As my career has evolved as a yoga teacher, I have become acutely aware of the underlying hipocrisy of how the body (and control of the body) is portrayed in mass-media and what is viewed as “beautiful” or “yogic” in our culture: everything from billboards to food trends to subtle dynamics inside of our studios. In my days as a dancer, I faced many of my own battles with body image and disordered eating, a common story for many in the industry. While yoga has been incredibly healing for me in a variety of ways, I would be lying if I told you that remnants of these issues don’t still haunt me and that this has been exacerbated at times by a need to emulate what is idealized or lauded in parts of pop yogic culture: body subjugation and strict dietary restrictions to mention a couple of hot buttons.
You see it on the cover of mass publications, in advertising for anything from soymilk to booty shorts. Yoga has been made into a free-for-all for anyone wanting to jump on the OM bandwagon: “Eat this and you’ll be blissful and skinny while you consume highly processed food”stuff”!” ”Wear this top and show off abs that you’ll have to starve yourself to get”. Unfortunately you may also hear it from teachers or practitioners who may think they mean well but ultimately contribute to an environment of control and fixation. I’m not here to shit on the media, the culture that consumes it or anyone trying to share and teach what they think is correct, but I’m asking all of us to pause a little more often and ask some hard questions.
I absolutely think it is vital to the health of each individual and to our society as a whole that we have good tools to eat well, move regularly, learn to work with our minds to shift suffering, and overall create strong and skillful relationships with others. I’m here to say that a mindful movement and meditation practice can help you acheive those things in part, but yoga is not a panacea. And using yoga as a way of viciously submitting the body or mind to “no pain no gain” training is an ultimate disregard of the first yama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and one of the basic precepts of Buddhism.
Ahimsa traditionally means non-harming and is often used to promote a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. It also should and must start with our own personal regard for ourselves. How often do we make a choice that has a very subtle undertone of self-aggression?
The ways that we work with ahimsa on and off the mat can be multi-layered and very subtle. Does buying highly processed vegetarian meat-substitute filled with synthesized ingredients shipped from halfway around the globe constitute a more ethical decision than locally raised meat? Maybe. Maybe not. Is buying incredibly expensive “natural” and “organic” food a more honorable choice if you can’t afford to make rent? Probably not. 108 chaturangas and straining and forcing your body into postures that you are either not warm or prepared for does not a yoga practice make. Running on empty or overworking yourself at the expense of nourishing self-care is a detriment to yourself and those around you.
I am not here to espouse what makes a practice for any individual. That is a journey we all must take on our own (hopefully with the guidance of a compassionate and knowledgable teacher). The place where we inevitably run into trouble, however, is when we fixate or grasp at things (body type, lifestyle, products, postures) in the name of “bettering ourselves”. The part that makes this so tricky is that all of this fixation and self-aggression is beautifully cloaked in the shroud of “self-improvement” or “yoga”.
Enter humor, compassion and self-inquiry.
I am a firm believer that a practice must be both disciplined and lighthearted. We can snicker at the aisle with 75 different kinds of soy milk and the idea of a “simpler life”. We can giggle when we wobble or teeter in a posture as we strive to find the balance between alignment, effort, and surrender. Every time we misstep a bit we are allowed to grin. As Pema Chodron says, we can smile at our fear.
In addition to humor, we must be curious and open-hearted in the quest to weed out those subtleties that point toward self-aggression and fixation. This is a lifelong process, not an overnight cure as some might like you to think. It is a wonderful task that we have been given to find the places where we hold on too tightly. Not only are we learning how to be more skillful in our own self-care, but we are empowering ourselves to be the blueprint for every relationship we have or create, and ultimately our relationship with the planet. We need this work more than ever now, and so it is great news that we have all the tools we need to start RIGHT NOW.
So as I’ve said before, lighten up a bit… be curious about your choices and more curious about what choices other people tell you to make. Aspire to be more open in your heart. And more kind. And patient. Smile when you misstep and start again. It’s not a race, it’s a path.
I am working on a new project highlighting stories of people in yoga and wellness who have worked with self-aggression and subjugation (in the name of yoga or wellness) skillfully. Got a story? Please email me at ap [at] anyaporter.com