I walked past the newsagents this week.
I don’t usually look but the front page jumped out at me: “TOWIE’s Gemma Collins: “I’m saving my designer vagina for Mr Right”!
Underneath that was a photo of Chantelle – whoever she is – in a bikini – apparently she’s “overweight and (heaven forbid, lock up your daughters!) has CELLULITE”.
Next to that was Cheryl Cole’s diet secrets; then Jordan’s fruit-shake weight loss… and it went on… and on… this was just the front page.
For the blissfully ignorant among us, the designer vagina is where women get their vaginas tightened through surgery.
Maybe it’s because I’m in my 40s. Maybe it’s because I’m a mum of two, or that I’ve got body insecurities as much as the next woman. Or maybe it’s because I’m a yoga teacher that I find this increasingly worrying. I wanted to grab the mags and run out of the shop wailing hysterically: “What the **** is happening to us?”
I grew up in the 70s when there were only 3 TV channels; when something finished you had to wait. There were no mobile phones so if you were out, you were uncontactable. Nowhere near the profileration of magazines & sites out there now – all telling you how you’re supposed to be.
At school I was taught that my role models were nurses or teachers. I liked a few pop stars – had a crush on David Bowie – but that was about it – reality TV and social media were unheard of. And I still ended up with body issues; so I’m thinking how the heck do our teenagers feel now? What is it really like for our kids now? Those days seem blissful to me and I do realise I’m sounding like the older generation. I also know that I can be as seduced by this image-based airbrushed world out there with the best of them.
I’m trying not to judge as Yoga has taught me that non-judgement is a much happier place to be but I can’t help be saddened and I can’t help but be concerned. My 8-year-old daughter said to me the other day,
“Mummy, my legs are fat” – this makes me so sad.
Mental health issues among teenagers are at their highest levels; women are spending more now on plastic surgery than ever – is it any wonder if we are constantly bombarded with such images & fantasy?
I see a world of people continually craving to attain the unattainable; air-brushed images of stick thin girls with totally flat foreheads and massive lips. “Living dolls”, where girls literally try to look like Barbie, is the latest craze. And how young did that programming start?
One of the reasons I fell so in love with yoga is it’s a haven for me; a place of sanctuary from the outer world. A place where I learn that accepting myself as I am is a practice, where I learn to get away from the perception of oneself as a body, how to focus on gratitude for what I have instead of always looking for what I don’t, learning to live in the present, with compassion; taking time to rest, meditate, take off the mask, connect with what is; a higher power if you’re that way inclined… and so much more are all celebrated.
Where success is not measured by the size of your house but how kind you are – WOW what a concept? The Dalai Lama when asked what religion he was, replied “My religion is kindness”. My world becomes so much easier when I start my day with “who can I help?” instead of “what’s in it for me?”
Now I get to see how the western world filtrates through yoga – it’s bound to right? The Swamis (wise yogi masters) came over here in the 70s and we’ve taken it up in our droves – it’s a multi-million pound industry in the states. What does that say? Many things – one how miraculous it is that all these people are being shown a different way to lead their lives, it also says how many yoga mats, crazy leggings & OM jewellery has been sold – what’s winning I wonder?
I’m a teacher in the west, I grew up here; it’s what I know. I can’t help but work with what I know yet I have been practicing & teaching long enough to see what’s happening. Increasingly I see images of yoga teachers in stylised poses here and from the states, wearing very little (not wanting to sound like Barbara Woodhouse sorry) in asanas (postures) that at times seem to me more akin to gymnastics or dance.
I get that we need to celebrate our bodies, I get it if their practice includes one on a beach. I am the grand-daughter of a naturist so I’m all for freedom however there’s something behind some of these images that doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the intention behind them that makes all the difference.
One of my team posts lots of pictures; I like them. There’s an inherent softness and love in them and a rationale to go with them that teaches what’s behind yoga giving you the benefits and the whys; I know she practices what she preaches and yes they are inspirational.
So, I’m asking the question, I’m undecided – how do we take yoga into a western world in ways that help us spread the true meaning of yoga but that doesn’t alienate people? How do we show that the goal of yoga is to give up the illusion that the outer stuff – the perfect body as an example – isn’t the route to happiness?
How do we find the balance between the “look at me” imagery versus look at what yoga can do. How many so called “yoga” images are sexualised & objectify women – or men? How long does it take for a woman to beat themselves up for the way they look when they see an image of a woman in a bikini on a beach doing a one-handed handstand (without cellulite of course – I refer back to an article in 2000 that it takes 0.1% of a second for a woman to feel bad about herself when turning the first page of a magazine).
Maybe they don’t, maybe they think “one day that could be me?” If certain photos get people to class and then they learn about all the other aspects then why should I worry? But I do, I do worry because I – we – as teachers are trying to blend an ancient Indian spiritual way of life into a capitalist world and we have a responsibility. I feel this responsibility.
Yet I do believe we do need to speak in a language that this world understands. And some pictures ‘say a thousand words”. One way is through social media, so I’m on it & it has wonderful benefits there’s so much information for us to share.
But I also see the down side of how it can propagate everything yoga seeks to get away from – a sneakily seductive world of images and followers and LIKES that can attract vulnerable people into gaining their sense of self from how many comments they get. Identifying yet again with external validation. If they like me then I’m OK.
How many people or teachers have set themselves up with the pressure of having to post photos; how many spend time making sure their outfits “look just right”; how many wait anxiously for the LIKES? How many miss the moment because they’re busy posting on Instagram?
And are we becoming attached to achieving “the look” of a pose? Yoga is supposed to be the opposite of an achievement-focused experience right? Yoga asks that you to learn to listen to your body, accept where you are, stay in the moment, work with the breath, see what opens, be loving to yourself.
Yoga explores the root of suffering as an attachment to the external, for example, to material things, a constant quest for more, an insatiable desire that once triggered is never filled. If we’re living in a body-obsessed world – I truly believe we are – how many pictures of yoga teachers perpetuate this? How many students never even come because of this?
One of the most common objections I hear is “I’m not flexible enough” – are we surprised if all they’re seeing is teachers in incredible poses. How many teachers can do all the asanas (postures) brilliantly but their heads are a complete mess?
If they come through the door for these reasons and find peace along the way then hallelujah – but you see the conundrum we face here?
There’s a reason they call us the spiritual warriors in the west – because we’re constantly bombarded with so many distractions and temptations – much harder to maintain a modicum of humility and spirituality here instead of atop a mountain. Yet I believe people don’t get that spiritual development is ultimately about forgiveness i.e. forgiveness of our humanity – how human and fallible we all are, how much we cock up – and that it’s really OK, it really is. As teachers we don’t have to “out spiritual” or “out asana” the other.
Wouldn’t it be great if we started to celebrate people as they are; the most of the nation – instead of Britain’s Got Talent what about Britain’s got Wobbly Bits (I jest but you get my drift), if “mum tums”, wrinkles and a range of sizes were upheld as beautiful and a sign of wisdom, difference and experience (Marilyn Monroe was a size 16 ladies). People can be healthy and still carry some weight – don’t we really fall in love with the glint in someone’s eye?
I’d love to see more images of teachers hugging a student at the end of class because that student was so moved by the practice. More of the real-ness of a teacher who some days just just doesn’t know when she’ll meditate when she’s dealing with her kid’s sick in her hair. More of the times when we haven’t slept & our bodies are weak, more of the student who’s done her first shoulderstand after years of chronic fatigue, more of the smile of a father who’s yoga helped end his battle with depression, more of the 79-year old’s first steps on the mat, and quite simply just more of real life, what really matters. Life as life really is.
That’s what I want, a celebration of reality – a clap for reality. People may not want to see real life but only because we keep celebrating the other. So let’s raise a cheer for real yoga for real people. Real life, moment to moment.
Namaste my friends (the light in me bows down to the light in you).