Body Positive Yoga – or how to make our teachings more body accepting and inclusive

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” – Mary Oliver

…I read today a yoga teacher discussing her personal decision to get and later remove her breast implants.

…I see yoga influencers sharing images of relaxing their abdomen next to images of their taut lean bodies as if she is somehow showing courage to “let it all hang out”.

…A student recently commented that she is often aware of being the biggest person in the room when she attends yoga and Pilates classes. 

…I also recently saw a teacher I know complaining of disenchantment with her Ashtanga practice, yet she seems to be pushing through daily and filming herself working hard on the mat, as if a puritanical discipline is to be admired? To me, that’s body-denying asceticism. I wanted to offer her permission to chill out, rest, change to a restorative practice, or scale back the sequence to match her needs better. 

When teachers and students share these types of body image stories, it can be raw and real and quite lovely. However, it also demonstrates clearly how the body image issues of yoga teachers impact not only the teachers themselves, but through them their students.

Without undermining anyone else’s inner life and process, this is potentially disempowering to students and people living in bodies that may exist beyond the narrow parameters of social acceptability.

More than half the adult population is medically classified by their BMI as overweight or obese (we will leave aside for now the fact that experts disagree on using BMI as a genuine measure for anything!). 

The point being is that the way yoga is currently being portrayed and promoted in popular culture is that a “yoga body” is a fit, thin body able to perform gymnastics-like poses. And we need to seriously ask ourselves how this affects the majority of the population that does not fit this mold.

Yoga and the Body Positivity movement 

“Body positivity” arose in the 1960s with a movement for fat acceptance, which has evolved into the Instagram hashtag driven movement of Body positivity (#bopo) we see today. Yet there’s a performative aspect to #bopo that’s not quite aligned with the original ethos of the movement. Earlier incarnations of the message focused on helping marginalised people, while these days it’s become a marketing tool that sometimes misses the mark.

We all have a body image, an idea of our physicality in our own minds, that may or may not align with the reality of the spaces we inhabit. While a greater awareness of body image issues in the yoga community is generally helpful, the co-opting of body positivity into commercialised wellness culture has been problematic. 

Rather than focusing on feeling positive about the body we have, many influential voices now call for neutrality or acceptance of diversity in bodies, rather than relentless positivity. This makes sense for an inclusive society that welcomes those #spoonies living with chronic illness, for cancer survivors, trauma survivors, and those with different abilities, as well as those with more or less adipose tissue than the dominant culture prefers. 

Acceptance rather than positivity. It’s a subtle yet radical shift that makes room for way more possibilities in how we relate to our own and other people’s bodies. Radical self-acceptance requires breaking up with our conditioning. Yoga and mindfulness practices can help us be more self-aware, and retrain our thinking about how we relate to our own body and to our students’ bodies. It makes sense then that yoga teachers, studios and communities should work to understand and embody the principles and practices of body acceptance.

How can teachers/studios be good allies to people in unconventional bodies?

It starts with Svadhyaya (Self Study). What do you think when you see your own body? Reflected in the mirror, in photos and videos, when you look down in the shower or on your yoga mat? What sort of self-talk do you have towards your body? Are you critical of some or all aspects of your physical existence?

Do you judge other people’s bodies? We have all internalised to a greater or lesser degree, the dominant gaze – which is a male gaze, and looks at women’s bodies in particular with judgement and objectifies them, judging and categorising. 

Layered onto that we may have been exposed to subcultures such as dance, gymnastics and, of course, yoga culture, which add to our internalised structure of belief about what is a “good” or attractive or desirable (to have or to hold) body. 

Yoga culture preferences and privileges thin bodies, mobile bodies, youthful looking bodies. 

Developing genuine compassion is another key here – yoga teachers who conform to the conventionally accepted body type may struggle to understand the sense of alienation that anyone who is not thin, mobile, youthful, or has a visible difference, experiences. 

It’s hard for everyone to cultivate a steady, regular yoga practice, then imagine how hard it is when you add in the inner and outer obstacles of feeling not quite welcome, not quite good enough, and you have unconventional looking people staying away from yoga classes. If yoga teachers are willing to look at the issues of race, gender, and socio-economic disadvantage, they must also be willing to look at their body biases and issues. All these issues intersect, and require pro-active education and effort to address.

When yoga teachers get it wrong, they consciously or unconsciously give preference to bodies that fit the current ideal. This is conveyed verbally, and nonverbally, in person and via marketing platforms. 

Yoga and Diet Culture

Have you ever noticed how yoga culture allows or encourages diet culture conversations? Imagine being the student inhabiting the biggest body in the room, already aware of your difference, when the students next to you start discussing their juice fast and how they are desperate to lose the “stubborn last 5kgs”. That my friends, is a shitty feeling, and while some people can shrug it off, most will have an experience of shame to some degree.

Even worse is when teachers/studios start the conversation by theming classes or practices around “burning off the Easter eggs” or “30 days to a flat stomach challenge” or sell diet shakes/meal replacements. Even the green washed ones that look healthy, still send a message about what is acceptable and preferable in that space.

I once went to give a talk to prospective teacher trainees and one person started by saying how she’d lost 20kg since she discovered yoga and she wants to pass on the benefits. It was very hard to shift the conversation once people started talking about numbers, size, and yoga’s capacity to tone and tighten a rebellious body. It is so far from an interoceptive, reflective, meditative, inner life. Yet we are all soaking in the dominant diet and body conscious culture. Not many teacher trainings go far enough to address and dismantle these systems of oppression.

Weight loss desire may bring some people to yoga, but body acceptance and a richer, more peaceful inner life, will surely keep them engaged better than the ephemeral, ever shifting goal posts of body toxicity. 

How to be a better ally, and more inclusive to diverse bodies

Let’s start with Social Media.

Social media is well evidenced to be harmful to people’s body image. While we know intellectually that images are manipulated, absorbing a feed full of seemingly “perfect” bodies showing off their contortion ability in gymnastics poses in order to sell yoga does more harm than good. 

As teachers, we have a responsibility when we have a platform, whether that’s 3 people in a room or 30,000 people online.

Use diverse images in your marketing – if nobody with a diverse body type is coming to your classes, that speaks volumes about the culture and community you are creating. Do better, and they will come. Empower them, make them feel like yoga is theirs, and you will have willing participants for photo shoots that tell the world that you are there for those who seek yoga, in precisely the body they live in. 

Teach yoga from the inside out – encourage people to enquire, feel, get curious, explore, and offer options that make poses easier without shaming anyone.

Avoid diet culture for yourself and everyone else, it’s toxic and hateful and pointless. What a world we live in where food, the very stuff that sustains life, is classified as morally right or wrong. Get over it, get through it, and find your path to eating from a place of love not fear. 

Stay out of the nutrition field unless you are qualified. Yoga teachers often overreach in this area and give advice that is potentially harmful, even though their intentions are generally good. You don’t know if someone is recovering from an eating disorder, or has an invisible health condition, so your advice to drink green smoothies, go vegan, or eliminate food groups is misguided at best, and harmful at worst. Just because a style of eating suits you, doesn’t qualify you to advise others. Nutrition is a complex field requiring years of study of anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, and food science. If a student is asking for nutrition support, suggest they consult with your friendly neighbourhood degree qualified dietitian or nutritionist. Even better, refer to HAES (Health at Every Size) aligned practitioner.

Yoga philosophy reminds us of impermanence, and the folly of overly attaching to the vehicle of the body. Some interpretations of yoga philosophy are quite anti- the physical body and privilege escaping it, getting off the wheel of samsara, and never needing to be born into a body at all.

Yet modern life is already disembodied, maybe more so since Covid and our increased time spent online. We don’t need yoga and meditation communities to also take us away from ourselves, we want to use the body, breath, and present moment awareness to go deeper, perhaps to transcend, but not to avoid, deny, punish or negate these incredible meat suits.

Bodies change throughout our lifespan. Yoga needs to change to accommodate bodily variations, states, and traits. Pain, injury, disability, disfigurement, hormonal changes, medication side effects, pregnancy, post-natal recovery, health conditions, lifestyle factors, broader societal and cultural issues, and genetics all play into the current state of our body. 

Yoga is remarkable medicine for healing, yet many people feel like yoga doesn’t suit them, isn’t welcoming to their body and therefore isn’t welcoming to them. We believe the yoga community can do better.

All our trainings and offerings are informed by a culture of body acceptance and positivity. We are advocates for peacefully embodying the body you live in right now, and respecting and loving diversity in ourselves, our students and communities.

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