Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is yoga a practice of body-love or body-repulsion?

James wrote an interesting guest post on Claudia's blog about the disgusting-ness of the yoga body. I'm not prepared to say that the yoga body is disgusting, not least because at least some of his descriptions (especially the part about sweating) aptly describe what my body goes through during yoga practice :-) But his post has got me thinking about some other issues related to our conceptions of the yoga body.

As James points out, there has been a lot of discussion about the yoga body lately. It seems to me that there are two major streams in this discussion:

(1) There is a certain kind of body somebody would or should come to have if he or she does yoga regularly and with a certain degree of intensity. The major characteristics of such a body include: being lithe, slim, flexible, strong, well-toned, healthy glow, etc.

(2) All bodies are beautiful, whatever their characteristics. The goal of yoga practice is to get you into a state of mind where you can love your body for what it is, whatever its actual physical characteristics happen to be.

It seems to me that there is a certain tension between (1) and (2). It is no doubt possible for somebody to subscribe to both (1) and (2): Somebody may both have a body that is lithe, slim, flexible, etc., and at the same time love his or her body for what it is. However, I perceive that very often, people who subscribe to (2) tend to downplay or even deny the importance of (1), claiming that if you love your body for what it is, it really wouldn't matter whether it happens to be lithe, slim, flexible, or not-lithe, not-slim, and not-flexible. Conversely, people who subscribe to (1) may also downplay the importance of (2).

Or maybe there is no tension at all. Maybe it's just me: In which case, I thank you for indulging me as to read this post so far. But assuming it's not just me, assuming that there is indeed such a tension between (1) and (2), the question would be: Why is there such a tension?

One possible answer may be that (1) is a by-product of the westernization of yoga. Some people claim that the fixation with asana in yoga practice in the west, along with the accompanying preoccupation with how bodies should look in various asanas, has contributed to an unbalanced and unhealthy preoccupation with certain supposedly desirable physical traits, such as being lithe, slim, flexible, etc. Such a preoccupation is something that is frowned upon by the established yoga tradition, because it leads to an obsession with something that is inherently impermanent (the physical body), and detracts from the greater goal of yoga practice, which is to achieve union and integration with that which is infinite.

I think there may be some truth to this view. But I feel that this doesn't fully explain this tension. After all, the physical practice of yoga, by its very nature, places a certain degree of emphasis on developing the physical body, and I get the sense that a significance part of the established yoga tradition would regard an out-of-shape or diseased body as something that needs to be worked on and improved upon, in much the same way in which our modern sensibility would. For instance, B.K.S. Iyengar writes, "The body is your temple.  Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in." In his latest newsletter, "Statics and Dynamics of Asana" (see Grimmly's latest post for the full text),  Srivatsa Ramaswami also relates Krishnamacharya's remarks about the yoga body:

"he [Krishnamacharya] said that the Yogi should be thin or krisa.  One
should not be overweight

Overweight is bad
Lean (muscle) or fat.

Carelessly developed fat bellies and cultivated oversized biceps one
should guard against.

In light of the above, to simply say that (1) is a by-product of western-asana-fixation is to gloss over a very complex issue. Indeed, if both Iyengar's and Krishnamacharya's remarks (as reported by Ramaswami) are to be taken seriously, we would have to say that the established yoga tradition, rather than frowning upon (1), actually played a considerable role in contributing to its prevalence in the value systems of contemporary yogis.

Nor can we safely say that (2) is endorsed unconditionally by the established yoga tradition. In his post, James relates something that he learnt from Ramaswami's workshop:

"he [Ramaswami] describes the roots of “yoga”... as not “union” (as in Bhakti Yoga) but “separation” of mind from pure consciousness. And later he relates this to the niyama for “Cleanliness” in that you realize how repulsive the body is through the act of cleansing it. In other words, the feelings of repulsion you learn towards your body during the process of yoga (and everything underneath that massive umbrella) help you separate your mind from it. Which in turn helps your mind separate from pure consciousness."

Assuming that Ramaswami's teaching accurately represents what Krishnamacharya actually taught, the only reasonable conclusion we can make here would be that the established yoga tradition quite certainly does not endorse (2). In other words, Krishnamacharya quite certainly does not believe that "all bodies are beautiful, whatever their characteristics", or that "the goal of yoga practice is to get you into a state of mind where you can love your body for what it is". Indeed, the opposite is necessary if one is to be able to separate mind from consciousness: One must first separate the mind from the body. To do so, one must arouse a feeling not of unconditional love towards the body, but repulsion.

So it appears that the established yoga tradition, as represented by the teachings of Krishnamacharya, do not advocate a teaching of body-love, but one of repulsion towards the body. I understand that such a line isn't exactly conducive to selling glossy magazine covers, but, well, it is what it is.


  1. Hmmm... well, I guess the tradition would be "health of the body" which could include "love" so that the body stays healthy... there was a lot of emphasis on the course on how Krishnamacharya got to live so long and healthy thanks to pranayama... so I guess is more of a "using the body as a tool" but seeing it for what it really is, just the medium, not the goal. Thanks for the link :-) I mentioned to James that we would likely get Nobel's perspective soon :-)

  2. Puke, poop, sweat, and snot etc. -- these are just left-over stuff after we consumed the nourishing parts of food, air and water. Oh yah and they may also contain toxins/dead cells/bacteria/viruses too. Isn't it better to improve the excretion efficiency of these stuff rather than storing them in our body by not exercising and not eating our vegetables, and pretend we're clean because we rarely ever sweat or poop?

    I say this only because I actually know people who avoid veggies and exercise. They either practice "emotional self-love" by doing (eating) whatever feels good and avoiding whatever feels difficult, or they practice "superficial self-image love" by eating next to nothing to achieve the skinny look minus the sweating.

    Like Claudia said, yoga is self-love from a health point of view.

  3. Yes, Claudia, I think you are right that the key lies in correctly perceiving that the body is a valuable medium or vehicle for living a self-realized existence, but that body well-being is not the ultimate end-goal. Yes, how can I let such an interesting topic slip by without adding my two cents' to it?

  4. Yyogini, hmm... it's too bad that there are people who practice only "emotional self-love" or "superficial self-image love". Yes, it is better to let the bad stuff out, even if one looks and smells disgusting while doing so, than to keep it all in and possibly allow it to poison one later down the road.

  5. According to me,Yoga is only one of the best exercise for live healthy & fit.It's have not any kind of bad effect.
    Yoga Teacher Training

  6. Claudia, ( and James) Did Ramaswami actually use the word repulsive here? I've been reading 'disgusting' in James' post as a kind of ewwww, yuck, usage, kind of half (or mostly) joking.
    I'd been thinking how different the 'yogic' reading I've done was from say the Christian tradition where there can be that 'sins of the flesh', body as unclean thread. In that context, disgust and repulsion can have a kind self-hatred element, that I didn't find in in the (yogic) literature. I saw the yogi's as just practical, a body is what it is, matter of fact attitude. Found that quite refreshing actually.
    So i'd be surprised if Ramaswami had used a word as strong as repulsive and am wondering if that's James' word in the context of his 'yucky' post.

    Quite interesting, the idea of yoga coming into contact with the background Christian cultural context of attitudes towards the body, only touches on the borderlines of my area but be interesting to explore it. Wonder who's writing on this, somebody must be.

  7. Interesting point, Grimmly. I am also curious as to whether Ramaswami actually used the word "repulsive", as opposed to something more neutral.

    I think it is true that the yogic literature does not promote the sort of attitude of disgust and repulsion colored by self-hatred towards the body that we commonly associate with the Christian tradition. But nevertheless, the it seems to me that the yogic literature also does not have that sort of positive embracing attitude towards the body that the tantric traditions do. This, at least, is my impression; I'm out of my depth here. Anybody out there wants to fill in the gap here, and edify us?