• Why it’s Not Just Up to You to Heal Your Own Body Image

    It’s easy for me to rhapsodize about the way yoga has held me in my relationship with my body. Like so many of us from so many backgrounds, my early life taught me to experience my body as a source of shame, vulnerability, and discomfort. When I began practicing yoga in my early adulthood as part of eating disorder recovery, it gave me a new sense of my body as a source of vitality, joy, and strength. I especially loved that it bypassed my struggle to fix my “body image issues.” When I move and breathe, I feel viscerally that, in fact, my body isn’t an image—it’s me, an ever-changing reality to be experienced, not gazed at.

    Yoga led me to spend the last twenty years trying to understand how we heal our relationships with our bodies. I became a psychotherapist. I sit with people day in and day out, supporting healing, self-discovery, and self-compassion. As a white, thin, Jewish woman and mother, my understanding is informed by my own privilege, perspective, and experiences of how I felt and feel I was supposed to look to fit in to belong and feel safe in today’s American culture. I invite my clients, too, to investigate how their own cultural experiences and experiences of oppression influence them. We talk a lot about how society influences body image, and inevitably I ask, how can *you* resist negative cultural messages?

    But here is what I have learned over time—it is a rare person indeed who can resist all the cultural messages about bodies and all that lies within our beauty/health standards—sexism, racism, ableism, classism, concepts of privilege and power. Even some of the bravest, most resilient, most culture-resisting people I know share in private that their body image issues have not disappeared. I am one of those people. To be quite vulnerable, despite the fact that I have been immersed in the recovery, yoga, and body positivity worlds for all these years, I often notice societal messages zooming through my mind.

    Because of this, I have come to believe that expecting perfect body image from ourselves is a setup, and one built on a major cultural trap: the idea that healing is an individual endeavor and an individual responsibility.

    We are taught: If you are poor, it’s because *you* haven’t worked hard enough. If you have health problems, the cause is *your* lifestyle. If you have an eating disorder or body issues, well, that’s because *you* haven’t resisted the cultural messages enough. Which is just what you need—something else wrong with you that you should spend some money to fix.

    Here’s where I come back to yoga: the ultimate aim of yoga is for liberation—individual and collective. Yet, in contemporary US culture, yoga can become zeroed in on individual healing. I am certainly guilty of using it this way—I wrote a whole book about yoga for healing. This approach has powerful gifts to offer, but I worry that when it is the only approach taken, it lets the culture off the hook. Most health problems owe far more to societal factors than individual.

    How are we to heal as individuals in a culture that continues to cause harm? How are we to heal if we are taught that, on basis of size, race, gender, age, or ability, our bodies are only meant to be sources of shame, vulnerability and discomfort? How do we learn to trust ourselves when our thoughts—based on very real messages we have absorbed in an undistorted manner—are labeled as distorted?

    I’m not going to stop supporting people in their individual healing because I know that work is crucial, too. The individual counts—our stories and voices matter. Eating disorders are not simply reactions to a toxic culture. People with eating disorders haven’t just failed worse than everyone else at resisting cultural messages. Eating disorders are illnesses with clear roots in genetics and life histories. Recovery must involve understanding and finding compassion for your unique temperament and biology in order to learn how to be a steadfast self-caretaker.

    But for that inner work to flourish, we need to collectively change systems, not just people. Changing society will not cure eating disorders—but it sure would remove many of the obstacles that make recovery and healing so very hard.

    Here are some tiny starting points for change:

    • Change systems that perpetuate fatphobia and weight stigma: this means media-makers creating messaging that counters the boogie monster “obesity epidemic.” Doctors can educate medical schools and organizations about Health at Every SizeÒ. Eating disorder professionals like me can change the norms in our professional communities—to stop reassuring clients that they are not fat and won’t get fat, and replace that with the message: being fat is just fine, and let’s help you survive in a world that works hard to teach you otherwise.
    • Expose the fact that most of our understanding of eating disorders and body image is based on research done by white, thin, privileged people about white, thin privileged people. Much of the research has been done by straight men, when the issue disproportionally affects women and LBGTQ people. Let’s fight for better research.
    • Change systems based on fatphobia, racism, and classism that affect who has access to care. This means changing a system that only insures some of us, and underinsures even the most privileged. Vote! In professional communities, we can ask why our public health campaigns, diagnostic categories, and treatment centers send a message that only people with thin, white, young bodies are “sick enough” to merit treatment.
    • In yoga communities, we can challenge the use of yoga to hoard thin-privilege and health-privilege, and teach yoga with a purpose—to fortify ourselves for real liberation work, for creating changes much bigger than our own bodies.

    A final note—please know that it is never up to one person to heal the world. If you are stuck in an eating disorder or body image struggle, please focus on your individual healing, however you may find it. Let those of us who are not as stuck do some of the fighting until you are ready to join in. As yoga teaches us—we are all connected, our healing intimately bound up together. In the words of Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image

     By Suzannah Neufeld

    Suzannah Neufeld, MFT, C-IAYT, is a licensed psychotherapist, certified yoga therapist, and mom of two who has specialized in supporting people coping with eating disorders, body image concerns, and maternal mental health since 2003. She is a co-founder of Rockridge Wellness Center, a counseling and health collective in Oakland, CA, where she has a private practice. Suzannah is the author of the book Awake at 3 a.m.: Yoga Therapy for Anxiety and Depression in Pregnancy and Early Motherhood (Parallax Press, 2018). She is also a contributing author in the anthology Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. Learn more at www.suzannahneufeld.com

     

     

  • YOGA & BODY IMAGE: OUR INTENTION + GUIDELINES FOR LISTENING AND ALLYSHIP

    “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” – bell hooks

    It is in the spirit of building sacred community through conscious listening, compassion and love that this blog series was created. Our intention is to educate, demystify misconceptions, smash stereotypes and offer new perspectives on body image as it intersects with our race and ethnicity, our gender identity and sexual orientation, our socioeconomic class, age, size and dis/ability. In short, our intention is to raise consciousness and create bridges in understanding.

    It is our hope that through raised consciousness, more and more of us will be moved into mindful action. Because social change requires more than awareness… it requires awareness plus action. And raising consciousness and living consciously are at the heart of mindfulness practices. This where the real work begins for us. Off the mat. Off the meditation cushion.

    Each writer in this series weaves personal narrative with years of experience, research and professional expertise. The words may move you to tears, bring you a sigh of relief or comfort… or they may make you angry. Or maybe the words simply make you uncomfortable or challenge a long-held belief. Whatever arises, it’s a gift in the form of an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to practice, listen, learn and grow. It may also be an opportunity to detect and identify internalized and unexamined prejudice or bias in our heart.

    This space is an opportunity to do the work as a collective. Because we must also work mindfully in community to elevate the collective vibration of society.

    Here are a few ways to practice this intention of identifying (and obliterating) prejudice and bias as well as working as allies and comrades in solidarity and love.

    –         Examine your own privilege. This may be challenging, if not painful, and may induce feelings of shame or guilt but this is a necessary step. Meditate on how YOU benefit from the existing power structures that are sexist, racist, able-ist, size-ist, classist, heteronormative and ageist.

    • Be an ally by opening your heart and listening.
    • Breathe and pause when you’re moved out of your comfort zone.
    • Reflect before you challenge the information presented or comment on it publicly.
    • Do the work. Allow your increased awareness to move you into action, however that may play out for you.
    • Ask yourself how you can contribute to an accessible, welcoming space for all without tokenizing anyone.
    • Recognize the humanity in everyone.
    • Identify how your experience connects you to others and how it differs.
    • Practice on and off the mat. Cultivate mindfulness on and off the cushion.
    • Allow your practice to grow your heart, make you vulnerable and willing to work actively as a member of a wider community.

    We all benefit from this process. Mindfulness, specifically the practice of yoga, has the potential to create both personal and social transformation. The practice of yoga has the potential to elevate us to our highest good and create equity for all.

    I invite you to read what is offered in this series in that spirit of connection and collective liberation. Seize the opportunity to expand your capacity for compassion, empathy and love.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image. Be sure to read the first post in the series here.

    By Melanie Klein

    Melanie C. Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Photo credit: Sarit Z. Rogers

     

  • The Top 3 Things You Need to Know to Start Yoga

    Many, many more people think about doing yoga than actually get around to starting. I’ve often pondered what is getting in the way. After talking to many an interested, but nervous potential student, these are the most pressing 3 things that I have gleaned.

    1. You do not need to loose weight first. I know that all the people photographed doing yoga look really thin, but believe me, there are many, many people doing yoga who do not have bodies that those models do, and they still benefit from yoga, and are still happy doing it. Moreover, many of those people with “regular” bodies come to appreciate the body that they have, instead of longing for to live in someone else’s.

     

    1. You do not need to already be flexible. When I started yoga, my hamstrings were very tight. As I’ve done yoga, they have loosened up.   Many an interested person will say “oh, I can’t do yoga—I’m not flexible enough!” I think that often adults figure that if they don’t already show an aptitude for an activity, then they ought not to waste their time. For instance, why learn to play the piano if you believe you have no musical talent?

     

    The point of yoga is not to excel, but to experience. When you allow yourself the space to do so, you might find that your hamstrings relax, and that you have an aptitude for flexibility that you didn’t anticipate.

     

    1. You do not need to have the right wardrobe. People who do yoga—especially in the coastal urban metropolises—have become their own kind of fashionistas. This can be a bit off-putting to the beginner. When I went to my teacher training—a 27-day immersion—I went with 5 sets of clothes. It worked out—I washed my clothes in the shower. My experience of yoga was not improved or diminished by my clothing choices.

     

    As I’ve grown into a busy teaching career, my yoga wardrobe has expanded considerably, for two reasons: it is my professional attire, and I spend all day wearing it. I have more yoga clothes than street clothes.

    To start yoga, all you need is some comfortable clothes that you can move in. That’s it. Sweatpants and a tee shirt will do quite nicely. Over time, you may choose to wear things that are more fitted, because you will discover that there is a fine line between comfortable clothes, and too much fabric.

    Once you overcome these common impediments, we can fine-tune your approach to yoga, like what style, teacher, level, and how often to go.

    Above all, have fun!

    by Erica Mather

    Originally published in Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine (print version). 

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