February 7, 2011

Anorexia and Yoga on the Runway. ~ Tias Little

Isabelle Caro in the “No Anorexia” campaign, by Oliviero Toscani.

Yoga, like anorexia, is driven by an impulse to gain control over physical (and mental) limits.

The sadness that spawns from the passing of Isabelle Caro, a French model who died of anorexia two months ago, weighs heavy on those of us who teach and coach body awareness.

The starkness of her posing naked for the Italian photographer and billboard graphic is unforgettable. Toward the end of her short 28 years, she decided to expose the under-belly of the modeling world, the objectification of women, and the cultural fixation on the body-lite.

Upon reflection, I feel that the visual pre-occupation we have around the body overwhelms the kinesthetic feel of just being in the body. For instance, in the culture of yoga today, the outer glossing of the pose is all too visible—on the cover of Yoga Journal, the back of the Special K cereal box, or on television adverts marketing everything from mattresses to mood altering over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Yoga, like fashion, gets reduced to simplistic posing, and the outer form stands significant. That is the warp.

Then there is the infatuation with the weightless body. This is not confined to the runways. The act of being light and the steps necessary to get light are part and parcel of yoga practice, and have been for centuries. The impulse to be thin is rampant throughout yoga studios in West Palm Beach, Santa Monica and Scottsdale, Arizona.

Fasting, holding your breath, balancing on your arms, and doing kapalabhati (a breathing technique where the abdomen is pumped while exhaling forcefully) all suggest attempts to defy gravity. Levitation, being completely weightless, is the quintessential yogic device to demonstrate accomplishment (siddhi) in classical Indian lore. Stories of the levitating yogi abounded in the mid 20th century, as described in the popular Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. The third chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras suggests that the yogi who has gained mastery can float “as light as a tuft of cotton.” Today, yoga on sweat-drenched sticky mats, juicing fasts, raw food diets and power yoga work-outs are intended to drive the body into obedience and to make it weightless. Yoga, like anorexia, is driven by an impulse to gain control over physical (and mental) limits.

So when Isabella was told that she was ten kilos over-weight by an agent—she was a mere 100 pounds at the time—the impulse to please, the impulse to be successful and good, drove deep into her soul. Her soul turned out to be great in size, as she demonstrated with the fortitude and deep care for others it took to ‘advertise’ her disease, so that other women may not suffer. The objectification of the female body, from both male and female perspectives, whether in yoga or on the runways, can become all-consuming. Watch the video below for an interview with Isabelle on Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty.


Today, the yogini models. The reams of yoga-esque positions evident in the market place have women posing for the camera, all bendy in tangerine leotard or yogi lingerie. She may be a model posing at yoga or a yogini posing as model, but either way the boundaries are blurred.

Take the three-page spread in last week’s NY Times on Tara Stiles, the NYC model turned yogi. Her shtick is a familiar one by now: a pure yoga free of inner reflection, spiritual or textual reference or self-inquiry. Her book is aptly titled Slim Calm Sexy.

The infatuation with the slimmed-down body leads to a preoccupation with the outer image. The death of petite Isabelle speaks to the profound suffering that can surface when the body is pushed toward the ideal of ‘fit’ and beautiful. Striking a yoga pose lends itself to the snapshot flash. Yet when image drives yoga, it is a strange fit. When the outer look dominates a yogi’s practice, the feeling within the interior gets overlooked and can drive her to fits of obsession. Denying and defying the flesh is tied into acts of self-punishment and abuse. Self-acceptance is critical. And what is necessary is a critical eye for what the industry—yoga or fashion—displays as slim, sexy or perfect. This is what really needs to be defied.

Tias Little began as a college soccer player studying Buddhist psychology at Amherst College and now teaches yoga in Santa Fe. He is currently a student of koan study in the Rinzai school of Zen practice studying with Roshi Joan Sutherland. Read more about him and his studio here.

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