Science says the body is a machine.
Advertising says the body is a business.
My yoga practice says the body is ____________.
There’s been an explosion of commentary in the yoga blogosphere as of late about yoga bodies— Slim, Calm, Sexy Yoga, A Plea from Curvy Yogis, Judith Laster’s Shellacking of Naked Bodies in YJ, and the new Yoga Journal Talent Search. With the emphasis on asana practice in modern culture, it seems that Western conceptions of what a healthy body looks like have snuck their way into the yoga room as well.
A few weeks ago, I shared some truly eye-opening photos on a blog I where I serve as editor, Yoga Modern, that depict a surprising diversity of bodies in what many might expect to be a very elite and homogenous group of individuals– Olympic athletes. The pictures elicited quite a bit of discussion from readers about the conflicting messages we get about our bodies in society and in the practice room, so when I stumbled onto this piece of art I felt it too provocative to share. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the artist/photographer cited anywhere, but the quote is from Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.
Discussion around the body in yoga is certainly not unique to our time; sages have been debating the role of the body in spiritual practice since time immemorial. Just last week at a Yoga Sutras discussion group I help facilitate, we discussed Patanjali’s concept of saucha in the Yoga Sutras:
To be completely honest, I was a little surprised when I finally saw saucha mentioned in its original context. So often I’ve heard the yogic concept of purity/cleanliness referred to as a practice we cultivate in order to make progress in our asana practice or develop a more loving/respectful relationship with our body. I was comforted to hear from others in the group that I wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by this verse.
Patanjali almost seems to be implying here that yoga encourages us to distance ourselves from our bodies, to begin to sever the mental attachments we have to our flesh. Woah. So if yoga is all about union, bringing together body and mind, making one of opposites… what the heck is this?
Now mind you, Patanjali was writing from the perspective of the classical yoga tradition, and many believe the Tantric yogis had a significantly different attitude toward the flesh. I wonder sometimes if when we lift up these texts– or any spiritual scripture for that matter– as “sacred” or handed down from the Divine… I wonder if we realize the consequences that come from mindlessly applying them to radically different contexts. We live in a different world than the ones Patanjali, Jesus, Mohammed, and others were originally speaking to. That’s not to say that the ancient wisdom texts have no relevance for our modern world– quite the contrary in fact– but I do think it means we have to be especially vigilant about the way we interpret the teachings’ application to our current context.
What happens when a young woman who has come to her mat to begin the process of healing from sexual violence hears her teacher encouraging the class to cultivate purity in their yoga practice? Or when a 17-year-old girl who’s trying yoga because her therapist recommended it as a way of reconnecting with her body and healing from an eating disorder hears her teacher going on about how boat pose will give her washboard abs? Have no doubt, they’re in there. The question for us, as yogis, is whether we’re willing to talk about it.
I’m passionate about shining a light and developing a dialogue around the topics that are often skirted in mainstream discourse. All too often the quiet, gentle voices asking us to look at something we’ve been missing are trumped by the hoots and hollers of angry, power-hungry dissent. So here, I’d like to create a safe space for curious reflection. Tell me, what does your yoga practice tell you about your body? What message to you get from the wider yoga community– from your teachers, from Yoga Journal, from your fellow practitioners– and does it differ from your experience on the mat? Does yoga bring you into greater connection with your body or does it make you less interested in your physical self?
I encourage the community here at Elephant Journal to share in the discussion, contribute to the dialogue, build a bridge between people and communities that may not otherwise have heard one another’s voice. We may live in different places, walk different paths, inhabit different bodies… but we’re all in this together, right?