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Thoughts on Yoga, Bodies, and Our Responsibilities as Teachers

I recently read an article in the New York Times entitled "For Teenage Girls, Swimsuit Season Never Ends." The article begins by talking about a study conducted in 1998 in which teenage boys and girls were asked math problems; half the group wore swimwear during the math test, while the other half wore jumpers and normal clothes. The women who wore swimwear performed worse on the math test than those wearing normal clothes. The men performed no differently, regardless of what they were, or were not wearing. "In short, when young women are prompted to reflect on their physical appearance, they seem to lose intellectual focus."

The rest of the article focused on the impact of social media on teenage girls and how images on facebook, instagram, etc cause girls to compare themselves and their bodies not just to celebrities and models but also to their peers. The article highlighted how this endless comparison can be incredibly harmful. The psychological effects are obvious: "young people who spend a lot of time appraising their friends’ online photos ultimately feel worse about their own bodies." The final paragraph of this article really hit home for me and resonated strongly:

"Online imagery allows adolescents to observe one another in detail and gives unprecedented power to the age-old teenage preoccupation with appearance. We want to help our teenagers minimize the harm that can come from social media use, but the deluge of digital activity can make it hard to know where to start. For girls in particular, addressing the impact of the ubiquitous bikini shot might be an excellent place to dive in."

As I read this, I felt you could easily substitute "yogis" for "adolescents/teenagers." Sometimes, I scroll through my social media feeds, full of yoga teachers, yoga practitioners, and other members of the health and fitness profession, and I feel like I'm paging through a digital version of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit issue. I have felt that twinge of comparison when I look at other yoga teachers' bodies and notice that my abs aren't as defined as theirs. I have wondered if I am the only female yoga teacher in London with cellulite. When I step away from the internet, I know I am healthy and strong, but in the myopia of social media, that perspective gets fuzzy. And I also know I'm not the only one playing that comparison game because I have spoken to other female yoga teachers, strong, confident, beautiful, healthy women (and amazing teachers), and have heard similar things from them. A post I put up on instagram which alluded to this issue also garnered a lot of support and comments, confirming my suspicions that I'm not the only person thinking about these issues.

We all watched this issue unfold recently in a slightly different context during the Rio Olympics. A Fox News commentator idiotically suggested female medalists should apply make-up before walking onto the podium to receive their medals. (For another interesting take on the bodies of Olympians, see this interactive feature in the NYTimes, which shows how diverse athletes bodies really are, and shows that even world champions do not always have the kinds of bodies fashion magazines would highlight as "bikini ready.") Anna Kessel also discussed these issues in a recent article in The Guardian in which she asked if "Strong is the New Skinny" is really just "skinny" dressed up in different clothes. It seems that the collision of fitness and social media may be creating another outlet in which women, and their bodies, are being put on display for others to view, judge, admire, aspire to, or criticise.

As yoga teachers, I believe we have an obligation to do a better job. We need to start to ask ourselves, and each other, what impact our choices and actions have on our students. We need to uphold ourselves and each other to higher standards. If you think your students don't look at your body as you are teaching yoga or posting photos or videos of yourself online, you are kidding yourself. A few weeks ago, I was teaching a class with a theme about drishtis (gazing points) and the importance of cultivating a focused gaze on one thing in each posture. As the end of the class, a student came up to me, thanked me for the class, and then proceeded to ask me if I've gained weight. Really. Apparently, her drishti during that class was my ass. After I scraped my jaw off my sweaty yoga mat and wondered how to respond (I tried to push out a smile and told her that I don't own a scale but that I felt healthy and strong, thanks), I spent some time reflecting on this interaction. I learned a lot about myself and my own insecurities from this interaction. Even as someone who has never been overweight, and who has thankfully never suffered from an eating disorder, I am aware of my body and yes, I sometimes worry about how I look in skin tight clothing. I was also reminded of something that I knew long before this conversation: students are looking at their yoga teachers' bodies. Sometimes, they might be scrutinising our bodies even more than we are scrutinising them ourselves.

Can't see my abs? Not enough arm definition? Let me change the lighting in my living room and take off my top to try a better version of this totally unstaged, "spontaneous" photo from my home practice.

If you consider this alongside what the NYTimes article highlights, that women tend to struggle to perform well at the task at hand if they are focusing on their own bodies, how can we ask students to cultivate eka grata dharana (one pointed concentration) if we are traipsing around class teaching in a sports bra? What benefit does that have for our students? Does that actually distract them when they are trying to balance on one leg?

Don't get me wrong: I believe women should wear WHATEVER they want, and that they should feel confident and happy in their bodies and their clothing. I don't want to imply that I think women need to "cover up," or be more modest either on or off the mats. However, in light of the NYTimes article, it is worth asking: does wearing clothing that flaunts our bodies cultivate the best environment possible in which our students can learn? As teachers, we must distinguish between feeling happy about or proud of our personal fitness achievements and wearing clothing that might highlight or accentuate these strengths (which is fine) and our role and contribution as a teacher. Our own personal fitness pursuits (or advanced yoga asana practice) are not, in my opinion, relevant to our work as yoga teachers although these two aspects seem to increasingly get conflated, mixed up, and blurred. It happens both in real life and also on social media. I'm sure many of us have gone to a workshop with a visiting yoga teacher who is an instagram all-star, perhaps signing up because we admire the images of their personal yoga practice that they post online, only to discover that they aren't such a great yoga teacher in real life. Beyond this confusion about the difference between a shit-hot body, a shit-hot personal practice, and a shit-hot teacher, a bigger issue remains: what messages are we sending as we bombard facebook and instagram followers with a steady stream of images taken by professional photographers of our perfectly tanned and toned bodies?

And yet, amidst all of this, I'm not naive. I may want to teach a class about cultivating a quiet mind, but I know that a lot of people show up to yoga for different reasons. People want to get stronger, more flexible, healthier, yes, even skinnier, and they rightly believe yoga asana practice can help with that. And all of those reasons for coming to yoga are valid and must be respected. But at the same time, if I have a 60-90 minute stretch of a students' relatively undivided attention, when I can offer a respite from the steady stream of bikini bodies and aspirational #fitspo, why would I want to compromise that by wearing something or saying something that just brings their minds back to that space? It all leaves me wondering, in the words of my great friend and fellow yogi Becca Langton, "can yoga as a spiritual practice thrive in an environment where instagram tells us that nailing a handstand in a bikini on a beach while flogging a detox tea is the one true goal?"

I acknowledge and accept that in some ways, as long as I teach the kind of yoga that I do, in a big, western city like London, I may feel like I am confronting a steady stream of women (and men) wanting to be "beach body ready." While I might not be able to change everyone's perceptions of their own bodies, as a yoga teacher, I have to be aware that the way I teach, the words I use, and indeed the way I expose and portray my body both in class and on social media, can directly influence how our students approach their own yoga practice and perceive their own bodies.

If you are a yoga teacher, you have to be aware of that too. We all need to do a better job.

I don't have any perfect solutions here, and I don't believe there is a 'one size fits all' approach that we should all adopt, but these are important questions worth considering and discussing, even if they force us into the uncomfortable position of having to confront our own insecurities and our own egos. There is no one perfect way to navigate the minefield of teaching yoga in the age of social media, but we need to tread carefully, especially with regards to body image and the cultivation of an aspiration towards physical achievement or even perfection. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter- comment below and share your experience!

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