has given me an appreciation for "the body." By that I mean that I finally am beginning to truly and deeply understand how the body and our physical selves relate to our spiritual and emotional beings. That is the union we create – within ourselves. For that, I am eternally grateful. As for the weight issue – well, as long as my pants fit, I try to keep happy.

  34. […] Oh wait, that’s pretty much every one of them. I like yoga. […]

  35. […] you haven’t noticed, I like to write in series (see: What Does a Yoga Body Look Like? Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3) and this post will be no different. In Part 2, I’ll respond to any […]

  36. […] always been an avid questioner, and sometimes my fiery curiosity gets me into trouble. I don’t ask questions to challenge or criticize, but sometimes I think people read it that way, and the very act of my […]

  37. […] Most likely, the teacher can’t hear your specific thoughts, per say, but rest assured they can pick up when you are thinking versus when you are completely absorbed in your breath and body awareness. […]

  38. Konnichiwa! Hannah Jinxy-chan wa utsukushii!! Ja mata ne!

  39. Correction: the church says the body is a TEMPLE. My favorite definition. In yoga, the body is the vehicle for enlightenment. Purity is misunderstood by westerners who see through a calvinist filter. All purity means is that when conditions are ripe in the body enlightenment dawns naturally.

  40. Thanks for the information. Couldn’t find this info anywhere!

  41. Hi dear!

    I really liked your text. I will have to read part 2 and 3 =).

    As a yoga teacher, what has worked for me is to talk about strengthening the "solar plexus", abs, torso (which is all the same) from the "emotional and energetic" body point of view. So before the class or while doing abs, I speak to students about what the solar plexus or abs represent in our lives: decisions, acceptance, the process of digesting life, will power… and then I speak about the roll torso has on holding oneself up, the spine, in balance, in protecting the most important organs. This way I think I can make them understand that the physical, emotional, spiritual, energetic body is all the same and that if we strengthen one, we strengthen the other. And what effects we can expect to have in life because of working on them. =)

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