The look of yoga looks like, well, you…

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.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenters- some valuable additions here.  The article Zach was trying to link to in his reply is here.  My friend Abby posted awhile back on the issue of yoga clothing as well.

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.

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7 Responses to The look of yoga looks like, well, you…

  1. Zachary Biegun says:

    Just another perspective…

    For Lululemon, from a strictly business standpoint–they can’t afford to have sizes beyond a certain range. No apparel companies can–unless that’s what they do specifically–most companies lose profit on larger sizes. At larger sizes, human body shapes vary much more than at smaller sizes, and achieving satisfactory fit at these larger sizes requires an almost exponential increase in number of actual fits offered for every increase in standard or perceived size. A good article that helps explain it <a href=http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/beauty/the-real-reason-that-ann-taylor-hates-plus-sizes-473559" title="here" This is a problem across all apparel companies, not specific to Lululemon.

    Yoga and anorexia are definitely both driven by a desire to control physical and mental limits–in that I think Tias is quite astute. But I think he misses a major difference. While anorexia is all about mental power over the body, suppressing the body's desire for sustenance–yoga is about mental power IN the body. Where the anorexic mind urges you to ignore the feelings of the body–the yogic mind urges you to cultivate feeling in the body.

    Yoga has taught me how to feel my body. Ballet and my desire to be thin enough taught me how NOT to feel my body. Through yoga I am continually learning how to feel my body, and how to listen to it. It is this deeper mind-body connection that forms the base of my yoga practice and has allowed me to advance to more challenging poses. While I can't put words in anyone's mouth, I think if you asked anyone who accomplishes impressive feats of athleticism or weightlessness in yoga–it is by FEELING their body and not by ignoring it that they got there. Certainly anyone who got there without injury would agree…

    I think that's why yoga has been a healing tool for so many former ED people. Because I learned how to feel and listen to my body I personally gained quite a bit of weight when I got "serious" about my practice. I know others who lost weight as they got serious about their practice. It all depends on what issues you came to yoga with. And if you came to yoga without any issues about food and body image? Then I want to know how you grew up so I can try to emulate it for my nieces and nephews!

    Ultimately yoga is a business just like any other (I mean, unless you're going to go live on a hillside and teach for donations of food and water). The problem with business is that the desire for profits can so easily lead people astray. What people in any business need to continually ask is: Do I care more about earning money or more about acting out of compassion for people and stewardship for the world I live in? Maybe sometimes you need to make a business decision to put food on the table. But maybe sometimes you can make a more altruistic decision. If you're lucky, and work hard at it, you'll never have to make a choice between the two.

  2. Zachary Biegun says:

    oopsies, my html coding for the link didn’t work. either copy and past, or just google “the real reason that ann taylor hates plus sizes”

    • pdonaher says:

      Updated the post to get to that link, Zach- thanks for your thoughtful response. Looks like “the long tail” strikes again, though from my time in the music business I’m much more used to thinking about its happier benefits…

  3. Mary McManus says:

    As a new yogini this post moved me to tears. I posted yesterday about my journey into yoga in my blog and the synchronicity is beautiful. I am discovering yoga is a powerful form of healing for my history of polio and post polio syndrome as well as childhood abuse and trauma. I am so excited that Nicole led me to your class – when the student is ready the teacher appears. Looking forward to our work together Pat. Thank you!

  4. amy feucht says:

    I love this post Pat- Thank you. As a person recovering from an ED I agree with your points abt images and money…however,I know my ED was mostly about my fight for a free honest life. I want my teachers to look after themselves and have healthy bodies and spiritual groundedness. My goal is freedom and the rest is ego right? What a well written blog!! Thank You.

  5. Abby says:

    Thank you for the ping! As much as people may mock her, Jessica Simpson did a brief and WONDERFUL interview (I can’t remember if it’s linked in Tias’ article or not and am having trouble accessing EJ to find out) with Isabelle Caro.

    The video link is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfHlgGftVGY

    • pdonaher says:

      The interview is in Tias’ article. I was horrified. And I wouldn’t ever want to be a celebrity, especially one thought “hot”, if I had to go through what Ms. Simpson did. (And believe me, I’m no big fan) Glad to shout you out.

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