I've known Melanie Klein for over a year now, since we first spoke to discuss her work with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition (you can find the interview here). Ever since, we've been exchanging emails, and sometimes speaking over the phone, about various yoga and body image projects she's working on and would like to pitch to Yoga International. I continue to be inspired by her determination to shift a cultural consciousness fastened on the yoga elite toward a refined sensibility of what it means to be living, feeling, breathing—imperfect, but perfect—practitioners of yoga. The majority of practitioners, that is, who do not fit into an unrealistic Photoshop mold.
Her work with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition (YBIC), of which she is co-founder, seeks to remind yogis that their task is not to meet a physical standard for an idealized depiction of yoga. Rather, it is to show up for practice, however that practice manifests, and learn to love who we are. She also consistently reminds those who create yoga media, including us here at Yoga International, that we must also work to inspire people to admire themselves (and their practices) first and foremost, as opposed to an eroticized other.
She and I recently spoke to discuss her understanding of yoga, where she'd be without her practice, how she feels about the yoga and body image movement's progress to date, and much more. This interview is a part of a larger feature, and series, that highlights modern yogi activists working to challenge the dialogue on yoga and body image. I hope you join us, and that you leave your comments below!
What does yoga mean to you, and where do you feel you would be without your practice?
Yoga, for me, is about connection, liberation, and freedom. Because my practice helped me to liberate my mind and body, it fell very much in line with my emerging feminist consciousness at the time. I was formally introduced to both feminism and then yoga in the mid-90s and they were the perfect pairing for me, each supporting and strengthening the other. I can’t imagine one without the other.
Honestly, it’s a bit scary to think where I might be without my yoga practice. And I’m grateful I was introduced to the practice at a time before the hyper-commercialization of yoga and social media platforms were invented (which have granted credibility and stardom largely to bodies deemed culturally appropriate and palatable).
I don’t know if I would have been able to access the benefits of my practice as readily if I would have to wade through contemporary yoga imagery. In fact, my practice was a way out of the realm of pop culture and the perpetual onslaught of media imagery which current yoga imagery so closely resembles. It was very rare at the time to see “yoga bodies” both inside and outside of “yoga culture.” And because of that, I was able to confront, challenge, and extract those toxic messages through my practice without adding new insecurities more easily than I imagine it would be like if my 20-something-year-old self was introduced to yoga today. And, honestly, I think I would have been less likely to begin a practice if yoga and yoga culture then looked like it does today.
You’ve written about the complex relationship you’ve had with your body rather openly. I resonate strongly with a sentiment you expressed in a 2012 Mind Body Green article, “Beauty was a beast, one I had to conquer in order to measure up and feel good about myself." It leaves me wondering: How has your relationship to beauty changed?
Well, first and foremost the idea that my worth is determined by weight, the size and shape of my ass, or the muscle tone in my thighs has evaporated. I don’t need to “conquer” or live up to the beauty ideal in order to bolster my self-esteem or feel good about myself anymore. That shift in perspective is in large part thanks to my practice (as well as my media literacy education and feminist consciousness). The drive to emulate socially constructed beauty standards was geared by the need for external validation, a precarious and vulnerable position indeed! I guess you could say beauty is a far less scary or controlling beast in my life.
What personally motivates you to remain vigilant in regard to creating a greater standard for diversity in yoga?
I guess you could say I’m motivated by love—my love for the practice and what it’s brought to my life. I want to share that love. Yoga has been a consistent lifeline for me in countless ways and I want to share that gift by increasing accessibility to the practice through diversifying the ways in which the practice and yoga practitioners are perceived and represented.
I guess you could say I’m motivated by love—my love for the practice and what it’s brought to my life.
I want others to feel as invited, comfortable, and welcomed as I did in 1996. I know the practice can be effective, healing, transformative, and an invaluable tool of self-care.
The benefits and ultimate outcome of an ongoing yoga practice are different for everyone, but what these benefits all seem to share in common is that they are largely positive: whether it’s an increase in self-esteem, a sense of peace or tranquility, the ability to negotiate challenges with greater ease, relieving stress (or not just accumulating more stress), or becoming more forgiving, compassionate, and empathetic, to simply being able to be in the moment.
I want everyone to be able to access these benefits. When that happens, we all win—the individual and our communities. And, for me, that requires smashing stereotypes and creating a more diversified and equitable standard across the board, not just in theory but in practice.
What patterns are you noticing within the dialogue surrounding the body image movement which you feel are counteractive to its progress?
Branding “love your body,” “self-love,” and “body positivity” as selling points. It’s why I included the following statements in our list of core values when we publicly announced ourselves:
We believe that the slogan “love your body” is a fully dimensional mantra promoting body acceptance in ourselves and each other.
We believe that body positivity is more than a #hashtag, marketing slogan, or commodity—it’s conscious action and lived practice.
It’s also why I followed that up with our recent #loveyourbody is more than a hashtag campaign.
As Teo Drake says, “We have to put in the sweat equity.” We have to do the work mindfully and consciously or the body image movement isn’t actually a movement. And, overall, that work has been slower to come by in the yoga community since body positivity and discussions around body image have only been happening in earnest the last few years despite the decades of work on these issues in the feminist community.
That said, are you pleased with the dent this conversation has made thus far? And furthermore, what are your (and the YBIC’s) future goals to keep the momentum going?
Absolutely! Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery, and Loving Your Body, the work of its contributors, the presence of more and more diversified yoga bodies on social media that push back against the overwhelming homogeneity of most yoga imagery have all been monumental. So have the growing community of activists, the demonstration of allyship, the growing demand for classes and programs addressing these issues, educating in the process, and strategizing, as well as implementing change. The response of some yoga companies has also been incredibly promising, inspiring, and satisfying.
The YBIC and I look forward to continuing our work and growing. This is just the beginning for us. I am currently at work on the next "Yoga and Body Image" book, creating new events, workshops, and projects (many of which will be revealed soon), and I'm also working on bringing more opportunities to connect and build community for those that are interested in doing this work and spreading the message. This is all done on a volunteer basis and completely grassroots, so we invite people to support this work, spread the message, and, more importantly, get involved in whatever way they can.
I’m amazed at how much has happened since our first interview last October and I look forward to reflecting on where yoga’s body image movement stands in another year.