Reclaiming Subjectivity: Moving Beyond Stereotypes

Upward Cock Yoga Pose
Photo by Isabelle Gadbois

Are those with “yoga bodies” narcissistic and self-obsessed? Blogger Danielle Prohom Olson writes, “Let’s face it, the yoga body is not a healthy ideal. It is a body overworked and underfed. It is not the result of regular yoga classes but of a narcissistic obsession with working out. And it is driven less by empowerment than by feeling ‘fat and inferior.’” To this, I stringently disagree. Full disclosure: I have what some would consider an average “yoga body” (far from Kathryn Budig’s ilk). Olson’s and others’ statements unnecessarily polarize the conversation, and lose sight of the fact that, swimming in the same cultural stew, we’re all in in this together. Flexibility and a lower BMI do not necessarily signify a “narcissistic obsession with working out,” driven by feeling “fat and inferior.”

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I sense that this cultural mindset deters many from initiating physical activity; the mistaken notion that to honor our body’s intrinsic desire for movement is in some way to capitulate to societal norms, to self-objectify. It is challenging to disentangle self-objectification versus intrinsic motives for movement, but there are many of us for whom exercise equates the sheer joy of a rat pounding away on it’s wheel in the cage, a dog bouncing for joy on its walk. Humans were built to move, aside from the baggage our culture brings to movement and bodies.

After years of equating my appearance with my self-worth, I found Kripalu yoga and let go of my self-objectifying attempts at bodily revision. Several years later I started exercising again for the joy of it, because my body and mind craved the movement and resulting clarity. Now that I am in a doctoral program, I do so routinely to manage stress, keep clear-headed, and counteract many hours of sitting. Days without exercise, my body “screams” at me. My body has changed as I have exercised, but that is the least of my motives for doing so; I am not “overworked and underfed,” and don’t have narcissistic body-maintenance motives. I cherish this precious bag of bones and feed and nourish it as best I can.

Self-objectification is a scourge of our era. Yet getting lost in this cultural “story” and railing against the machine fails to deliver solutions. Evaluating others based on bodily appearances or ability to execute complex asana tells us nothing of their soul, and engenders greater separation. Olson falls into the trap of identifying with the yoga body even as she decries it, embedded in the same sociocultural matrix that she denounces.

What, then, is the solution? In my journey, the cultivation of self-compassion, non-judgmental awareness, and gentle meditation in motion were integral. It wasn’t planned, and occurred very gradually, but one day I realized that I no longer equated my self-worth, or the “goodness” of the day, with how many (or what kind of) calories I ate, whether or not I exercised, the number on the scale, the face in the mirror, or how my clothes fit. I just felt and knew, intrinsically, that I was…enough. I also experienced an emerging delight in vigorous movement, without feeling like it was deprivation, punishment, a slavish bore.

These days I avoid women’s magazines and the toxic stories they tell us about ourselves. While I’m grateful the “yoga body” is part of the cultural conversation in the blogosphere, aside from consciousness-raising and media literacy, we can do little to change representations of “The Body” in yoga and the world at large. We can, however, initiate a ripple effect by falling in love with ourselves one moment at a time, just by entering the present moment and, as Mary Oliver so eloquently describes, letting “the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

This is Part 3 of our three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

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