Social Media,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Will We Ever Get Past The Yoga and Body Image Diversity Issue?

Yoga Journal is coming under fire again because its attempts at body positivity has yet again missed the mark. They were supposedly doing an issue that spotlighted plus size practitioner Jessamyn Stanley but did not put her on the cover and gave her a tiny picture and a little article on the inside instead.

While Jessamyn Stanley may be included in the November 2016 issue of Yoga Journal, she’s definitely not included on the cover, which features teacher Liz Arch who largely fits the stereotypical yoga body and practice and has, perhaps no surprise, been featured in SELF and on the covers of numerous magazines previously. Jessamyn is the “teacher spotlight,” yet the table of contents doesn’t even display her image, which is featured all of once in the entire issue on the single page story they wrote about her. In their TOC, the magazine instead opted to include photos of a close up on a (white) woman’s hands and stomach, a picture of a bowl of food (for their “Eat Well” section), and a picture of (ironically, a brown) dog on a yoga mat for the section Jessamyn’s feature is included in. The picture of the dog is in connection with a one-page feature titled “In Focus” about animals sharing their favorite yoga poses that is mostly just images of different critters on yoga mats (which apparently is more important that spotlighting a diverse teacher promoting body positivity). So in their table of contents Yoga Journal prioritized sharing images from a one-page article on animals “doing yoga” over an image of Jessamyn Stanley breaking yoga stereotypes in all her controversial, fat black femme glory. But I guess, dogs over diversity?- Yoga Dork

While I find this totally interesting, I think we are missing the point. There is no verse in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali  covering “13 poses for a strong core and upper body”. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika does not talk about “27 natural beauty wonders”. The Bhagavad Gita does not talk about “fast, fresh fall recipes”.

We are missing the fact that none of this is the purpose of Yoga. We are missing the same fact that the Yoga Journal is not about Yoga. Yoga Journal is closer to a fashion magazine then it is to a Yoga magazine. The fact that we are focusing on body image, the same way we do with other fashion magazines and the fashion industry as a whole, shows that it is a fashion magazine.  The Yoga Journal is closer to a Shape or Health and Fitness Magazine then it is to Yoga. If you give someone the Yoga Journal, Shape Magazine and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and ask them which one the Yoga Journal resembles the most, they are going to say Shape Magazine.

If we as a Yoga community want a magazine on Yoga, we need to start one like Peg Mulqueen did with the Ashtanga Dispatch. The Yoga Journal is more interested in readership then they are in disseminating information on Yoga.

The only way we can change the face of Yoga is to change ourselves. We have to be really honest with ourselves. Everyone talks about body positivity and wanting to go into the other 7 limbs of Yoga but when I go to Yoga studios and look at social media, I am seeing the same old, same old. The people with the most followers and the classes with the most students are still the folks that talk about Yoga the least.

We are not being honest with ourselves. The Yoga Journal feels that if they don’t put pretty people on the front, they will go out of business. As much as we talk about half naked girls on Instagram doing handstands, if they wore a hijab and talked about Samadhi, no one would give them the time of day. I know so many pretty people that would love to do something other  than talk about asana and smile, but when they do, they get no love. Even though 90% of the blogs I write are Yoga Sutra based, the occasional blog I post on Yoga shorts or asana, beats them every time.  What really blows my mind is that on an Ashtanga blog, that the videos and posts I put up about Pattabhi Jois or Sharath get very little traffic or shares.

We are not being honest with ourselves. If your social media feeds are full of pretty people or pictures of asana, you need to be honest with yourself. If your yoga practice revolves around asana, you need to be honest with yourself.  If the Yoga classes, you frequent the most, focus on Asana and you avoid all workshops and teachers that talk about the other limbs, you need to be honest with yourself.  Like I have been there. I recently noticed that, the people I followed for beauty advice on YouTube, don’t look like me. I had to have a “come to Jesus” moment with myself.  We created this!!! The shift from an internally focused practice to an externally focused one happened because we let it.

I am not saying that representation and body image in Yoga is not a valid conversation or a valid issue to champion . It is. If you feel strongly about it, you should do it. However, if we get back to Yoga, there would be no need. I would love to get to a place where body image in Yoga is not even a conversation.  What a lovely dream.

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

9 Comments

    • Shanna Small

      I was talking about them in relation to my lifespan. I am older than I look!!!! I was not talking about the rate for other people, just relative to my lifespan and what I can do asana wise. I have never seen anyone get younger as the years progressed. As Sharath said, “asana has limitations, Yoga does not”. I know that my body will not last forever. That coupled with my age, has a lot to do with how much longer I will be jumping around and throwing my legs behind my head. I know people who are aging out of asana so I am in touch with what that looks like. I was saying, I would like to get as far as I can asana wise, for the fun of it, before I age out. Yes, asana is fun, but it is not my only focus hence the blog that focuses on Sutras.

  • Claudio

    Remember that your blog is called Ashtanga Picture Project 🙂 One could get the impression that its focus is asana pictures, even if it’s much more rich than that.

    • Shanna Small

      So true. Once one starts to read it though, it becomes clear that it is not. That is how Yoga works. As we practice it, it gains depth. That is where my concern is. It does not seem to be gaining any depth. As a matter of fact, it is loosing depth. Look at old versions of The Yoga Journal.

  • Sean

    The most well-known Jois quotes are “Do your practice, and all is coming” and “99% practice, 1% theory.” While we could debate the possible meanings and of the quotes at length, and many have, I take it as self evident that he believed asanas were a valid starting place when practiced sincerely and coupled with breath and looking place to achieve a moving meditation. My personal experience is that a daily practice – even if no one ever said Om or mentioned the sutras would indeed begin a process inside the person that effects profound changes and inevitably encompasses the other limbs (whether the practitioner realizes it or not) such as yamas and niyamas, pranayama, sense withdrawal, an inkling of the unified nature of things, and one pointed focus, among other things. But along this path, whether you consciously pursue all eight limbs or not, maya and the ego lay traps and install blinders, barricades, and walls. The ego resists and tries to protect itself by sabotaging and undermining yoga’s effects. Treating yoga asanas as a fitness routine for health and beauty or a gymnastics competition or an avenue to a perfect callipygian state are just a few possible distractions from the path. They are no better nor worse than any of the others that lie in wait to my mind. Perhaps allowing the commercialized versions to open the doors and fill the rooms without judgment, will overall be more successful in bringing some benefits of yoga to more of the population than would happen in their absence? Let me hasten to add, I do not consider myself any kind of expert at all. Indeed, I’m a relative beginner. These are just some thoughts. Namaste.

    • Shanna Small

      Lovely thoughts. Asana is the gateway. 99% practice includes all practice though. That includes the practice of the other limbs. The other limbs are not theory. They are to be practiced.

      • Sean

        I understand that practice is 24 /7. I understand that practice is all the limbs. I just feel like I’ve seen and experienced an asana practice making people become more gentle, honest, kind, self aware, generous, pure, content, self disciplined, etc. (i.e. The yamas and niyamas). I’ve seen and felt breath improve (pranayama). I’ve seen and felt meditative aspects of mindfulness (seeing things as they are and staying calmer and more balanced etc. ). Are there still holes in this “intellectually ignorant practice”. Sure. Would it be better to study for better efficacy and further deepening? Absolutely. My thought is that even if someone thinks they are doing a yoga journal / shape magazine practice devoid of any limb but asana may be getting some of the others anyway. Intent and sincerity matter certainly, but perhaps grace slides some rewards even to those who think they are pursuing something else. And I’m loving your blog. Thank you!

  • Liz

    Excellently written. Yoga is so much deeper than the showy social media image. I had a private lesson with an Irish authorised Ashtanga teacher and was all worried about leaving it broken from the adjustments… Ha! It was ALL about the breath! Nothing showy. No fuss. There was a depth and energy to that class that’s widely missing in this handstand-crazy showing-off-on Instagram world. We all need to focus our attention inwards which is of course the point of getting on our mats every day. Great article thank you – love your posts!

  • Filipe

    Thanks Shanna for your words in this article… Couldn’t agree more: the change starts with us. There is a little magazine that is published by Hamish Hendry in London called Pushpam, which is trying to address this in the market of yoga publications by not being asana focused, as well as other things… You may have heard of it already anyway!
    Another thing that bothers me a little is how diverse ethnicities are underrepresented in yoga. I have not seen many Black or African American practitioners in the studios I’ve frequented. Just a thought…
    Thanks for sharing your words x

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