Candlelight Yoga vs. Diet/Exercise Culture

I attended my first Yoga class tonight, and I deeply enjoyed stretching my muscles in a way I’m not used to. I also enjoyed unplugging from the cares of this world (and my phone) for awhile!

I highly appreciated the non-competitive atmosphere of my Yoga class this evening. Our Western value system prizes productivity, accomplishment, and intensity above most other things. In the United Stares, working out is frighteningly similar to a job – specifically, a job in sales: We’re given daily and monthly targets (determined by ourselves or our personal trainers, but which are typically influenced by outside competition). And if we hit our numbers (on the scale, water intake, etc.) like good little worker bees, we’re rewarded by…:

1. Praise.

2. Promotions and increased perceived value, especially over those with lesser numbers, while those not on the “sales staff” at all [read: not participating in diet/fitness culture] are considered nonessential members whose contributions don’t deserve recognition or laud.

3. Financial bonuses (sometimes quite literally in cash from our employers; but also through things like better insurance rates and – if you’re a woman – cheaper clothing).

And while many people see exercise as a way to “unplug from the flow of external data” (Romanoff, 2017), the reality is that when we’re obsessed with hitting certain numbers (incline, speed, pounds lifted, calories burned, weight, body measurements, length of time spent working, etc), we’re not really unplugged from external data flow at all.

Gym culture also seemingly provides a sense of community and certain types of “support,” but the community is destabilized by competition and comparison. One day you’re doing everything right; the next day you’re criticized and shamed for not trying hard enough, gaining weight, eating the “wrong” foods, or doing a workout that’s “useless” [read: no longer in vogue based on its impact on physique or a biased and incomplete “study”].

This relates to my Yoga experience because it deeply contradicted Western diet and exercise culture. The instructor routinely said things like…

• There is no judgement here.

• Do what feels right for you.

• We’re looking for sensation, not pain. Pain is your body’s way of telling you to back off.

• You have other options [which were demonstrated] if this pose isn’t working for you.

• Connect with your body.

It was mind blowing and so totally foreign to me. It fostered a sense of safety and trust and self-awareness that isn’t present in push-through-the-burn exercises.

I also loved that we started the class by setting an intention for our Sunday practice. In other words, we weren’t asked to hit a goal set by someone who is looking to profit from us. My intention was to work mindfully on physical flexibility so that I can apply what I learned when unexpected situations arise this week. (Did you notice how my goal offers ongoing emotional and relational benefits rather than a temporary hit of endorphins to lessen the frustration of feeling bad about my body?)

I also found that the Yoga classroom is a bit of a creative space for me, which is so NOT possible when my consciousness is mentally screaming at me to push through another minute. Although I did my best simply to connect with my body and not other parts of my life – because it is important just to be aware of the vessel that houses your spirit – I found myself pondering the fact that restorative and candlelight Yoga could be incredibly powerful tools in eating disorder and body image recovery.

As you can see from my instructor’s comments, when done right, the class is gentle, nonjudgmental, and not focused on weight loss or physique alteration. Instead, it promotes body trust and flexibility, making it an emotionally and physically safe environment. I believe that these two elements are essential to healing the relationship between a person’s consciousness and their body – because people with EDs don’t trust their bodies, and they don’t know how to be flexible with fluctuating food options and desires or changes in the body’s appearance, weight, size, or abilities. The physical practice could, for many individuals, be a powerful object lesson.

My instructor also mentioned gratitude briefly, which is so important. For one thing, it’s absolutely insidious that it’s normal for us to criticize people’s bodies and comment on the weight fluctuations and diets of others, but it’s not normal for us to just say to our loved ones (let alone ourselves), “I’m really grateful for your body. I appreciate the space you take up in my life. I appreciate the way your body allows us to communicate.” I believe that if we shifted our focus from one of blame (my body has changed because I’m doing something wrong) to gratitude (my body is amazing for adapting to my needs and doing its best to carry me through life), we’d see a dramatic increase in happiness and body satisfaction – and probably a dramatic decrease in things like joint pain and stress. Gratitude would be especially central in a Yoga class that promotes ED recovery. We’re told from childhood up to shame and devalue bodies that don’t meet certain expectations, and we simply cannot undo that toxicity if we don’t learn to practice gratitude for our own bodies and others.

My soul honors your soul, and I honor the essential place you were created to hold in the universe. Namasté.

• • •

Article referenced: “The Consumerist Church of Fitness Classes” by Zan Romanoff

Photo Source:

(@ mynameisjessamyn)

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