December 3, 2012

21st Century Yoga: Questioning the “Body Beautiful”: Yoga, Commercialism & Discernment. ~ Frank Jude Boccio

photo: saritphotography.com / design: drewfansler.com

The following post is part of the 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice book club exclusive to elephant journal. It’s based on Frank Jude Boccio’s essay, where he uses the buddhist practice of satipatthana to deconstruct the very notions of “the body” and “beauty.”

This post looks to explain the notion of “transparency” and the challenge it presents in any in-depth investigation. As the book was a collaborative effort, showcasing a myriad of voices and opinions, we hope you’ll comment and create a dialogue in response to this hot-button topic.

“Yoga Body” in the Media and it’s Impact

In Melanie Klein’s contribution to the elephant journal book club for 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice, she writes: “I’m not discounting individual agency but people make choices within a given cultural environment, one that is sociohistorically specific and variable. That cultural landscape’s taken-for-granted norms and values play an influential and powerful role in determining what we consider desirable/undesirable, good/bad, beautiful/ugly. And the images that shape our desires, aspirations and notions of beauty are inescapable. We’re soaking in them.”

Others, including Klein and Chelsea Roff, both co-contributors to 21st Century Yoga, have written eloquently about these images and the media that showcase the “yoga body” and the often detrimental effects such imagery has on yoga practitioners and potential practitioners and I also touch on this in my contribution to the book.

In particular, I refer to the many books and articles that question the impact that over 12 hours a day of media imagery has on developing girls and women of all ages. The documentary, Miss Representation, shows how the media’s emphasis on women’s appearance and sexual desirability locates the value of a woman in her appearance, and how the message is not lost on young boys who grow up to be men who value women primarily for their bodies—as long as they look like the images that have been presented to them.

In such a toxic media bombardment, it is no wonder that in a recent survey, 90 percent of women reported that they dislike their bodies.

But here, I’d like to emphasize the central thesis of my essay, which in a word relates to the transparency of the cultural and economic media through which these images are conveyed. I’m using the word transparency as it is used in contemporary philosophy: we see only the content, never the (contextual/conceptual) carrier. We do not see the window but only the bird flying by.

Subjectively, this transparency creates the feeling of being in direct contact with reality.

In the context of the “yoga body” and the “body beautiful,” this means we fail to see the construction of the “ideal,” or concept and unquestioningly accept the image as “real” or inherently self-existent. This failure to see the context and the very construction of such concepts as “the body” and “beauty” is a form of ignore-ance, which is itself a form of avidya, literally, “not seeing.”

And every yogi and yogini knows—or should know—that it is avidya that is the root cause of duhkha. And it is duhkha, the existential sense of lack or discontent with which yoga practice has traditionally aimed to engage.

Roland Barthes said that he was interested in examining those subjects that “go without saying.” My essay in 21st Century Yoga is one attempt to investigate and deconstruct that which is all too often unseen in the very act of “seeing.” I mean to investigate what the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Rubin calls the “blindness of the seeing ‘I.’”

As Melanie Klein refers, (with an appreciation I share in) to Kathryn Budig’s remarks about her own body image issues in a recent interview, it may be instructive to note the (non-conscious?) ambivalence Budig holds regarding the body and in particular the notion of the “yoga body” that proliferates in popular yoga photography, advertisements and images in the major yoga media.

In a Huffington Post article written in defense of an Equinox ad featuring yet another young, lithe, scantily clad woman, Budig wrote: “Our intention was to inspire and show the beauty of a body that practices regular yoga to get people back on their mats.”

Setting aside the many comprehensive critiques of the effects of advertising and the commodification of women’s bodies to sell product within a yogic context, it is the un-thinking, feel-good “celebration of the body” that has been interpellated into contemporary yoga that I address in my essay. I believe this seemingly positive celebration of the body is merely a specific cultural and historical manifestation of the shadow-side of hatha-yoga and its historical tendency to fixate on the body.

As early as the 10th century, the Garuda-Purana warned “the techniques of posture do not promote yoga. Though called essentials, they all retard one’s progress.”

Now, that’s a strong, damningly harsh statement with which I do not fully agree, because I do not believe asana (or any yogic practice technology) is inherently supportive or unsupportive of yoga’s aim of liberation. But, taken as an assertion that a superficial fixation on the physical, rather than being a mere distraction or diversion, can be a total and complete obstacle to liberation. I believe the statement should brook no real dissent.

Of course, that would then imply that yoga as practiced and conceived of by the contemporary, commercialized mainstream is, at least much of the time, actually an impediment to liberation. Today’s contemporary glorification of “the body beautiful” seems to prove this. In fact, many practitioners of “popular yoga” seem to have little if any idea of duhkha and the liberating purpose of yoga practice to free us from it, and equal ignore-ance of the duhkha their “feel-good” celebration actually perpetuates and encapsulates!

At the time of the Buddha, yogic culture saw the body inherently  as an obstacle to liberation; this was one of the major factors that led to the practice of extreme austerities (tapas) of other groups like the Jainas. After trying and rejecting such practices, the Buddha undertook the radical investigation of the true nature of the body as the first of the four satipatthanas.

Today, an integrated practice of this, satipatthana can free one from our culture’s narcissistically driven identification with the body as ‘self’ through what seems like a paradoxical deep intimate experience of the body as body, or as the Buddha phrased it: body in the body.

Satipatthana is the deconstruction of the concept of the body and any of the attributes we may project onto it, including “beauty.” To be clear, there is no rejection of the important function of conceptualization, but merely the necessary and important reminder that concepts are constructed within an unconscious ideology and making ideology conscious allows us to choose a more sustaining, healing ideology over one that can lead to individual and societal suffering.

It is the transparency of the conceptual constructs that satipatthana attempts to make seen; it’s the attempt to see the window through which we see “the body” and “beauty” that together make up the “yoga body” that Budig implies is the result of “regular” yoga practice.

As my essay makes clear, among the elements that make up this “carrier” or conceptual construction are biological, social, economic and cultural forces. The images presented are nearly always the same: young, white, female and slim (and when they aren’t, the laudatory response only serves to point out the homogeny generally presented) and these images are used to either sell product or the image itself without any hint of self-awareness.

For instance, my essay attempts to point out some of the cultural conditioning behind the notion of “beauty” and then goes further in suggesting that the “beauty” being “celebrated” is not to be found inherently existent in the body that is perceived, but in the very conditioning behind the perception and the blindness to that conditioning.

It asks: “what is this body we call ours” when 90 percent of its DNA is non-human and without which we could not live? In effect, it asks, though we are all familiar with the cliché, that “beauty is only skin deep,” why do we not act from that knowledge and seem to forget that rather than inherent in the body, beauty is constructed and projected?

When these images remain unquestioned, they are taken as “natural” (another conceptual construct).

This is how the imagery conditions the shocking prevalence of disordered eating and body dysmorphia we find in what should be a healing and liberating practice. This is how, as Melanie Klein writes, “the yoga industrial complex upholds unrealistic representations of beauty” that leads to someone like Kathryn Budig sharing that she has experienced “body image issues,” while participating in the “complex” in the creation of images that—though meant to inspire—only reinforce those same unrealistic representations.

As someone old enough to have protested the Vietnam War and to have a table upfront at CBGB’s where I wrote about and participated in the nascent punk movement, I feel there is nothing that I have ever done that has the counter-cultural, subversive possibility presented by the kind of “investigation of dhamma” (dhamma-vicarya), the Buddhist yoga tradition of satipatthana offers when coupled with hatha-yogasana practice.

But, being inherently empty of any essence or “self-nature,” I am fully aware that it can also be used to prop up the mainstream status-quo and its transparent ideology that makes the corporatization of yoga seem “natural” and inevitable.

And, with that punk spirit intact, I want to question this steam-roller momentum and do my part to undermine its taking over completely. As the Buddha often said, “living an awakening life is one that goes against the stream.”


 Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio is a certified Yoga Teacher and Zen Buddhist Dharma Teacher ordained by Korean Zen Master, Samu Sunim. His eclectic approach is influenced by his study of a variety of yoga approaches and his many years of Dharma practice, evidenced by his emphasis on mindfulness and compassionate action. His book, Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind is the first to apply the Buddha’s Mindfulness Meditation teachings to yogasana practice. He maintains two blogs: www.mindfulness-yoga.blogspot.com and www.zennaturalism.blogspot.com. Based in Tucson, where he lives with his wife, Monica, their daughter Giovanna and their two cats and two chickens, he travels worldwide, leading workshops and retreats. He can be contact through his website.


Editor: Edith Lazenby

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