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.

Yamas and Niyamas, Part 1

In Patanjali´s classical texts about yoga, he outlines eight parts of a yogic practice. These parts can also be referred to as “limbs”. The most widely known limb of yoga is Asana practice– the practice of physical postures. In our Berlin Yoga Classes, we understand the value of going beyond the physical. This series is therefore dedicated to 2 other limbs of Patanjali´s eight-fold path: Yamas and Niyamas.

knowledge growing out of the yoga sutraYamas and Niyamas are the first two steps of yoga that Patanjali discusses in the Yoga Sutra. They are ethical, behavioral and spiritual guidelines for living. There is a lot of room for interpretation with the Yamas and Niyamas–because of basic translation issues (some concepts are very tricky to twist into English!). Because these guidelines are designed for yogis to personally interrogate, observe and experience in the context of their own lives, they aren´t considered ´rules´. These concepts are given to students of yoga to contemplate and potentially incorporate into their everyday lives.

Ahimsa is the first Yama, and it is most commonly translated as ´non-violence´. This is what Gandhi used to drive the British out of India. It´s also what we use in yoga, when we decide not to push beyond our limits. Ahimsa is about kindness, compassion and strength. It recognizes an ancient spiritual law that is echoed in many traditions- that violence leads to more violence- and proposes that we, as yogis, begin to halt that cycle by stopping it within ourselves.

What does non-violence mean to you? Where do you already practice it in your life? Where could you be a little kinder to yourself?

Personal Yoga Practice

Personal Yoga Practice

Satya is the second Yama, and it means ´truth´. Satya urges us to be honest with  ourselves, and with others. In asana, we practice Satya when we listen to our body and, again, respect its limits. Maybe that backbend looks terrific, but if it doesn´t feel good, Satya guides us to come out of it and rest with awareness in child´s pose. Less glamorous, maybe, but more honest and, in the end, better for you! It also means being honest in our relationships with others- saying ´yes´ only when we really mean it, and saying ´no´, with kindness, when that is the truth. Satya is challenging, because the truth is sometimes hard to hear and even harder to say.

What do you think about honesty? Are you ever dishonest with yourself, and do you understand why?