Questioning the Body Beautiful

The following is excerpted from my contribution to the recently published anthology 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice. My essay was motivated by – and is my response to – the unquestioned assumptions of those who perpetuate the stereotypical imagery of the mainstream media in order to sell the physical practice of yoga-asana.

 

By Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio

In contemporary North American yoga, the physical postural practice of hatha yoga has commonly become synonymous with yoga. For most practitioners, when they say they practice yoga, what they really mean is that they practice asana. Recently, Yoga Journal asked its readers, “Where’s the most unusual place you’ve practiced yoga?” Both the question itself and answers given made it obvious that everyone was thinking of postures. If one adheres to the wider understanding of yoga as meditation, integrated practice, and yoked (unified) action, however, my response might be changing my daughter’s diaper in the vestibule of a Catholic church.

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The various yoga traditions all seem to agree that the major cause of Dukkha (suffering, discontent, unease, etc.) is Avidya, a word that’s often translated as “ignorance.” This translation implies some specific lack of knowledge. And while that may be so, it leaves aside the idea of “ignore-ance” or “denial,” concepts that come much closer to the literal translation of Avidya as “not-seeing.” Understood in this way, Avidya means to willfully deny or ignore issues, questions, or even ambiguities that may have uncomfortable implications for our actions, beliefs, and practices. We see only what makes us feel most immediately comfortable, and refuse to contemplate what does not.

Avidya is pervasive in the contemporary yoga world precisely because of its overly body-centric orientation. Contemporary yoga culture is marked by a widespread refusal to “see” troubling issues generated by its insistent celebration of bodies considered “beautiful” by dominant cultural standards – thin, toned, light-skinned, conventionally pretty young women with gymnastic-like skills in particular.

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The documentary film, Miss Representation, shows how the media’s emphasis on women’s appearance and sexual desirability locates the value of a woman in her appearance. This message is not lost on young boys who grow up to be men who only value women for their bodies – that is, as long as they look like the images they’ve been presented with by the media. Given such toxic cultural bombardment, is it any wonder that 90 percent of all junior and senior high school girls are on a diet, while only 15 percent of these girls are actually overweight? Or that 90 percent of American women report disliking their bodies?

To “not see” the significance of such powerful cultural realities constitutes Avidya. This remains true regardless of our intentions. We may sincerely believe that if advertisements featuring culturally iconic images of “beautiful bodies” are associated with yoga, then they will have only a positive effect. We may truly desire to “inspire” others to practice by advertising “the beauty of a body that practices regular yoga.” Such commitments beg the question, however, of whether reinforcing the already epidemic desire to conform to media-anointed standards of the “body beautiful” is truly compatible with yoga.

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While others have written extensively about the effects of advertising and the commodification of women’s bodies to sell product, what I wish to address here is an un- thinking, feel-good “celebration of the body” that has also been incorporated into contemporary yoga. I believe this seemingly positive celebration of the body is merely a specific cultural and historical manifestation of the shadow-side of hatha yoga and its historical tendency to fixate on the body.

As early as the 10th century, the Garuda-Purana, which the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad refers to as the “Fifth Veda,” warned that “the techniques of posture do not promote yoga. Though called essentials, they all retard one’s progress.” Now, that’s a pretty strong, unrestrained and perhaps even a bit damningly harsh statement. It’s asserting that a fixation on the physical, rather than being a mere distraction or diversion, can be a total and complete obstacle to liberation! That would mean that yoga as practiced and conceived of by the contemporary mainstream is actually an impediment to liberation. Today’s contemporary sell-out glorification of the body seems to prove this. In fact, many practitioners of popular yoga may have little, if any idea of Duhkha and the soteriological purpose of yoga practice to free us from it – and equal ignore-ance of the Duhkha their “feel-good” celebration actually perpetuates and encapsulates.

Yoga aims to break our identification with body or mind as “self.” The physically oriented approach to Hatha yoga so prevalent today all too often strengthens practitioners’ identification with the body – what it looks like, and what one can or cannot do with it. There is a strong focus on attaining idealized, and ever more “challenging” or “advanced” postures – and the concomitant pride that comes from doing so. When ego is invested in what the body does, injuries are often the result. There is also the discouragement many feel when they realize that they simply cannot do a posture. Also, of course, is the reality that whether from age, injury, or illness (not to mention death) one day you will not be able to practice the postures you may have taken pride in achieving. What happens then?

When we unthinkingly accept the pop cultural valuation of “the body beautiful” that permeates contemporary yoga, we stop looking deeper.

We stop at the surface of appearance and paradoxically lose intimacy with the body as body. Yoga opens the door to true intimacy by questioning our unconscious assumptions. It asks, “Is the body beautiful?” Really? Yoga asks us to look further. Without denying its beauty, can you ask, “Is the body only beautiful?”

[The rest of my essay investigates this question and proposes what I think is a more nuanced and balanced view, based primarily upon the practice of the first satipatthana or “establishment of mindfulness” taught by the Buddha: the body. I argue that if we don’t take the time to explore this question we may miss the radical point practice is designed to awaken us to.]

If we merely stop and proclaim the beauty of the human body, we fail to go deeper. We fail to see reality and get caught in grasping and clinging. Freedom – the purpose of yoga practice, after all – is to go beyond such conditioning. This does not mean that we stop appreciating the human form. What is changed is the quality of our relationship to the body, and to all beings. Going beyond the surface, we reach a much deeper intimacy. Dogen, the great 14th century Zen master wrote, “zazen (sitting meditation) is the investigation of the self. Investigating the self, we forget the self. In forgetting the self, we become intimate with all things.”

Read the full essay now by purchasing a digital copy of 21st Century Yoga here.

I invite you to read the rest of my essay, as well as the 11 other phenomenal essays in this book, which discuss contemporary North American yoga and its relationship to issues including recovery, body image and spirituality. You can learn more about 21st Century Yoga by visiting the website and purchase a copy either in print or Kindle edition. 

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Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio is a Yoga Teacher, and Zen Buddhist Dharma Teacher ordained by Korean Zen Master, Samu Sunim. His book, Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind is the first to apply the Buddha’s Mindfulness Meditation teachings to yogasana practice. He maintains two blogs: www.mindfulness-yoga.blogspot.com and www.zennaturalism.blogspot.com and has published in various media including Yoga Journal, Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, and Namskar. Based in Tucson, where he lives with his wife, Monica and their daughter, Giovanna, he travels worldwide, leading workshops and retreats. Please contact him through www.mindfulnessyoga.net

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About 21st Century Yoga

A provocative collection of essays, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice explores North American yoga and its connection to issues including body image, addiction recovery, and contemporary spirituality. Written by experienced practitioners who are also yoga teachers, psychotherapists, political activists, and interfaith ministers, 21st Century Yoga is one of the first books to examine yoga as it actually exists in the U.S. and Canada today. To purchase your copy in print or e-book edition, click here .