Yoga and Body Image: Thoughts from a Big-Boned Yogi

Writer and educator Carol Horton, recently posted this on her Facebook page:

Yesterday, I was leading a YTT [Yoga Teacher Training] discussion on issues in contemporary yoga culture, including but not limited to yoga and body image. At one point, I asked everyone who has ever struggled with feelings that they're "not good enough" in the face of commodified images of the "yoga body" to raise their hands. In a split second, every hand in room shot up, including mine.

Mine would have too. How about you?

Like many women I know, I grew up feeling self-conscious about my body size. Tall, strong, and broad-shouldered,  I was “big-boned” as adults liked to say, which in my mind always translated as fat (even though I wasn’t). I was the biggest on the kickline in high school. I did dance and gymnastics until, as a teenager, it became clear that my body type made it unlikely that I would ever be able to seriously advance in these disciplines. I wanted to hide my big feet so I never wore open-toed shoes.

My relationship with asana has been paradoxical when it comes to my relationship with my body. On one level, practice has totally rewired my relationship with myself and become the major force of nurturing self-love in my life. It was through asana practice that I learned to deeply respect my body, to honour my strength and care for myself. Ironically, my size 11 feet became an ally in my yoga practice, I could spread my toes fully, and I came to love them!

On another level, however, I have struggled with my place as a teacher and leader in the yoga world because I don’t look like the typical yoga cover model and never will. I remember being at yoga conferences feeling like the same self-conscious girl that I was in high school. I’ve joked with students that as a size 10 I sometimes feel like I’m a plus-sized yoga teacher. Deeper down, I recognize the insecurity and pressure I’ve struggled with, and the feeling that the shape and size of my body meant I had somehow failed as a yogi and as a teacher. Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous, but in the mainstream yoga world, like culture in general, appearances are sometimes rewarded over depth of knowledge. And those beliefs run deep.

Over the years, students have often commented to me that I am inspiring to them as a teacher precisely because I have a “real” body (their words). This gives them permission to feel more accepting of themselves in the face of so many images of what a "yoga body" should look like. I understand exactly where they are coming from.

It’s fascinating and disturbingly ironic to me how images of what a yogi looks like in the mainstream yoga industry can reinforce such a narrow notion of beauty and in doing so, run so completely counter to the self-acceptance and self-love that is at the heart of yoga practice itself. As if we didn’t have enough to work with, what we’re trying to do in yoga often means rejecting the way our discipline is portrayed in the media.

From the viewpoint of evolving practice though, I think there is an opportunity here. Can we respond to feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness with tenderness, compassion, and self-acceptance?  Can we, in the privacy of our own minds and hearts, reject the notion of beauty sold to us and reclaim yoga as fundamentally a practice of cultivating unconditional loving regard for ourselves exactly as we are? Can we turn off the noise of the outer world, even the yoga world, and boldly forge the pathway back to self-love?

It's clear that the conversation around yoga and body image is shifting for good thanks to The Yoga Body Image Coalition and new approaches to practice that emphasize inclusivity and accessibility for a diversity of practitioners. Norms about what yogi looks like are being challenged and practices adapted for all body types and ages are gaining more visibility and traction. Inwardly too, though, we all need to do the work of examining our motivations for practice. We need to consider the inner dialogue that happens during practice part of our yoga. As always in yoga, the transformative power of the practice begins with examining, and then choosing to shift, our inner relationship.