It’s a visual world, always has been, never more so. People are skimming social media, flicking across all manner of platforms and mediums, and pretty pictures capture most of our scattered attention. In the yoga world, wise words and a single pointed focus are not enough anymore to attract people to classes, teachers and events. And so I found myself lining up a photo shoot in the hope I could convey what I do in images.
When I briefed the photographer (the wonderful Yvonne Doherty), I was quick to label myself a ‘curvy yoga teacher’ and asked for flattering angles and maybe just a teensy bit of Photoshopping. The whole prospect brought up my insecurities about displaying my body for people to judge. It triggered a week of undereating and an increased focus on how I look. I joked to anyone who would listen that this is not the advice I would ever give a client, and what a weird world it is where I work to encourage diversity and body positivity in yoga, yet get all flustered when preparing to get some snaps taken.
Even though I fell for the dominant paradigm of superficiality to some extent, I was able to connect with the photographer and express my understanding of yoga through my practice. Of course the photos show me as I am, giving a mostly external glimpse of a 40 year old woman with ample flesh, a steady and strong approach to yoga asana and a message to share. I hope discerning viewers will follow the images and find out more because I know I am much more than my physical appearance. My message is about wellness on every level, not just physical health, and certainly not just the appearance of physical fitness.
Are health and wellness synonymous?
The often quoted World Health Organisation definition of health is;
‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’
That’s a powerful, positive and holistic view of health that covers many of the elements of wellness. But wellness goes even further. In wellness, you can be inclusive of physical, mental and social disabilities, differences, diseases and infirmities. To me, wellness is about the actions we take and not about their outcomes. A philosophy that echoes the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, wellness means working steadily to be your best self in whatever way fits your values, skills and interests (your dharma) without expecting any reward or necessarily achieving any goal.
Wellness and Body Image
High level wellness can look very diverse. It can certainly include people at the end of life, those with disfiguring scars, amputations, and yes, even fat people. But that’s not what you’ll find if you do a google images search for ‘Wellness’. You’ll find models, actors and celebrities with glowing skin like Elle Macpherson touting a wellness elixir (based on pseudoscience but I’ll save that for another time), Christy Turlington doing yoga on beach, Gwyneth Paltrow and Miranda Kerr giving nutrition and lifestyle advice. They look really very well don’t they? All that shiny hair, lean physiques and glamour can really inspire normal people to improve their lives. Or can it?
Fitspo or Realspo, What Works for You?
Research is beginning to explore the phenomenon of #fitspo or fitspiration, the idea that looking at images of ultra fit people can inspire us to get off the couch or away from the computer and exercise the way they must to look the way they do. The early results seem to indicate that it might in fact do the complete opposite for some viewers. Of course fit bodies can be attractive, and there’s no denying that many of us would choose to look that way if we could. But when it comes to what motivates our health promoting behaviour, it seems likely that seeing people who look a bit like our current selves exercising is more likely to get us out and involved in the movement activity of our choice.
After all, we’re essentially tribal, and we share a need to feel included and accepted. That means people of all ages, sizes, races, genders and cultures want to see themselves reflected in the marketing and information about the kind of lifestyle they may be seeking. From crossfit to tennis clubs, roller derby, bootcamp, yoga or the gym, people are more likely to cross the threshold from observer to participant, from contemplation to action, if they feel like they will be welcome as they are. I imagine there are thousands of people right now, trying to lose weight before they can start going to whatever group fitness activity, because all they have seen is ‘finished products’, advanced practitioners showing off the benefits of their sport or lifestyle. Unrealistic fitspo imagery can actually be a barrier to participation.
Sustainable Change Comes From Within
Critics of shows like the Biggest Loser and the diet industry as a whole, point out that a very small percentage of people can lose weight and sustain that weight loss over time. Habits don’t change in a sustainable way through being shamed, shouted at or externally pushed to eat less and move more. Manipulating the obesogenic environment by having meals delivered, or going on retreat can only work until the next time you need to go into a service station or supermarket. Especially if you’ve taken an all or nothing approach to self discipline. And relying on the finite reserve of willpower to just say no to calorie dense food and sedentary behaviours is likely to steer your attention away from other life goals you might actually want to work towards.
Change that lasts comes from making an internal shift, not holding off your desires. It comes from actually desiring to have and repeat a certain sensation, emotion or experience that isn’t dependant on something outside of yourself. That’s where yoga may just have something to offer to this so called ‘obesity epidemic’, but only if we can get our messaging to be more inclusive, and more focused on how things feel, rather than how they look.
Yoga as Rebellion
Yoga is exercise that encourages mindfulness, self care and interoception. It allows practitioners, over time, to get to know their own habits of mind and body intimately. To observe the changes life brings through seasons, and stages of life. This internal focus is part of what sets yoga apart from the world of wellness and body focused fitspiration. Maybe not when posing for pictures, but when actually practicing. When no-one is watching except your teacher who sees you through a lens of kindness and compassion. When you feel your experience rather than dissect how your experience looks. Yoga is especially effective when done regularly, daily or multiple times per week, where the repetition of postures creates a ritual that calms the nervous system, draws the senses inwards, away from the distractions of modern life for an hour or so at a time.
Carving out this regular space for self nurture is an act of insurrection against a culture that asks you to present an Instagram ready image and check in on facebook wherever you go. You can consciously choose to enhance your multidimensional wellness, without needing to prove the value or outcome to anyone.
And best of all, you can do this as you are, in the body you have today, with love and kindness towards yourself. No-one can take your inner peace from you, and the more you practice, the deeper your internal well of self love. So yes, I felt the pressure to conform to some arbitrary ideal of what a yoga teacher should look like. And now I am starting to share the images of myself in form fitting yoga clothes, doing what I love to do, there may be self doubt from time to time. But I will keep doing yoga, and caring for this remarkable body with all it’s scars, bulges and asymmetries. And I will keep encouraging people to join me, because I know that wellness is not limited to those who fit an image of health, it’s accessible to all of us, all the time.