This is a post I’ve avoided writing, since I know from a business point of view, a lot of people come to yoga to lose weight, or improve their body image, or get skinny, and I make good money teaching these people. (And honestly, that’s no small part of why I got serious about my practice) But god bless senior teacher Tias Little for posting this, the story of one of his students. After reading what he wrote, I feel like silence is treason. Short version- a yogini and student of Tias’, Isabella Caro, went very public with her battles with anorexia, which are in no small part due to her becoming a fashion model. Tias talks about body image, and its connection with the commercial yoga world, where the ability to look svelte in some impossible-looking pose is no small part of many a yoga teacher’s commercial success. My teacher Jill Miller also bravely talked about her yogic journey, and her initially using yoga to mask an eating disorder here
I’ve mentioned before that the fundamental conflict in the yoga community right now is that we are a 5,000 year old path to enlightenment, and a $6 billion (plus) a year business. The path says that all are welcome, that the look of any pose, or any practitioner is not important. The business says that you’re not good enough, and if you practice enough (especially in this special brand of yoga), or follow this or that “yogic” diet or fast- which inevitably costs serious money- your body will be good enough. I was hipped to this recently when a fabulous teacher friend of mine was finally told what she’d suspected for quite some time- she wasn’t hired for gig X as a yoga teacher, not because she can’t teach (believe me, she can), but because she didn’t “look the part” of a yoga teacher- i.e. isn’t skinny, at all- hence she wouldn’t draw well. (The inference being that students come when the teacher represents some body type they want to have.) I was more pissed than the teacher who told me this. I’ve also been aware that Lululemon, the most prominent clothier of the yoga business (whose clothes I love, don’t get me wrong), doesn’t stock clothing above a certain size of yogini, and when bigger yogis ask about this, their employees have on at least one occasion said: “well, maybe you should make it a goal to fit into our clothes.” I’m not making this up.
That sound you just heard was any chance I had of being a Lulu ambassador, ever, exploding in a cloud of righteous indignation…
And in the interests of journalistic integrity, to be sure, body image was significant part of why I got serious about my practice ten years ago. Through my 20s I visualized myself as the kid in the Charles Atlas ads who had sand kicked on him, with the black eyes in middle school fights to prove it. I wanted to be buffer, I wanted hot girls to like me. But at a certain point, I realized my body is to some degree what it is, due in no small part to my striving for virtuosity on the saxophone, often with poor technique and posture and my unconscious imitation of the postural patterns of my dad and granddad. Neither of which, ultimately, are bad things at all. (This is a separate post, some other time)
So Yogis, Yoga Journal, studios, students… grow the f#$% up! We aren’t in high school anymore- let’s try to sort out how we look from how we practice. Studios, hire teachers who can teach, no matter what they look like! Don’t hype someone because they photograph pretty, hype them because they can take your students deeper into their practice, help them breathe bigger, and can assist them in quieting the turnings of the mind, as Patanjali puts it. (to be clear, many studios already do this to a greater or lesser degree. If that’s you, keep it up!) And have clear, helpful policies for your teachers to go by when they even suspect that one of the students in their class has an eating disorder. (I’ve talked with several employers about this at different times about students who I was worries about. All of them supported me completely. In my experience, everybody wants to do the right thing, but make sure they know what to do, and have institutional support.) Teachers, be careful not to judge anybody by how they look. (Easier said than done, I know. I’m a guilty party here, believe me. It’s one of my constant projects as a teacher.) Strive to equal attention, and equal love, to all students. The ones who challenge you the most are the ones who offer you your greatest teachings. And students, don’t set your yoga schedule by how hot your teacher is, or how much you want to look like them. Set it by the teachers who will change your relationship with your body, change the way you move and breathe and feel, in a positive way. No matter what they look like. And Yoga Journal (and Lululemon), make a “fat”, phenomenal, capable yogi your cover model or ambassador for a month or ten- you will gain ten times the business you will lose, and you’ll do the right thing in the process. If you don’t know who to choose, I have a suggestion (or twenty).
Isabella Caro died, literally, a slave to some twisted body image, both cultivated from insecurity on the inside and tremendous, often commercial pressure on the outside. The least we, who claim to care about the health of the planet, the divine nature of the body and the union of the whole, can do is to make little changes to what we do to make sure that we’re growing love and capability for the world, not filling our minds and lining our pockets on our students’ (or our own) insecurities. Yoga is for everybody, every BODY. Let’s walk our talk in this realm, starting now.
I should also add a caveat as well about Lululemon- judging any entity based solely on anecdotes is not fair, and I have no idea if the story I relay above is the norm for the company, or just one somewhat clueless employee. (If a lulu rep wants to respond, please e-mail me, I’m all ears, and will post your rebuttal) And the company does a lot of great things for yogis of all sizes- they offer lots of free classes both at their stores and elsewhere (and you don’t have to wear their clothes to take them), and are very supportive of YogaHOPE and many other causes in and around the yoga community. That said, several of my yogi friends don’t fit into their clothes, and feel anywhere from insulted to hurt to outraged by what I guess you’d call their brand strategy.