The "Yoga Body" Thing

Dripping sweat over a brightly-colored lululemon sports bra, high-waisted spandex shorts, mala beads and gemstone rings, a thin, blonde, toned white woman moves seamlessly and gracefully into a full split. Her hair is stacked in a messy pineapple bun on top of her head. She may or may not be wearing eyelash extensions. This is the face— or body, I should say— of Yoga in my home of San Diego, California. It’s a far cry from it’s origin, namely an almost exclusive activity of men of the brahmin class in India— but here we are.

And I think we’re here because the image of this thin, flexible, white woman aligns well with contemporary western ideals of health, fitness, and beauty— namely low body fat, muscular definition, and sex appeal. Having taught Yoga full time for over a decade, I have come to believe that (whether we want to admit it or not) one of the reasons Yoga has had such a successful run in the US is because it looks good.

Yes, I am aware this statement is a bit of a hot topic that poses some very important and pressing questions— has Yoga been harshly culturally appropriated, reduced, and defiled to yet another thing to look good doing on Instagram?

Or, has Yoga evolved beyond its religious and geographical origins into a multi-dimensional practice, art, and science of health and well-being that provides a much-needed space for body-positivism and self-expression, especially in its western context?

Personally, I would say absolutely— on both accounts. Because if there is anything my Yoga practice has taught me, it would be that anything and everything is multi-faceted, layered, and so many different things all at once.

“If there is anything my Yoga practice has taught me, it would be that anything and everything is multi-faceted, layered, and so many different things all at once.”

And yes, there is a completely different conversation about cultural appropriation and Yoga that needs to be had. But that’s a different blog post— stay tuned!

For now, I want to focus on the image of Yoga in the west, and in particular how it relates to body image. Because Yoga definitely has an image— just ask my dad. He doesn’t really practice Yoga, but he has told me that when he thinks of Yoga, he thinks of “skinny blonde women running around with yoga mats.” My response to my dad’s candid comment? It was something along the lines of how Yoga is a deep mental and spiritual practice that is about self-empowerment and compassion. But looking at how Yoga is portrayed in most media, he’s not wrong. And my answer seems like a cop out.

The truth is, we can’t ignore image. We live in a culture, and arguably a world, that is obsessed with image. In the age of Instagram, people are more likely to learn about Yoga from posts than from walking into a studio and taking class. And that means that what Yoga looks like can be at times the definition of what people think Yoga to be. And what does Yoga look like? Search #yoga and find out.

In the age of Instagram, people are more likely to learn about Yoga from posts than from walking into a studio and taking class.

Whether explicitly stated or not, #yoga is often about body image. I have had and continue to have students come up to me and ask me if I “get my body” from just doing Yoga. What besides Yoga do I do to “get my body?” And there are plenty of times that I have even heard people say, “You have a Yoga body.” So what does that even mean? And how does this “Yoga body” thing effect and influence the way in which Yoga is practiced and experienced here in the west?

Because I majored in world literature with an emphasis on cultural studies, it is ingrained in me to define terms before I continue to use them. So, for the purposes of this blog post, I will define the terms “body image” and “Yoga body” as I have come to know them. First, I define body image as the culturally constructed way in which the worth of an individual or community is conceptualized and interpreted primarily (but not exclusively) based on how a specific body “type” performs and looks.

Secondly, I define “Yoga body” as the the type of body that is portrayed by media sources (especially social media) as the ideal shape, size, color, and ability for the practice of Yoga. This is starting to sound a bit academic and verbose, I know, I promise the rest of the post won’t be quite this bad.

Like any woman in America, body image has always been a huge presence in my life. As a yogini (and one who very much blends in with #yoga representation of Yoga), the intersection of the sacred and the sexual has been an interesting area of inquiry for me. And I know it has been an interesting area of inquiry for a lot of women, and people in general, especially those who have been historically marginalized.

In fact, recently one of the students in my 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training posed a great question about this topic. Namely, how does a yogi reconcile the image of Yoga with the practice of Yoga? How does something that can be so easily reduced to performing visually appealing acrobatics be also an opportunity for some of the deepest self-study and self-work imaginable? Where are the intersections and divergences between image and reality?

It is undeniable that the body and Yoga are inextricably linked. Our bodies are our homes, we cannot experience this world without them. The health and proper functioning of the body is a key facet of the Yoga tradition, especially the Hatha Yoga tradition (of which most western Yoga practices in the west belong).

Caring for our bodies and exploring the beauty and exhilaration of being healthy, embodied and empowered in our physical form is also in it’s own way a spiritual practice. It gives us the ability to interact with life fully and from a place of gratitude, which can be a great source of individual and communal enrichment.

But we can also become obsessed with the body. We can obsess over how it looks, how it performs, and we can often times do so in a way that is harmful to ourselves and others (you know, like racism, sexism, eating disorders, performance enhancing drug abuse, etc.). This is essentially the ugly side of the concept of body image— the idea that there is a hierarchy of importance and worth of some bodies over others. And Yoga, like any practice that has a physical component to it, can be manipulated to promote the ugly side of body image just as easily as it can promote it’s beautiful side.

Yoga, like any practice that has a physical component to it, can be manipulated to promote the ugly side of body image just as easily as it can promote it’s beautiful side.

So how do we know if we are engaging with Yoga in a way that is empowering and enriching (which is, after all, the purpose of the practice), or whether we are allowing it to become just another way to reinforce ideas about worth and value that are superficial and can actually be disempowering and harmful?

The short answer is it depends. And yes, I am aware that is a vague and only slightly useful answer. As with all complex questions, I believe this question has many legitimate and diverse answers.

I will not pretend to be able to represent all yogis, all women, or even the subset of petite, white, San Diego-based female Yoga teachers in their 30s that I am part of in my answer. But I do believe that my experience with the whole “Yoga body thing” may offer some insight, so let’s take a little trip own memory lane, shall we?

Like many people, my first experience of Yoga was a physical one. I had been told by numerous sources that Yoga would make me more flexible, help with stress, and all that jazz. The stress thing? At 18 I was invincible and could care less about that. The flexible thing? That was important to me. That made an impression on me.

As a freshman in college, I was at the zenith of feeling both insecure in my body and excited about how easily it garnered (specifically male) attention. I was a bit of a “late bloomer”, so the insecurity thing was nothing new, but the idea that my body was something worthy of attention and appreciation— that was pretty novel.

And then there was this Yoga thing, that seemed to address both ends of my body image experience: it promised to help rid my body of “impurities” (such as pesky extra weight, cellulite, and awkwardness in movement) while simultaneously holding a space for me to feel good in my body. It also offered an opportunity to see and feel my body do pretty amazing (and if I’m being honest, sexy AF) things.

There were (and still are) plenty of times that insecurity dominated my practice. For starters, I am not a naturally flexible person. I dropped out of gymnastics because even after sitting on my back in a forward-fold-split-like thingy, my eastern European coach just saw no hope for me in the sport. At age 10.

There were (and still are) plenty of times that insecurity dominated my practice.

Though I was athletic in other ways, not being flexible made me feel like there was something wrong with my body. Girls, especially young girls, were supposed to be flexible and like things like gymnastics and ballet. The fact that I liked running and playing mud football with my male friends was “cute,” but was never seen as an appropriate use of my physical form.

My body was supposed to move in a certain way, and because it didn’t, I felt like I wasn’t as good or pretty as other girls. Lack of flexibility was a point of shame for me, and was something I felt I needed to fix.

In my first Yoga class, I was all about that inflexibility shame gremlin. I wanted to have the type of body that could effortlessly move into every Yoga posture. For years I pushed my body really hard, and while I did get some gains in flexibility, I also got a whole lot of injuries.

I will not blame the Yoga practice for this. It wasn’t Yoga, it was me. I was not respecting my body and it’s limitations. I was chasing after an ideal and image, and running away from the shame that I had associated with being “inflexible.” In short, I was obsessing over defining myself by what my body could do rather than taking the time to notice how my practice made me feel.

In short, I was obsessing over defining myself by what my body could do rather than taking the time to notice how my practice made me feel.

I went through a brief period of denial about my injuries. I wanted so badly to have this perfect “Yoga body”— and that body was supposed to perform ridiculous feats of flexibility. But then, as it does, the Yoga started working on a deeper level.

In spite of injuring myself along the way (or maybe, because of it) I realized that the way we hold energy in and move energy through our bodies, also known as our posture, can feel really, really good. Actually, I found it to be one of the most amazing feelings in the world. Second only to orgasms.

And I realized that dropping down into the Full Split just because it displayed how flexible I was actually wasn’t as enjoyable as moving into Half Split because it’s what I needed to stretch after a night out of walking the streets of Pacific Beach in heels. Like most things, being flexible is subjective— it’s about being as flexible as you need to be to honor the design and function of your body so that you can do the things you love. Because doing the things you love is one of the most effective ways to make the most out of your life, and to cultivate beauty in it.

I came to see the fact that my body was just never designed to be super-flexible. Even though I have built a lot of strength, toned my physique, and have a very healthy range of flexibility and mobility, there are still postures I struggle with. I may always struggle with them. However, at this stage in my practice, I now value how my body feels, and my state of mental and emotional health much more than the exact details of what angles and shapes I can create with my body.

Even though I have built a lot of strength, toned my physique, and have a very healthy range of flexibility and mobility, there are still postures I struggle with. I may always struggle with them.

It’s an empowering feeling, this sense of respecting the balance of intelligence, delicacy, and power that I get to experience as I move through this world in this body.

This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy challenging myself or having fun on the mat, I totally do. But my definition of challenging myself has shifted. Instead of obsessing over what I “can” (or “cannot”) or “should” (or “should not”) be doing, I now tune into what I really need. And honestly, that’s the most challenging thing int he world— to let go of the shame and fear-based mentality that my body has to perform a certain way to be worthy of value.

Because the truth is my body (and yours too) is real and unique, and it wasn’t made as a “type.” It was designed to be an individual, personal, and sacred experience. Trying to impose an ideal image onto authentic reality doesn’t work. It just results in trying to fit a square peg into a round whole, which in my experience leads to physical injuries, and unnecessary suffering.

So rather than focusing on what I can’t do, I’ve found so much gratitude for what my body can do— because it’s a lot and it’s not a gift everyone is given, nor is is something I’ll have forever. I know this because I used to be able to go out dancing three nights in a row and not feel it in my knees for the next few days. That is just simply no longer the case.

So rather than focusing on what I can’t do, I’ve found so much gratitude for what my body can do— because it’s a lot and it’s not a gift not everyone is given, nor is it something I’ll have forever.”

Now, I wish I could say that my relatively newfound appreciation and respect for the aptitudes of my body has squelched all of my body image issues. I wish I could say I feel confident in my “Yoga body” because I use the Yoga practice to care for and enjoy my body. But I can’t say that, not truthfully.

Judging my body by what it can do is a such a small portion of where the majority of my body image issues really stem from. Like most women, my body image issues are predominantly about how my body looks.

Taking it back to my 18-year-old impressionable self, the thing that really sold me on this Yoga thing was how all these women who practiced Yoga were fit, toned, athletic, smiley, shiny, blissful— essentially perfect.

I was captivated by the image of the yogini as the ideal of health and happiness. In my mind, the yogini was the poster child for women who were winning at life. You know, women who found a way to perfect Handstand between drinking their kale smoothies and being showered in PDA by their hot, intelligent, and respectful boyfriends.

Enter my inflexibility shame gremlin’s even more prolific and persistent sister: my beauty standard shame gremlin. From the early stages of being a Yoga student, and especially into my early years of teaching Yoga, I struggled with enjoying and appreciating the beauty of my body.

I used to constantly compare the way my body looked with other yoginis, and other women in general. How does my body compare to Eurocentric beauty standards (read: how fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, thin, with voluptuous breasts am I) to the other women around me? And to keep things real, there are many days I still play this petty game.

Beauty, I was told to believe, existed within a hierarchy. And this belief would (and still does at times) leave me feeling inadequate— I don't have a thigh gap, I am beginning to notice that late nights out result in dark circles under my eyes for days and days, and I am at best A-cup (on a good day).

Beauty, I was told to believe, existed within a hierarchy. And this belief would (and still does at times) leave me feeling inadequate…

But I am naturally petite, though, and a mindful diet as well as a dedicated Yoga practice has bestowed my body with lean, toned musculature. I also have thick, long hair, blue eyes, and a pretty face. Overall, I am pretty damn close to the Eurocentric beauty standard. I am lucky in this way, and every day I am more and more aware of the privilege this gives me both on and off the yoga mat. It also can be a source of objectification, but again, different blog post.

Even still, especially at the beginning of my teaching career, I struggled (and yes, again still do sometimes) with this “really close but not quite” feeling. I was simultaneously insecure of the small ways in which my body wasn't "perfect" (whatever that even means)— I mean, where was my hot, intelligent, and respectful boyfriend?— and also guilty that some people would gravitate towards my class because I looked good in yoga pants and a sports bra.

Was I doing Yoga a huge disservice because when people looked at me they would see #yoga instead of Yoga? And did this mean that I couldn’t be a legit, authentic Yoga teacher because I do enjoy the ways in which my body is “beautiful?” Luckily, I have this thing called a Yoga practice and it led me to a critical realization: I am not an image, I am a human BE-ing.

Was I doing Yoga a huge disservice because when people looked at me they would see #yoga instead of Yoga?

Regardless of how others come to perceive me, it is up to me to commit to who I authentically am. A key part of this process is honoring and respecting who and what I am not. I am not an image, or an imaginary standard. I am a human, just like you, who has been blessed with a certain body. It looks a certain way, it moves a certain way, and it’s beautiful.

And I refuse to accept that taking ownership of my beauty and enjoying my beauty in a way that feels empowering to me is selfish. It’s my body, and if there is any one on the earth who deserves to enjoy it’s beauty, it’s me. Because I’m also the only one who has to deal with downsides of being in my body. And I fiercely believe the same goes for you and your body.

And while consumer culture and other institutionalized systems of power may have a lot invested in the idea that beauty is a hierarchy, I call bullshit. I call bullshit because even when I was blonde and at my thinnest and most flexible, I didn’t feel or experience as much beauty in my life as I do now. I refuse to believe that your beauty inherently threatens mine or that my beauty inherently threatens yours.

My body wasn’t made to have a thigh gap or big breasts. In my body, beauty shows up as small breasts, and gap-less thighs. If your body has a thigh gap, big breasts, brown eyes, kinky hair, brown skin— that’s so beautiful, too. It’s just a different type of beauty, and it literally makes the world a more beautiful place.

So when it comes to this whole “Yoga body” thing, what really needs to be addressed is not so much our bodies as our minds. The suffering and the disempowerment doesn’t come from how our bodies look or move, but rather from how we choose to relate to them. Do we appreciate them for what they are and the real beauty they bring to us when nourish them, move them, and embody them with love? Or do we obsess over how they measure up to an imaginary concept of what they “should” (and may never be)?

So when it comes to this whole “Yoga body” thing, what really needs to be addressed is not so much our bodies as our minds.

It’s okay if you do both. I often ping-pong between respecting and loving the body I have and feeling extremely inadequate. That’s just called being human. And if your journey is anything like mine, forging a relationship with your body rooted in respect and care will take quite a bit of practice and time. It will take rewriting narratives in your head and processing the feelings in your heart. And it’s going to be tough, and some days it will be hell.

All we can really do is commit to doing the work, authentically and honestly, compassionately and patiently.

And I hope you do, too. But I know it can be a journey to get there. So if you need some support or just a place to start, come find me on the mat. It is my honor and privilege to be present and of service in making the world a more beautiful place, one heart and mind at a time.

Daniela Kent: E-RYT 500 YACEP San Diego.jpg

Hello, I’m Daniela

I’m 31-year-old literature and philosophy geek turned full-time yoga teacher. I am passionate about living a wholehearted life that honors and allows me to enjoy the gift that is the human body, the power that is the human mind, and the beauty that is the human spirit. That’s how and why I practice and teach Yoga. I’m into making awkward jokes and being radically honest all in the hopes to bring light to truth, and connect. I aim show up in the world, both as a teacher and a human being, in a way that empowers us all to be the best versions of ourselves (most of the time). When I’m not in class, leading Yoga Teacher Training, or traveling, you can find me catching a Chargers game, binge-watching Survivor, or dancing and singing alone in my room to Hozier albums.