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How Yoga Can Make Things Better. And Worse.

in Featured, Yogitorials

yoga-better-worseby Nadine Fawell

I distinctly remember the moment I realized I was never going to be a model. After a childhood spent mostly barefoot, entirely unconcerned about how I looked, puberty had set in. I was 14, paging through my mother’s sizable stash of fashion magazines, realizing that I looked nothing like the models gracing those pages.

I wasn’t thin. I wasn’t angularly beautiful. In fact, I had a big arse. The kind that switched on appliances when I walked past them (it still does that). I had big thighs to go with that arse. Frizzy-curly hair that refused to be tamed. And an virulent case of acne.

There wasn’t much I could do about the beauty, except for wearing lots of make-up and worrying about the shape of my nose. But I could do something about the thinness: stop eating.

That marked the beginning of a disordered relationship with food that lasted well into my 30s. It got so bad when I was 21 (fondly remembered as “the year I didn’t eat”) that my period stopped. My arse was still pretty big though, in case you were wondering. Or maybe that’s just body dysmorphia speaking.

By the time I discovered yoga in my mid-20s, I’d started eating again. And eating, and eating. And eating. So it was an intense relief to get on the mat and learn that when I felt “fat” I was probably feeling something else. Like sad, or anxious, or rejected.

What a revelation. Fat isn’t actually a feeling. Eating – or not eating – won’t make the emotional pain go away, but learning to allow space for my feelings might help. In that way, yoga made things so much better.

Then I trained to teach. And yoga made things worse again.

Or rather, my idea of what I needed to be as a yoga teacher made things worse.

All the “famous” teachers at that time were thin, bendy, able to do really difficult poses. None of them had butts like mine. So I stopped eating again. Logical, right? Because having a small butt and looking good in short shorts is ABSOLUTELY what being a good teacher is about.

In this way, yoga made things worse.

My period stopped again. I thought I was pregnant, which in retrospect is tragi-comic. Because I was teaching yoga and finding it stressful to have people looking at me (critically, I believed) every day, I really had to fight my way back to health, and it took years. I got there by dropping my subscriptions to the yoga magazines: the images I saw in them made my body dysmorphia so much worse. I found a community of yoga bloggers (in the earlier days of the internet) of all shapes and sizes. It was a supportive place, and it helped me find my voice.

None of those people blog anymore, and actually nor do I. I closed my personal blog – after 8 years – in 2013. The internet just isn’t as personal as it once was and it didn’t really feel safe or appropriate to be sharing intimate details of my personal life any more. Maybe that’s where all the yoga blogs went?

For the most part the “rock star” yoga teachers are still all thin, white, female, beautiful, and scantily clad. There isn’t much representation for other ways of being a yogi. As much as possible, I limit my exposure to these images because, otherwise, the crazy comes back.

I’m here to tell you that yoga can make things so much better. But if you buy into the way it’s marketed, there is a risk it may make things worse, too.

~
Nadine doesn’t quite know where the time went, but she’s been teaching yoga over a decade now. She practices and teaches mostly in the Krishnamacharya tradition. She’s led a teacher training in South Africa and taught numerous continuing education workshops for teachers in Australia. She’s known for her awkward sense of humor, her comfort with bodies, and her ability to get real change for her students, all while admitting that sometimes (often) she doesn’t know the answer. She’s excited to be running a teacher training this year. You can find her at www.yogainmelbourne.com

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35 comments… add one

  • Stephanie

    It’s funny how that works. Yoga also helped me learn to love my body and value it for what it can do rather then how it looks. Essentially it has helped me stop objectifying myself. However, when I went to teacher training, out of 50 or so students, I was definitely one of the “chunkiest” people there. I’m short and a size 8/10. I couldn’t help but feel a bit insecure. Now as a teacher, I can’t help wondering every once in a while if my students are judging me. But I make a conscious effort not to let these nagging thoughts stop me from continuing to do what I love and loving myself.

  • I’ve had to remind myself to calm down about a different subject…asanas. It often seems like the “best” yoga teachers should have a lot of good “show-off” poses. I have to remind myself that it is okay for my yoga to fit my body and limitations, just like I want my students to know. I might not be able to do all of the fancy handstands turned scorpion turned…but I can help guide my students to be safer, stronger, and, hopefully, more peaceful.

  • Hi Shaleen.

    I related to feeling asana-pressure too, and it’s harder now with all the bendy instagrams.

  • Sounds like that self-lovin’ is the perfect example for your students, Stephanie. I work at that too, because srsly, how rough is it to go to class and have your teacher subtly hating on themselves?

  • Wonderful post. It is so fascinating how a regular yoga practice can transform your entire relationship with your body and appreciation for what it can do not what it looks like. Turns the societal conditioning on it’s head. Pardon the pun :) Go girls. Go yoga. Change the world.

  • Anita

    I just remarked to a friend that for the first time, I finally have a yoga teacher who isn’t rail thin. She’s actually chubby just like me!

  • Hehe. Where’s the ‘like’ button on this thing?

  • Beth

    Thank you, Nadine, Stephanie, and Shaleen, for your honesty and, sometimes, humor about the subject of body image and how it has even poisoned yoga, which *I* also thought was a more spiritual pursuit and a route to understanding what my body is capable of doing and feeling. I am so fortunate that my first yoga instructor was well beyond 60 years old, short, smelled of cats, and would never have described herself as thin. She was a genius and I am ever grateful to her.

  • Beth, I’m curious. What do cats smell like? I ask only because, well, I probably smell of cats too. Hopefully that will impart some genius.

    Sounds like you were super lucky with your first teacher.

  • kate

    A very enlightening read. I had previously avoided yoga as I didn’t think it was for me until a group of regular, odd-bod women (my colleagues) encouraged me along to a mmyoga session… there I instantly felt safe and accepted and… ok with myself. The yoga teacher was this bubbly, confident yet down to earth woman who, like me, had a big butt. It was a room full of wonky poses and wobbly bits and it was fun and safe and everything I now think yoga should be. That yoga class with it’s acceptance of everyone and everything has helped me accept me, my body and limitations and embrace my butt. I see the ‘skinny pretties’ not as real yogis but pretzels.

  • Hehe Kate! I wonder who you might be talking about? That said, the pretzels are still ‘real’ yogis. All ways of being human are valid, the danger just lies in representing only the ONE way as ok. Imagine if big butts were the in thing, and everyone who didn’t have one felt bad about themselves? Not an improvement on the current situation…

  • Staci

    Thanks, Nadine -that was an important insight. Bringing the discussions in full circle; there should never be one gold standard for what a body should look like.

  • Vision_Quest2

    They are, to wit, with Millenials … http://www.xojane.com/issues/the-ass-generation-why-i-think-the-most-interesting-thing-about-millennials-is-how-much-we-love-butts … as of the time I read this, yoga – asana or practice or anything – was neither exploited nor harmed in this article’s comments … nor was non-yogini Jen Selter [THAT may have changed ...]

  • Vision_Quest2

    And delicious if eaten at a State Fair …

    Ummm, sorry, that was my normavore alter ego poisoning my brain just for a second …

    I’m a low-carber. NOT vegan or vegetarian, btw.

  • Kate, thank you for this. I am somewhat in between skinny and not skinny. And this fitness madness also used to affect me from time to time. However I started doing yoga to reduce stress and to listen to my body, feelings and mind. And often my initial aim is a good guide for me, especially if someone is trying to undermine my well being. In my classes I teach mixed crowds of various ages, shapes and sizes. And I welcome diversity! In fact I consider that kind of gathering a success. I think respecting your beautiful body is all that matters. It works for us day and night and it deserves love and appreciation. I am really happy for you, that you found your friendly class!

  • Delia

    Nade, I always thought you where beautiful and I remember wanting your hair! Many moons ago. Kardashian butts are in fashion now anyhow, so count your lucky stars…..hehe

  • Jenna

    I agree with things shifting when you become a teacher, the attention of a room can make you question your value as a teacher and if you’re “enough” – for me it’s been whether I’m perceived as “yogi” enough because of my personality, look, style of dress etc. People who don’t know me very well tend to be surprised when they hear I teach, it always seems to upset me a bit because I’m not sure what image they have in their minds of a teacher or why I don’t qualify as such.

    There’s also asana pressure. A lot of people will also make comments to me like, “so can you do a handstand?” Etc when they hear I teach, it puts an automatic assumption that you must be able to do the craziest poses, and even understanding that isn’t the importance of the practice, at times it has made me a bit insecure.

    I also find that when I take class at a studio I also teach at, I feel pressure to “go to my edge” and give maximum effort all the time, often even being called out by the teacher or used to demo for them. I’d rather listen to my body and when I take class I’m often there just to breathe and let go of having to choose and control the sequence, but I notice I don’t feel this option is available as I feel like I’m demo-ing the whole thing. Sometimes when I’ve chosen to sit out a pose or two, afterwards students will ask if I’m “ok” because I opted out. I’ll explain that I was listening to my body, but again I always feel that “watching” quality and expectation of students I also teach who are there.

    The final one is teaching someone whose asana is more advanced than my own. I notice I become aware of their presence in class, perhaps offering more advanced options than I normally would and I have gotten the sense that my ego operates when I feel insecure in the presence of certain students. I sometimes feel this when more seasoned teachers take my class, like I want to get everything “right” and show off my best sequences.

    So – I guess I’m saying as a newer teacher a lot of insecurities can come up about ones place at the front of that room, guiding others. But any doubt of your ability (and therefore the path and effort that got you there) is simply the ego at work.

    I promise that if you or I or anyone is feeling insecure and letting their ego take over and teaching from that place, that is the vibration students may subletly pick up on. I don’t think anyone is actually thinking we are too thin/fat/beginner etc it’s just our own tendencies being reflected to us through our teaching, and yet another example of yoga being a mirror to allow us to see what we can change to be our best selves.

    Thanks :)

  • Beautiful! Thank you.

  • Geraldine

    Nade – you have always been beautiful in my eyes! Missing you.

  • It wasn’t the yoga. It was her mind that made things worse. The yoga is pure. The humans that do yoga are the problem.

  • asdf

    If your fat, can’t you just lose weight? Instead of thinking about it so much?

  • Kathy

    Reading this post makes me feel both fortunate and sad at the same time.

    I feel fortunate that I was at a point in my life where the ego mellowed out when I got into yoga. I actually began doing yoga for my depression and anxiety more than for physical exercise. I now believe this was a big factor in putting ego aside for me, because inner peace is such a deeply personal thing.

    I guess to put it another way, if I’d gotten into yoga when I was in my 20s, I would have given up on it because of my own ego and attachment and insecurity and comparing myself to others. I’m now in my 40s and I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that a lot of what I thought was important really isn’t in the grand scheme of things (like how much your yoga pants cost or where you bought them.) Yoga is something deep that also helped me let go of perfectionism. I know that I’ve progressed. I can feel it whenever I can go into camel pose without using a strap. I can’t do a headstand or crow pose, but I’m okay with that. It will happen in its own time.

    That said, it makes me sad that yoga is being twisted to fit our culture, rather than people letting go of attachment and adapting to fit yoga. Those people are missing the point of the entire practice and in a way, I feel sorry for them. They are missing out on the best part of the practice; peace of mind and letting go of ego.

    It’s easy for me at this point in my life to sit back and say what I have just said. And I know that letting go of attachment and putting ego aside can be easier said than done, too (especially if you’re a recovering perfectionist like me). You have to be at a point mentally where you can do this and that requires time and patience that our instant gratification culture doesn’t want to take.

  • I love what you said about people twisting yoga to fit our society. In some ways it needs to be changed (e.g. not everyone can do asana practice before sunrise). However I completely agree that certain values need to be respected. Such as concentrating on becoming a better person, so that the world can be enriched with more love and compassion. Love and compassion are not going to be practiced if everyone is competing against each other to get a fitter butt or an impressive handstand or a more impressive “yoga” outfit…. hmmmm… Sometimes I wish yoga wasn’t as popular as it is. The popularity will probably die off as soon as people will realise that they are stuck and there is no one else to impress… There will be another gimmick..

  • Jenna, I love how you summed up your comment.

  • Jenna, that was a fantastic reflection – worthy of its own blog post! I agree, it’s a process of working through what is our stuff and what might be a ‘real’ in a more objective sense.

    Kathy – that’s where your wisdom comes in. It REALLY seems to help, getting a bit older, and working out what might be important as we age. I reckon you probably were lucky to have started yoga a little later, although I needed it in my 20′s. If I hadn’t had yoga, well, I just don’t know!

    Like I said in the article, it was the marketing of yoga that got me (the whole you need these pants and this ass thing) not the actual practice. But we are human and we tend to conflate the two, just as we mix up other things and their representations.

    Great conversation, thanks you guys!

  • The issues you raise are major ones, but I think it’s important not to give up on yoga because of them. I’ve seen up close the terribly corruption caused by the emphasis on the beauty and athletic abilities of a so-called rock star yoga teacher, but my reaction wasn’t to give up on yoga. Instead, I ultimately decided to withdraw from participating in that part of the yoga world. I found another teacher who could care less about appearances and who truly lives his yoga, along with a community like-minded people. I also created a blog (Yoga for Healthy Aging) where I and my colleagues could write freely about the things that mattered to us without worrying about being commercially appealing (no showy photographs, peppy, upbeat writing—God, I hate that—or avoiding controversial or unpleasant topics for us). So for all of you, yoga is just too valuable to give up on entirely. Stay strong and seek out a more authentic yoga community. We are out there.

  • Thank you for your post Nina. I will be following your blog and I hope to stay connected with people like you (people with genuine interest in yoga).

  • Vision_Quest2

    The best thing is to USE yoga. That’s right USE it for what you need it for, as if there were no yogic “Joneses” to keep up with, as if everyone were blind, even if you don’t have the motivation to practice alone, at home, no music, no nothing …

    Failing that, if yoga still can’t help you, Joslyn Hamilton (of Recovering Yogi fame) once said, “I (find I) can NOT do yoga.” Radical thought.

    W0rks for ME!!!

  • The good times in blogging went down the drain quite a while back, I agree.
    Most folks I know from then are not blogging any more or switched, like me, to more non-personal things.

    I hope you keep up your spirits and not let the craziness out there get you!

    I – thank goodness – never had a problem with eating disorders. Just a Mom that gave me the idea that my ass is much too fat & my thighs and whatnot.
    After giving her a piece of my mind about 15 to 20 years later, she’s more on the supportive site. Maybe, because I’m the only living relative left, she has to be nice? :P

  • Celebrate your strong gluteals because having a strong butt is important to balance the actions of the psoas hip flexors. Many yoginis have flat looking gluteals because of all the forward bends because the butt must relax to allow someone to bend over with the knees straight. What gets stretched is the sacrum. The sacral platform should have a curve to it to provide shock absorption for the hips. However when yogis bend over with knees straight, the glutes must turn off and the sacral ligaments get stretched out and the sacrum begins to sag. Yoga can leaving you feeling worse when your spinal ligaments are over-stretched from years of pulling on your lower back to do yoga poses that flex the spinal column as you try to grab your toes. A friend of mine who is a chiropractor asked me why a lot of seasoned yogis do not have the natural curves in their lumbar and cervical spine. I told him bending over with the knees straight can cause spinal curves to reverse as the necessary ligament tension gets undermined.
    Celebrate your big butt and make sure to keep your knees bent so that your gluteals can engage when bending forward. check out this article , Michaelle Edwards, creator of YogAlign
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/sunday-review/womens-flexibility-is-a-liability-in-yoga.html?_r=0

  • Vision_Quest2

    As my internal pilates teacher that self-teaches me mat pilates all the time (as well as – used to be – yoga [sigh!]), always says, “Slight tuck at most. And neck loooooong!?” and “If you’re bending at the hips, keep that neutral spine” ….

  • Gorgeous post! I love it! I am planning on starting a blog just about how miserable “yoga” has become… I don’t know if my voice will be heard, but I want to connect with like minded people out there. Do you think it is possible to create a movement for less poser oriented community?

  • Staci Sitorius

    I loved reading this article and comments. It makes me realize that I’m not alone. The realization that I don’t have the typical yoga instructor build, nor will I ever, has held me back from expanding as well as enjoying my teaching and my own practice. I don’t know if it is my imagination or my insecurities, but whenever I tell people I teach yoga, I get the same response every time… “YOU teach yoga.” I’m just going to pretend they are that enamored.

  • Nice post! Thanks for sharing this.. Sometimes yoga is not used as it was originally meant to be!! But if done correctly, it can really be very beneficial :)
    Check this out for more discussions on yoga http://www.uforums.com/index.php/board,3718.0.html

  • AJ

    I was in the Army when I developed my eating disorder. They weighed us, and if you were over their height weight chart (which said at 5’8″ I should weigh 128 pounds, max), there was this humiliating spectacle of having to wait around and be taped–for women, across the hips/butt! Which has always been my widest point. Never mind I was maxing out our PT tests, I wasn’t ‘fit’ because I had big hips.

    I added six miles running every night. I often ate only one meal a day. I was horrible to my body, and my butt didn’t yield an inch.

    Now, I’m paying the price: a very tetchy digestive system, joint pain, you name it. And as you know with an eating disorder, you’re never ‘cured’. The slightest thing, like a girl bragging about not eating at all that day, is enough to start the body-hate tailspin.

    I came to yoga just last year, and my class is filled with fit and thin women with yoga booty shorts who can bend in ways that I can get…maybe in five years. My chair pose makes me cringe–look at all that foreshortened HUGENESS, you know?

    And then I started doing a home practice. In my undies, in front of a mirror. No one else to look at, and forced to look at myself.

    And you know what? It was hard for the first few days but then I started appreciating my body, the way I never had before in all that time. I started seeing how strong those thighs were, how sturdy and unshakable my Warrior 1 pose is. And I started dialoguing with my body–oh, you don’t want to go super hardcore today? Okay, gentle and slow. Oh, you think you can’t do your handstand prep? Just try for one breath, just to say you did. No one will care if it sucks.

    I guess my point is, I HAVE found that self-acceptance, a new, and actually deeper and beautiful appreciation for my body (hey at my age I can do crow? Yay me!), but that it’s been AWAY from the hubbub, away from the cachectic models and yogaselfie crowd. I just hope that your post and all the commenters, and me, maybe, can slowly start a seachange to bring body acceptance and balance back into yoga.

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