Yoga can be as vain and competitive as any sport

Posed for by a model not associated with this story.

Posed for by a model not associated with this story.

Some days the world feels like a competitive, ego-driven nightmare. A world dominated by the glossy and superficial, where a decent ‘box gap’ (if you don’t know, don’t Google) is as highly prized as a safe place to sleep for the night. At these times I like to remember that, as a yoga teacher, I am blissfully free from the repetitive, ‘not good enough / better than’ thoughts that dominate less bendy souls, and that my ‘office’ is a bastion of peace, tranquility, and ylang ylang-scented bliss.

Sure, I occasionally (yesterday) head to a class myself, and okay, I may have used downward dog as a chance to check out the sinewy girl in the sports bra behind me, and so what? I just watch the thoughts (‘her back is ripped. My back is not ripped. I must have a fat back’), let them go, and remember that 99% of the time yoga is nothing but peace, bliss, and fat back acceptance.

For absolutely nobody.

The truth is that yoga lends itself beautifully to ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’. ‘We should accept our bodies’, ‘We shouldn’t spray spiders with Windex or call them fat,’ … and yet the yoga world can be just as full of insecurity and hypocrisy as any other.

The latest teacher to make this earth shattering discovery is American Trina Hall. When Trina’s voluptuous colleague confessed “I don't want to be known as the fat yoga teacher," Trina decided to stack on 40 pounds to prove that looks don’t matter. But none were more shocked than Trina by the results of her Mexican food-fuelled ‘fat-speriment’.

“I always had this idea that, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone should look more inside because that's what it's all about.’ But as the pounds were coming on I discovered that I was just as guilty as the next person of being obsessed with my external appearance.”

Is it possible that yoga – non-judgmental, Zenny-wen yoga – has secretly become fat-shaming? Have we shifted our goal from ‘baggage loss’ to ‘weight loss’?

Yoga teacher Claire says that fat-shaming exists in the yoga world by exclusion. “It isn’t only magazines who set the ‘Is Yoga, Is thin’ standard. As a studio owner, I’m uber conscious of the promotional images I use. Studios who stick their thinnest teachers in crop tops and photograph them on a beach to promote their classes are creating unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a dedicated practitioner.”

These expectations don’t only affect students. “As a teacher, I definitely feel pressure to conform to the yoga ideal. I sometimes look at myself in the mirror before class and wonder if my students think I should be better in better shape,” says Claire. “I'm sure they’re thinking no such thing, but that inadequacy didn’t come out of nowhere.”

Maybe she’s right – maybe some students do think that way. A friend (and fellow teacher) recently confessed that she found her first teacher less credible because of her size. “I have to admit, I was challenged by the fact that she didn’t fit the image. Looking back I’m amazed of what she was capable of, but back then I thought she should be more aspirational.” Aspirational, not inspirational.

Aspiration is a key part of advertising – and when so many people want to lose weight that it can be hard for studios to resist capitalising on that with promotional imagery and promises of ‘detoxing’ and ‘cleansing’ as a euphemism for weight loss.

But while the yoga community can be superficial and holier-than-thou (and I know it can be bitchy) I don’t agree that we are ‘fat-shaming’. For one thing, we’re all far too inward looking.

As a student, I definitely have the odd fat-shaming thought about myself, and I know others do too. But I have never seen it directed outward – quite the opposite. Overwhelmingly I sense that when people see someone in a class who obviously doesn’t match the popular yoga image, much compassion (not pity) flows their way. Because who among us doesn’t know what it’s like to sit well outside an ideal?

As a teacher, you truly never think about a student’s size unless you pick up that they feel self-conscious – in which case you bend over backward (boom tish) to help them tap into their strength. Appearances can be deceiving, and a student’s weight has very little to do with how connected they are to their body. I’ve seen thin students mindlessly pushing and pulling themselves through a practice, and I’ve also seen students in an American class specifically for the morbidly obese display a level of control and focus that was inspiring.

Yoga offers us space to bear witness to our tendency to project the feelings we have about ourselves onto others. And yes, modern yoga has a superficial hue, but in shining a light on our fears and judgements, it also offers us the chance to transform them.

For years, every time I lay in Supta Padanghustasana, a deep hamstring stretch, I would look up at my leg and think the same three things; ‘God damn you need a pedicure’, ‘Would it kill you to shave once a year?’ and my favourite, ‘Not even lipo could drain those cankles.’

About a year ago some tiny thing shifted. Perhaps the teacher said just the right thing at just the right time? I’m not sure, but it was the first time in a decade that I looked up felt gratitude for the work my legs do and the way they support me. It may sound slightly moronic out of context, but Yogic Wisdom™ so often does.

Alice Williams is a Melbourne yoga teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @AliceWillalice

12 comments

  • When I see young, slim, attractive women in tight-fitting, brightly coloured designer gym clothes carrying a yoga mat under their arm and a health drink in their hand I can't help but notice a lot of them often look quite pleased with themselves. They know they are close to meeting that ideal. But just because they look like that doesn't mean they're good at yoga, there's no doubt about that.

    Commenter
    Mellah
    Date and time
    October 30, 2013, 11:47AM
    • For a lot of people the goal isn't to be good at yoga, it's to be slim, attractive and (hopefully) healthy. If they're meeting that goal then it's happy days as far as they are concerned. I'm sure it's a plus for them if they are good at actual yoga but that probably isn't the reason why a lot of them are there.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      October 30, 2013, 1:10PM
    • "When I see young, slim, attractive women in tight-fitting, brightly coloured designer gym clothes carrying a yoga mat under their arm and a health drink in their hand I can't help but notice a lot of them often look quite pleased with themselves."

      I don't think you meant this to be funny but I just laughed out loud at this! haha!

      Commenter
      Jessem
      Date and time
      October 30, 2013, 2:07PM
  • For a starter, Yoga is not just doing exercises and asanas. Yoga means union. Union with the supreme universal god head or whatever name you want to call it You can call it nature if you want to.. West have hijacked yoga and sadly they have manage to separate it from it's spiritual Hindu roots. You just cannot separate yoga from it's spiritual half.If you really want to do yoga, first you have to leave behind your Abrahamic religious baggage first. Mind you. you can be an atheist ! Atheism is also a part of Hinduism!

    Commenter
    Indian
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 30, 2013, 11:54AM
    • I'd love to have the time to practice yoga more fully, but I don't. I've got to work, and look after my family etc etc.

      Don't forget that yoga was originally practiced by the wealthy in India, who had plenty of time at their disposal. And definitely not women, who had to do all the work!

      Commenter
      Tight for time
      Date and time
      October 30, 2013, 2:40PM
    • @tight for time

      Actually no. Traditionally Yoga was not practised only by the rich at all. By far the vastest number of yoga practitioners in India were (and still are) 'Sannyasin', as in virtually no material possessions or wealth at all. They come from any and every background possible and have renounced their place in ordinary society.

      Also, technically speaking yoga asanas (yoga as it is primarily known in the west) are just one somewhat marginal facet of yoga practice. The major texts in the Indian Tradition regarded as primary sources (the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras) barely speak of asanas at all. As such, the majority of Sannyasin (if they are genuine) practice one posture most of all. That is sitting (ie. meditation in its many and various forms).

      If you really want to practice more, but feel you don't have the time, I suggest you look up the book 'I Am That', a compilation of talks given by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Jnana Yoga, the practice of Union by discrimination and development of wisdom, and can be applied at all times and no matter what activity one happens to be engaged in.

      Commenter
      thrash jazz assassin
      Location
      shanghai
      Date and time
      October 30, 2013, 4:28PM
  • Can't anything be as anything? Some people join a gym for weight loss, some for ironman training, some for social reasons. Does it matter? If people are competitive then let them be! Its their space and their prerogative to practise the way they see fit! Unless they are disturbing their fellow student's practise then good luck to them and let them enjoy getting out of their practise whatever it was they were looking for. When i look around in class its usually to see how much I have to improve in flexibility and often ask others who are much more flexible than me to show me how they got there. All are most helpful.

    Commenter
    Sunil
    Location
    New York
    Date and time
    October 30, 2013, 12:41PM
    • I deliberately avoid yoga because I've always found it to be conspicuously aspirational and obsessed with body image. As someone with a background in ballet, I found this very off-putting, having walked away from ballet due to being sick and tired of body-shaming (no matter how thin or fit you were, your body was never right).

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      October 30, 2013, 12:49PM
      • A few of my girl friends and I have to work hard to stay in shape. None of us do yoga. We joke that modern, commercial yoga is designed for hot chicks who want to look hotter. Most Sydney yoga classes seem to have a minimum entry level of hotness / litheness / long limbedness to even take part. A side of vinyasa smug skinny and a kale smoothie afterwards is optional...

        Commenter
        Nonyogic
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 30, 2013, 2:14PM
        • It really does make a difference the yoga you practice, as the qualifications for teaching or even calling a practice 'yoga' are varied to say the least; in the past I've suffered plenty of appalling classes and appalling teachers even in the style I now practice. Alice doesn't identify what, where, how, or which yoga class she attends or teaches. But having finally found a serious Ashtanga practice, I can attest that the focus and meditational aspect is a world away from this article; no one would bother if it was like this article. Life's very short and yoga isn't for everyone and isn't compulsory; if your classes don't inspire meditation and kindness move on.
          One last thing about the comments above: "tight for time" - the wealthy sponsored some yoga, but it was outlawed by the British and practised in secret by the great teachers, not the wealthy.

          Commenter
          vatrahaki
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          October 30, 2013, 3:39PM

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