Modern Yoga: Self-Love or Self-Loathing by Karin Burke

For the longest time, I wouldn’t engage in food and diet questions as a yoga instructor. I’d point out that yoga wasn’t intended to be a replication of the world outside, measured by superficial and often unhealthy standards. I’d say that our culture has a problem with bodies, an obsession with fitness, a sexualization and objectification of women that is all harm. We are here trying to not harm, any more, I’d say. Measure this by how you feel.

Apparently, we all feel fat.

The majority of my students feel ugly. Weak armed. Soft bellied. And under energized.

I try to listen. I try to meet students where they are. And where they are, apparently, is afraid of aging and concerned with muscle tone. Their attention draws red circles around ‘problem areas’. Students ask about diet and emotions thousands of times more often than they ask about bodies, posture, breath or yoga philosophy. My refusal to engage in the problem may very well have been a part of the problem.

I mean, what other species looks to a professional – or coach – to tell them what to eat?

Worse: the yoga industry isn’t any better than wider culture when it comes to body image, objectification, denial and shame. Under the guise of ‘health’ and ‘fitness’, bulimia and compulsion dominate our approach to asana and yogic lifestyle. By a distortion of words  – which is crazy making, when words no longer correspond to reality we are delusional, this is a tactic frequently used in abusive relationships – a practice of acceptance and love has become a tool of self hatred.

There’s a monster in the room, I mean. And like the plants in the freakish little shop of horrors, it grows every time we try to assuage it, it blisters and bulges and writhes the more we try to hide it. Like the freak show, our efforts to keep things under control only seems to make the problem get worse.

I once had a woman rush me, before class, asking for a new student membership and asking, under a lowered gaze, if I could fit her into a size six in three months. I’ve had thirteen year olds ask me how many calories they are burning, and if they should practice every single day. The only time I have ever seen a yoga injury happen (they happen, a lot, but that’s an entirely different article. This was the only one I’ve ever SEEN) happened when I saw a woman pass out in the back of a hot yoga class. Her head thumped the back wall as she went down. A smear of blood followed her drenched hair all the way to the ground. A fainted body is like nothing but a fainted body. It turns out this was less a problem with hot yoga (again, that’s a whole separate article) but the fact that she hadn’t eaten anything more than craisins for three days.

These were extremes. These are some of the times I know about. But they hardly touch the fact that a running giggle in yoga studios is the discomfort of yoga clothing, or our body’s inability to fit into them. A running joke about aging. A kind of crooked, half assed smile that refers to post-baby bodies and peri menopausal thighs. And these are the ones brave enough to walk into a studio. I’ve learned that most people flirt with yoga for a few years before gathering the gumption to walk in the door. They watch youtube and buy best seller how to books. They try to get it down, get the basics, before they dare do it in a room full of people. They try to lose ten or twenty pounds before they reward themselves with a pair of pants.

And those are the ones brave enough to do it on their own. I’ve learned, in the way there is a sharp conversational clevage between people who talk yoga with me and people who have no idea what it is, that most people in the wider world think they’re too fat, too old, too inflexible, or too rational to ever try.

I was talking with a girlfriend a few months ago and half sarcastically blaming a bad date on my general unworthiness, my fear of finding a partner in middle age. I snarkily connected sadness to feeling my hair was ugly and my tits too small. She almost cried. She said to hear that even I – blonde and strong, ‘yoga girl’ bodied – struggle was both devastating, and a kind of relief.

Here is this: I generally don’t engage with the diet questions and I don’t buy into yoga franchises or magazines. I wear old tee-shirts and I crop my own damn hair. This is a flaunted choice, and an aesthetic. But it’s probably also my own re-action to cultural norms, my imperfections, and my self-esteem.

Such a funny, and exhausted, concept: self-esteem.

I’ve started to hold space for the conversations. I’ve started talking about monsters. There’s a good chance this has come directly out of my own learning more about and understanding yoga: this is a practice of seeing our neurosis. This is a practice of honesty. When we find stillness, when we ground, what comes up is our crazy.

This seems to be true: ‘heathy eating’ generally is not, just as ‘weight loss’ yoga is an imbalanced practice. Rooted in compulsion, if I sit with these ideas long enough I realize that they are coming directly out of trauma. Our culture is only beginning to realized how pervasive trauma is. Maybe it’s move from being a puritanical weakness to a clinical diagnosis hasn’t helped much: we still don’t want to have it. We want trauma to be an extreme other people live through.

But we’ve all been jaded, judged, neglected or left hanging in the process of becoming adults.

The immediate response to such experiences is subconscious and physical. A surge of vowing never to feel that thing, again. And in disowning the sensation, we split. Or numb or deny or whatever word you want to use. We dis-realize. We dismiss. And then, in not being able to accept some part of our experience, shame comes.

The thing is, we usually deal with shame by trying to control some part of ourselves. Yogis become vegetarian if not vegan with an ardor. They take up slogans like war-cries. ‘Practice and all is coming’ is bandied about as a denial of aging, injury, and perfectionism.

Maybe it’s ironic. That our haven turns out to be a hotbed. That our efforts toward self care end up being expressions of self-sabotage. That at some point we get frustrated because yoga isn’t ‘working’, we plateau, or the sameness of Vogue and Yoga Journal breaks our heart.

This is also true: the people who have the best diets and metabolisms seem to be the ones who make choices out of ethical, environmental, and social awareness rather than health ones. “Mindful” eating tends to become absorbed, fascinated, and fetishized. It’s as if mindful has become a euphemism for obsessive compulsive, we compete about how non-competitive we are, getting to the mat and self care become vicious cycles of binge and purge. Of course, I might lose my certification from the secret yoga academy if I say that too loudly.

I think these practices, work. I spent years dis-avowing and fighting against my role as health coach, angrily saying my refusal to participate in the system was a legitimate response to the system. I tend to think, now, that I probably discouraged a lot of people from asking me for help.

What heals trauma is very, very close to the trauma. A thread picked back up and a feeling, felt.  There is often a kind of re-parenting that happens in this practice. We learn to sooth ourselves, care for ourselves, in the places we’ve not yet been cared for or have avoided for 45 years. I mean, with food. I also mean, the other things. Loneliness, worthiness, belonging. I don’t know of any other species that looks for health coaches and food professionals. But we do. Apparently, we need to learn how to eat.

We need to learn what it means to feel hungry, and remember what it means to be full. Perhaps not to develop self control or power over cravings, but know for the first time what craving is. I don’t want teen girls to come to me with fitness questions. I don’t want older women to giggle as they make fun of themselves. I don’t want people to come to the mat with self-hate, ruthless self criticism, deep fear, but they do. And maybe once we’re here, the relearning begins. The re-parenting. The learning and art of being alive and fleshy, emotional and vain.

I am not an expert. But I am also, not alone.

Feature image by Andrew Cebulka


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