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Season 1 - Episode 3

Body Image and Yoga

20 min - Talk


How do we move from a place of separation to a place of self-love and acceptance? The conversation about body image and yoga is not a new one, but it continues to be an important one. Linda unpacks her feelings about the topic—examining how the modern yoga world presents challenges to promoting a healthy body image, and how yoga can serve as a companion for healing the inner struggle we may have with our own bodies.
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Nov 07, 2015
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(waves and ocean flowing) So I've been talking about body image and yoga, seemingly forever. And the topic never gets old, but at the same time, it never seems to go away. And with statistics that say, 90 to 95 percent of all women have issues with our bodies, and I've never really met the other five to ten percent. So I'm kinda thinking, that we all do. It's, it just bears repeating, it bears unpacking, and it bears continuing to have this conversation.

And particularly, we can talk about body image and all different kinds of problems and solutions, but what I really wanna focus on is yoga and body image. Because yoga is the very thing, that should be able to help us connect with, honor and celebrate our bodies. And it sorta doesn't. It reminds me of an experience I had way back in the '90s. I wanna say, like, '93 or '94.

I was editing Yoga Journal, and my friend Ann Cushman and I, we had a special advertising section that we were asked to do. We had to dress up in Capezio outfits, which P.S., I would never do on my own. But anyway, we got to pick out these outfits, and we had to go to Macy's, and we're on a platform in the middle of their fitness section, with all the Nikey, stretchy, outfits and cool shoes and what have you... And we were to demonstrate yoga poses, and talk to people about coming to yoga. And what it meant to take a yoga class, and why you should even do that in the first place.

So we were really into it. And it was a little weird and, at the very end, I was sitting on the platform and these two women came up, and one woman said to me, okay, so what do you think, 20, 30? I said, 20 or 30 what? She said pounds, what do I need to lose? 20, 30 pounds, before I start yoga?

I said why would you wanna do that? You can start yoga whenever you want. She said, honey, you think I'm gonna wear what you got on on that body, and put it on this body, these hips? You're crazy. She said I'm not going into a studio and humiliating myself, why would I do that?

I thought, oh my gosh, why indeed? So, I mean, that was back in the '90s. And I just have to say, I'm just gonna be like, you and me, honest here... it's gotten worse, actually. The yoga that we see in a lot of studios. And not all of them, of course.

But in a lot of studios, is all about the body. And obviously, yoga is a body based practice. But, when we talk about a body based practice, we don't mean, how awesome I can look in a lycra outfit. Or how high I can extend my leg, or how I can wrap my leg around my neck. That's not actually what I think of as a body based practice.

And so, when people who are not that, enter into a yoga class, it's humiliating. And what it does, is it causes separation immediately. I'm not that, I can never do that. What was I thinking? I gotta go.

I think part of the problem comes when, because we also do that with our teachers. So teachers, we have fabulous teachers in the yoga communities. Amazing teachers, and at the same time, all of us, are working really hard to bubble up out of the noise, and to become... Have our voice heard. You know, become a yoga teacher that is heard and appreciated and loved.

And has something to offer. So one way to do that, is to get on the cover of a magazine. To do DVDs, oh, here I am, ha! Do DVDs... Be an inspiration in my body. So for a lot of yoga teachers that means I need to be thin, I need to be strong, I need to be fit, I need to be young.

And so there is a huge amount of pressure in the yoga community for us, as well as for our students. And so we model that going into class, our students are there. They go, you know what, I could never look like that. And so the people that do show up, and are strong and are beautiful and supple, and light, they find their community there, and perhaps as one who is differently built. Or not flexible, or not this or not that.

I don't... So, it came to my attention even more when I started talking or teaching, a workshop, a retreat called Courageous Women, Fearless Living. And it's for women who are touched by cancer. Most of whom have never, had never taken yoga. Some have good spiritual practices, but as far as asana, pranayama, it really was something that they had never done.

And so, we would do these practices together, and they would go home and they'd be so excited because it's very healing, it very much helped them come to terms with and help heal themselves in whatever way that was for them. And they would come to their local yoga studios and not be able to join in. They became very self conscious about missing a breast. Or having scars that were apparent. And so they would give up.

So, in my discussions with a lot of yoga teachers, a lot of yoga students, what we came to realize, is it's really not yoga's fault. Yoga really is a solution and really is a companion for us on the road to... healing the riff that we have with our bodies. It just is. So obviously, the discussion about body image, is not focused solely on weight.

We can talk about age, we can talk about scars, like I said in the Courageous Women. Scars, missing parts, anything that keeps us feeling that we're not enough. A friend of mine, Melody Moore, who is a psychologist in Texas, who works with young women. And she calls this whole phenomenon about yoga seeming to be part of the problem as a bastardization of yoga. She says that the more that we, it really keeps us tethered to our own limitations, instead of freeing us from them.

And so, the more that we separate the body experience, the physical experience of doing yoga with, the breath of what yoga truly is, we suffer. So in my case, the idea of body image right now, has way more to do with me growing older, than the body image issues that I dealt with when I was much younger. So can I just say that those sort of body image problems don't really ever go away. They just kind of morph and change with my insecurities at the moment. Or whatever that is.

And so when I was young, I actually had a lot of issues around my body. Not as much because I wanted to be thinner, because I was so incredibly tiny, I didn't know how to nourish myself. I didn't know how to take, to feed myself. Not just food but, experiences and emotions and... I didn't know how to do that.

And so what I would do, was deny myself sustenance and emotional connection. So I went to college weighing 87 pounds. And I didn't actually gain the ten pounds of freshmen weight that you're supposed to gain. Instead I really suffered with that for a pretty long time. And then as I moved into my 50s and 60s, what I'm noticing is, those questions, that dialogue in my head about I'm not enough, or you know, my body's changing, I need to workout more.

I need to do this. I need to look different. Those, that language is still in my head. But I'm able to say, huh... Look at what's happening this morning?

Look who's visiting me right now. Isn't that interesting? That her voice is back. So I can modulate it. I can greet it with a little bit more friendliness, a little more humor.

But, what trips me up in the discussion is, my aging body. And it's taken me awhile to meet it. And to understand my relationship to it. Which is a process. And mostly because I'm in this community.

I'm in, not only yoga, but in the publishing community and in the writing community. Filled with people who are a lot younger than I am. And in my mind and in my energies, I am too, and so, I'll pass a mirror and go whoa! Oh wait, that's me. Because my energy is still... Alright sometimes it's 12 years old.

Other times, it's a little more mature. But you know, I have that, that energy in me that belies what I see in the mirror. So, so, just like... Just like a lot of us, for awhile I was looking to yoga, to transform that. To make me feel younger.

Make me look younger, do something with this. And I realize, because yoga is about transformation, right? But it's not about transforming your hips. It's not about transforming your double chin. Or the wrinkles around my eyes.

It's about transforming my relationship to myself. It's transforming the way I greet myself. You know, and we talk all the time in yoga about the solution in yoga lies in connecting with the deeper practices. The solution to, or to even begin the conversation, to move into wholeness, we have to look at the entire practice. So we say, okay, what are some of the elements of yoga that could help us?

And right away, we talk about tapas, spanjara, and ishvara pranidhana. And tapas, of course, is practice, it's heat, but it's also fierce determination to show up. No matter what, we're looking at. It's the determination and the commitment to show up. So if I can show up and say I'm gonna greet myself.

I'm gonna look at this. I'm gonna practice, what do they say? I'm gonna practice till my hair is on fire. And yet, if I stay in that sense of practice, and that fierce determination to look at me. I'm gonna burn up.

And I'm still gonna suffer because I'll be, like, moving through every part of my body, trying to make sense of it. Trying to create a relationship with it. And so the yogis say no, no, no, no... Be gentle. Vijaya is... it's self awareness.

It's unpacking. And what Swami Kripalu says is that, it's self awareness without judgment, which is the highest form of spiritual practice. Because it's the hardest thing to do. So we say, okay, I'm gonna show up, whether I want to or not. I'm going look inside.

I'm going to, I'm gonna come inside and share a cup of tea, with myself. And I'm gonna be gentle. I'm gonna be patient. And I'm gonna be generous. And it's like the Buddhist, when we talk about the paramitas, we start with generosity.

The six perfections. We start with generosity, and then we move to discipline and action, right? And then we move to patience. And so that's what vijaya says. Come in and sit awhile, and see what's here.

And then we have ishvara pranidhana, which of course, I say awesome. I can let go of all the stuff I don't like about myself. I can, like, just put that over there, I don't ever have to look at it. I don't have to think about it. Well actually, that's not really what it means.

What ishvara pranidhana means, is letting, just let it be. It means letting go, but it means letting go of judgment. It means integration. It means connection. It means, coming to an understanding, that you're deeply connected, and you can deeply support whatever it is that comes up.

Whatever it is, or whoever it is, that you are right now. Even the parts of you, that you find deeply irritating. It's like someone says, every time someone deeply irritates me, or I get so annoyed at myself, I realize that this is an invitation to practice compassion. So it's like thank you. It's giving me that opportunity to practice compassion.

So I think what I finally came to realize through all of this exploration, both in my conversations, and writing and my own life. It's really and truly, like I said before, yoga is not actually the problem. We're kinda the problem. It's really how we have created an expectation for yoga that isn't really fair. And it's not really what it is.

So yoga is truly a body based practice. So we got that going on. But what we made it into, is a body based exercise program, that uses certain shapes. And it, it serves a purpose in a way. But what I really believe, is that when it stays there and doesn't move inward, we suffer.

So what I want from my yoga practice, and what serves my body and helps me move from this sense of separation into connection, is to think of yoga as a body based meditation and spiritual practice. And so within, so as I move into myself, and into my practice, it kind of helps that my eyes are closed, there are no mirrors. I don't have to see exactly what I've decided I don't like about myself. Suddenly, those hips that have been screaming at me when I go to try on clothes, in a department store. Those hips and legs...

The hips are opening so I can sit. The legs are grounding down into the floor, so I can balance. The arms are moving out to the sides and that so I can stretch and move. So the whole body is working together to bring me home. And I'm seeing for the first time, sometimes, as I practice, I have a different relationship with my body.

And for the first time, sometimes, an hour, sometimes days, depending on what my schedule is looking like, true confessions... I, when I do practice, if I've gone off the boards, and I've ended up not being able to practice. When I do come back, the beauty, the gift of having my mind and body integrated and supporting one another through the agency of the breath, is a huge gift. And in that space, there's really no room for judgment. If I approach it with kind heartedness, patience and generosity.

And that's what yoga teaches me. And I wish I could say that that's the end of the story. And that I'm awesome. And that I never have any doubts. And I'm... yeah, no.

I do think that, this is a discussion that needs to be continued. We need to be talking about this. We need to be supporting and reminding ourselves that we're perfect exactly the way we are. So let's keep the conversation going. I'd love to know your experiences.

And I'd love for you to share those with me. Namaste.


Joanna H
4 people like this.
How refreshing. Thank you so much Linda, you are a beautiful inspiration to me, newly committing to yoga at the age of 49 and having these battles with myself and my body about its limitations and failings. I needed to hear this and be reminded and am very grateful to you.
Linda Sparrowe
Oh Joanna... thank you for sharing. I so know what you mean! One of the hardest things for me to remember is that my body has no failings; it's just has places that need a little more patience, love and understanding to unfold and blossom. You are on your way!
Katherine E
Thank you, for bringing this subject up. I have heard women say ,as there body changes they don't want to go to yoga studios anymore. I want to encourage them to keep moving forward. When I do my practice I started to thank my body for doing yoga.And I started to feel grateful .
Than you, for your inspiration

Linda Sparrowe
What a lovely thing to do Katherine. Anytime we can begin our practice with gratitude it changes the whole nature of our time on the mat. Suddenly we see our body with fresh eyes and our relationship to it can soften and blossom. Thank YOU for sharing.
Whitney S
2 people like this.
Thank you Linda for this honest discussion. I am a 52 year old teacher who teaches mainly this age group. Being a teacher adds additional pressure to this issue because we are expected to practice what we preach, which is a tall order. But the greater lesson is that we are all humans experiencing very similar thoughts
often set upon us by our environment i.e.: Facebook, Instagram, magazines, TV and even the yoga studio, as you mentioned. It helps to share these thoughts. Thank you for doing that.
Linda Sparrowe
Whitney, you are so right. Not only are we expected to practice what we preach, we're expected to look the way our culture perceives a yoga teacher to look--fit, thin, young, flexible. And the question becomes, Can I teach yoga when I no longer fit the mold? And my answer, of course, is maybe that's when the true teaching begins! Thank you so much for taking time to weigh in.
Melody Moore
1 person likes this.
Thank you for your authenticity and bravery, Linda. I'm honored that you quoted me in your talk and explanation about how the separation of mind and body is the opposite of the union possible through yoga. You are the love. I know many people will feel invited to the practice because of how you welcome all bodies, all shapes, all sizes, all experience, all. Thank you.
Linda Sparrowe
Melody Moore...the work you do out in the world inspires me and helps so many young women. I will forever sing your praises!
Leah K
1 person likes this.
Linda, you have a beautiful spirit! Thank you for sharing these words. I'm looking forward to the remaining videos.
Maria Elena D
thank you for your honesty Linda! I really do appreciate it and relate to much of what you speak of. Just recently I realized that depriving myself constantly of foods I enjoy, in the pursuit of the "ideal" body is a form of self hatred! This idea took my breath away! I started to eat with mindfulness, with joy, with awareness, with gratefulness and a sense of adventure and its made SUCH a beautiful, accepting, loving difference. I am suddenly seeing my body as the gift of the Divine that it truly is! and for the first time in my adult life, I am falling in love with myself, with ALL of myself! and interestingly enough, I am eating in a balanced and nurturing manner! It is a tragedy that women, in general, have been at war with ourselves for, far to long. Yes! lets keep this conversation going, I suddenly find myself with lots to say on the subject! lol! Thank You!
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