Take the example of Carolyn Leech, who lives in Naperville, Illinois. Yoga class provided her with a space in which to slowly accept what she perceived as her body's flaws. Taking off her shoes and sharing her "imperfect toes" with the class was a first step. Then came switching from sweatpants to shorts, thereby uncovering the scar on her knee from a long-ago surgery but also leaving her freer "to think about the alignment of my knee in Virabhadrasana [Warrior Pose]," she says. Next she talked herself into wearing a sleeveless shirt, despite the self-consciousness she felt because doing so revealed a scar from a cancer biopsy done months earlier. The journey has led her to accept her body, imperfections and all, in a way she had not previously found possible.
"I've seen people whose bodies were sick, but their brilliance came through in their eyes and their smiles," says yoga instructor Nischala Joy Devi, who works with people who have life-threatening illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
This underscores the fact that the body does, of course, get sick and injured, and it does eventually die. Fortunately, self-reflection and cultivating flexibility of the mind can help us maintain a healthy mental and spiritual perspective when these things happen, as they inevitably will. This challenging but rewarding practice occurs "when we put the energy into the inner self that never ages or leaves us, no matter how old, twisted, injured, or decrepit our bodies become," Devi says.
After a decade of practicing yoga, I have finally learned that there are many ways to feel good—and that most of them are not based on how I look. Surely the current worldwide yoga boom is driven, at least in some part, by a hunger to find a sense of meaning and authenticity in our consumer culture. If so, perhaps one of the by-products of this boom will be a collective cry: "Stop the madness! We are satisfied with who we are!"
Perhaps a new culture based on physical and psychoemotional health will even emerge one day. "I think that the trend in yoga will bring us away from the myth of the perfection of the body," Devi says, "into the reality that we are all divine spirits—and to me, that is the real essence of yoga."
For those who find themselves plagued by body issues, acceptance is really the final frontier. And we learn this kind of acceptance and contentment every day when we go inward in a forward bend or totally let go in Savasana (Corpse Pose).
"That's why daily practice is so important," reminds Annie Carpenter, a yoga instructor in Santa Monica, California, who has worked with people suffering from eating disorders. "It doesn't matter that we learn a big lesson once; it matters that we learn the small lessons day after day for an entire lifetime." Lynn Bass agrees. "Now, when I do poses that used to be challenging for me," she says, "I have an extra special appreciation for my body and what it can do."
Does yoga fuel the body-image blues?