Yoga has become big business in America, as teachers, studio owners, retreat centers, clothing and prop makers, publishers, and others try to make a living off the practice. One consequence of the yoga boom: "We are sold the same things as the rest of America—you can be thinner and therefore happier, have better abs, practice yoga for a better butt," author Christina Sell says. "In this consumer culture, we are even taught to lust after spiritual enlightenment."
Of course, yoga is in fact a tremendous physical activity; if you practice it regularly, your body will become toned and capable of more advanced poses. But if this is the sole reason you practice, then you are only encouraging self-consciousness. When you focus your attention on your appearance, you set yourself up for disappointment and judgment when you don't meet your own expectations.
Schools that emphasize perfect alignment over all else can also make it hard for us to feel good about our body. If we abandon the idea of perfection, however, we can overcome the tyranny of alignment and begin to develop acceptance. "Many people practice with the false intention of achieving the perfect pose," says yoga teacher Annie Carpenter, who has known students to go home and practice in front of the mirror until they "get it right." Carpenter tells her students to instead find their perfect pose by observing what they think their body needs and doing that.
We yogis don't have to let these potential pitfalls set us back. The good news is that yoga, when practiced with awareness, offers the perfect means to recognize and confront modern stereotypes and find a peaceful way of relating to our body by forging our own path on the mat.
Nora Isaacs is a Yoga Journal senior editor.