Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Yoga, Anorexia, and Gross-Level Fixations

This post will have some yoga practitioners stopping in there tracks. I hope. And even for those of you who could care less about yoga, it's still worth consideration. Why? Because what's described here is part of a larger set of cultural issues around body image and narratives about spirituality that need to be deeply questioned.

The sadness that spawns from the passing of Isabelle Caro, a French model who died of anorexia two months ago, weighs heavy on those of us who teach and coach body awareness.

The starkness of her posing naked for the Italian photographer and billboard graphic is unforgettable. Toward the end of her short 28 years, she decided to expose the under-belly of the modeling world, the objectification of women, and the cultural fixation on the body-lite.

Upon reflection, I feel that the visual pre-occupation we have around the body overwhelms the kinesthetic feel of just being in the body. For instance, in the culture of yoga today, the outer glossing of the pose is all too visible—on the cover of Yoga Journal, the back of the Special K cereal box, or on television adverts marketing everything from mattresses to mood altering over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Yoga, like fashion, gets reduced to simplistic posing, and the outer form stands significant. That is the warp.

Then there is the infatuation with the weightless body. This is not confined to the runways. The act of being light and the steps necessary to get light are part and parcel of yoga practice, and have been for centuries. The impulse to be thin is rampant throughout yoga studios in West Palm Beach, Santa Monica and Scottsdale, Arizona.

One of the interesting things here is the issue of lightness. I believe that most of the time, we fail to operate on a subtle level. We mistake gross appearances as the real thing, or the only thing. The lightness of yoga, or Buddhism for that matter, isn't about body weight. Nor is it about being a shiny, happy person sending rainbows to everyone all the time.

Lightness, to me, is about flow. It's about being the one who isn't hung up on every little thought or action. The one who isn't constantly manufacturing more "self" during their interactions with others.

Fasting, holding your breath, balancing on your arms, and doing kapalabhati (a breathing technique where the abdomen is pumped while exhaling forcefully) all suggest attempts to defy gravity. Levitation, being completely weightless, is the quintessential yogic device to demonstrate accomplishment (siddhi) in classical Indian lore. Stories of the levitating yogi abounded in the mid 20th century, as described in the popular Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. The third chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras suggests that the yogi who has gained mastery can float “as light as a tuft of cotton.” Today, yoga on sweat-drenched sticky mats, juicing fasts, raw food diets and power yoga work-outs are intended to drive the body into obedience and to make it weightless. Yoga, like anorexia, is driven by an impulse to gain control over physical (and mental) limits.

I'm not sure I agree with the author if he's suggesting the above practices are always, or even mostly, part of the problem. What I see going on is a misperception issue, one that maybe has been present amongst some practitioners for centuries. He's quite correct that levitation narratives are pretty easy to find amongst yogic literature, just as there has been a strand of Zen writings that have highly focused on dynamic, sometimes wild satori experiences. Going to extremes, and/or emphasizing extremes as methods and/or end points of spiritual practices is commonplace. You'd think Buddhists would be "cured" of such things, given the Buddha's historical narrative, but I don't think so.

However, the other practices, including inverted poses and breathing exercises, don't have to be about going to extremes. My experience has been that they can re-calibrate your equilibrium, offering a different balance point to work from than that which you're used to.

I sometimes think it might be helpful to long time Zen students, who have sat years on end in zazen, to be flipped over. To do handstands or headstands during meditation retreats. Why? To shake things up. This is one of the reasons I have always had a dual practice. I have noticed how stale meditation practice can get in a bodily way, which impacts the mind as well.

And those detox diets that are so popular? Well, it depends upon how they are viewed. There's no doubt that the level of toxins from human made products is much higher today than in the past. In addition, even a person who eats a relatively healthy diet can get plugged up with fats, chemicals, etc. from time to time. Eating certain foods to flush out toxins is a very old practice, and one that doesn't have to lead to unhealthy obsessions about the body.

However, like the author, I can see how all of this, the detox diets, the inverted poses and breath techniques, and the flat stomached yoginis on magazines covers, can easily tie into the commonplace destructive cultural narratives about body weight, body appearance, and self image. And to those out there who have the attitude that anything goes when it comes to yoga, or any other spiritual practice, have to consider the consequences of that attitude.

Furthermore, though, I do believe that it's also the case that in every major religious and spiritual tradition I can think of, there is a strand of body-hatred tied to desires to transcend the Earth to some "heavenly plane" that is essentially invisible, bodiless, and perfect because of that. Yoga has it. Buddhism has it. The Big Three Monotheistic traditions certainly have it.

So, partly what I see today is a convergence of long standing distrust of anything "earth based," including our own bodies, with the rampant consumeristic narratives that have created impossible standards of "beauty" that are also entirely superficial and meaningless in the end. It's a really curious mixture if you think about it.


BD said...

While I agree completely about the fixation of the so called ''light body'', I have started taking yoga classes and I have to say there is not one lady (or guy...OK I am the only guy but I digress ) that resembles that photo. Given it is an extreme you will find it even more unabashedly in ballet and gymnastics. I have a teenage daughter that takes dance classes and the pressure there to be thin is ridiculous. What is needed is more exposure to harsh reality of this disease called anorexia and the mental state required for it's manifestation.

dragonfly said...

I guess it comes down to what you mean by "yoga". The yoga I know doesn't ask my physical body to be anything. Of course, I struggle with all kinds of issues related to my perception of my physical body - and I also want my MIND to be a certain way, and my HEART to be a certain way, etc., etc., etc. But this is not yoga - yoga is at its core in part about relinquishing the illusion of the separate self. So yoga in MY life has given me many tools of ACCEPTANCE and a much healthier relationship with my body as it is now (my mind too, for that matter). I'm not trying to starve it any more, for instance. I would say yoga has had the exact opposite effect in my life than what is being talked about in the post you refer to.

There are many ways to go astray, to misinterpret or to begin using practices for purposes other than what they were originally meant to do - this is not just true for yoga. Show me a religious or spiritual tradition where it is not. :) And as you also point out, these problems relate to a larger set of cultural issues and not specifically to yoga.

It's true, there are issues with how body image plays into the image of yoga as it is portrayed today in American media. Judith Hanson Lasater's recent letter to Yoga Journal about their advertising sparked a lot of discussion on that topic. But I'm not sure physicality was an original part of what was meant by yoga at all. The Yoga Sutras do not specifically indicate much about what is happening in the physical body - mostly the practice of yoga is about other kinds of lightness, as you say...

I'm not sure if I have a point here, exactly. (It's been a long day.) But just sharing some of my thoughts. Thanks for another good post, Nathan.

Nathan said...

BD - I've never seen anyone who looked like her either in my classes, but I just started a yoga teacher training last night, and somehow eating disorders came up and one of our teachers said she had a student who was rail thin and had severe eating disorders. I was surprised at how quickly some of the stuff in this post was confirmed. The same teacher said that research suggests that amongst American girls and women between ages 10 and 30, nearly half are or have had some issues around eating, including major eating disorders. So, it's something I want to be aware of if I end up teaching.

Nathan said...


I think you and I are on the same page.

This "It's true, there are issues with how body image plays into the image of yoga as it is portrayed today in American media. Judith Hanson Lasater's recent letter to Yoga Journal about their advertising sparked a lot of discussion on that topic." is a major focus of the post I wrote, although not the only one.

And yes, it's also really interesting how the Yoga Sutras says nothing really about body postures, and yet the majority of people think asana when the word "yoga" is uttered.

dragonfly said...

Just to be clear, I was agreeing with you in a rather long-winded way, not suggesting you had not made that point. :) I imagine yoga could be either a help or a hindrance when combating an eating disorder, depending on a number of factors. Definitely something to be aware of if teaching - I wonder if that statistic given is maybe even a little low? One of my personal peeves is studios with mirrors. My local studio, which I love otherwise, has them. Being so visually focused - on one's own body as well as those of others - is not particularly helpful for me when it comes to these issues, and I imagine I'm not the only one.

Nathan said...

I don't think I'd be too keen on wall to wall mirrors either. Haven't had that experience before, but it sounds like it could easily be a distraction.