This is the opening article in series 3 of the “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” (#whatayogilookslike) media series, a collaboration between the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Yoga International—based on the YBIC campaign that began in 2014, along with their ongoing collaborative work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, highlighting diversity in yoga practitioners and practices, and working for the diversification of yoga media.
We’re awash in imagery. From our iPhones to billboards staring at us on street corners, from magazines vying for our attention in the checkout line to advertisements popping up uninvited on our screens, we’re inundated with carefully crafted images and messages that collectively shape our worldview and sense of self.
It’s precisely because we’re saturated with these prolific and repetitive images that they appear normative—they’re so deeply ingrained in our mediated culture, and in ourselves, that we take them for granted. They’re expected. As a result, they both influence and shape our consciousness, and are rarely challenged en masse.
For the most part, I find that there’s a lack of understanding on these issues. People often downplay the impact these images have, or they feel themselves conscious enough to be immune to their effects. That’s true also when it comes to the ways in which current cultural representations of yoga practice and practitioners reflect and reinforce various forms of oppression.
The images we’re inundated with in the larger media culture (as well as in yoga culture) present us with incredibly limited definitions of beauty and health. In fact, the ideas of beauty and health are often confused with each other, with too many people undermining their health in the pursuit of conventional (and problematic, if not detrimental) notions of physical “perfection “and “health.”
I see the emerging conversations that question, challenge, and re-imagine these images as an opportunity to take part in consciousness-raising—a process that allows us to decolonize our own minds, examine our own internalized oppression, and work on shifting the current dominant paradigms.
Because there is nothing rebellious or revolutionary about replicating the same-old tired stereotypes.
And these conversations are not an effort to blame others, whether the others are individuals or businesses profiting from these one-dimensional and static images. The purpose is to raise awareness. And isn’t that what yoga practice is all about?
It’s in the practice of consciousness-raising that difficult conversations emerge. While the conversation about body image, diversity, equity, and inclusion has grown tremendously within the yoga community over the last few years, we have not yet achieved a full paradigm shift. Representation matters, but it’s not sufficient to sprinkle in a few exceptions while the norm remains the same.
A paradigm shift requires a re-imagining of what is possible, and a re-writing of the rules. Representation also poses the questions: How are those who do not fit the normative conventions represented, and how often? Until diversity becomes the norm, rather than the token exception, we have not completed the work. Let’s get real—where does diversity of any kind exist, on a consistent basis, within the dominant media machine?
If yoga culture is truly a conscious community devoted to evolution and enlightenment, we need to dig deep, do the work, and have the dialogue, even if it’s uncomfortable (and it will be). The result will then be to shape the culture instead of replicating the toxic aspects of the larger culture. Only then can we avoid reflecting the existing sexism, able-ism, age-ism, heterosexism, size-ism, classism, racism, etc. that exist in that space.
What’s bold and daring is building something new—representations that are authentic, inclusive, and equitable.
We have the ability to consciously direct the culture of yoga, creating something subversive, powerful, and real that reflects the uniqueness of each one of us. Just as we are.
You too can show everyone #whatayogilookslike and spread the message by creating your own #whatayogilookslike profile picture to share on social media.
Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker, and Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty,... Read more>>