How many people do you know who could benefit from yoga?
(The answer is: everyone.)
Did you know many women skip things that they want to do because they’re worried about how their body looks?
How many people might be might be missing out on the healing benefits of yoga because of the yoga body myth, and the messaging surrounding it? Have we ever, as teachers, students, and content creators or consumers, thought about how we might be contributing to the yoga body myth? We might be isolating the people who need yoga the most.
Yoga is an eight-limbed practice. Many people, including those in the yoga world, don’t know this! And, if we do know it, it is easy to forget because of the mainstream messaging around yoga.
In our modern, Western world, when we say yoga, what we often mean is asana—the poses for the physical body. Because of this, mainstream culture and many teachers and students have a distorted view of what yoga means. We think of “yoga pants” as usually only for one type of body, and upward of $90. We think of a “yoga body” as one that is skinny, white, toned, tanned, and super flexible.
For the scope of this piece, we will be talking about the asana and the yoga classes where most modern yogis in the United States will get their first introduction to the practice.
When we teach a yoga class, especially to women, we need to be cognizant of the programming that women have received from day one. We need to be mindful of the societal factors that make women miss out on, well, life.
Here are three concepts that we, as members of the yoga community, need to be aware of.
Fatphobia: the belief that adipose tissue is bad, unhealthy, and disgusting, and must be eliminated at all costs.
Diet Culture: the belief that people can and should control their body size by controlling their food intake.
Sexism: the belief that people of different sexes should look a certain way, and be held to different behavioral standards.
It’s easy to see how someone who is not a size two and super flexible may think that yoga is “not for her.” Men may think of yoga as “girly” or may not feel welcome in a yoga class full of women. It’s also easy to see yoga as a part of diet culture, where if it is used solely for exercise, it can contribute to weight loss. Or worse, that a “yoga diet” is made up of wheat grass shots and lemon water only.
Take a moment and envision a typical yoga studio, the place where you teach or practice. How are we—studio managers, teachers, or students in the community—actively promoting the myth of the exclusive yoga body? What are some ways we are inadvertently contributing to it? How might a person who does not identify as female, flexible, white, or “skinny” feel unwelcome?
Even if we are not teaching, what messages are we putting out there through our words on social media posts or comments about our own bodies? Who are the yogis you support on social media? Do you share the love with all yoga bodies, or just the “skinny yogi on the beach” posts? Again, look at this with an open mind and no judgement—just begin to think about how we may be contributing to making others feel unwelcome and incapable of the practice.
Phrases and messaging to avoid:
“Burn off your turkey, Christmas cookies, or holiday food.”
Some of the most harmful messaging comes around the holidays. What a downer, right? Please be mindful that the yogi who came to class is there for self-care. Maybe she has a hectic family at home to cook for, and needed an hour to herself. Maybe she has an abusive family, and is choosing to celebrate the holiday alone. Maybe she is a vegetarian and hates turkey! Bottom line: when you come to the core-work portion of your class around the holidays, leave out the food talk. Trust that the yoga is enough.
This one makes me nuts. Yes, some yoga poses can help our digestive system, but the idea that we need to “sweat out” or “wring out” the toxins from our bodies is absurd. Our bodies have an effective system of digestion and elimination that works well, even without yoga.
Are some products more “chemical-laden” or “toxic” than others? Of course! But let’s take a step back from the pseudoscience and nutritional coaching when we are teaching yoga poses. Focus more on alignment cues, or even just quiet—let students listen to the sound of their own breath. Again, the yoga is enough…we don’t need to add our own opinions in.
The cue of “navel to spine.”
I hear this one often in standing poses, and it’s always irked me—even though I find myself saying it, too, sometimes. But, as we say, “It is a yoga practice, not a yoga perfect.”
My navel is pretty far from my spine, with internal organs, blood, and muscle in between. Instead we can say, “engage your core,” “use your abdominal strength,” or “draw the belly up and in”—something that feels a bit more inclusive to more bodies.
“Float to the top of your mat.”
I have news for you: this body is not floating anywhere! Let go of the messaging that yoga is always graceful and looks pretty. Let it be strong, gritty, sweaty, slow, or powerful. Let it be easy, let it feel good, let it be a challenge.
How can we improve our words, our physical teaching spaces, and our overall messaging?
How can we (both as teachers and students) work to actively create a space that is welcoming to everybody?
Many studios are covered in wall-to-wall mirrors. Yes, the intention is to help with alignment. But as both a teacher and a student, I can tell you that I have seen this is not the result. Yogis fix their hair and shirts. They stare into their own eyes in the mirror while clearly suffering through an inaccessible pose. If you are like me, you try not to practice by the side mirror. I dread seeing myself in warrior II, and tend to pick myself apart rather than listen to the cues of my teacher—or more importantly, the sound of my own breath.
We are coming to yoga not only to care for our physical bodies, but to transcend them! The mirror is not always helpful. And from the conversations I have had with newer students—especially women who are overcoming eating disorders and new moms in their postpartum bodies—I know I am not alone.
So what can we do?
>> Take your classes outside.
>> Be mindful of your students looking in the mirror and invite them to close their eyes.
>> Have a curtain in front of the mirror that you occasionally close so that the space can feel more comfortable.
>> Even just being mindful of the effect of the mirror, and having open conversations with your students can help.
Another thought in terms of the environment is the merchandise, or “spiritual consumerism” part of the studio.
I have noticed that many studios parade us through a gift shops containing expensive items in sizes that do not reflect that average American woman (who is a size 14). I understand that some studios rely on merchandise to keep their doors open.
So what can we do?
Stock the store with brands that include extended sizing, such as Beyond Yoga and Onzie.
Shift the focus of your sales on equipment: yoga mats, straps, and eco water bottles. Meditation tools. Inspiring yoga and self-improvement books from a variety of writers and voices. Shift away from the yoga “fashion show” feel, and more toward nourishing the spirit.
Hold clothing swaps, and invite all sizes to come! Oftentimes, yoga clothing is far out of our budgets, but swapping gently used yoga clothing is a great way to get around that. Charge a $5 fee, donate to your favorite yoga-inspired charity, and let people swap and share.
Be mindful of your advertisements:
The bulletin board of a yoga studio can be a cornucopia of body shaming. With words like cleanse or detox, along with other products and people who contribute to diet culture, it can be a real downer. Make sure to check in on the bulletin board occasionally, and remove anything that is contributing to making others feel unwelcome.
And better yet, put up some positive notes to your students.
Once we become aware of the messaging in the studio environment—through mirrors, clothes, signs, and advertising—it’s easy to see how it can contribute to the exclusive feeling.
What else can we do, aside from the adjustments to the studio space?
Get outside your bubble:
The funny thing about yoga teacher trainings is that they are exclusively made of…you guessed it! Young, female, able-bodied yogis with a strong foundation of a yoga practice. Most yoga teachers who are fresh out of a training have no experience teaching bodies of different ages, shapes, or sizes. This leads to a vicious cycle where many people don’t come to classes because they feel yoga is “not for them” and then teachers might not encounter bodies that would benefit from different support, props, or poses.
Think about eagle pose: someone with thicker thighs might not feel comfortable doing the double leg wrap. Or, think boobs in your face during inversions, or that someone with a larger belly might not be able to comfortably twist. Something as simple as a forward fold can be so much more accessible with blocks under our hands at the front of our mat.
Does this mean we should exclude these poses? Of course not!
But be aware of your audience. See if you can take a moment to cue someone who is not a seasoned yogi through a pose—before you show up to teach it in your class. Maybe show your dad, your mom, your partner, or a friend who is new to yoga—just a “regular person”—to see how it will look and feel in their bodies.
Ask for feedback:
The person who feels “out of her depth” in your class is not going to tell you something was really off for her. They might feel like they are not “good” at yoga, and simply never come back. Get honest feedback from a friend or family member you trust, so that you know how it will feel for the average Jane (or Joe) in your class.
Give the invitation to take up space:
As a woman, I am often asked to make myself small. Whether it’s through squeezing by people on a crowded sidewalk, fitting onto a busy subway train at rush hour, dieting to drop a pants size, not speaking up at a meeting, or having “just a tiny slice” of cake and skim milk in your coffee—many of us are playing small or are constantly in the pursuit of shrinking.
The yoga mat can be a chance for your students to get big. Invite them to take up space as they extend their arms in warrior II, to get taller in mountain pose, and to really enjoy the stretching! Remind them that yoga is nothing to see, and everything to feel.
If you watch a baby breathe, they tend to breathe right into their bellies, but as we get older, we forget, and our breath is much more shallow. We breathe into our chests, and not much deeper. And, in our fat-phobic culture, we prefer to keep our bellies small.
We need to be reminded, and almost re-trained to breathe into our bellies. Deep belly breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which can help us stay calm and reduce anxiety.
Invite your students to bring their hands to their lower bellies. Teach them to breathe deeply, so that their breath makes their bellies press into their hands. Again, help them get big, grow, and expand!
Challenge them to let go of the idea that a flat belly or a six-pack is the only sign of health. Remind them that a well-functioning respiratory system, or a calming breathing routine, is going to do more for their overall well-being than sucking in their tummies and hoping for a flat belly.
Try to give attention to every student (unless they don’t want it):
A nice way to connect with your students and make them feel welcome is with a gentle touch. “You are welcome here,” or “you belong” can be relayed with something as small as gentle pressure on the shoulders, or helping with a yoga pose to make it feel even better. The majority of your adjustments should be done through the eyes of compassion, not correction.
Obviously, if someone is doing something dangerous, you can help them get back on track, but for the most part, let your adjustments help people relax and feel welcome.
On that note, your students might be coming in with a variety of injuries or traumas. We never know the histories that people are storing in their bodies. They really might not want to be touched.
In the beginning of every class, I share with my students that I do light, hands-on adjustments. While they are in child’s pose, or a seated position with eyes closed, I ask for either a hands up or a thumbs up from anyone who would like to be left alone. Then I know who would prefer more space, and who is open to my touch.
This seems like an obvious one, but you would be surprised how many times I have been adjusted without permission. Luckily, I never mind—I love adjustments. But for those who do mind, we need to give them the ability to “opt out.”
Taking yoga outside the classroom and off the mat:
In a world where social media serves as validation of our humanity, this is important. We can’t talk about the inclusion of all bodies and self-love, and then practice something entirely different. How can we get rid of this limiting myth of the yoga body if we are also promoting it?
Realize that we are the media.
Our message matters, and whether it is on Facebook or Instagram, we are contributing. I challenge you to post some of the more “boring” yoga poses. Talk about how meditation and yoga make you “feel.” Share those lovely outdoor yoga pics and the fancy poses you have worked hard to master—but also share the ones in your home with your kids’ toys in the background, too! If you are in an advanced pose, share if it took you years of practice to get there. Share how you used your yoga breathing in the car during terrible traffic, with a toddler meltdown in the back seat. We can help shift the image of yoga to be more accessible to everyone.
Support yoga accounts that feature a variety of yogis. Not just bigger, and not just teeny tiny. Show love to all the people practicing. Don’t be stingy with your likes! See a new yogi on Instragram? A mama who is rebuilding her core strength and getting back to her practice in her new postpartum body? Go cheer her on. Don’t save your likes for the fancy edited and photoshopped images. Give love to the real people!
Call out false or harmful messaging. Whether it is the cover of Yoga Journal, or a favorite yoga apparel company that does not carry your size…we need to speak up! Let these big yoga corporations know that we want more diverse representation.
This is obviously not an issue we will fix overnight. It’s complex and complicated.
But let’s start here. Let’s lead with love and with acceptance of our own and others’ bodies.
Let’s have the conversations. Let’s admit our mistakes, and challenge ourselves to improve. Let’s see who doesn’t have a seat at the table, and ask ourselves why. Let’s look closely at the people in the studio with us, and give them what they need—not what we think the “perfect yoga class” is, or what the “perfect yoga teacher” would say.
Let’s think about the people who are not in the studio with us, and how to make them feel welcome.
As students, teachers, people who wear yoga clothes, and people who share social media content, it is on us to be the change, to radiate that ripple effect of inclusion.
Will we do it perfectly? No! Will we reach every person who could benefit from yoga? Probably not. Does everyone have to do yoga to be healthy? No! Will we trip over ourselves trying to explain the different concepts of yoga? Absolutely!
But we can all try to do better to reject these harmful messages, and work to welcome everybody to yoga!
Author: Logan Kinney
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron