Yoga and Body Image: Part II

Ivy Markaity Health Guide
  • What is Body Image? The textbook definition is: the inner perception of physical appearance, or size and shape. When you have developed a healthy body image you feel good about yourself no matter how you look. Our body image influences our mental health. When we feel bad about our bodies our self-esteem plummets as well as our moods affecting every part of our lives from intimacy and relationships to careers. A healthy body image on the other hand is one that is compassionate, nurturing and positive.


    Again, what is perfection? Different cultures and different time periods in history have all had different ideas and beliefs about what was and is considered attractive. I often think about the 1950's and early 60's when Marilyn Monroe and her gorgeous full figure were considered the epitome of sexy and "perfect." In some cultures being too thin is a social stigma. It is assumed that you do not have enough money to feed yourself. Even within our society there are people from different cultures and ethnic/religious groups that have completely different ideas and beliefs about what is considered healthy and attractive. I grew up in a family comprised of immigrants from Eastern Europe who were always encouraging you to eat if you looked too thin, even if you didn't. The idea was too stay healthy and strong and never go hungry like they did. A strong, full figured body was considered the ideal.

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    The fact of the matter is there is no such thing as perfection! Bodies change and age. Yoga teaches us that we are perfect and divine as we are! Yoga teaches that we are more than our bodies and minds. "We begin to see ourselves as spiritual beings having a human experience instead of human beings having an occasion spiritual experience."

    I find it so sad that we live in a world where people starve themselves, sometimes to death, because they believe they are fat no matter how thin they are. I find it sad that people do not feel lovable or worthy of love because of a few extra pounds.


    How can yoga and spirituality help us heal and begin to build a healthier self-image as well as body image? As yoga has become increasingly popular, it can easily be another way that people try to achieve the "perfect yoga body." I will be happy when I have a yoga body. I will be happy when I lose weight and become more flexible. I will be happy when I "achieve" a certain pose. This can lead to more angst and suffering instead of greater inner peace.


    I encourage my students to focus on keeping their bodies strong and healthy and not focusing on what we think we should look like. It's important to stop the war in our minds, the constant battle to be "flawless." When we practice yoga we begin to appreciate our body for what it can do and how amazing it is. Just the fact that you are on your mat moving through your asanas is a miracle! We practice contentment by accepting what is and being grateful for it instead of continually thinking that we will be happy when.....this applies to all aspects of our lives.


    As our practice deepens our view of the world and our lives begin to shift and broaden. We begin to watch our thoughts and experiences with more perspective, with less attachment. We learn that we are not our thoughts, that we are not our emotions. We begin to understand how our thoughts and beliefs shape and create our reality. If we continually focus on what we don't want in our lives we actually attract and create more of that.


    Yoga develops a high level of self-awareness. We get in touch with our body on a more subtle level tuning in to each muscle as we stretch and into each breath that we take. We begin to watch our thoughts and take notice of the messages we are sending ourselves. We become mindful of our "internal dialogue" of the internal criticisms and judgments. We notice how it affects our moods and we eventually learn how to shift our thoughts to more positive and life affirming messages. Do you criticize yourself for not being good enough, critiquing your body ruthlessly? Or do you offer words of compassion, praise, nurturance and encouragement? I believe this is the key to transforming a negative self-image or body image. We must become aware of how we talk to ourselves. We must transform unloving thoughts; thoughts that do not serve us into ones that are more compassionate and supportive. Would you allow another human being to emotionally beat you up and criticize you as much as you do yourself?

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    In yoga we talk a lot about compassion, but compassion has to start first with being compassionate to your self! This may not be easy at first but you get better at it over time. When I start thinking thoughts that do not serve me and I start to feel uncomfortable in my gut I say to myself "Thank you for sharing but I don't want to go down this road again," and I shift my thoughts to ones that support me emotionally and spiritually. Ones that make me feel lighter, happier and more positive. I am not suggesting repression of emotions or not wanting to address specific emotional issues, but many of our thought patterns are habitual, obsessive and overly critical and do not ultimately serve us.


    Yoga teaches us to focus on what's "not wrong". It teaches us to focus on gratitude, self- acceptance, and being content in the present moment. Yoga is not an escape but a way to discover and address pain as well as pleasure by practicing living and being in the present moment. By learning how to meditate and access that place of peace within us and we don't feel the need to flee uncomfortable feelings by overeating or drinking to suppress them. We learn to look at our pain, hurt, and discomfort and accept it. We know that thoughts and feelings are temporary, fleeting and that if we nurture and accept our pain we can move through it and learn from it.

    Of course all of these practices can be very challenging and even yoga teachers need to remind themselves daily to practice what they teach. Be patient and loving towards yourself!


    "Do your practice and all will come." Pattabhi Jois

  • reference: Yoga Journal

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Published On: March 23, 2011