East Meets West: “Yoga Body” and Self-Objectification

Yoga pose b/w
Photo by Casey Barnaby

Yoga and self-objectification: How could these two words belong in the same phrase? The “yoga body” is a result of modern yoga’s mainstreaming and fusion with pop culture. In the modern era, yoga is globally linked to perceptions of western privilege and transcendence from the day-to-day. Like any cultural advertisement that promises status or escape—sculpted women sunbathing in exotic locales, the Rolex—“yoga body” is deeply charged with significance and narrative, simultaneously reflecting the stories we tell ourselves while engendering new ones. Such cultural stories appreciably impact individuals’ health and self-concept.

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As others have noted, “yoga body” is very rarely the result of practicing yoga; although yoga cultivates homeostatic balance, the portrayed ideal is more frequently the result of genetics, gender, and privilege. Yoga practitioners are more likely to exercise or eat healthily before initiating practice, and likely have higher levels of education and income to start, all factors related to lower BMI, improved health, and closer conformity to our society’s “ideal” body, independent of yoga practice. While this does not, of course, characterize all yoga practitioners, it is often the face of yoga, and becomes the benchmark towards which our ageist, mortality-eschewing society aspires. Because we glamorize gymnastic asana (e.g., Ashtanga or Power yoga) and short-change less external practices that could attenuate self-objectification, certain aspects of western yoga, in synergy with cultural factors, may increase bodily preoccupation.

That said, hold the judgment; if you see someone doing handstand, do you automatically assume it’s for the wrong reasons? In truth, only we know the reality of our experience. Inquire instead of yourself: What are your motives for practice, why are you drawn to the practice you are, and how do both relate to your self-concept?

A cross-sectional comparison of yoga/Pilates-practicing vs. non-practicing adolescents observed no differences in disordered eating in women, while among men, practitioners were more likely than non to use extreme weight control behaviors, binge eat, and engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors. Notably, researchers did not separate yoga from Pilates in this study; thus, it is difficult to determine yoga’s contribution to these results. Further, the study was cross-sectional, meaning that other, pre-existing factors may explain the findings (correlation is not causation). Nonetheless, in view of the concerns raised, it is important to consider that some forms of modern yoga, for some individuals, may actually strengthen samskara (patterns) relating to self-objectification or perfectionism when practiced in our cultural context.

Research has consistently demonstrated that exposure to media increases women’s levels of self-objectification and the likelihood of developing disordered eating behaviors. Now media depictions of yoga may play into this feedback loop. The cooption of yoga as a new bodily ideal adds to cultural expectations of youth, beauty, and slimness the worship of strength, flexibility, and grace. Such ideals are exclusionary, eradicating broad swaths of the population from identifying with yoga, due to assumptions they “won’t be good at it” because they don’t fit the profile.

As a social construction, “yoga body” serves to exclude, whereas classical yoga practices are inclusive and honoring of all bodies and souls. The popularization of yoga does little for us, and may actually harm, if the fullness of the deeper practices, and their appropriateness and accessibility for all, are not conveyed.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. In Part 3 we will consider the perspective of someone with a so-called “yoga body” and discuss how to move beyond social “stories” that impact our relationship to our bodies. Read Part 1 here.

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