I’m No Barbie-Girl

Mighty JuliThe trajectory of yoga over the centuries has seen a variety of different practices, styles, and approaches. What was originally a method of exercise for elite, higher-caste men in order to sit longer in meditation to achieve enlightenment has been co-opted and altered for western consumption. We’re working on a more in-depth blog about this, so keep posted! But right now, I’d like to address the dichotomy in contemporary western yoga of body-image.

In our contemporary western understanding of what yoga means, we express terms like “union” or “connection” – to describe the approach of connecting mind and body, and sometimes soul. This is a very different approach than the traditional practice that Patanjali outlined of seeing the body as an abject material object to discard on the way to god-like status. Western yoga has adopted a mind-body approach whose history leads all the way back to the ancient greek philosophers, and is inspired by the American movement of transcendentalist individualism, illustrated by the romantic poetic works of Walt Whitman and D. H. Lawrence, and philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau.

Through these influences, westernized yoga had the potential to liberate us from the constrains of western culture’s obsession with attaining the perfect body ideal. It was headed on that track. Instead, through an explosion of commercialization beginning at the end of the last century, it has fed right into it. Today in the west, the most common image of a yoga practitioner is a skinny, feminine white woman in an impossibly-twisted position, wearing skin-tight trendy clothing. Where does that leave the rest of us who could benefit from a yoga practice that professes “freedom” and “body love?” Is freedom only available for those who can afford to purchase its accessories or strict food regimes, or for those who are impossibly flexible or skinny, or those who fit into racist standards of beauty? In her essay published in the book 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice: A critical examination of yoga in North America, Melanie Klein writes about how she first got interested in yoga to help heal from the negative body-image that led her to anorexia, and then later as yoga bloomed into a full-forced commercial industry with yoga models at the forefront, she found it feeding back into those old thought patterns.

The industry behind the commodification of yoga is selling an impossible body-image back at us in order to sell more products, and make us feel dependent on material goods by creating feelings of low self-worth amongst yoga practitioners. I’ve heard other yoga teachers say that they don’t drink beer because it gives them a thick belly, or they talk about fat-burning yoga classes. It’s a shame that a practice that is supposed to be about loving one’s body has come to such body shaming proportions. The culture claims that fat is unhealthy, but they ignore the fact that so many people starve themselves, or exercise vigorously, or modify their bodies in order to look more like the image they see in magazines. In the west, we are taught to have control over our bodies, not love them. I love good food, and refuse to count calories. I also like to drink a few beers now and then. I refuse to comply with ridiculous expectations of what I should look like as a yoga teacher. At one point in my life, I tried to live up to these standards, but never succeeded, of which I’m glad. We can’t all look like Barbie, no matter how hard we try. I personally feel that carrying a little bit more weight feels healthier and stronger to me than when I was much skinnier. And it’s a misconception that bigger bodies cannot be flexible or strong. I’ve seen people much bigger than myself do a fierce ashtanga class.

I’d like to be able to say that I’m never ashamed of my body, but I am not outside the influence of societal pressure. There are some days when I look in the mirror and wish my belly was flatter, my legs less hairy, but most days I let it hang out, completely unfettered. And I love it the most when I walk into a yoga class and see it filled with people of all shapes, shades, sizes, and genders. I hope that my bodily expression is something that helps them feel more comfortable in seeing something of themselves reflected in the person guiding them through the class. My kind of yoga is one where people can work towards feeling comfortable residing in their bodies and minds, not controlling them, but feeling good about themselves as they are, and letting go of oppressive ideals and expectations.

Juli teaches Vinyasa Flow and Restorative Yoga at English Yoga Berlin.

Vinyasa Yoga: Fusion for Your Flow

Recently, we added a new Vinyasa Flow Yoga class in Kreuzberg. Not your average yoga, this fusion style offers so many substantial benefits to those who practice it. But some people still seem to have questions about what makes this type of yoga so dynamic. We thought we might try to explain.

Vinyasa Flow yoga, aka “power yoga” takes its inspiration and principles from Ashtanga, but it is a more creative style. Each class is designed individually, using different asanas to focus on different parts of the body. Like Ashtangis, we pay very close attention to the transitions between each asana, or posture, and use breathing to coordinate the smoothest transitions. For example, while inhaling we focus on lengthening the spine and then while exhaling as we fold forwards. We also take from Ashtanga the use of the Sun Salutation as a ”link” between posture sequences.

When Cardio Meets YogaChandrasana during a Vinyasa Flow Yoga Class in Berlin

Vinyasa Flow classes, like Ashtanga, also tend to be a cardiovascular challenge because they are relatively fast-paced. Unlike Ashtanga, however, Vinyasa Flow postures are held for different lengths of time and movement is often incorporated into the posture (for example, moving the upper body rhythmically while keeping the lower body stable). Exercises and sequences from other traditions are also used such as tai chi, pilates and bellydance. Because these all use breath synchronized movement, they can be incorporated into Vinyasa Flow classes with ease to enhance the practice.

The popularity of Vinyasa Flow classes is probably the result of its diversity. Students find the classes fun, challenging and relaxing. For this reason, we decided to add another Vinyasa Yoga Class at our new studio in Kreuzberg. We would love to see you there!

What is Vinyasa Yoga: A History of “Flow”

Like any other practice, yoga can be quite different depending on two main factors: who is teaching it, and what style is being taught. Of course you want to find a teacher that you like, one you connect to and feel comfortable with. But beyond that its also important to find the style of yoga that best fits your needs.

There are four original types of yoga. It is important to understand the background of the method of yoga you are practicing so that you can decide if it is the best one for you. Because each type of yoga has evolved out of different teaching lineages, the following is a bit of history of Vinyasa Flow Yoga, one of our newest class offerings at English Yoga Berlin.

Vinyasa Background

Vinyasa Flow Yoga was born out of the Ashtanga lineage. The Ashtanga school was developed by a yogi named Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught it to Patthabi Jois. Jois taught in Mysore, India in the first half of the 20th century. Ashtanga has since been popularized in the West by his students.

Ashtanga yoga was taught by Jois as moving meditation. He believed that the movements between each asana should be considered just as important as the postures themselves. The idea behind this is to deepen concentration and body consciousness through the entire practice. Rather than focusing on “getting into the posture” and then breathing, in Vinyasa, we try to keep the deep breathing and correct alignment consistent throughout all movement during the class.

Ashtanga Yoga prescribes a specific sequence of postures (known as the Primary Series), done in a very specific way – each posture is held for 5 complete breaths and the transition between postures should take no more than 1 breath.

You can practice Ashtanga anywhere and anytime, as long as you know this series. You can also join us for our new Vinyasa Flow Yoga class at 8pm on Thursdays at our new studio in Kreuzberg.