It’s that lovey-dovey time of year, when people go on fancy dates and eat lots of sweets. The corollary to Valentine’s Day is validation of self-worth for those in relationship—and thus diminished validation for those not in relationship. From that point, it’s a short hop to validation of your appearance, right? Even though high school was half my lifetime ago, this time of year still makes me think the self-image and body insecurities of adolescence.
When I was in high school, the waif body (soooooo not mine) was in. I thought that chatter would disappear once I reached adulthood. Fast forward several years, when I started practicing asana, I encountered the so-called “yoga body.” (Groan.) Some of those pesky, adolescent insecurities never fully go away, apparently.
Health, self-worth, appearance, body image—they can be so prickly. Particularly in our culture that fixates on weight and appearance, direct dialogue about all of them within asana practice is so important. And I want to share some of my declarations.
For starters, I have a “yoga body.” A more accurate term is “asana body,” since asana (the posture practice of yoga) is what most affects physique. I have an asana body not because I blend in (or not) with advertisements, but because asana practice defines my body.
All of my students, in all heights and weights and shapes and sizes and ages and abilities, likewise, have asana bodies. Regardless of their measurements, asana practice shapes their physical forms.
Certainly the stereotype has some basis in the truth, but at this point hopefully people realize that the asana body is a myth. For example, the website of Curvy Yoga (which I will henceforth call Curvy Asana) frequently asserts, via text and photos, that asana is appropriate for all bodies. SO IMPORTANT. There is not a single type of asana body because ASANA IS FOR EVERYONE.
As a teacher, rather than frame asana in the context of weight, I address weight only after a student mentions it first. For example, people with specific body concerns, such as diabetes or knee problems, often tell me that weight is an issue they hope to change. Great. But although it is an important health factor, I choose not frame weight as the ultimate determinant of how to practice and teach asana. In fact, some of my students who have needed the most asana modifications were not overweight at all! They had other concerns, such as vertigo or anxiety.
Yet Curvy Asana seems mightily attached to incessant reminders to readers and participants NOT to lose weight. Variations of that commentary appear all over the website:
“Our worth is measured by trusting our gut, not reducing it.”
“There’s no more need to give another dime to the diet industry.”
So true. Asana is not about weight loss. It is about SO MUCH MORE that is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT! I would be a terrible teacher if I told my students that they would be better yoga practitioners if they lost weight or had a certain body type.
However, an equal disservice would be to tell them that nothing about them should change, that they should stay exactly as they are and resist any and all physical transformation. That would be foolish, particularly since everyone’s body has changed, even if only subtly. New muscle tone. Weight gain. Weight loss. Increased range of motion.
For some people, asana renders physical changes that are barely perceptible. But those who do change physically should not be disparaged. Over the years, I have had many asana students who lost weight as a result of practice. Not because I emphasized (or even mentioned) that weight loss was necessary, but simply because weight loss was part of their process.
And this is why I struggle with Curvy Asana’s design. On the one hand, I’m glad that it doesn’t fixate on weight loss—asana is not and should not be about weight loss. But Curvy Asana still fixates on weight. For example, a blog post praises the idea that “I’m not trying to lose weight.” I find this opposite perspective reductionist and equally unproductive. Moreover, it contradicts non-attachment, one of the biggest lessons of asana (and yoga, more broadly). That you must surrender to change, rather than remain attached or identified with your current physical form. So good, don’t try to lose weight. But also don’t try not to lose weight. Let the practice work on you.
Weight is not a switch with the only 2 options being obese or scarily/diet-industry skinny. Human existence, on a physical level, is far more complex than those extremes. I agree that I should trust the gut. But how about not imposing any particular premise on intuition? In other words, trusting the gut means letting it do what it needs, and for some people it may change sizes.
Why (seemingly) criticize people who seek a health regimen for the sake of losing weight? Or those who lose weight as part of an asana practice, even if they never had the specific intention to do so? By that rationale, should I criticize a student who stopped having to take diabetic medication, in part because of weight loss? Instead of congratulating him, should I have said, “You’ve totally missed the point; it’s not about your body”?
I have been overweight in the past, though never so severely that I was out of breath from climbing stairs. But I have known plenty of people who fit that description, and I support anyone who wishes to change it, however that looks.
Allowing the body to shed weight is not equivalent to buying into the diet industry—its pills, gadgets, technological apparel, and disturbing motivation. I heartily concur not to support the diet industry—because I believe in a spectrum, not extremes. (But that statment is rather striking from someone who charges nearly $3500 for a teacher training.)
When I was overweight, I clung to my size. Why? Because it was the perfect security blanket to ignore my appearance. I appreciated the ongoing proof that that I was unattractive. Why? Because I had the perfect excuse to ignore any potential vulnerability or intimacy. And damn, what a distance I maintained, via my weight, from human connection. I never lived a full life until I allowed everything to change, including my body, without judgement. I learned a whole lot, and I am far healthier.
And that is how I do not to support the many unhealthy institutions we encounter—the diet industry, the fashion industry, the advertising industry, the “health” industry—by living a truly healthy and genuine life. I am not interested in Curvy Asana’s “fabulous” certification for people already teaching yoga—“how to create yoga experiences that are inclusive, accessible & enriching for students of every size, shape, age & ability [sic Oxford commas].” (For the record, every yoga certification I’ve seen claims its relevance to people of all sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities.)
As a teacher with nearly a decade of experience, as a co-director of a studio where I am 50% of the teaching staff, I put tremendous care into how I present asana practice. I choose not to have a physical characteristic form the foundation of practice. The only characteristic that truly matters, above all, is the willingness to show up—to truly practice—consistently.
I focus on health and allow space for my students to work on themselves. I believe the best asana practice allows you to discover the subtleties of your body, allowing it to change however much or little, as you become more healthy, and, more importantly, yourSelf.
∞ Grateful to Julie Laurent for sharing her beautiful art.
SK © 2014