Look through the aisles of a magazine rack and observe the covers of yoga publications. Better yet, go onto Google Images and simply type ‘yoga’. What do you see? Any similarities?
What you will often see is that most of the images that pop up when we type in yoga are of feminine women whose bodies are considered by white Western standards to be the height of beauty and health- thin, lean muscles, long glossy hair on their heads, no hair on the rest of their bodies. Their stomachs lay flay and their arms are firm, no matter what pose they are holding.
This is touted by many as the “ideal yoga body.” If we do see men in these photos they look pretty much the same. They are youthful, muscular but not bulky, with no flab or wrinkles insight. It is not to say that many yogis will naturally have these physiques, but why do we pretend that it is achievable or desirable for everyone, or that the majority of practitioners fit this constructing mold?
If you walk into a studio you will see a wider range of bodily diversity. People of all ages and sizes come to the mat, and the mat welcomes each and every one of them.
However, even when we see that all kinds of bodies love and benefit from yoga there is still a stigma for bodies that are different than the ideal: fat, older, disabled, etc. This makes many people who aren’t a cookie-cutter yogi stay away from studios and conferences. They may love the practice, but they have a disdain for the toxic body expectations.
It is interesting to note that this is nothing new to yoga. Ancient yogis were also obsessed with thinness and often attracted students who would go to extremes in search of the perfect yoga body. Many so-called wellness practices are actually forms of orthorexia or an eating disorder that creates obsessive practices around eating the “healthiest” you can, which in turn actually makes a person actually more ill and susceptible to disease.
Read: Yoga Is for Every Body
We're Slowing Getting Better
Fortunately, the conversation about body diversity and a holistic approach to wellness that is research-informed and inclusive is becoming more and more prominent.
Jessamyn Stanley is a self-described “fat-femme” yogini. She travels the country showing up as a proud fat woman of color on a mission to make yoga accessible to all bodies. With hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram the consensus is clear: people are hungry for yoga role models that are more than thin and white.
With regards to accessibility and yoga we have pioneer Yulady Saluti, a yoga instructor with chronic illness and a colostomy bag. Yulady has had dozen of surgeries in her short life and is passionate about using yoga as a tool for healing, but not to “fix” differently able bodies.
Lockey Maisonneuve is a yoga instructor who has survived breast cancer and openly displays her mastectomy scars, leading other cancer survivors to reclaim their bodies during and after their cancer battles.
In the male space of body inclusivity, we have Tommy Valencia and Dan Nevins, both of whom have lost limbs and struggled with chronic disease. While women are more targeted for weightless and plastic surgery men and boys suffer from body stigma too.
How We Can Make Yoga More Inclusive
All of these incredible teachers have one thing in common- they want to make the image of a yogi something everyone can see themselves reflected in. I became a yoga teacher in the midst of being diagnosed with Chronic Acute Epstein Barr, a disease that completely altered my life.
I was young and used to be able to do power yoga for hours and hold almost any poses as long as I wanted when I was hit by my disease. Yoga didn’t cure me, but it did help and more than anything it humbled me. I began teaching from a very different perspective than I would have without getting sick. I listened and knew my body better than I had before because it has demanded that of me.
As I age with my illness I have to continually accept the adjustments it asks of me. As a young yogi, I wanted to be able to successfully do peacock poses, now, I want to make sure my body gets the rest it needs between each asana.
If yoga should be anything it should be inclusive. After all yoga means union, not only between our soul and our body, but between each other.
All yogi bodies are good bodies. Yoga teaches us to appreciate and not compete with one another, but to honor our unique strengths and abilities.
It is my hope that in five years, the face of yoga looks like the face of humanity: diverse, beautiful, and embraced without qualification. For now let’s make sure our diversity bodies are shown at the front of our class and the center of our world.
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