With the dos and don’ts of exercise and diet (my personal advice: do the former, don’t do the latter) pretty well covered, there’s been a shift in focus of late towards the final pillar in the Western world’s trinity of everyday-activities-we-need-to-relearn-for-better-wellbeing: Sleep.
As adults, we appreciate of course, that sleep is good for us. We don’t need to be told; we know it instinctively, on a cellular, biological level. When we sleep well, we feel well. Simple.
However, as neuroscientist and psychology professor Matthew Walkerexplains in his recent book, “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams”, until fairly recently scientific information about sleep was thin on the ground. We knew sleep was important, we just didn’t know why.
We’re talking about a state in which we, hopefully (more on which later), spend 1/3 of our lives, and so in the same way that as we begin to cognise our oceans we’re learning much more about our planet, the demystification of sleep is proving monumental for our understanding of the human race.
The biggest lesson: sleep is important.
Not like a little bit important. Really, really important.
The reasons for this are complex, varied and fascinating. Sleep restores the immune system, balances hormones, lowers blood pressure, cleanses toxins from the brain, resets the digestive system, and much more. It helps us process information, and convert our experiences into memories. Crucially, REM (dream) sleep is integral to our wellbeing, and Walker even suggests that it was this that helped us develop evolutionary and diachronically further than our primate cousins.
More so than diet or exercise, sleep is the most important factor contributing to our physical and mental welfare. You can get by without food and exercise for days, weeks, months even, but as anyone who has done an all-nighter knows too well, getting by without sleep is near torturous.
And here’s the thing, in many Western societies we are severely compromising both the quality and quantity of our sleep. Adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep every night, but according to The Sleep Council, more than a third of Brits sleep for less than six hours a night and one in three is affected by insomnia. (And according to Walker, lost hours can’t be made up. You may think you’re catching up on sleep at the weekend, but it doesn’t work that way – the deficit remains.) Staggeringly, it is estimated that insufficient sleep among the British working population costs the economy up to £40 billion a year through lost working hours (hence important events such as this one popping up).
So what are the factors that negatively impact sleep? Health and lifestyle problems such as excessive alcohol and sugary drink consumption, smoking, lack of physical activity, obesity, mental health problems, stress at work or home, shift work, financial concerns, long commuting, and more. Electricity – though one of the most vital and valuable discoveries of our time – has thrown us out of sync with our natural circadian rhythms. And then there’s all that light pollution from smartphones and tablets, which disrupts the release of melatonin, our ‘rest’ hormone essential for sleep.
Basically, life. Life affects sleep.
Now before you throw up your arms in despair at yet another wellbeing girl telling you how you’re living your life WRONG, and that if you look directly at a bowl of white sugar the world will combust, I am not trying to make you feel guilty for not getting enough sleep. Anxiety loves guilt. And making you anxious about the idea that you must sleep – so that when you wake up in the night you get stressed about not sleeping – is really not my aim.
What I’d like to suggest is that you take the remainder of this feature as an invitation to question your sleeping habits. And maybe you’ll find, as I did, that there are certain behaviours that don’t necessarily serve you so well, and that you can perhaps let go of.
So, lets celebrate World Sleep Day (yep that’s a thing) today with a list of suggestions for better sleep. Like anything else in life, what works best varies from person to person, at different stages in time. But if you’re struggling to get enough good quality sleep, perhaps something here may help:
I tend to steer clear of suggestions that come from Goop – being as they are so rarely grounded in any form of science – but clean sleeping is essentially the lessons we all knew before Gwyneth began her book publicity campaign. Essentially go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time everyday. Get some fresh air and sunlight during the day. Don’t drink coffee in the afternoon and make sure your room is dark. Don’t use your smartphone in bed, especially not if you wake up in the night. She also recommends fasting for at least 12 hours overnight, using copper infused pillowcases, and body oil (I don’t, unless you like those things).
FIND YOUR OWN PATTERN
We’re individual on every level, including our sleep, and according to Walker, sleep patterns and requirements vary. Some people are natural night owls, and others are genuinely more productive and brighter in the morning hours (the reason for which are evolutionary – we needed different members of our tribe to be awake at different times so that the group was always protected from attacks).
Walker says most people need between 7-9 hours per night, plus a brief afternoon nap. However, others postulate that humans are better suited to a bi-modal sleep pattern i.e. two sleeps per night broken up with a few hours of wakefulness in which you could read, eat, have sex etc. Crucially, you want to make sure you’re getting all the stages of sleep, and lots of REM (which generally occurs later in the night). Don’t judge your sleep patterns with those of the people around you (hard I know if you live with a partner) – try to think about your individual needs. And if you have the fortune to be able to set your own working and home hours, start experimenting with what works best for you.
GET INTO BED EARLIER
You don’t have to go to sleep straight away. Read, chat, meditate, drink (caffeine-free) tea, have sex. There are lots of good things to do in bed except sleep, and it’s a great way to unwind and prepare the body and mind for rest. NB: It helps if you have a bedroom and bed you like spending time in, so take a good look around and see if there’s anything you can do to make your bedroom more appealing.
Walker explains that alcohol hugely disrupts (to the point of destroys) REM sleep. So, be mindful. (As if that’s the first time someone has suggested that.)
DON’T OVER DO IT
For years I was fastidious about being sociable in the evening, but also making it to a 6am yoga or gym class during the week. Now this would have been fine, if I’d been in bed by 9pm, and woken the next day feeling rested af. But that was not the case. Being active was very important to me (still is, in a different way) but my sleep and rest were compromised – I was running (sometimes literally) myself into the ground. If you love those early morning classes, consider an early night.
Slightly at odds with clean sleeping, yes, but perhaps this will be what works best for you. From smart mattresses to vibrating pillowcases, high tech sleep is on point for 2018.
Again I’m a big proponent of intuitive eating, so my recommendation would never be to diet, but it would be to add things into your diet. With lots of tips from sleep expert and author Nerina Ramlakhan, here’s a list of foods that may help sleep.
As a yoga teacher, this one was probably going to come up eventually… Now you may want to give that evening Rocket Vinyasa class a miss as it can raise cortisol and stress levels – not something you want before bed. Instead opt for Restorative or Yin, or try Yoga Nidra (also called Yogic Sleep) a meditation that aims to place your consciousness in a state between wake and sleep. You could try a class, or at home – recordings can be found here, or via apps such as Insight Timer or Headspace.
I recommend mindful meditation for everything. But it can really help with sleep, especially if you’re prone to waking in the night. A gratefulness meditation can be good at that point – as we can all agree are very lucky to have warm beds of our own. Again, try Insight Timer or Headspace.
Finally, Matthew Walker’s book is brilliant, I strongly recommend it for anyone who would like to know more.
In the increasingly socially pervasive worlds of yoga, meditation, healing, spirituality et al, the word 'chakra' pops up quite a bit. Great, if you know what it means; less so, perhaps, if you’re not sure (it might easily be a new superfood or trendy gym class).
So here’s a beginner’s guide to the chakras. I hope it enables you to navigate those crystal-infused water-cooler conversations with greater ease...
Everything in the universe is made of the same energy: the sun, the moon, your iPhone (your sun and moon) and, of course, us. Energy is our basic life force.
In traditional Chinese medicine and Indian yogic traditions there are thought to be lines that carry this energy around the body. Referred to as 'nadis' or 'meridians', there are thousands upon thousands of these invisible pathways – 72,000, according to my yogic lineage – traversing the physical form.
Much like busy energetic intersections (picture Oxford Circus at 9am), chakras occur where the highest numbers of these lines converge and so are the energy ‘centres’ of the body. “A chakra is a centre that coordinates energy for the system as a whole, much like an office coordinates energy for a business,” explains author, therapist, and chakra yoga teacher Anodea Judith. Chakras serve as storehouses and behave in a vortex-esque manner (chakra literally translates as 'spinning wheel' in Sanskrit), drawing energy and information towards us.
According to various esoteric teachings – including yoga – we have ‘planes’ of existence, ranging from the physical body to higher consciousness. The chakras are thought to be located on the ‘subtle plane’, which is itself a gateway between the physical and ethereal realms. Chakras therefore function as our connection point between the mind and the body, between the manifest and un-manifest.
Still with me?
There are contending views on the number of chakras in the body, but general consensus is seven major and many more minor. The major seven (sounds like a superhero film, right?) run in ascending order from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. Each of the chakras governs a specific function within the body, and is associated with elements of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
The seven major chakras and their associated characteristics are:
Also known as: Root chakra
Location: Base of the spine near the perineum
Body functions: Legs, feet, bones, large intestine and adrenal glands
Represents: Stability, grounding, foundation, family, your connection to the earth, survival, financial and physical security
Excessive: Heavy, sluggish, stagnant
Deficient: Ungrounded, ‘head in the clouds’, fearful, anxious
Also known as: Sacral chakra
Location: Lower abdomen, two inches below the naval
Body functions: Kidneys, bladder, circulatory system, reproductive organs and glands
Represents: Emotions, desire, pleasure, sexuality, procreation and creativity
Excessive: Addicted to pleasure, restless, indulgent, overly emotional
Deficient: Depressed, impotent, joyless, rigid, numb
Also known as: Solar plexus chakra
Location: Upper abdomen, two inches above the naval
Body functions: Digestive system, muscles, pancreas and adrenals
Represents: Power, transformation, self-will
Excessive: Quick to anger, aggressive, dominating, controlling, lack of compassion
Deficient: Indecisive, insecure, timid, needy, passive, poor self-esteem
Also known as: Heart chakra
Location: Centre of chest
Body functions: Lungs, heart, arms, hands, and thymus gland
Represents: Love, relationships, joy, peace, forgiveness, trust
Excessive: Loss of personal boundaries, needy, co-dependent, narcissistic
Deficient: Closed, shy, lonely, isolated
Also known as: Throat chakra
Body functions: Neck, shoulders, arms, hands, thyroid and parathyroid glands
Represents: Communication, voice, self-expression, judgement
Excessive: Overuse of voice, loud, inability to listen
Deficient: Shy, quiet, scared to speak up, unable to express emotions
Also known as: Third eye chakra
Location: Between the eyebrows
Body functions: Visual perception, pituitary gland, neurological function
Represents: Intuitive wisdom, discriminating, decision-making
Excessive: Delusional, paranoid, difficulty concentrating
Deficient: Poor memory, denial
Also known as: Crown chakra
Location: Top of head
Body functions: Cerebral cortex, central nervous system and the pituitary gland
Represents: Connection to source, ultimate truth, awareness
Excessive: Overly intellectual, spiritual addiction, dissociation from body
Deficient: Disconnection, depression, spiritual cynicism
In a healthy, balanced person (I dare you to find me one), the seven chakras spin in harmony, and provide precisely the right amount of energy to the body, mind and spirit. But the majority of us experience energetic imbalance – i.e. deficiency or excess – in one or more of our chakras at various stages of our lives. Our physical, mental or emotional states may trigger energetic inequity or blockages in our chakras, and vice versa.
“An excessive chakra results from a defensive pattern in life that is trying to compensate for something we didn’t get enough of, such as safety, pleasure, attention, power, or love,” explains Anodea in her book Chakra Yoga. “We become overly attached, fixated at that level, still trying to obtain fulfilment or healing. However if we release or express more energy than we take in, we become depleted, which leads to a deficient chakra. [It’s] the result of an avoidance strategy, avoiding something we might not have the tools or desire to deal with.”
The chakras are innately connected to one another and when one becomes unbalanced, the others may overcompensate. “Someone who is not very grounded in their lower chakras may live in their head or try to balance their disembodiment with excessive spirituality," says Anodea. “Or someone who is emotionally insecure may be excessive in their throat chakra and talk too much.”
By engaging with the chakras you can tune into the natural energies of the body and harness them to further your personal wellbeing, wants and needs (which are, hopefully, not mutually exclusive).
This can be done in a variety of ways but as a yoga teacher, I – unsurprisingly – recommend yoga. A well-composed asana and pranayama practice can alert you to the presence of your chakras, and help you begin to work through any imbalances. For example, if you’re feeling anxious or lacking in stability, then grounding poses for the root chakra – such as tree and warriors 1 & 2 – may be of benefit. If you’re lacking in energy or willpower, a few rounds of uddiyana bandha will help ignite the fire in your naval chakra. Or if you’re finding it difficult to speak up at work, then working with shoulder stand or fish may give you the throat chakra strength to find your voice.
And if you don’t believe in any of this chakra stuff, your body and mind will most likely thank you for the yoga anyway.
Original feature on Refinery29UK.
My motivation here is simple: if you haven’t yet tried Yin yoga, I want to convince you to do so by the end of this feature.
The most common response I have after teaching a Yin class is, to quote one student: “This is the yoga I’ve been looking for forever.” But as its founder, Paul Grilley, explains, Yin yoga is nothing new. All traditional Hatha yoga texts include Yin; the name simply emerged, as Grilley says, “to differentiate this softer style of yoga [from] the modern Vinyasa styles”.
Along with Restorative, Yin is the most accessible of the physical yoga systems, in that it can be practised by anyone, regardless of age or ability. It doesn’t even require a mat – a carpet or blanket will do just fine. In Yin, you hold deep, floor-based postures in stillness for between three and 20 minutes. Using very little muscular effort, each student is encouraged to find their own individual ‘edge’ – the point of stress, but before pain – to the posture, as it is here at this precipice that we enable our bodies to begin to safely open.
But… isn’t stress bad?
Short answer: no! All tissues in the body need stress, lest they atrophy. When astronauts return from space they have substantially reduced bone and muscle mass because of the lack of gravity (aka: stress) on their bodies. Healthy stress is essential to a healthy body.
The gentle traction created in Yin works not on the muscles and blood (our ‘Yang’ tissues) but on our connective ‘Yin’ tissues – tendons, ligaments, cartilage, fascia and bone. When we talk about flexibility – particularly in yoga – the focus tends to be on the muscles: “Lengthen your hamstrings, feel the stretch across your abdomen…” and so on. However, as Yin yoga and anatomy expert Bernie Clark explains, we hold only 41% of our bodily tension in our muscles. The remaining 57% is held in our connective tissues and joints (with a further 2% in our skin).
That’s a huge range of potential flexibility and joint freedom that most of us do not ever begin to access. Why? Because our everyday Yang exercises – Vinyasa, running, spinning etc. – only positively affect our elastic, soft Yang tissue. Our stiff, stable, hard Yin tissue doesn’t respond well to this kind of movement at all – as anyone who has torn a tendon or fractured a bone during exercise can attest.
Grilley compares Yin tissue to a sponge soaked in butter. “When the butter is solid the sponge is stiff and hard to bend, but when it is melted it’s easy to twist and stretch the sponge… this is called a ‘phase change’. Holding a stress on connective tissue for several minutes creates a phase change in its fluids, which results in a lengthening of the tissue and a feeling of ease.”
With regular practice, Yin enhances the natural range of mobility in the joints, and ultimately helps develop greater strength and flexibility across the entire body. But if combined with mindfulness, the benefits of Yin aren’t just physical. Sarah Powers – another founder of modern day Yin yoga – explains: “In Yin we are carving out neural pathways of loving-kindness toward ourselves as we learn to feel deeply into our bodies just as they are.” The body doesn’t lie. Your edge is your edge and if you go much beyond it, you may hurt yourself. So in Yin you learn to listen to your body and accept its limitations. Developing the ability to feel into your body with compassion, and without judgement, leads you to begin to cultivate an awareness and understanding of yourself that extends beyond the body and the mat, into your everyday life. As my teacher, Sarah Lo, says: “Change is inevitable, and it is right there on our mats that we can learn to adapt to our ever-changing moods, frustrations and issues. Problems aren’t necessarily going to be solved during our practice, but in the quiet acknowledgement of seeing what’s present, solutions do often become much clearer.”
It’s not easy to stay still – particularly in large cities like London with the accompanying I’m-busier-than-you competitive culture. Remaining motionless for a prolonged amount of time is hard for most people – especially if a posture feels challenging. For example, Frog – a serious hip and groin opener – tends to elicit the kind of trepidation normally reserved for white carbs. (FYI: most Yin postures are named after animals: Snail, Caterpillar, Butterfly… ideal for emoji-laden Instagram posts.) But if you stay with it, something incredible happens. “It’s tough holding a position for so long,” says Runako, one of my regular students, “but as soon as you just let go, it's such a beautiful individual experience for your mind and body. Afterwards I feel like I'm in a beautiful trance.” Training yourself to be comfortable with discomfort – to stay still even when you desperately want to move – is how you develop strength, flexibility and openness, not only of the body, but also the mind.
In her book Insight Yoga, Sarah Powers describes Yin yoga as an “opportunity to crawl into ourselves and stay a while.” A method by which to take up “residence” in every corner of us, and in doing so, learn to “come home” to our bodies and minds.
This is the description of Yin that rings the most true for me, and the one I hear echoed most often by my students. In Yin you begin to learn you can relax your resistance and turn towards, rather than away from, what’s arising within, and in doing so, you begin to fully inhabit yourself and get to know yourself a little better. “The first time I did Yin I got a sensation I have never had before – a genuine physical and mental longing to go back to the class basically from the moment it was over,” says student Michelle. “And I’ve had the same sensation after every class since. Staying still for longer meant my mind could go further faster than it ever had in a yoga class before.” Stillness in the body encourages stillness in the mind, and the deep relaxation Michelle experiences is the body’s nervous system returning to its natural, calm, resting state.
Finally, as Powers says: “With its quiet atmosphere unstained by striving, Yin allows us the space to fully metabolise emotions we often ingest but cannot completely digest.” Yin is closely linked to traditional Chinese medicine and chakra theory, and sometimes it really does feel like self-administered acupuncture or therapy.
Now, by no means am I suggesting you give up your Power Vinyasa Flow, if that’s your vibe. The origins of Yin yoga are in the Taoist theory of Yin and Yang as opposite and complementary principles in nature. Yin qualities can be thought of as internal, passive and cooling, while Yang’s are more external, dynamic and warming. We need them both for true – physical, mental and emotional – balance. I will say, however, that if you have a lot of Yang in your everyday life – like I do – then try a bit of Yin.
Original feature on Refinery29UK
There's a lot of weird yoga around these days. We’ve all heard of Beer Yoga, Goat Yoga and the more recent but possibly not 100% genuine Chicken Nugget Yoga. But have you heard of 4:20 Yoga? A form that combines marijuana use with gentle yoga postures and is “transformative” according to its devotees, who say the mind-altering, relaxing effects of cannabis enable them to connect with their yoga and meditation practice on a far deeper level.
Using plants to enhance a spiritual practice is nothing new but leaving the big dogs – ayahuasca, peyote, mushrooms et al – aside, the use of weed to heighten our consciousness for ceremony, prayer and inner listening is age-old. In fact, as science writer Zoe Cormier, author of Sex, Drugs, & Rock n Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science explains: “All archaeological records indicate that cannabis is probably our oldest drug (except for alcohol), predating everything as far as we know, including opium and magic mushrooms.”
Indeed in India – the birthplace of yoga – the cannabis plant was revered and celebrated for millennia, and the country’s sadhus (holy, spiritual wanderers) have long been known to smoke chillums filled with hashish as part of their spiritual practice. (It’s even argued that Shiva – the founder of yoga – was partial to the herb.)
Following his years spent travelling in Asia and smoking with the sadhus, teacher Yogi D founded 420 YogaRetreats. “I wanted to help bring the spiritual experience back into pot,” he explains. “Modern society is in such a rush – it’s a habit to be busy and stressed; we all are overwhelmed to some degree. All yoga is so awesome for this day and age. Weed just helps you experience the asana poses from a deeper place – it gives you a glimpse into the spiritual realm and helps you relax faster.”
California-based yoga teacher and founder of 4:20 Yoga, Liz McDonald, echoes this sentiment. “Though my yoga practice is now 20 years old, the majority of it has been spent in the urban ant race, where it is undeniably harder to tune out and tune in to oneself. My students face similar challenges.” Liz began introducing marijuana into her yoga a little over 10 years ago. “I experienced a supercharged version of my practice, with major ‘downloads’ of esoteric concepts regarding the astral body. Naturally, I then wanted to apply this as a teaching tool to bypass the sceptical, more concrete minds in the classroom, and bring in the energetic components of yoga.”
“There are essentially two components to cannabis,” explains Cormier.“Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which generally speaking is the chemical that makes you feel 'high', and cannabidiols, or CBD, which is the component that has the medical properties.” Indeed, with its gradual re-legalisation and declassification in the US and elsewhere, the medicinal benefits of the herb are beginning to (re)enter into our understanding of health in the 21st century. Pro-cannabis lobbyists point to its potential to alleviate chronic pain, shrink cancerous tumours and help treat glaucoma, as well as the ongoing evidence that it is far safer than alcohol.
Dee Dussault, founder of GanjaYoga and author of a book by the same name, has also been integrating cannabis into her practice for more than 10 years. “I immediately found it made my yoga practice far more deep and interesting,” she explains. She began offering classes in 2009: “No one turned up to my first class! But now I have two full classes a week.” Much like Liz and Yogi D, she too wants to “reclaim cannabis as a spiritual and medical tool… When you’re sober there are so many benefits to yoga,” she says, “but with the addition of cannabis you have a higher baseline of relaxation – before you even start the yoga you’re already quieting your mind and becoming more present.”
The yoga taught by Liz, Dee and Yogi D is a combination of hatha and restorative. “We’re not going to get into an altered state of consciousness then show off our arm balances,” says Dee. “Cannabis-enhanced yoga should be slow and mindful. In my classes, students have their eyes closed most of the time, since it’s really about relaxing in an introverted way, without caring what others are doing with their bodies.” Yogi D agrees: “We do a slow flow of yoga poses intermingled with social conversation, laughter yoga, partner yoga and other playful elements. I encourage students to focus on conscious breathing, experiencing their bodies in the poses and finding a happy place in the stretch. Not enduring pain or discomfort – which I so often see people doing on and off their yoga mat. It's like you are stirring the sacred ganja plant throughout your being, and a deep, mellow body high settles in. The group energy in a weed yoga class is ecstatic.”
Of course, these teachers practise in areas where cannabis is legal. To my knowledge there are no 4:20 classes running in London, where I teach, but I am aware that some students turn up high to my (slow-paced) yin workshops.
“I view the plant as medicine,” explains Tom, who regularly attends my classes after smoking. “I love yoga without the weed but with the weed I just go to a different place, I feel calm, and more in my body and mind. I know it’s a weird thing to say as a lot of people associate getting high with getting out of their minds, but I associate it with getting into mine – it somehow allows me to access deep wells of both joy and grief.”
In her article "5 Reasons Yogis Shouldn’t Smoke Marijuana" Julie Phillips-Turner argues that the “calming” of the mind experienced with weed is more of a “numbing”. “We meditate to strengthen our minds, so that when we’re faced with difficult situations, we can focus and be calm and mindful of the situation,” she explains. “Consistent use of weed will lessen that capability because the mind will be used to feeling numb.” Additionally, she argues: “The feelings produced by use of marijuana is known in yoga as 'maya' or a veil of illusion. The use of marijuana is a sign that you are searching for a real life experience. Using an external source to assist with that experience is only masking the real experience that can be found within.”
Barbara Gordon, a senior yoga teacher who has taught for over 40 years echoes this: “Yoga already gets you completely high,” she explains. “Once you start doing a lot of yoga you find you don’t need any drugs!” And the world-famous yoga master, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, concurs: “By infusing ganja or some hallucinogenic drug, the chemical properties of the gross body change. The heart slows down, the breathing rate changes, the brain waves alter and the mind becomes calm and still… Is it not possible to arrive at the same point through Kriya Yoga?” he asks in his 1984 book Kundalini Tantra.
Many yoga teachers encourage a “pure” and “clean” life, excluding the use of all intoxicants. However, as Liz comments: “Try to fill a class with people under zero chemical influence (including caffeine, antihistamines, antidepressants, etc) and that class would probably be empty!”
Like anything, it’s largely about personal preference, intention, and portion control. If you don’t react well to cannabis or, for that matter, yoga, it’s probably best to stay clear; however, bad reactions don’t seem to be common among these teachers (aside from some anxiety – which I would argue most new students experience in any yoga class).
“Yoga and Ganja Yoga are just different – definitely neither is better,” says Yogi D. “For many yogis they prefer to do yoga sober, without any external stimulation. And that is perfect. But it's important not to judge others. Cannabis and yoga can be literally soul-altering but it's important to form the right intention, hang out with a great group of people and simply enjoy a conscious flow of yoga poses and meditation. Wonderful!”
Original feature on Refinery29UK
So this feature was nearly finished, with a completely different opening, when a woman I had just met at a party asked what I did for a living. I explained that I taught yoga and worked as a writer.
“Ah,” she said with a sage nod, looking me up and down, “so you have no fat on your body.”
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. And some variation of it is a very common one to be on the receiving end of as a yoga teacher.
But why? Why have we decided that yoga = thin? (I do have fat on my body FYI.) Where has this idea of the “yoga body” come from?
When I started practising – more than 20 years ago – I understood the yoga body only in relation to pictures of middle-aged Indian men, looking serious and focused. Now there are 126 million search results on Google for “yoga body”. And they almost all show the same thing: a young, thin, tanned, flexible woman, who is probably also beautiful and radiantly happy, and quite possibly semi-clothed on a beach. (There are also a few men who come into this category, invariably they have a top-knot.)
We’re at this strange juncture where yoga is both more inclusive and exclusive than ever. There is wide availability – with studios popping up by the minute and online classes gaining in popularity – but the sometimes eye-watering prices per class, combined with the tapered visual identity, have simultaneously made it feel much more intimidating and alienating.
Leaving aside the systemic issues around class, race, money and privilege (four different features in their own right), the image of yoga is painfully narrow. Yoga magazines, websites, advertising – they all echo the mainstream ‘perfect body’ fable, with images of people with model bodies combined with the flexibility of ballet dancers.
And then there is social media. London-based yoga teacher Becky Farbstein says: “I scroll through my social media feeds, full of yoga teachers, yoga practitioners, and other members of the health and fitness profession, and I feel like I'm paging through a digital version of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit issue. When I step away from the internet, I know I am healthy and strong, but in the myopia of social media, that perspective gets fuzzy.”
The thing is, this “fuzzy” perspective is really dangerous – just as mainstream advertising is – because we are excluding and alienating huge swathes of society from our visual world, perpetuating the ridiculous myth that the most important thing about a woman (and increasingly a man) is how they look. And – here’s the key – that above all else they must be thin.
“Here in the Western world we are obsessed with weight loss, which then translates over to yoga,” says teacher and BigGalYoga founder Valerie Sagun. “We don’t have to be thin (or even fit) to practise yoga. Making people think that you need to be thin to practise yoga is bullying and fat-shaming, and enforcing that if you don’t have a small body you are not wanted in the world.”
Yoga will give you a good body – in the sense that practised regularly it will increase strength, stamina, flexibility, balance, and lung capacity. It may very well lead to weight loss and body sculpting and all of the other things associated with the “yoga body” but, with that as the aim, you will probably miss out on what I think is one of the greatest gifts of yoga – the understanding and appreciation it gives you for your body.
At its very core, yoga asks you to connect (or for most of us, reconnect) with your body. It invites you to get to know yourself a little better – to develop awareness from the inside out, rather than view the self from the outside in. So it’s really, really sad that yoga has become yet another space in our society that has been taken over by a set idea of how our bodies should look. That it is being marketed and sold (make no mistake, it is now a multi-billion pound industry) as a product to help us “lose weight” or “get the perfect body”. This kind of thinking invariably leads to a deep disconnect from the body, resulting in precisely the opposite outcome of the aim of yoga.
This is something author Lauren Lipton is seeking to combat with her new book, Yoga Bodies. Featuring 80 different yoga practitioners of all ages, shapes, sizes, backgrounds and skill levels, Lauren created the book because she “know[s] so many people who could benefit from yoga, but it can be intimidating to those who have never tried it. People say, 'I can't do yoga because I'm not flexible' or 'I'm not in good enough shape for yoga'. I wanted to address every reason I could think of why people don't practise.”
Featuring yogis with larger bodies, disabilities (both visible and invisible) and yogis in their 90s, Lipton would like readers to “look through this book, find someone who looks or thinks like them and say, 'If that person can do yoga, so can I'."
Despite the efforts of women like Lauren, Valerie, and BoPo activists such as Jessamyn Stanley, depressing stories of teachers making larger or older students feel singled out are ten a penny. Kim, a 30-year-old copywriter, had a horrible experience at a recent aerial yoga class. “A new teacher asked me to move closer to her. I said I was fine and explained I'd been doing the class for six months, but she insisted that she needed to 'keep an eye on me'. She didn't move any of the slighter girls who had never actually done the class before. It was mortifying.” And John, a 53-year-old secondary school teacher explains: “I’ve done yoga for more than 20 years, but at almost every class with a new teacher I will be the only person handed blocks and bricks for support, even though I don’t need them. And I’m often asked if I’m ‘okay’. It feels condescending, though I try to just laugh it off.”
We make split-second and grossly unfair assumptions about people based on how they look, and yoga is no different. Even internationally acclaimed teacher Dana Falsetti has experienced “quite a bit of subtle discrimination” on account of her size. “When I take a class teachers assume I’m a beginner – none of them ever think I’m a teacher! But I recognise as a teacher – and someone living in this body – that these things are so ingrained, they don’t realise they are ostracising someone.”
Ingrained indeed. I know that we are all distinct and individual and I know that yoga is not about what you do on the mat but about how you treat people off it. I’ve taught 3-month-old babies and wheelchair-bound veterans, and I know that all you need is the breath and that physical asanas can be adapted to help any person of any age, body type, or skill level to find their own mindful, embodied practice. But still, like Farbstein, if I spend too much time on Instagram I begin to feel insecure and wonder whether I should lose a bit of weight or be branding myself as a “yoga goddess”, despite being fully aware that it is insane and misses the point of yoga altogether. There is nothing wrong with self-improvement, or striving to be a better, healthier, stronger version of yourself. However, if you’re losing sight of self-acceptance, and focussing only on the body, you’re increasing your self-absorption and narcissism, and moving further away from your authentic self. It’s the internal qualities that make a yogi! We know that, right?
Yes we do (I hope), but the thing is, yoga is now a brand and, like any good capitalist brand, it needs an image in order to make you feel inadequate and want to buy stuff. It’s hard to sell socks, after all. In the realms of wellness and spirituality we are firmly back to Naomi Wolf and The Beauty Myth, when we thought we’d come so far…
I arrived on my yoga mat as a young teenager with awful body-image problems, and those classes (which were categorically not full of skinny Lycra-clad girls and in fact included my 50-year-old father) were a safe space for me to practise and (unwittingly) develop self-love. It took many more years for me to put that into practice, but the seeds were sown in, and grew from, yoga.
If I were 12 now and coming to the practice today, I seriously wonder whether I would have the same experience. As the teachers from YogaWith comment: “Viewing Instagram images of uber-flexible girls in poses defying gravity one might question the therapeutic value of yoga.”
While writing this feature I asked my Facebook friends if anyone practised yoga and didn’t have a traditional “yoga body” and would like to talk to me. 30-odd people replied saying they would, and nearly every single one of them has a slim body. It was another huge eye-opener for me in terms of our collective body dysmorphia and society’s view of the “yoga body”.
The lessons? Curate your personal visual world wisely; demand more diverse representation and visibility from your external world; and finally, work keenly on your inner world. “We’re all so bogged down with superficial thoughts that we don’t even realise they are false,” says Dana. “Wake up and think critically! Increasing self-awareness for the individual is the first step to creating a more inclusive environment.”
Original feature on Refinery29UK
Some of my yoga or body image related writings