A quick Instagram search of #yogaforall reveals something interesting. Even in a hashtag seemingly advocating inclusivity in yoga, the overwhelming majority of posts are of, well, thin, white women.
Do a Google image search of “yoga” and you’ll see more of the same - row after row of slender females either posing all goddess-of-peace in sunset meditations or contorting themselves into pretzels, still with an expression of utter bliss and feigned ambivalence to the presence of the camera.
The casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that yoga is a primarily aesthetic activity, an opportunity for the thin and the beautiful to flaunt their tanned stomachs. And to be fair that is, understandably, many people’s preconception of what yoga is.
But of course, this isn't what yoga is meant to be. Yoga is meant to be inclusive to all genders and body types.
So is it a problem that yoga seems to have worked itself into such a narrow niche?
In yoga we talk a lot about acceptance, non-competitiveness and non-judgement, clearly qualities that all people can benefit from. But the more that yoga gets a reputation for being only for a certain type of person, or perhaps more specifically, a certain type of body, the less accessible any of those benefits seem to those who do not fit a particular mold.
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The Roots of Yoga
It’s worth remembering that historically, the “yoga scene” looked somewhat different.
The philosophy of modern-day yoga stems mostly from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras around 1600 years ago. Patanjali’s identity is somewhat enigmatic - he is referred to in different sources as a yogi raised in the Hindu tradition, a snake and, most excitingly, a serpent king incarnation of Vishnu. (Learn more in Who is Patanjali: An Introduction to the Father of Yoga.)
The original yogis predated even Patanjali; they were Indian Brahmans and Rishis, mystic seers, whose spiritual practices and beliefs were passed on orally over generations.
More recently, Swami Vivekananda, an Indian guru, brought yoga to the Western world in the 1890s. Yoga, and particularly asana and pranayama practices, continued to be popularized by the likes of Krishnamacharya and his students B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois.
Note that none of these advocates of yoga, or indeed its early followers, yet look anything like the homogenized group portrayed as #yogis in the media today.
Today's Yoga Scene
Some have attributed the beginning of the shift to Indra Devi, a Russian yoga teacher and another student of Krishnamacharya, who began teaching yoga to high-profile women such as Greta Garbo, Eva Gabor and Gloria Swanson. With these icons as role models, yoga as began to take off as a glamorous pastime for women.
But how has this come to be the dominant narrative about yoga?
Considering yoga’s diverse history, from its Indian roots to its near global takeover, how is it that along this journey its audience seems to have narrowed?
One reason perhaps is that like attracts like. The more that those doing yoga in the public eye look a certain way, the more likely similar-looking types are to get into yoga. (These yoga clothes are for all yogis. Check them out.)
And, of course, the reverse is also true. Without diverse representation in yoga, it can feel like an exclusive and unwelcoming community. Many are worried that they’ll feel out of place or conspicuous in a yoga class.
Changing the Narrative
However, things are starting to change. Many organizations are now working specifically with broadening access to yoga. Some focus on disabled people, some on those with full-figured bodies and some on encouraging men into the now female-dominated yoga scene.
All of these are steps in the right direction.
What can we do to help change the stereotype? Well, first we need to remember that what we preach, we must first practice.
It’s easy, especially when your Instagram feed is overflowing with the aforementioned airbrushed images of lithe, toned bodies, to berate yourself for not being thin enough, flexible enough or athletic enough for the yoga scene. But it’s important to know that yoga is about so much more than looking a particular way.
Patanjali’s second sutra, yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, translates as “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”. (Learn more in Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha: Patanjali's Definition of Yoga, Explained.)
He later explains that these mind fluctuations are all the things that spoil our meditative practice - ignorance, ego, or “I-ness”, desire, aversion and attachment. What are negative thoughts about our bodies if not an unwelcome interjection of the wounded ego, a desire to be something other than what we are now or attachment to a particular aesthetic?
The true power of yoga lies in its ability to remind ourselves that we are more than the body, more even than the mind. But to come home to our true nature means to let go of the self-hatred, to let go of the self doubt and trust that we are already enough. On a practical level this means truly finding contentment in your body, whatever it looks like, and appreciating it for what it can do, rather than how it looks.
We also have a responsibility to consider what it is that we’re putting out there into the world about yoga. After all, the public image of yoga, especially in the days where social media dominates, is largely generated from within the yoga community itself.
Maybe we can think a bit more carefully about the brands we choose to wear, and what their message to the world is. Brands that are inclusive of all body types and genders, like Buddha Pants, which are unisex, come in a range of styles and colors and are flattering on all kinds of bodies. Perhaps we can also think a bit more carefully before we share only the most super-polished and flattering images of our yoga practice. In doing so we begin not only to accept ourselves, but also encourage others to join us on the mat.
The Future of Yoga
Ultimately, yoga is about union. Its underlying philosophy provides us with the much-needed reminder that separation from our fellow beings is an illusion.
Let’s not continue to buy into the ridiculous notion that you need to look a certain way or have a certain ability to practice yoga.
Let’s make sure we all play our part in opening yoga up and encouraging a more diverse range of people to experience its profound benefits.
Let’s practice what we preach and remember that yoga is for everybody and every body.