Women and men we all have different relationships with our bodies. Some of us might be happy with our shape, size, hair colour, weight, but for many people there is something that we would like to change. Sometimes we might say “I would feel okay if I had smaller calves, or a different shape bottom and so on. This month I want to consider body image and how regular yoga practice can influence this.
What is body image?
The terminology body image was first used by an Austrian psychoanalyst in the 1930’s. Although there is no single definition, it covers these elements:
- Beliefs – what you believe about your appearance
- How you feel about your body
- How you sense and control your body movements
The beliefs we have about our body is often distorted – sometimes you might look at yourself in a mirror and see something different to what others see. It’s almost like looking at yourself with grey-tinted or shape-shifting glasses. Our beliefs can be influenced by what others say, from growing up to someone who we spend lots of time with. The media can also play a part in this. Personally I find the images of “yogis” portrayed on many social media pages (you know the ones I mean – super-bendy, stick thin women, standing upside down balancing on their little finger) challenging and disempowering. I have also heard the phrase “yoga body”, which means the same thing.
Why does body image matter?
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, people with low body image are more likely to develop an eating disorder or develop low self-esteem, depression or other mental health problems. (external link to National Eating Disorder Association). A low body image might also affect your relationships with others or the career path that you chose.
How can yoga help enhance our body image and our life?
As a yoga teacher, over the years, I have seen many hundreds of people practicing yoga. Their body shapes have ranged from tall and bony, to small and roly, to average height with hunched shoulders, to petite with no flexibility and obese with hyper-mobility (and all the combinations!). No single person´s body has been the same.
The difference on how people move in the class that I have witnessed comes down to how the person feels about themself. A large part of this is body image.
There are many practical elements of yoga that can help with body image:
- Stand balanced
In our yoga practice we learn to stand, feet stable, head balanced, shoulders down, open chest. We can use this strong, stable stance off the yoga mat, in our everyday life. Police men and women are trained how to stand, so their stance is balanced and stable. How they stand exudes confidence and reliability.
- Walk tall
Regular practice of yoga can lead to longer term changes in your physical posture. You might start to notice that your shoulders start to broaden (all those downward dogs!). The tone of your body will start to change as the muscles lengthen. You learn to plant your feet onto the mat solidly and reach the top of your head up to the sky. As we practice the movements and flow between asanas, your coordination can improve. In time, our movements off the mat become smoother, coordinated.
- Inhabit your body
In yoga we learn to become present in our body. As we move into and out from asanas you are encouraged and reminded to truly feel all parts of your body, from your feet to the top of your head.
- Breathe completely
An important part of yoga practice is our breath. Most yoga teachers will remind you to breathe, fully into your lungs and upper body for the whole practice. Breathing is affected by how we feel and in turn can alter how we feel. Think about the last time you were scared – I bet you held your breath, or were shallow breathing? Regular breathing, as practiced in yoga, helps to bring calmness to the body and mind, making decisions easier and engaging our rational brain that can start to let go of mad thoughts.
- Accept you as you are
One of the teachings from yoga is to be you, to accept you as you are.
Other things you can do to enhance body image
In addition to regular yoga practice, there are other things you can do to help enhance your body image.
Affirmations are short positive statements, said in the present tense. Working with affirmations can help some people to alter their body image. We recently reviewed Louise Hay’s book You can heal your life, in which she discussed how to use affirmations. Take a look if you are interested and want to find out more.
- Be realistic, take action
If you are overweight and unhappy about it, then consider a change in your diet. Make the small changes first. Come on retreat and try some plant-based food! Finding your inspiration can also help – do things that you love, things that inspire you. Read this month’s article finding your inspired path here.
Yoga retreat at La Crisalida
Yoga is an important part of the programme here at La Crisalida health and wellbeing retreats. We offer different styles of yoga each week – read more about yoga classes here. Coming on a retreat is a great way to kick-start a regular yoga practice or to deepen your practice. Find out more about yoga retreats here.