Recent blogs have deplored objectifying media depictions of the “yoga body,” a taut, flexible, and slim physique that’s the perceived result of yoga practice. However, Jennifer Daubenmier in 2004 found yoga to be associated with lower levels of self-objectification (viewing oneself as an object) than other forms of exercise or no exercise. Would these results hold true nine years later? Or have yoga’s mainstreaming, media depictions of the “yoga body,” and a preponderance of athletic/gymnastic/hot forms of yoga actually increased levels of self-objectification?
Between 2008 and 2012, the number of yoga practitioners increased by nearly 30%. Yoga has concurrently been appropriated by the advertising industrial complex and seamlessly merged into “lifestyle” marketing for Whole Foods, Lululemon, and other upscale corporations. Around the globe, yoga practice is often a symbol, or proxy, of status.
Also an indicator of status in the US: The Body. Slim or athletic, with minimal fat or curves, this elusive ideal is the source of envy and discontent. Women who don’t have it want it, the story goes; those who do may feel insecure and hypervigilant towards its maintenance, constantly fearing the emergence of fat or ageing. This slavish thirst for embodied perfection represents attempts toward feeling valued, loved, desired, whole, alive. Conversely, yoga instructs that these qualities emerge through connection to our authentic selves and the divine (prana). As vehicle and expression of this divinity, our bodies should be cherished as such.
Many forms of western yoga focus excessively on the perfection of rigorous and gymnastic asana, employing techniques such as heat to facilitate increases in flexibility and perceived (if fallacious) calorie/fat burn. Glorification of such bodies is driven by the perception that they solely result from the practitioner’s hard work, and are emblematic of enlightenment, or character. In truth, such feats and body types are often genetically gifted (or cursed; many hypermobile yogis report later joint instability and injuries). But this narrative this doesn’t sync up with America’s fondness of “grit”; if you try hard enough, anything can be yours. The inverse: if you don’t try hard enough, it’s your fault. And the more perfect your body, the more perfect your soul.
The perfect yoga body (or practice) is oft equated with closeness to God. Yet what do appearance, strength or flexibility have to do with character, the eight-limbed path, or God? Why do we persist in worshiping social constructions of embodied perfection, in yoga now, as in popular culture? I contend that gymnastic asana’s popularity in the west is largely attributable to its conflation with deep, intersecting threads of Judeo-Christian thought and modern consumer culture that deify the restraint, discipline, and purity ascribed to idealized bodies, to the detriment of all. This pattern has deep roots, stemming back to the Greco-Roman preoccupation with physical prowess and athleticism.
This is Part 1 of a three-part series. In Part 2, we will further discuss the relationship between yoga and self-objectification and their potential adverse effects on health.
Could yoga possibly have adverse effects? Before you bolt, consider this: What shows up in yoga, shows up in life.