Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of yoga in women's lives.This is probably motivated by the fact that I have been reading the book "Poser: My life in 23 Yoga Poses" by Claire Dederer. It is a fantastic read and was recommended to me by one of my students.
Last night something happened in my yoga class that I felt the need to write about. And I am happy to report that is something good (although admittedly it is good only in response to lots and lots of bad). I recognize that my posts are in high danger of being predominantly negative. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am not an overwhelmingly negative person in real life. It is just that there are lots of bad things out there right now (have you heard of the War on Women?). So, I am grateful for the good stuff when it comes along.
Well this good thing started with a cringe--on my part at least. My yoga instructor began class by asking if anyone had any requests. One woman instantly responded "Let's work on abs!" That's why I cringed. Not because I mind working on abs--but because I worry that yoga is being taken over by a movement to encourage women (and some men) to lose weight, have flat stomachs, and just generally transform their bodies to look like supermodels. It doesn't seem to matter that the images we see of supermodels are not even real--they are photo-shopped versions of a tiny percentage of the population. These images are EVERYWHERE--it is impossible to avoid them or to avoid being impacted by them. Psychologists and other researchers have been talking for decades about the "thin ideal" and unrealistic representations of women in the media. Numerous studies have demonstrated how these images can damage women's self-esteem, body image, sexuality, the list goes on and on. A major outcome is the amount of dissatisfaction that many women feel about their bodies, and the efforts they will go to to try to change them (extreme diets, exercise addictions, purging, etc).
For some, yoga has gotten sucked into the spinning black vortex of women's efforts to lose weight. I am saddened to see this as I have been practicing yoga for over 10 years and for me the practice is about so much more than having a flat stomach. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not immune to body image issues and certainly have my "I feel fat" moments (they are not fun or pretty). But for me yoga is about developing physical strength and stamina (so I can help a friend move or run through multiple terminals in an airport to catch a flight) mental flexibility (something a stubborn person like me needs) and emotional groundedness. This all means that I don't have oodles of patience for people who want to highjack MY yoga practice with their goal to be ultra skinny (and yes, this reaction is why I need yoga...). The good moment came with my teacher's response. She agreed to include work on the core (yoga speech for "abs") but first explained her perspective on core work. She described her concerns about individuals who focus too much on their core and develop "rock hard abs" that often compromise their backs and can lead to closed off upper bodies (chests and shoulders). For anyone who doesn't have an active exercise practice or who learned human "anatomy" from certain republicans (i.e. Todd Akin) you may not be familiar with the fact that every muscle group in our body has a complement. If we focus on strengthening one area without the other we almost inevitability experience pain or injury. In this case, working too much on strengthening the core without developing flexibility and softness as well can lead to closed hearts. In addition to a moment of feeling better about my own body (see I told you I am not immune), I loved the metaphor embedded in this explanation. The emphasis at all costs on how we look, what we weigh or the size of our clothes can close off our hearts and make us less loving to our selves and others.
For me, this brief explanation was about considering my priorities. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to combat the industries promoting unrealistic and unhealthy images of women and it is good to remember what is at stake. I for one will choose an open heart over rock hard abs any day.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.