We see them everywhere: some are serene, blissful, meditating in drugstore fliers. Others – lithe visions of feminine happiness, stretching in yogurt and maxi pad commercials. And then there are the hardcore sisters, holding impossible poses, selling gym memberships and dotting Pinterest with affirmations.
With all these women doing yoga poses in commercial media, the phrase “yoga body” has become ubiquitous – a new catchall term for “accessible perfection”. And the inference is, just show up to yoga class, and you too will be serene, flexible, strong, and achieve that perfect butt as well. Fitness and inner peace? Sign me up!
But wait – yoga used to be about dirty hippies and mysterious gurus from India – how did we get to having these superslick images of impossibly fit models doing impossible poses? What the heck is a “yoga body”, anyway?
When Yoga Was Not About the Body
The sheer amount of material a modern yoga student can study encompasses Hindu scriptures, physical postures, anatomy, and even medicine. But yoga – as it relates to physical fitness, especially – has a varied history in both the United States and even in India. Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice details this history, but here’s a very short summary:
During British colonial rule in India, “renunciant” yogis were threats to trade and order: armed gangs of naked or bedraggled male sadhus would block roads and demand payment. So they were demonized as terrorists.
For the Victorian British, the sadhus’ nakedness and extreme self penances were either appalling or amusing, depending on how carnivalesque the performances were. As British control increased, these groups were disarmed and moved into villages, where their lack of caste and reliance on performing their most outrageous postures for a living made them easy objects of scorn for fellow Indians.
So by the end of the 19th century, the first wave of Indian religious scholars traveling to America were mostly not interested in asana at all – the only honorable way to study yoga was to meditate, or study philosophy. “Raja” yoga – the yoga of kings, and of the mind – was considered a much higher path than “Hatha” yoga, which emphasized the body.
There were a few Hatha yoga teachers in the United States They were popular with dancers, actors and others who were bohemian (or wealthy) enough to go against convention. But the practice was easily scandalized – one illicit affair, another Gilded Age fortune left to a Hindu holy man (and in one case, a few knockout drops and a kidnapping) – would have the press all over the story. Most “respectable” Americans wouldn’t go anywhere near these dangerous people and their practices. (For a wildly entertaining account of an early guru, read Robert Love’s The Great Oom: The Mysterious Origins of America’s First Yogi, about Pierre Bernard – a self-made philosopher/healer/showman – who required his initiates to sign a blood oath before taking them on as students.)
The 21st Century Yoga Body
But that was over a century ago. Yoga asana came back into their own as part of the early twentieth century’s physical fitness revolution, which posited a sound body as well as a sound mind. And while the yoga poses were developed mostly in India, they were somewhat based on gymnastics routines that would be familiar to Westerners.
And the latest yoga boom is even more about the body. Yoga classes meld with Pilates, aerobics class, boot camp, and even surfing. The gurus are all clean cut and mostly young and fit. And no one’s asking you to sign your name in blood, either!
So the current imagery fits right in with the times – the perfect yoga body, alongside the perfect bikini body. Or the perfect bootcamp body. Selling us products, or the idea that we can also attain that perfection, if we just show up to class enough.
Okay, we know they’re fitness models. Doing yoga. Much like the models in makeup ads, who have great faces that look even better with makeup(and Photoshop), yoga models are hired because they look good in the pictures.
But what about the rest of us? Is there something to this “yoga body”? Do you need a specific body to do yoga? Or is it just for off-duty Cirque du Soleil performers? And do these images of hot bodies in impossible positions intimidate people from even trying a class? Should they?
Yoga teachers are, for the most part, amused by the situation. “It’s interesting that the phrase “yoga body” is even a phrase,” says Lisa Bermudez, a Vinyasa yoga teacher in New York. “Yoga is for every body and the practice can be tailored to accommodate each person’s strengths and weaknesses. It is true that when the yoga practice becomes a lifestyle, you will feel healthier and stronger, but I don’t think the goal of having a “yoga body” is motivation enough to keep attending yoga classes.”
Anne Rust, a prenatal yoga expert and founder of Mamaseeds.com, contends that yoga “is not synchronized swimming – each woman will look different in a particular pose when she is following her own body’s cues and working right at the edge of what is possible for her in this moment. A “yoga body” is one that is in tune with itself–not one that is competing with the body on the mat next door.”
Which is not to say that we should sign up for the Level 4 class, though: “All too often, in an effort to attract attention, women are shown images of yoga postures that are too advanced for most practitioners,” Rust adds. “It’s easy to get hurt trying to achieve those “pretzel” positions.”
And many of those “yoga” models don’t even do yoga. Huh? “A lot of yoga model types come from a dance background and therefore have the flexibility and strength that suits the needs of someone selling yoga or yoga products,” says Daniel Overberger, who teaches yoga to improve not just his Hollywood clients’ bodies, but their sleeping habits, mood and creativity as well. “It’s just a sales pitch. I don’t think we should be bothered by it. I doubt the models in Pepsi adds actually drink it regularly. If they did they wouldn’t be attractive enough to sell the product(!)”
So, what about “Real” women and yoga?
It can be frustrating to see all these perfect-looking people, who may not even practice yoga, in poses that we might never achieve. But that doesn’t mean that only perfect people can practice. “I see yogis (mostly women) of all shapes and sizes and ages and abilities who do the yoga that’s right for their bodies. I’ve had an 85 year old woman, a woman who weighed 250 plus, a woman with knee replacements and many more different physical limitations,” notes Theresa Polley, yoga teacher and host at Retreat in the Pines in Mineola, Texas. “Of course, I’ve had a few cute young things…but that’s the exception not the rule. I love this quote by T. K. V. Desikachar “It is not that the student needs to accommodate him or herself to yoga, but rather the yoga practice must be tailored to fit each person.”
And maybe that’s the point: while it’s easy to internalize those perfect images of yoga bodies, maybe the “yoga body” we seek is the same body we have all along. “I personally do yoga to feel great inside my body, not to achieve another type of body,” adds Lisa Bermudez. “Maybe the physical results are what attract us to the yoga practice, but it’s the deeper stuff that keeps us coming back. We can come to realize that we’re actually more than just this “body” we’re given and we can connect with ourselves and others on a much deeper level than this physical one.”
Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton.
The Great Oom: The Mysterious Origins of America’s First Yogi by Robert Love.