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January 31, 2011

How Yoga Makes You Pretty – Part I.

The Wisdom of Bryan Kest and The Beauty Myth

This post is the first post in an ongoing series, The Wisdom of Bryan Kest. This series seeks to chronicle what I have learned in my yoga practice with Bryan Kest since 1997.

We’ve been told that “pretty” is the magical elixir for everything that ails us. If we’re pretty we’re bound to be happier than people who aren’t pretty. If we’re pretty, we’ll never be lonely; we’ll have more Facebook friend requests; we’ll go on more dates; we’ll find true love (or just get laid more often);  we’ll be popular. If we’re pretty, we’ll be successful; we’ll get a better job; we’ll get rewarded with countless promotions; our paychecks will be bigger.  In short, “pretty,” something Naomi Wolf refers to as a form of cultural currency in the feminist classic The Beauty Myth, will buy us love, power and influence. And, in the end, “pretty” will make us feel good.

And who doesn’t want to feel good?

The media juggernaut that actively shapes our 21st century cultural environment sells us this promise and perpetuates this myth beginning in childhood. The assault continues as we move through adolescence and adulthood, meeting our gaze at every turn through fashion, television, film, music,  and advertising. These images and messages are practically inescapable, even in yoga publications, and the peddled products entice us using sleek, sculpted models and celebrities in computer retouched photos.  Advertising is specifically designed to appeal to our emotions and shape desire thereby constructing cultural values, identities and lifestyles in order to sell a gamut of products and services from beer, luxury cars and designer shoes to yoga mats, DVDs and diet pills. Ultimately, we’re spoon fed streams of unrealistic images in a virtual onslaught that tells women, and increasingly men, that the most valuable thing we can aspire to be is, well, pretty.

And the tantalizing promises of a better, prettier, you are absolutely everywhere. The idea that we can simply “turn off” or “ignore” these messages is narrow in scope and short sighted. Unless you’re living under a rock-wait, make that a hermetically sealed bubble- you are affected in one way or another and so are those around you. Unfortunately, we’re being sold a superficial bill of goods that doesn’t give us the complete picture.

As my teacher of 15 years,Bryan Kest of Santa Monica Power Yoga, says time and time again in his jam-packed yoga classes:

“Everybody wants to be pretty because that’s what they’ve been told will make them feel good even though there’s no proof that people who are prettier are healthier and happier. So why don’t we just cut to the chase and go straight to what makes us feel good?”

Kest circumvents the chatter and speaks truth in simple terms accessible to virtually everyone. He is consistently “prodding and poking” his students by exposing the absolute lunacy of our increasingly and ubiquitous media culture. He challenges students, including myself, to confront the demands of our egos. He challenges us to do the work of raising our consciousness.  Ultimately, Kest assists us in untangling our psychic, emotional and physical knots.

When we practice yoga, we feel good even if the journey through a particular practice is emotionally and physically arduous  and confronting, as it usually is.  As Kest, who has been practicing yoga for over three decades, says, “I don’t like yoga. Who likes yoga? But I appreciate yoga and the way it makes me feel.”

There is no denying the sense of mental and physical lightness, openness and freedom one feels after quieting the mind, gazing inward and moving through the body in a sensitive, conscious and loving way. Yoga is a moving meditation and, as many studies have revealed time and time again, meditation makes you feel good. Competition, a fundamental national value,  that characterizes most of our encounters in the workplace, within our families, among our peers and ourselves is not a part of a mature and healthy yoga practice. Essentially, you’re bound to cultivate inner peace and feel fantastic practicing yoga if you’re able to let go.

The only time you probably won’t feel good is if you carry your baggage into your practice, strengthening and honing  external stressors. As Kest says, in his usual elegant Kest fashion, “If you bring your shit into yoga, you turn your yoga into shit.” As with anything else, how you use a tool makes all the difference. After all, you can use a knife to butter your toast or stab someone.

Yoga is a pathway to cultivate self-love allowing us to shift our sense of validation inward, as opposed to the standard practice of measuring one’s worth based on external definitions.  In fact the cultural validation we are encouraged to seek often fans the flames of further discontent since we can never be thin enough, muscular enough, wealthy enough or pretty enough by mainstream standards. Even if we are a waify size-zero, a bulked up mass of muscles, a millionaire or a picture-perfect model, happiness isn’t a guarantee. There are plenty of depressed, disgruntled, unsatisfied “pretty people”  with low self-esteem and we know that a slim body with a pretty face isn’t necessarily a healthy body, mentally or physically. In fact, in my own work as a body image activist, many of the most “beautiful” women I’ve met have had some of the most dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships with their body. Too often this has been marked by eating disorders, disordered eating and dangerous beauty rituals to maintain the outward facade. In the end, there isn’t a direct correlation between being pretty and being happy and/or healthy. Pretty hasn’t delivered and what has been defined as pretty isn’t even real or sustainable.

Remember, Naomi Wolf called it the beauty myth for a reason.

Barbie mural photograph taken by the author at Fred Segal Salon in Santa Monica, CA.

Cross-posted at Feminist Fatale. Read How Yoga Makes You Pretty- Part Deux: Looking Pretty Versus Feeling Beautiful.

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Deepicka Mehta May 30, 2012 1:18am

Yoga has several benefits. Among all others, its added bonus is to make you prettier. No it doesn't necessarily mean physical beauty, rather it brings about spiritual beauty as you begin to accept your body as it is. Through yoga, you are one step closer to self-love because you leave behind criticisms about your body. Yoga lets your body do that talking and tells you what it finds comfortable. Yoga relieves depression, stress, arthritis, etc. Society has implanted in us that pretty makes us feel good. However, the cost of that pretty in the end doesn't feel good at all. But through yoga, one can feel good and feel pretty just be merely clearing their mind and accepting their body as it is.

Vanessa Ochoa May 13, 2012 9:44pm

I really enjoyed reading this article. My family has always been very judgmental of the things I would eat, wear or do. I began doing yoga early this year and it has really help me with my low self-esteem issues and made me feel beautiful in my own skin. I am now 14 weeks pregnant with my first child and started doing pregnancy yoga. I love it because every person I see feels the have the right to tell me what not to eat and that I shouldn’t gain too much weight and that I need to this and that to prevent stretch marks. Every time I had my yoga sessions, I feel like all those negative comments are left at the door and I’m able to embrace all these wonderful changes to my body and enjoy every minute of my pregnancy regardless of what anyone says.

Simara Williams May 13, 2012 8:24pm

Working in weight management I have found that even when my clients have hit their goal weight they are still not confidnt. Being in tuned with your body is such an important thing to do and the first place one should start before inflicting h1urt on themselves. I enjoyed reading this article and when you stated that "Yoga is a pathway to cultivate self-love allowing us to shift our sense of validation inward, as opposed to the standard practice of measuring one’s worth based on external definitions." Living in Los Angeles self-image is such an important focus. It's insane how far people would go to get societies approval. So many want to achieve this unobtainable image that they see on TV and in magazines (don't they know that even those images aren't 100% real).

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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.