Yoga, Body Image and Lessons from the Koshas

yoga woman sunset
Photo by TwiggyJane

Interesting waves are being made in the yoga world. As yoga’s influence continues to reach the lives of more people than ever before, so does the reach of corporate media outlets targeting consumers of yoga products. An overwhelming number of yoga practitioners—and hence, yoga consumers—are women, which has led to regular conversations about body image in the yoga community. But when yoga based corporations insert themselves into these already heated conversations, controversy seems destined to arise.

Recently, the magazine Yoga Journal was the subject of such controversy after a disappointing attempt at covering the yoga/body image issue. The debate began with YJ’s publication of a multi-page article entitled “Love Your Curves” that adopted a fashion-magazine-like style and gave advice on choosing the best outfits to flatter particular body types (pear-shaped, apple-shaped, etc.). Rather than “loving your curves,” the implication suggested that readers should instead, change or hide their curves, and purchase certain items to make their body type look “better.”  The backlash created by this article revealed a variety of readers’ reactions, many of which were along the lines of—to put it bluntly—“WTF!?”

The responses to the article are understandable. To publish articles that reach readers at such a superficial level while dancing along the line of body shaming is disheartening to say the least. The responses to the piece however, make it clear that YJ’s readers are insightful enough to know that, though the body is a key player in this thing we call “yoga,” it is important to release the idea of a perfect “yoga body” and embrace the many layers of our being. To do otherwise could possibly tread into the territory of self-objectification, and for many of us—defeat the purpose of our practice entirely.

So, as the dust from this controversy settles, the question that remains for all of us is, “How do we embrace, live within and honor our bodes while releasing attachments to them looking (or sometimes feeling) a certain way?” Basically, how do we navigate the paradox of being spiritual beings in physical bodies?

If we want to get the ‘real’ answer to this question, we need to go back to some older (and perhaps, wiser) yogic texts. In the Upanishads, one of the earliest known texts on spiritual living, it is suggested that our being is made of a system of five layers called the koshas. The koshas provide a map intended to lead our awareness inward from the outer physical layers (Annamaya kosha) to our energetic and mental layers (Pranamaya and Manamaya koshas), all the way to the most subtle and blissful layers of our being (Vijnanamaya and Anandamaya koshas).

Practicing yoga with an awareness and understanding of the koshas allows us to go deeper into the various layers that make up our being. Placing awareness on one layer, we can gain access another layer of increased or decreased subtlety. For example, we use breath (via pranayama) to calm the mind, which also changes the energy vibrations within the body. Another example could be experienced during an asana practice: As we move the physical body, we create harmony in our spirit.

So, though YJ’s article told readers to embrace their physical bodies, it did so out of context. Any time a kosha, or one layer of our being, is isolated and objectified (like the media often does with physical bodies), we fail to see the complete picture of who we are. Any time we study yoga for purely physical reasons (e.g., to lose weight or to build leaner muscles), we risk limiting our understanding of how wide the breadth of our practice can reach.

As spiritual beings, this is the dance we get to dance. How can we use our body to become more intimate with our spirit? How can we grow spiritually and embody this growth in the physical world? Will having leaner muscles allow us to grow in self-love and thus offer love to the world from a more authentic place? Or will it lead to an unhealthy attachment to looking a certain way or fitting into a particular pant size?

The questions that yoga asks us do not come with black and white answers. All we can do is practice with embodied awareness (that is, awareness that exists on all five layers) and learn to navigate this paradox with fierce commitment and a light-hearted stride.

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