September 4, 2010

A Downward Facing Dog Doesn’t Mind How It Looks. ~ Beth Berila

Downward Dog? But How Will I Look?

I told my yoga students a photographer friend of mine would come to class the following week to take some shots. I assured them he would shoot from behind so they would remain anonymous.

“I don’t want anyone to see my big butt,” came a student’s concern about the size of her rear end.

Do concerns of that sort sound familiar?

The concerned student was a woman in her fifties and is trying to develop a regular yoga practice. I think that is impressive — but that’s not the part she focuses on.

I empathize with her self-conscious body image. I used to feel that way, too.

Women, more so than men, are taught to see their bodies with a hypercritical eye. They learn the lesson well because the media floods their eyes with flawless, hyper-thin, mostly white models in magazines, film and television. Never mind that most of the images are graphically altered and that only a minute portion of the population is genetically predisposed to fit that body type.

We are good students. We regulate what we eat. We learn to fragment our own bodies into “problem areas” — thighs, butt and breasts — so that we don’t see ourselves as a whole person. We watch ourselves being watched. The feminist writer Susan Bordo calls this, “to be looked-at-ness.” Women are trained, from a very young age in Western culture, to evaluate ourselves by the standards of others. We learn to scrutinize ourselves through a male gaze and notice where we fall short. Our worth, media tells us, is based on external factors, not internal ones.

As Judith Lasater’s recent letter to Yoga Journal illustrates, the yoga world is not immune from this trend. In fact, often, it reinforces it.

“What should we wear to yoga class?”

“What if I don’t look good in tight pants?”

“I am not as young or as flexible as all the other yoginis.”

So it is no accident that over ten million women and girls struggle with eating disorders (NEDA). The media watchdog organization About Face reports that “when women and girls feel bad about their bodies, they often feel bad about themselves.”

The feminist sociologist Sharelene Hesse-Biber calls this the “cult of thinness.” She argues that the model of beauty that pervades mainstream media operates much the same way a religious cult does. There is a clear boundary between insiders and outsiders and there is a set of rituals that demonstrate allegiance to the cult: we exercise rigorously, count calories, check ourselves in every reflective surface we pass and compare how our body looks in the newest fashionable yoga styles next to the person on the mat in front of us.

In this cult of thinness, there is no charismatic leader like Charles Manson, says, Hesse-Biber. Rather, the leader of the cult is within. It is our inner critic that so many of us know all too well. It’s that voice that silences our own needs because those of others take precedent. It’s the one that magnifies our “flaws” rather than seeing our points of beauty. It’s the one that defines beauty as how we look rather than who we are.

Yoga is a particularly important antidote to this self-critique so many women have internalized. Most yoga traditions teach a philosophy of self-acceptance, self-honor and compassion. Yoga invites us to turn inward, not to judge, but to listen and learn. As we move through sun salutations, we learn to link our movement with our breath, so that the impetus comes from inside us. As we learn new poses, we also learn about the rich and valuable complexity of our bodies: how moving our thighs back can open our hip-flexors. Yoga moves us from the inside out.

By the end of that yoga class, the student no longer worried how she looked. She was absorbed — in her own experience. And she was reveling — in her own body and her own heart.

With practice, we, too, can revel in the practice of sticking our butt in the air for downward dog — because it feels good. With practice, we, too, can no longer worry how we look.

So, if people are worried about their bodies, maybe they should put down the magazine and pick up the mat — and, with practice, feel the freedom of downward dog.

Beth finds joy teaching her Women’s Studies students to rediscover their inner sass at St. Cloud State University. She is combining her love of yoga and feminism in her research and teaching. When she isn’t teaching, she is practicing yoga in St Paul, MN. She teaches a Recovery Yoga class. Her website is www.bethberila.com.

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