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.