Ever since puberty, I can’t remember a time when my appearance wasn’t on my mind. Being a teenager was all about feeling too fat, too pale, too short, or just plain not pretty enough. By the time I was 16 I realized that if I simply didn’t eat much, I’d stay thin enough to feel attractive and valuable. By the time I was 23, I ate so little it’s surprising I had enough energy to make it through college. I discovered yoga when I was 18 and began a regular practice by the time I was 22.
One would think that yoga, a practice built on tenets like self-awareness and liberation, would have helped me overcome some ofthe shadows of my self-loathing youth. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. In the early days of my sitting practice and Integral Yoga, I felt a genuine connection with my inner-self and developed the beginning of what might have become a true appreciation for my body. The yoga did what it was meant to do, which is bring me face to face with my shadow, and over time I found myself fully immersed in the same patterns I developed as a young girl. I was drawn to a more athletic and physically demanding form of asana, which reawakened my desire for attention and validation. I pushed my body to extremes. I quit eating and drinking most everything, fasted regularly, slept little, and lived life according to the strident yardstick of my own neurosis, convinced that this was clean living—that this was what a yogini would do. None of this was easy, yet it proved to be far less challenging than actually seeing myself as I really was.
In July of 2010 the National Eating Disorders Association published the statistic that nearly 10 million females and 1 million males suffer from some form of body dismorphia or disordered eating. According to one study, over half of teenage girls use unhealthy weight management practices like skipping meals, fasting, and purging. Another study cited that 42% of first through third grade girls want to be thinner and 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. 91% of college women surveyed have tried some sort of diet.
We must question the message promoted by the yoga industry. Developing an authentic practice is ever more challenging in today’s yoga climate. The pages of magazines may provide us with a quick introduction to yoga, but without proper study of the entire teaching, we run the risk of taking things completely out of context. My own youthful self-loathing blended with and was fueled by mass media. Not knowing where to go for the real teachings of yoga, I went where most people do—the internet and the newsstands. In between the articles in Yoga Journal were ads of beautiful men and women in complex and stunning poses. Models and celebrities do yoga, and many people base their successes and failures against these measures.
For example, one yoga magazine promotes tapah, or austerity on one page, and on the next is the image of a barely clothed yogini striking an impressive pose. The message is that if you have enough discipline, you too can do this, or look like this. The tenet of austerity is stripped of any intrinsic value whatsoever, and we end up doing yoga just to do impressive postures, look great in shorts, and feel really good about who we think we are. This might translate to an inner dialogue of, “Don’t get injured, don’t gain weight, and by all means don’t get old and you’ll feel great for the rest of your life.”
The lesson of authentic self-awareness goes beyond the self, particularly for those of us who have taken on the responsibility of guiding others. With so many young women starting yoga, I feel a great responsibility for them and their development. I see many of them preoccupied with how they look, and many young girls write on their release forms that they are doing yoga in part to loose weight and look better. I often see women at the edge of disordered eating, if not past that edge. I’ve also sat after class with women who cry over not feeling good enough or thin enough. Each of these problems lives inside us. How can we not identify with the collective suffering that has been caused by the pervasive dimorphic body image promoted through consumerism? And how can we return yoga to its roots as a spiritual discipline?
Pattabhi Jois’s often quoted words are, “1% theory and 99% practice.” Yet contemporary yoga seems more aligned with the statement: “0% theory and 100% practice.” It’s important to come to a holistic understanding of yoga and its philosophies. The study of any real tradition requires commitment, not just to the physical practice, but to study and contemplation as well. A basic understanding of the purpose of yoga is essential if we expect to see and comprehend the inherent contradictions between what yoga really is and how it is portrayed in the media. This isn’t to say that one cannot or should not enjoy the physical side of practice—just as long as the physical does not dominate its psychological and spiritual benefits.
We cannot take a spiritual teaching in bits and pieces as we see fit, lest we misinterpret what is being said. For example, the Old Testament of The Bible contains the verse “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” which has supported generations of religious conflict. Yet, Jesus advises his followers in the New Testament to “turn the other cheek” in the face of adversity, which has provided ample fuel for the passive resistance movements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Similarly, the Upanishads talk about ahmisa, or non-violence, but the Bhagavad-Gita emphasizes dharma, one’s life purpose, to such an extent that Krishna condones Arjuna’s war on his own family.
Before we can attempt to rectify or make sense of conflicting statements within a single philosophy, we must first become intimately familiar with a teaching—in both theory and practice. In yoga, we must take teachings intheir entirety. Taking abhyasa, discipline, and separating it from vairagya, dispassion, changes their inherent meanings. When we make a vow to fast or to go without eating meat, is it because we loathe who we are? Because we are trying to cover up our inadequacies with a mask of spiritual dogma? Or do we do these things in honor of the true essence that lies within us and also beyond us?
Similarly, what kind of discipline is it to make a practice out of subjugation of the true self through abusive behavior? Ariel Glucklich’s book Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul looks at ascetic practices as being of two primary sorts, intransitive and transitive. He defines intransitive those that do not transform the practitioner. Rather what they do is serve as a form of punishment. The doer feels unclean or unworthy, and therefore must repent. Transitive practices, on the other hand, are very different in intention. They seek to transform the doer, and are performed as a sacrifice. In this vein, we give up ways of being to something higher than our ordinary ego-based selves. We let go of the lesser for the higher, and in doing so, we are transformed. This is the ultimate symbol of Jesus’ last supper before the crucifixion and the transubstantiation of Christ where he says, “This is my body which will be given up for you, take of this and eat of it. This is my blood, which will be given up for you, take of this and drink of it.” Jesus sacrifices his physical form for the spiritual lesson at the other end.
Can we relate this to how our yoga practice is approached? New Ageism has long promoted this idea that we are capable of taking control of our own destinies. We read books like The Power of Positive Thinking and The Law of Attraction with the belief that we are capable of governing ourselves without first attempting to engage in any real self-work. Again, we must examine from where the desire to control our lives comes from. What do we really want? Are we molding our minds to attain wealth, status, and beauty? Upon closer examination we see that all spiritual traditions, including yoga, advise us against greed, covetousness, and vanity. It’s interesting to see how yoga been usurped by the ego, thus loosing it’s real value and meaning.
Yoga is ultimately a transformative discipline – not designed to feed our egos, but rather to open us to a potential wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. The body is the vehicle; only that. We must learn to treat it with respect and with a measure of discipline, but it should never govern our lives, dictate our self-esteem, or make us feel worthy or unworthy. Our wisdom and character, in context with others and with the universe-at-large, are the ultimate measures of our humanity, not the mere shape of our body.