Feminism, Body Image and Yoga.

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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.

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Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College. She is a contributing author in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice and is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body, and co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.

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anonymous May 9, 2013 5:02am

[…] […]

anonymous Dec 3, 2012 10:14am

[…] 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, […]

anonymous Jun 26, 2012 2:20pm

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

anonymous May 30, 2012 3:10pm

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.

anonymous May 27, 2012 8:17pm

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.

anonymous May 11, 2012 6:24pm

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.

anonymous May 6, 2012 5:55pm

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.

anonymous Apr 20, 2012 10:59am

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[…] interview with Orenstein, she told me that yoga has been a source of healing, something I can personally relate to. While Orenstein dabbled with yoga classes in college, she came to yoga more seriously after […]

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anonymous Oct 21, 2010 1:00pm

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anonymous Sep 15, 2010 12:33pm

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Lasara Allen Jun 7, 2010 5:19pm

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!

anonymous Jun 6, 2010 10:22pm

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.

anonymous Jun 7, 2010 2:55am

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.

anonymous Jun 6, 2010 6:28pm

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

    Lasara Allen Jun 7, 2010 10:04am

    I read, and commented. Thank you for speaking a big truth.

anonymous Jun 6, 2010 12:39pm

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.

anonymous Jun 6, 2010 2:17pm

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

anonymous Jun 6, 2010 12:14pm

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.

anonymous Jun 6, 2010 5:02am

I'd love to! Thanks for suggesting it.

    Lasara Allen Jun 7, 2010 3:55pm

    Let me know what you think! 🙂

Lasara Allen Jun 6, 2010 4:14am

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.