5 Body Image Considerations for Yoga Influencers

When I started writing about the intersection between yoga and body image in 2010, it was to share how yoga had made a positive impact on my body image—one that had been toxic and negative most of my life. It’s a stance that I continue to take: yoga can re-connect us to our bodies and return us to ourselves in compassion, humility, grace, love and forgiveness.

But, the conversation was complicated, and still is. The mainstreaming of yoga started around 2000 (five years before Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty sold Yoga Works to AskJeeves.com). The practice passed through the filter of popular culture. As a result, and as a way to remain competitive (not to mention capitalize on yoga’s increased popularity and access to a larger market), Yoga Journal covers changed, advertisements of an increasing number of yoga products increased and reflected the marketing tactics employed by many of the high-end fashion magazines, the emergence of the yoga celebrity and the cult of personality flourished, as well as the styles and “brands” of yoga taught.

In the process, “contemporary” yoga culture emerged and it became imperative to distinguish between yoga practice and yoga culture (as well as the business and branding of yoga) – they are not the same. Yoga culture began to look like our celebrity-obsessed, white-washed, size-zero pop culture with a bit of “spirituality” thrown in the mix.

And, unfortunately, the visual representation of the “yoga body” and what a “yogi” is in yoga publications and on social media, mimic the sterile, homogenous and one-dimensional images of beauty in mainstream culture. Yet those images are not benign. They marginalize many members of the yoga community and elevate one “yoga body” over all others.

The frustration of some members of the yoga community has brought various corporations, publications and public figures under fire for perpetuating these stereotypes and fueling body-image anxiety.

On July 12, lululemon and Yoga Journal came to the table at The Practice of Leadership panel discussion at YJLIVE! in San Diego to discuss the relationship between yoga culture and body image. The main goal: to examine the current representation of yogis and yoga bodies, the effects of this imagery and what can be done to create positive change for the yoga community as a whole.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this represents a water-shed moment in yoga culture. And, while people may remain skeptical about the motives behind this conversation, this is a brave and courageous move to continue to build on.

Based on our dialogue, here are my 5 things to consider as we move forward:

1.      Conscious conversation: It is possible to navigate uncomfortable topics and conflict with compassion and courage. And, as a “conscious community,” it’s up to us to live our practice by showing up and engaging with respect, humanity, and curiosity. Panel moderators, Kerri Kelley and Hala Khouri, set the groundwork and tone for a conversation that I view as successful and productive. In future conversations, we can continue to ask ourselves how to approach conflict and be authentic in the process.

2.      How do we define yoga?: Inevitably, in discussions about yoga and body image, we need to dissect what “yoga” means. Asana? Meditation? Awareness? While I don’t propose to have the complete answer, I certainly have an opinion. And I do know not everything or anything can be called “yoga.” I also know not all yoga practices are taught in the same way or emphasize the same things. And when it comes to body image, practicing with a yoga teacher that (un)consciously touts the body (i.e. “bikini season”) as an incentive for doing more vinyasa, will not make a positive impact. In fact, yoga classes like these, that emulate fitness rhetoric, can actually exacerbate body dissatisfaction.

3.      Conscious community and responsibility: What is the role and responsibility of the yoga teacher in facilitating safe, body-positive spaces? What is the role and responsibility of yoga publications and corporations in creating and disseminating inclusive and diverse representations of yogis and the yoga body? Which teachers are most heavily promoted? Is it because of their marketability, skill or knowledge? What images do we as yoga teachers and practitioners share on social media? Do we only post and share images of flexible, thin and toned bodies or do we promote a diverse range of images? We all create the yoga culture and we can all turn the tide.

4.      How do we define “health”? In promoting yoga as the key to a “healthy” lifestyle, how many fallacies, inaccuracies and stereotypes do we perpetuate when we focus on a body type that statistically represents only 5% of the population? Are we equating “health” with weight, BMI, flexibility, strength, or absence of disease? Too often, people, including yoga practitioners, undermine their health in its pursuit. How can we continue promoting wellness and “health” while increasing the range of diversity we feature and celebrate?

5.      Authentic inspiration: In discussing aspirational marketing, the panel agreed that authenticity is what is most inspiring, beautiful and powerful. And in focusing on authentic representations of beauty, power and sensuality, we’ll be able to create fully-dimensional and diverse imagery of yogis and the yoga body that promote inclusivity, self-love and acceptance.

Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker and Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies. She is a contributing author in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice and is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body, and co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.

See more on our Practice of Leadership Panel:

Yoga’s Evolving Body Image: A Call to Action from Justin Michael Williams

Wrap Up: Sociologist Kimberly Dark on the Practice of Leadership Panel