Return to the burn

A few weeks back I had a little reflection about how I have noticed yoga being conceptualised in the mainstream world these days – increasingly, as a form of physical exercise.  In my very first post, I suggested that yoga can be whatever the individual wants it to be.  But if it’s ok with you, I’d like to take that back.

I feel as if yoga is lost.  I notice myself feeling dispirited.  I notice this little knot of possessiveness growing inside me.  A part of me wants to take yoga away from those who misuse it.  This is not rational, because it’s really none of my business how other people use or benefit from yoga in their lives.  My ego thinks it’s the patron saint of yoga.

The above photo was posted on one of my favourite yoga websites recently – I’m assuming as some kind of representation of yoga or yogic principles.  When I first spied it, I scratched my head, struggling to make the connection.  And then I saw the mass of comments from yoga students saying how great it was; how this inspires them to develop their yoga practice; what a great, strong body she has; what a fantastic role model this presents for a ‘healthy’ body and for the mental qualities of determination and self-discipline.

Interestingly, these responses sent my manipura chakra into a fit of pranic vomiting.  I had to employ some concentrated abdominal breathing to calm it right down.  But a knot remains.  It seems I cannot detach.

Why do I feel so incensed?  Am I envious?  Maybe.  Or maybe I’ve fallen prey to the kind of fundamentalism I’ve always so vehemently opposed, clinging to purist ideas about what yoga ‘should’ be and wanting to enforce them from my pulpit onto the ‘uneducated’ (my ego is a super snob).

So I return to my books.  Dr Rishi Vivekananda comforts me slightly when he writes, ‘’No pain no gain… may be a fundamental rule of the sport of masochism, but it has no place in yoga.’  Bless you Vivekananda, I really needed to hear that.  And so do all the other ordinary people in the world who aspire to know and appreciate themselves beyond the appearance and function of their physical anatomy.

UNSOLICITED LECTURE ALERT: in the very beginning, yoga postures were introduced to help the body develop health and vitality on the premise that an unhealthy body acted as an obstacle to self-realisation.  Being healthy and vital meant that one could sit comfortably in a meditation asana for long periods of time.  Without physical distractions and discomforts, the yogi was better able to withdraw the senses from the physical world, to draw the awareness inward in order to perceive higher and more subtle levels of experience.  The focus was not on the over-development of strength; or on fitness alone; and definitely not on developing some kind of attractive physical appearance (insert ‘matron’ voice here).  The ultimate goal was not physical at all – but spiritual.  The physical practices were a means to that end.

And now it seems the physical practices have become the end – the ultimate goal for the mainstream student who seems largely uninterested in the emotional, psychological, physiological or spiritual aspects of practice.

Sure, growing large muscles and training the body to balance in challenging postures does require self-discipline and will – desirable mental strengths.  Perhaps though, it takes greater mental strength and discipline to honestly ask of one’s self ‘Why do I need my body to look this way?  Why do I need to show the world my strength?  Why do I feel inadequate if I do not fit the picture?’

These are the types of questions that a holistic approach to yoga can answer.  Yoga is about the evolution of the individual on all levels of being – the physical, the mental, the emotional, the energetic, the intuitive, the spiritual.  It is about the renunciation of the desires of the ego. And it is achieved through a variety of practices – asanas, breathing practices, meditations, mantra, kirtan, karma yoga…  not simply through strength-based physical practice.

Stopping at the bottom of the rung – the physical rung – means never climbing higher.  It means never seeing what the view looks like from the top.  The goal is not to develop muscles or to look good.  And if it is, then this excludes a whole band of students from yoga – older people, people with disabilities, people with illnesses.  What are those people – chopped liver?  Inclusiveness is one of the many lovely things about yoga.  Anyone can do it.

There is a trace of yoga in this picture if we consider how it symbolises the capacity in all of us to surpass our limitations and reach our full potential.   But I think the dynamic changes by the fact that the lovely lady is wearing such little clothing – it puts the focus on the appearance of the physical body.  Not only that – potential is not something we pursue solely on a physical level.  What if reaching our full potential relates to something emotional – like being able to love oneself or other people?  It’s not one idea.

This picture asks us to do the exact opposite of what yoga asks of us by encouraging us to value the superficial.


So.  After that self-involved rant, it’s back to the drawing board for me to develop some awareness around my own emotional reactions around this issue; to detach from the desires of my own ego, its own need to control how yoga is perceived and how others practice it; and to use my practices to restore some inner balance and harmony.  Perhaps it is time for the patron saint to step down off the dias and feed manipura some pepto bismol.

Maybe it would help if I pumped some iron?  Now… where did I put that g-string…

©The Yoga Experiment


7 thoughts on “Return to the burn

  1. Great post! And agreeing with all you say, I would also add that this picture is not a representation of a healthy female body, so the image isn’t even promoting physical health. A female body that has that level of muscle definition will almost certainly have a body fat percentage that is too low to sustain a normal menstrual cycle, which is a big indicator that the body is, in fact, not healthy. A disrupted hormonal system can lead to all sorts of health problems. Images like this are encouraging women to pursue an unhealthy, masculine body composition, and in the bargain, are, as you point out, also encouraging women to be unhappy with themselves in their natural state.

    That said, I rarely see a change when I talk to my female patients who are yoga practitioners about changing from power vinyasa or ashtanga or hot yoga to a more simple hatha practice, which I feel is much healthier for all aspects of the self. At this point, I reckon that what I can do is provide them information about a healthier route that doesn’t involve pushing the body to its limit, and then they have to make the decision about what works for them. To each their own path . . . .

  2. I’m Hearin’ ya Jen 🙂
    Some time ago, in my days as a basketball coach, I was talking to another coach and telling her I was into yoga. Her first response was – “oh that’s interesting, do you compete” – with reference to yoga asana competitions. I wasn’t that shocked, but something tugged at my insides, to see that is how lots of mainstream westerners view yoga.
    In my moments of insecurity, when I think I should be able to do what some people expect, I take comfort in reading views, like yours, Jen.
    KEEP THE FAITH, Dudette 🙂
    Om Prem Mangalam

  3. Hari Om,
    Enjoyed reading this… I totally understand how you feel, I feel the same! I try to think positively that these peeps who are into ‘superficial’ yoga still benefits anyway in doing yoga, compared to not doing at all. Asana is the most practical path for modern people to take up yoga. And hopefully sooner or later they’ll want to find out more. Myself a long time ago started yoga through asanas exclusively… there were times when I was into these power yoga stuff… lucky for me, I met someone who showed me a more wholesome view of yoga.

  4. I have just started teaching and the first things I say when I open the class is that “the phrases ‘no pain no gain’ and ‘push through the pain’ do not apply to yoga”. Respect your body and it’s limitations etc! Yeah, I know we’re supposed to have left our egos at the door with our shoes, but this kind of this kind of stuff gets on my nerves too. They say there is no right or wrong in yoga, but I disagree, using it to exploit women and promote unreasonable images of physical attainment and ability IS wrong. It is also wrong that we continue to advertise anything in this way, we know it is, but it’s still allowed to happen. Yoga is many tools and processes for healing and transformation, but the marketing world uses it as a tool for promotion and glamourization. When you can truly love yourself and you DON’T look like the woman pictured, you have done some serious internal work. No push ups required. This is (one part of) yoga.

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