Yoga, Body Image and Social Media

Recently Stacey Solomon put up this Instagram post. Now I’ve never been a massive Stacey fan, absolutely nothing against her she has just never really been in anything I watch (i.e any series I can binge watch on netflix or Dr Foster) so this isn’t some massive fan girl crush ranting. But now after this post and seeing how she is using her platform I want to be her best mate so we can go for a drink and I can tell her how wonderful she is for putting it out there!

In my opinion the pressure society places on women and girls to look “just right” is unbelievable. When a national paper reduces one of the biggest political decisions of our generation to who had better legs you know we have a problem.

Dishearteningly it seems that Yoga is not immune to this. When I first started practicing yoga and would talk about it to anyone that would listen I had an uncomfortable conversation with a man who had been advised by his doctor to try yoga to help with a bad back. The story was, that on his first lesson he got there and the yoga teacher was a plus sized lady (not quite the words he used but I don’t want to repeat his crude description) because of this he was going to leave before the class started as he felt that she wouldn’t be able to teach him anything. However as he couldn’t leave without drawing attention to himself he had to stay for the class. Looking at me incredulously he said “despite her being so big she could get into some good poses” and despite my yogi zen I wanted to smack him in the face. Here is a man who has gone to yoga on the advice of a doctor for a bad back and he is judging his teachers ability purely on her size. Is this what yoga has been reduced to, that to be taken seriously we need to be a certain size or look a certain way?

This got me thinking about how new students feel about yoga and walking into a yoga studio for the first time, as I have been asked quite a lot about whether people should come to lessons as they are worried they are going to embarrass themselves in a group class setting. My answer is always the same, please come! Some classes such as Vinyasa you will break a sweat and are more physically demanding others such as Hatha are more gentle, but whichever class you come to there are always modifications and options to take a rest and no-one, not me, not any other student will judge you for taking a rest if you need or want to. Yoga is not a boot camp where you are penalised for taking a break or have to run extra laps if you fall behind. Yoga is your own practice and the teacher at the front is just there to simply guide you and make sure your safe.

I have recently had the privilege to step in and cover the teaching on a beginners yoga course, and I have a wonderful 90 minutes with my lovely ladies each week. When I am planning these classes I break it down into sections, with an introduction to the philosophy of yoga, pranayama (breathing techniques), asana (physical practice) and a guided meditation. For me all of these elements are as equally important as each other and teaching an introduction to yoga is about introducing a student to all the elements that yoga has to offer so they can discover what resonates with them and they can develop that interest further. It is not just about focusing on a purely physical practice and promising that yoga will get you in the best shape of your life.

Who am I to even say that they need to get into a better shape or be a certain size that is a deeply personal decision and attitude. As a yoga teacher you cannot make any judgement as to why a student is in your class. It might be to lose weight, to tone up or it might not be and to be honest it’s not my business unless a student wanted to have a conversation about their specific needs.

Now for all my love of Instagram and social media it’s not a giant leap to think that they exacerbate the problem of self image and self worth and again yoga seems to not be immune to this. If you search the yoga hashtag in Instagram the images are overwhelmingly of young women with near perfect bodies twisted into gymnast poses and sometimes not even in a pose, just showing off the latest yoga pants.

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Yes they can be inspiring and yes they have a place and maybe a picture of someone laying down meditating isn’t going to get thousands of likes. However it seems to have lead to a very distorted view of what yoga is about. Adverts like this DailyOm one, make me feel sad as it is really not what yoga is about and I worry that it puts people off going to a class and finding the joy of yoga. I myself have been guilty of this, posting pictures of poses that are entirely staged and not part of my normal practice but have been put together just for the ‘gram. Spending ages choosing between near identical pictures (i.e. which one makes me look skinnier) and applying the perfect filter. Lately though I have tried to be more honest about what I post, showing poses even if basic, that do form part of my own personal practice. Also showing progress pictures of where I am working on poses and not everything is 100% perfect. As if I feel that what is portrayed on Instagram is not a true reflection of what yoga means to me then I need to be honest with what I post too.

In one of the classes on the beginners course I introduce Ahimsa, the concept of non-violence and how yoga philosophy teaches this, one of the interpretations is non-violence towards yourself in your actions as well as thoughts. It is not yoga when you are pushing yourself into a pose that your body simply can’t do at that moment risking injury and beating yourself up afterwards for not being able to achieve it. Where is the feel good factor in that? This goes for me as a teacher as well as the students I have the privilege of having in my class.

The physical practice of yoga is a mixture of flexibility and strength both of which can be developed with time. Each individual will have a different journey with this, I have met hyper-flexible people who can turn there limbs into incredible shapes but don’t have the strength needed for other poses and run the risk of injury as they cannot feel when they are pushing their body too far. Other students have been super strong but can struggle with back bends as having a six-pack can hinder back flexibility. No two journeys are the same and comparing yourself to someone on the mat next to you or somebody that you see on Instagram is not going to help with that journey. There are some really inspiring accounts on there which have great tutorials and anything that helps spread the yoga joy is good in my eyes, I just feel that we all need to be more honest with what that journey and message is.

One final thought is to remember that the Ashtanga sequence which the majority of vinyasa classes will be based upon was historically developed in a remote Indian cave over seven years and then past onto active young boys in Mysore. So if you don’t feel the need to be a twelve year old Indian boy to practice yoga, then don’t feel pressure to be a size 6 yoga pant wearing gymnast either 🙂

Rachel xx

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