Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Gift of Embodiment: Part I

My last post, as well as a few other things in the blogosphere (LOVE that word!) of late, got me thinking. In particular, thinking about the body and our relationship to it. There are a lot of bloggers who reflect on the way that we, and women in particular, struggle to accept and love our bodies in the face of a culture that worships appearances and an idealised physical form. One amazing woman who blogs regularly and movingly about this is psychotherapist and Yoga Teacher Teresa over at My Embodiment. Another is Suburban Yogini, who did a recent interview with Bliss Chick, another body image warrior. And Brenda from Grounding Through the Sit Bones did some reflection on role modeling in the yoga community in this post a few weeks back.

I think at sometime or other, we all suffer from thoughts about our body image. As a thin woman, I wanted to be busty. Curvy women long to be thin. Our male friends want to be thin but buff, my asian friends want to be whiter, my white friends wish to be darker and so the list goes on! Interestingly (for me), the wealthier the society in general, the more overwhelming these issues seem to be. Maybe it's the inundation of advertising and media that accompany wealth, celebrating body-stereotypes and obsessing over appearances. Probably we just have too many mirrors in our home and too much time on our hands. Maybe it's more than that - maybe some of us try to compensate for our extremely privileged material lives by making ourselves suffer from the inside. I think I fell into this latter category in my own teenage years.

The truth is, everyone suffers. Everyone who is born into a body will experience suffering in their lifetime. For the majority of people in the world this suffering is part of the daily struggle to survive against the obstacles of hunger, illness, poverty, and lack of choices. But even we, the most privileged people on the planet, cannot evade pain, grief, and fear. The only way never to suffer is not to be born. But sometimes it seems that our society gives us only the tools to deny, suppress or evade suffering, and not to deal with and transverse it.

When the source of suffering is our internal image of the body, and not just the body itself, we enter into a strange realm - one where our suffering is no longer grounded in reality, but in perception. As Yoga Sutra 1.8 puts it: "Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form." When we fall into this trap, we truly believe in a false reflection, and believe in it so strongly that we put our bodies through physical suffering because of it. This is the realm of eating and exercise disorders, of the young women throwing up in the bathroom, the young men trying to live on a diet of protein shakes and killing themselves in the weight-room, of african and asian women who bleach their skin trying to make it whiter. This world of misconception is also a window to the more sinister realm of society-imposed bodily mutilations such as foot-binding and neck stretching, all in the name of 'beauty' and 'perfection'.

These thoughts and realities make me wonder: how has humanity failed these individuals so deeply as to lead them to that suffering? And in our own daily biases and insecurities, how far are we from that 'mental modification' ourselves? How can we work to change that, to help others or to help ourselves?

The Yoga Sutras offer us the first clue: "These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment." (1.12) and "Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness." (1.14). In English, that means: Long, Hard Work. Oh darn - no quick fix. ;) And for some of us, used to instant gratification, that might be enough to make us stop listening right there!!

But for others, Yoga offers the perfect practice to address misconceptions. The practice of Yoga encourages a new knowledge of the body to occur - one that begins from within, instead of from without. It offers a chance to re-build a fractured relationship with the Self, and to create a Self-image that is not based on the material world, but on a connection with the deeper self/spirit. And on the physical level, it offers us the chance to create a new ideal: a healthy, balanced body that is unique to every individual. A journey through space and time that is tailored just for us. A journey that takes us to a state of bliss: "Samprajnata samadhi (distinguished contemplation) is accompanied by reasoning, reflecting, rejoicing and pure I-am-ness." (1.17)

On the macro level, the teachings of Yoga have a lot to offer as well. Non attachment (aparigrahah) includes letting go of beauty ideals, and not judging others by their appearance. Non-harming (ahimsa) means not causing others harm, even if believed that it is truly "for their own good" (i.e. the thankfully extinct practice of binding girls feet because it would attract a good marriage). Ahimsa also means not to cause yourself harm, and this practice begins by cultivating a healthy, non-harmful relationship between the body and the mind. And all of these practices are just that - practices. They take conscious effort, discipline, self-awareness and hard work. And don't forget non-attachment: we have to be willing to endure the journey, and not strive for perfection at the outset.

Change begins from within: what are body issues that you have struggled with? How has yoga brought about changes in your perception?

So concludes part one... In part II I intend to reflect a bit more philosophically on suffering and how it can be that some of us come to call embodiment a gift, despite all that we have to endure. And I am looking for possible guest bloggers or contributers for a Part III on body image within the yoga community... Let me know if you are interested!


  1. Excellent post! Looking forward to part II.

    I came to yoga with a conflicted body image from years of counting calories and on again-off again exercise, growing up in a very weight-conscious family. I was looking for an escape in yoga, and through regular practice have come to love and appreciate my body for its amazing capabilities, while learning to respect its limitations.

    The body-awareness I've gained through yoga has changed my life: I know when something is wrong and, usually, I know what my body needs. My practice motivates me to eat nourishing foods and get sufficient rest. The increased fitness and changes to the shape of my body have been a welcome bonus that I didn't expect, but the practice has never been about toning or trimming down. It's about training the mind and making the body a fit vehicle for the self.

  2. I think being able to obsess about the "imperfection" of one's body is completely linked to material wealth. It's all advertising--you can't sell anything if you can't convince people they are unsatisfied. It is sort of a luxury, as you point out.

    I like the sutras you included; they are a nice reminder, especially 1.8, and that one could apply to a whole lot more than just body image.

    I look forward to the next installment!

  3. Excellent post! thanks for sharing. It is nice to see yoga sutra being applied to daily life situations. I have been studying the yoga sutras for many years and am always happy to see how these can help me with my day-to-day life.

  4. @Misanthropic - Thanks for sharing your story. I think so many of us struggle with these issues, but you hit the nail on the head about what I like about yoga - it's training to live in your body, not live for your body.

    @Brenda - I think advertising and the media play a huge role in why body image illness is so much more prominent in wealthier societies. But even in some of the rural and remote areas I've traveled to, people still want to be taller/thinner/lighter etc. So there must be more to it - something more deeply human within us that creates these misconceptions.

    @Subhash - Thanks for your comment! It's amazing to me how when I have a dilemma, I suddenly seem to find a sutra that speaks to me.

  5. I find that it's a catch-22. Yoga makes me even more aware of my body than I already am, which for me (at times) heightens my dissatisfaction. At the same time, my practice also inspires and encourages me to take better care of myself. I'm immersed in my first teacher training right now and I've been getting much better about vitamins, eating whole + fresh foods, and being religious about my water and Omega 3 intake.

    I love what you said to Misanthropic above -- "(yoga is) training to live in your body". Excellent, thought-provoking post.

    I'm happy to have found your blog! :)

  6. fantastic post.
    I tend to lean more towards societal reasons for body image disorders.... mostly due to the rise in eating disorders concurrent with the "birth" of advertising. Perhaps it's more of a: humans are naturally vulnerable to societal pressures, and advertising reflects the pressures of that specific society. As in, the social pressures of one culture regarding ideal weight- body type etc, will be different than that of another (tan vs whiter...etc).
    similarly, I would also feel that being bombarded with hundreds of ads per day (11% which speak to how women "should" look) compounds this vulnerability.

    but then, that's my theoretical background :)