Feeling present and content in your body is vital to your ability to live fully and freely. If you’re connected to yourself, you connect meaningfully with others and with the world around you.
Unfortunately, the society we live in works to objectify us. The result is that instead of consciously inhabiting our bodies and experiencing them as inherently powerful instruments, we begin to perceive them as ornaments and as things to be disciplined and continually improved upon.
Ultimately, we come to believe that being conventionally successful depends on our ability to disassociate from the body in its natural state.
We subject ourselves to extreme fitness workouts that push our screaming muscles to the edge of exhaustion. We block our expression of emotion and sexual desire. We attempt to conform to stereotypes and to achieve unattainable standards of aesthetic perfection. We begin to view our bodies as obstacles standing in the way of progress. Ultimately, we come to believe that being conventionally successful depends on our ability to disassociate from the body in its natural state.
Yoga is often embraced as an antidote to the craziness of modern life outlined above. The ancient art does, of course, possess the wonderful potential to help us be “at one” with our bodies. After all, the word yoga literally means “union.” Yet the modern yoga industry, now worth many millions, often promotes bodily objectification in order to serve its consumerist aims.
Consequently, many aspects of modern yoga culture can actually be damaging to self-esteem and make us less in touch with our bodies. Here are six red flags to watch out for.
The Intensity of the Practice
If a pose is overwhelmingly difficult, it forces us to ignore our bodies. While a certain level of intensity encourages physical awareness in a positive way (part of the genius of yoga), too much intensity will discourage it. After all, who wants to hang out with an overstressed body?! In the midst of excessive intensity, the quiet voice of intuition will be drowned out, and those parts of ourselves needing softer care will be ignored.
We need to ensure that poses do not exceed the optimal level of intensity for our bodies. Be wary of the trend toward more and more extreme practices (anyone for dynamic-hot-hardcore-rocket-torture yoga?).
Performance and Form
Simply put, if the focus of a pose is how it looks, then how it actually feels will surely be undermined. The aim of a yoga class should not be for everyone to make exactly the same shape at exactly the same time. Achieving bodily uniformity is about external control—it is not an embodying practice.
We can’t tell much about the quality of someone’s practice from how it looks on the outside. So let’s forget about comparative flexibility and how many Instagram followers a person has.
Similarly, if the implicit or explicit message from a teacher is “What I say is more important than how you feel,” their students learn to ignore and mistrust their own bodily sensations. Authority can manifest as adjustments without consent (horribly common in yoga); the absence of choice (e.g., in terms of postures to fit different body types); being made to do something to a count (such as going down into chaturanga to a count of five); being pressured to keep going or to go deeper; not being allowed to stop or change an aspect of a practice to adapt to differences in individual body types; subtle social shaming (e.g., when less confident students feel compelled to go to the back of the room); and so on.
Ultimately, the feedback our bodies give us is the only absolute authority during our practice.
Emotions are physical in the sense that they need to be physically enacted in order to be fully experienced. Have you ever cheered or cried with joy and found that the physical expression of emotion has multiplied its intensity? Unfortunately, in modern yoga practice we often don’t allow ourselves the space to explore a full range of emotion.
In Western yoga circles today we tend to act out a capitalist-friendly brand of positive thinking that tries to bypass full, complex human emotion. And when this attitude is applied to the Eastern systems we attempt to reproduce, it can lead to anger and sadness being repressed. We should allow ourselves and others around us to experience, without judgment or censorship, whatever emotion arises in our practice. If we’re feeling down, it doesn’t mean we’ve done something wrong.
A number of supposedly embodied practices encourage moving above or beyond the body as if it were an impure or unspiritual place. While it may be true that souls belong to an abstract, ethereal realm, it is important to embrace and honor our physical bodies as temples in their own right—because this is where our day-to-day personalities are located.
The Body "Beautiful"/Objectification
Finally, the yoga industry is largely complicit in the media’s efforts to objectify us. For better or worse, yoga products are marketed as weight-loss/beauty products, with sales more easily made through our feelings of guilt and/or inadequacy—rooted in low bodily self-esteem. This is misleading and disempowering.
Yoga culture can and must champion acceptance and love for the body in all its imperfect glory.