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Positive I.D.

In a culture that promotes dissatisfaction with our bodies and alienation from them, yoga teaches us contentment, gratitude, and acceptance of how we look—and who we are.

By Nora Isaacs

"In yoga, you use your body functionally, and that really gives you a great sense of accomplishment," says Hara Estroff Marano, author of Style Is Not a Size (Bantam, 1991) and creator of the above-mentioned Psychology Today study on body image. The sense of achievement is nice, but far more valuable is the intimate relationship with the body that these achievements represent. And as we learn to relate to the body in this new way, we often grow more accepting of it—maybe even grateful for it. "Acceptance to me means being in an ongoing process with our bodies and how we feel about them, rather than looking at an end result," Sell says.

Of course, it's easy to feel pleased with our body when it is improving or getting stronger. But through an emphasis on acceptance, yoga teaches us to embrace both our strengths and our deficiencies. For instance, Lynn Bass has open hips but tight shoulders. By acknowledging rather than resisting her limitations, she has found more joy in her practice. "When I first started practicing, I hated when we would do anything that required my shoulders to be open," she says. "Then I realized that there were some poses I could do that others struggled with. That helped me to appreciate what my body can do and not get as frustrated over what it can't do." As we come to accept our limitations on the mat, we often realize that we can also accept the limitations of our physical appearance: When we can acknowledge, for instance, that our shoulders are tighter than most and that we may never be able to master certain poses as a result, we might also begin to accept that our thighs are larger than society’s ideal.

The process of establishing a healthy relationship with our body also means accepting the changes that come with age or when we get sick or injured. Many people with chronic pain, injuries, or disease report that yoga helps them make peace with their physical experience and limitations. Three years ago, Shirley Spencer was injured in a commercial truck accident that left her with herniated disks in her neck. Although it is sometimes painful to do yoga, she recently began practicing it."It is making a difference in the functionality of my body," she says, "and I am beginning to be at home in it again."

Seeing Yourself Clearly

Yoga works to change our perceptions of our appearance by shifting our vision of ourselves from the third person (seeing ourselves as we think others see us) to the first person. And that's a good thing. "Women who view themselves from an outsider's perspective have a lot of negative consequences—feelings of shame, eating disorders, feelings of anxiety, loss of interest in sex," Roberts says. Her most recent study found that women in particular are prone to self-objectification.

In that study, both male and female subjects took a math test in front of a full-length mirror, wearing either a sweater or a bathing suit. Roberts found that while the men did about the same on the test regardless of their attire, the women had significantly lower math scores on tests taken while they were wearing swimsuits. According to Roberts's interpretation, the study shows that in front of a mirror, the women saw themselves as others might see them and became distracted by that image.

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Reader Comments

jtomanek

I agree with the comments above. I am an over 55 teacher, in great shape, not like the models in most pictures, and I even went so far as to compete in an asana competition. Not trying to "win", but to inspire people and to show that anyone, any size, any age can certainly do yoga.

Jyotsna

While reading this article, I left it mid-way to suggest the magzine team to do what they believe in. How ironic that even the picture along with this article is of a woman with a perfect body. These pictures lead to unrealistic expectations that consistent yoga, or even a crash course in it will get one such a body.
And reading other comments I realise, I'm not alone in this observation. Pls take note!!!

Matt

It's ironic that this article appears in a magazine (YJ) that features so many gorgeous models in their issues. Even the person in the picture that accompanies this article seems to be a model. Why?

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