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Is yoga about more than the body?

I think like many women, especially in the West, I have struggled a lot with what we term positive body image. It’s very rare that I’ve felt comfortable in my body and proud of my body. I have 3 sisters and growing up I often felt like I was the chubby one in the family. On a number of occasions I left family gatherings feeling pretty rubbish about myself, not because of who I am and what I could contribute to those gatherings, but because of how I thought I looked.

I know many, or perhaps even most, women (and undoubtedly men too!) battle with their bodies on a daily basis and I don’t claim to have the answer, but one thing that seems to have shifted this negative relationship with my body over the years has been yoga. I’ve been practicing yoga for over 6 years and during this time my relationship with my body has changed significantly. It warrants a note, that yoga is not the only thing that has impacted on this relationship, but I have no doubt it has played a big role. I find that through yoga I am able to look at my body and think “Wow! Look what this body can do!” I find moments when I feel genuine gratitude for my body in the way it carries me around every day, the way it can heal itself, the way it takes care of me.

Reflecting on this, I felt that through yoga I had developed a more positive body image. But a few weeks ago I met with Janet Lowndes and she asked me this question:

“Did yoga change your body or did it change your relationship with your body?”

And this really made me think. My body hasn’t changed a great deal physically because of my yoga practice. But the way I relate to it and connect with it has changed.

Janet not only sparked an internal dialogue about the impact yoga has had on me, but she also brought into question whether positive body image was the most accurate way to discuss this relationship with the body.

For a long time, I’ve thought positive body image meant finding comfort in the body and having a happy relationship with the body. I thought I understood the phrase and have always given it a big thumbs up. Yes, of course we should try to love our bodies. But maybe I was wrong. It’s interesting how sometimes something so seemingly obvious is actually rather tricky to get one’s heads around. The issue with positive body image, seems to be the “image”. An image encapsulates the notion of a physical form, or the idea we have about something in our mind. So when we talk about positive body image, we’re talking about being happy with the physical shape and form of our bodies - how we look or how we think our body looks. And I think most of us will agree, this path of thinking continues to perpetuate the idea that how we look is more important than what is inside.

The impact of practicing yoga has been very much an internal journey for me, it has started to change what is happening inside - inside my head and my heart. Janet talks about the idea of embodiment which shifts the focus from looking outside in (as with body image) to inside out. It raises the question of why, as a society we place so much importance on what we look like, what size and shapes our bodies are, that we push aside and often forget that we are made up of so very much more than this.

I often find it incredibly frustrating how much importance we place, as a society, on the way we look. I have never felt like I fitted into society’s definition of beauty and this has ultimately impacted on my confidence and happiness. But through shifting the focus inwards, towards embodiment, towards what makes up me, I feel like I can find ways to express myself more fully, I can engage with others in a more genuine and honest way, I feel I can be me. These moments of connection to myself and who I am don’t happen every day, but they do happen and I’ve found it increasingly important to acknowledge these glimmers of embodiment when they arise.

So here’s where I’ve ended up. I think a change is in store and think we all know it’s needed. We need to start exploring the idea of not just being happy with our bodies, but being comfortable within our selves. We need to begin a discussion that draws on our strengths, skills and talents, our kindness and compassion. And for me, this discussion has started on the mat. Yoga has been one way that I have been able to begin to explore these ideas, begin to bring my focus and attention inward to what truly makes me me.