In recent months it has been gratifying to notice that the models featured on Yoga Journal‘s cover and the articles within are no longer exclusively pencil thin. More sizes and shapes are being shown. There was even a short article in the November 2016 issue that featured North Carolina-based teacher and Instagram star Jessamyn Stanley which noted that she is “changing the perception of what a yogi looks like.” Although the magazine itself may be responding to pressure from readers to acknowledge the “real people” who do yoga, their advertisers have not gotten the same message. The vast majority of people shown in the magazine are still overwhelmingly white, young, female and able to look like they are handling difficult poses with ease. So they don’t yet get any real points for diversity.
Of course, the magazine wants to demonstrate the most ideal version of the poses on display. There is something to be said for this approach since anyone using one of these images to experience a pose without the benefit of a live teacher could run the risk of becoming injured if the pose is not executed properly. Also it’s probably safe to say that the magazine is generally geared toward people who at least have some experience with yoga. But sometimes this can be a disservice to ordinary practitioners or prospective practitioners who view these images and think they are doing the poses wrong or, worse, that they could not possibly do a pose the way it is shown so why practice yoga at all? Yoga must be the exclusive province of young, thin girls who look great in tights. How many times have we as teachers tried to encourage a new participant who is discouraged before they even try? “I can’t do yoga,” this person laments, “I’m too old and I’m not flexible”.
Please understand that I don’t mean to single out Yoga Journal. In fact, they are hardly the worst offenders. It is clear that most magazines are equally if not more guilty of displaying images that few can emulate, with or without the product being hyped. And in defense of Yoga Journal’s approach, they usually provide modifications in their descriptions of poses. Also there are many articles which describe the philosophy of yoga which extends beyond physical movement, providing a guide for taking the concepts of yoga off the mat and using it to improve your life. Many of these implore the reader to celebrate what they can do and recognize even small improvements rather than lamenting perceived limitations. As an example, one article talks about honoring “ourselves for our small accomplishments—even for the simple fact that we have shown up on our mats—rather than berating ourselves for the things we can’t do.” Another talks about focusing on the potential you have in your practice to learn about yourself. These are common and important themes that take us beyond touched up photographs to the real world of our everyday lives.
Still we live in a culture that invites comparison and envy. A concept of youth and beauty is celebrated as ideal that has a tendency to make anyone who doesn’t measure up feel inadequate. In everyday life this can manifest as resistance to even trying. What if I can’t actually do what everyone else can do? Suppose I look really silly? Will everyone think less of me? Worrying about how we appear to others can keep us from doing what’s best for ourselves. No matter how many times I tell new attendees in my classes to avoid watching the other participants, everyone still worries about how they look to other people in the class. The good news is that most of the other participants are so focussed on themselves that they have no interest in watching anyone else. Because yoga and Pilates are both practices that encourage connecting the mind with the body, anyone who is truly making that effort won’t be able to notice anyone else. There are simply too many things to pay attention to if one really wants to complete a pose or exercise.
Neither yoga nor Pilates is about comparison or competition or trying to look like some perceived ideal. They are about making friends with your own body and recognizing it’s miraculous abilities. Every effort you make toward this goal is an important accomplishment. It is helpful to remember that everything is temporary. Things you (or the person next to you in class) can do today will be different tomorrow or the next day or next week or next year. It is best not to get too attached to any particular way of doing things since it will probably change. There are days when I can stand on one foot indefinitely and other days when I have to brace myself with even the slightest effort at balancing. Nothing is permanent. Some days you may be especially tired or feel particularly sore. There is still usually some type of movement you can do, so try to experience what’s possible today without worrying about yesterday, tomorrow or anyone else’s expectations. We’re usually wrong about other people’s perceptions anyway, so worrying about that is just a waste of precious time. Every moment you devote to comparing yourself to someone else is a moment that’s passing you by, never to be seen again. Accepting and believing in who and what you are on this day at this moment is all that really matters.
An article on the Chopra Center’s website titled “How to Just Be You During Yoga Practice” provides some additional ideas for staying in the moment including approaching your practice with an open mind and being curious rather than fearful. Do the best you can with what you have at the time that you are doing it and it will always be the right thing.