Lynn Bass used to avoid every full-length mirror she encountered. "I hated my body," she says. "I was totally disassociated from it—I would only look at my head in the mirror."
Two years ago, Bass, a senior director at a direct-marketing company, started taking classes at OM, a yoga center in New York, and the self-criticism began to ebb. With a teacher who consistently focused on accepting the body's strengths and weaknesses, Bass came to be more at peace with how she looked. "I don't hate my body anymore," she says. "I wouldn't go so far as to say that I love my body, but I have a lot more respect for it."
Bass's difficult feelings are hardly unusual. According to a 1997 Psychology Today survey, 56 percent of women and 43 percent of men are dissatisfied with their overall appearance. And yogis certainly aren't immune to the complex web of cultural forces that contribute to this epidemic of self-loathing. After all, it's not easy to reconcile life in an image-conscious world with the yogic notion that the body is simply the vessel through which we navigate a spiritual path.
But yoga practice creates an opportunity for us to re-create our relationship with our body. While we may have come to the mat looking for a "yoga butt," when we get there, we're usually so focused on directing breath into our tight quads or feeling the alignment in our hips that we forget about our appearance. By enabling us to go inward—to focus on how we feel in a pose rather than how we look—yoga encourages us to let go of our desires for our body and criticisms of it, to enjoy its movements. Over time, this experiential relationship with our body may even enable us to forsake the mirror for our internal seer, to filter out social pressures and unrealistic expectations, and to accept ourselves as we are.
"Yoga is a great tool, because we get to practice being in relationship with our bodies," says Christina Sell, author of Yoga from the Inside Out: Making Peace with Your Body Through Yoga (Hohm, 2003). "We get to tune in to the fine details of how we bend and stretch, which starts the process of self-inquiry. The doorway is often the body and the breath, and then we begin to become aware of what we say to ourselves—to monitor the criticisms and the judgments."
Getting to Know You
Body image has certainly been a hot-button issue for me. I used to feel alienated from my physical body, angry at its stubborn resistance to fit society's mold. I felt I took up too much space, that my belly stuck out, and that my clothes accentuated every line that wasn't perfectly flat. It was only after I took up a regular yoga practice that I realized it wasn't my body but my body image that was totally distorted—and that this skewed perspective was causing me to harbor resentment toward my body. My practice taught me to see my body the way it really was (rather than simply feeling fat when I was unhappy and thin when I was happy) and even to accept its quirks, like the way my ankles crack in yoga class or how my flat feet don’t fit into many kinds of shoes.
As the years go on, my sense of confidence continues to grow, and a new sense of ease has spilled over into how I walk, stand, and sit. My relationship to my body has transformed from adversarial to loving—and I owe a lot of this change to yoga.
According to Tomi-Ann Roberts, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Colorado College who specializes in the topic, body image is defined as "the extent to which your physical self-concept plays a role in your self-esteem." Research by Roberts and others has shown that body image is the top predictor of self-esteem—if you feel good about your physical self, you're likely to have a strong sense of self-worth. Anyone who has left yoga class feeling happy and limber knows experientially that yoga can help a person feel good about his or her physical self. But how does it create this effect?
For one thing, the body simply feels better after physical exercise. Research has shown that people who exercise moderately have a more positive body image, and many of us know from experience that simply getting on the mat and moving around makes us feel good. Muscles stretch, and tight areas loosen up. After a vinyasa class, we might even get a natural high from endorphins. With a regular yoga practice, we not only notice physical changes (greater strength, increased stamina and mobility), we also begin to feel more connected to our body.
After practicing regularly for some time, many people develop a new appreciation for the body. Some find that the pounds drop off, the skin glows, and the eyes become luminous. Others enjoy a subtler transformation: They notice that their every move is imbued with greater power and grace. Often, the simple increase in physical awareness—feeling, as you walk down the street, the muscles you worked the day before—results in an ongoing positive feeling. "I have found that as my practice deepens and my body becomes healthier and stronger, my comfort level and confidence in myself increases," Nashville yoga teacher Katryna M. Wright says. This is a common sentiment among yogis.
Yoga also fosters a more intimate relationship with the body by teaching us how it functions. Experiencing how external rotation lengthens the spine or where the sacrum and ilium come together enhances our appreciation for our body. "I feel more in control of my body, because I have a better understanding of it and the way all the different parts work together," Bass says, describing a realization that came to her after a challenging Ado Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) preparation.
Making Peace with Your Body
Looking in the mirror, it's easy for most of us to see our perceived flaws. But on the mat, there are often no mirrors. If we can go inward and allow our internal voices to quiet down, we can focus on our body, our breath, and the present moment.
Over time, our practice grows. One day, we miraculously hold ourselves up in Sirsasana (Headstand) or balance in Bakasana (Crane Pose). We notice our hips opening more profoundly in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Somehow, we make it through just one more vinyasa when we thought we couldn’t possibly do it. These milestones may seem small, but they serve up heaping portions of confidence.
"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.
How does yoga shift us out of this painful tendency? It begins by encouraging the quiet consciousness that focuses on the spread of the toes instead of how we look in our yoga outfit. And, having taught us to be alert to our own strengths and weaknesses, yoga gives us permission, even insists, that we honor our bodies—that we come down from Sirsasana when our neck aches or take Balasana (Child's Pose) when our legs are wobbling through a vinyasa—no matter what the rest of the class is doing. Sometimes yoga even demands that we question authority so as not to injure ourselves; it shows us that there are moments when it's appropriate to disregard our teacher's instruction in order to honor our particular body. In other words, yoga is an amazing training ground for learning how to disregard unnecessary or harmful social pressures and expectations.
Learning to honor our own instincts, needs, and internal messages is a subtle and sometimes challenging process, but it pays big dividends: By loosening the grip of the egocentric self, we cultivate an experience of the transcendent Self. As a culture, we spend an inordinate amount of time on physical self-improvement: Our nails are painted, our bodies waxed, our wrinkles Botoxed away. All of this can make for a society of well-groomed yet self-absorbed citizens. Through yoga, we learn to loosen our intense attachment to how we look, as we learn that we are not our body. We practice not identifying with our outward appearance so deeply—an exercise that can be a great gift for those who are chronically preoccupied with thoughts of shame and anxiety about their body.
We learn that happiness—even happiness about how we feel about our body—lies within, if we can just quiet down for a moment and find it. Losing the preoccupation with how we look, even for a moment, allows us to experience fully the miracle of the human body rather than feel burdened by it. Instead of seeing fat thighs or sagging breasts, we can see the divine within ourselves—and do the same with others we meet. "We are magnificent works of art, a living, breathing miracle," says Stan Dale, founder of the Human Awareness Institute in Foster City, California, which conducts workshops on intimacy and body awareness. "Want to see a miracle? Just take a deep breath."
While the culture of desire encourages us to feel deprived and want more, yoga practice teaches us to feel satisfied, joyful, and grateful for what we do have and who we, in fact, already are. The only risk of adopting this perspective, Dale says, is that "if we loved the way we looked, our economy would collapse."
At Home in the Self
One happy casualty of releasing this preoccupation is the hopeless pursuit of perfection. A healthy body is a true blessing, but healthy is not the same as perfect. No matter how advanced your practice is, yoga is just that—a practice. We can always learn harder poses or hold them longer. The longer we practice, the more yoga teaches us that there really is no point in expecting perfection, in our practice or in our body.
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?
Yes, in subtle ways.
While yoga promotes acceptance of the body most of the time, practicing yoga in America isn't a cure-all for the body-image blues. In fact, in our fitness-crazed, perfection-minded society, the modern yoga industry can actually contribute to our body-image woes.
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.