Yoga for Runners?

yoga011 runnersWhen I first took up yoga sixteen years ago running was not a part of my world. In my view then, runners were always nursing injuries. We had a few runners in our yoga class, and I remember clearly when one of them asked a senior Iyengar instructor who had come to do an intensive workshop with us about running. The student was having some hamstring issues and wondered what she could do to address them. The senior teacher said, “Stop running.”

But now I love running, and I’ve reconnected with yoga. So when a promotion from my hot yoga studio showed up in my inbox advertising a “Yoga for Runners” workshop, I was on it faster than you can say, “warrior series, anyone?” I recruited Anita to attend the Saturday afternoon workshop with me.

It was one of those cold days in early spring, so a couple of hours in the hot room felt welcome.  We got there a bit early, with time to do my favourite thing–some minutes of quiet savasana (corpse pose, often spilling over into a nap) on the mat before class.

The session started with the instructor giving us an overview of his running history. For a young guy, he had quite a few marathons behind him already. He told a credible story about how yoga had helped him with his running, much of it having to do with mental focus.

My real curiosity was: what does yoga for runners actually look like? Is it any different from yoga for non-runners? We did some familiar poses: “runner’s lunge,” the warrior series, downward dog, pigeon. But in the end, and I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise, I didn’t learn anything new about yoga and its specific application to running.

That’s not to fault the workshop. If a runner who had never done yoga before attended the workshop, then it might have opened them up to a new way of conditioning the body, opening the hips, being present through discomfort, paying attention to your body, and so on.

There are all sorts of good reasons for runners to do yoga. It’s a popular topic on running blogs. For example: “Why Runners Should Do Yoga”; “25 yoga poses that will make you a better runner”; “How yoga can help your running”; and “The benefits and effects of yoga for runners.”

So it’s not as if yoga for runners is a new idea (despite what my senior Iyengar teacher had to say). The articles just cited list all sorts of benefits runners can gain through yoga:

  • reduce stress
  • ease pain
  • build strength and flexibility in the core, quads, and hip flexors
  • build tenacity and learn to manage uncomfortable emotions
  • reducing risk of repetitive strain by lengthening muscles that running tends to shorten over time
  • injury prevention
  • total body conditioning
  • boost mental acuity and body awareness
  • increase range of motion
  • improve balance and stablity
  • learn to practice conscious breathing

I don’t deny those benefits. And I felt great after the workshop.

But the idea of yoga specifically for runners is misleading. Yes, runners can get a lot out of yoga. Just about anyone can gain something from yoga. So if you’re a runner and you haven’t tried yoga, go for it. No need to wait for a special workshop.

 

 

Muscles and Aging Women’s Bodies

I loved Nanette’s post about strength training and the feminine ideal a couple of weeks ago, and I have to admit that it made me long for those days as a grad student in my twenties when I used to work out at the gym a lot and, like Nanette, I could literally see the results. If you didn’t see Nanette’s post, here she is and this is what it’s like to have a buff, young body that shows your effort:

nanette Back shotI know we’re not all about looks here, and for all sorts of reasons. I’ve talked openly about the inspirational disvalue of fitspo. But oh how fabulous those back muscles look.

Lots of us aren’t in our twenties anymore. And lots of us have bodies that never really did show the fruits of our labor in quite that same dramatic way (if at all) in the first place. For women with aging bodies, much of the mental work goes into accepting that we may never look the way we think we should, should have (or wish we would or would have) or we may not be able to maintain the body we had in our twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, etc.

We need to let go of some of those more superficial dreams because hanging onto an appearance ideal is the biggest indicator of who is going struggle with aging. Check out Sam’s post about this topic here.

We don’t have to fight aging. Instead, we can age well. See what Sam has to say about that here.

I’ve been reflecting on all of this lately because, not suprisingly for a woman in her fifties, I have lots of friends in their fifties too. And we all have thoughts about aging. Lots of “battle” language in my conversations with friends these days as they continue to fight their bodies.

I’ve already sworn off talking about people’s weight loss goals and diets with them. Not interested.

But I realize too that, true to the challenge Sam and I set for ourselves in 2012 when we started the blog, taking weight loss and body composition out of the equation, I am in fact the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I feel pretty awesome. This week, another friend of mine, also in her fifties and also the fittest of her life, came with her partner to spend some time with us for a few days on our sailboat in the Bahamas.

We were super active, walking, hiking, swimming, kayaking, and even taking in a yoga class on the beach one day. We talked about how hard we work to stay strong and physically healthy these days, and also how energized and committed we feel to our respective routines. Being on vacation, it didn’t even cross our minds not to stay active. These things just evolved as part of each day.

Part of that “battle” language I talked about just now has to do with rejecting the aging body.  We are told that at a certain age, our bodies become “unsightly.” I swear someone invented the tankini to shame older women into ditching their two piece bikinis so no one would have to look at our bellies. If, as Nanette says, the feminine ideal is for women to be soft and demure and weak, the older woman is supposed to be even softer, weaker, and more invisible.

Not too long ago, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter lists of things that that women “of a certain age” should not wear.  According to this article:

Our bodies change and in many cases not for the better. Arms don’t have the muscle tone that they used to have and totally sleeveless tops show this is off so well. This will be equally true of thin woman as those who are overweight.

If these articles had their way, we would be walking that fine edge between being too frumpy and dressing in an age-appropriate way.  And no one is spared–the fat and the thin are equally at risk of getting it all wrong. But that was before it became clear that those women were a force to be reckoned with, responding with a loud and resounding “f**k that!”

The mental work of overcoming internalized and externally imposed expectations about how we are supposed to look has a huge impact on our ability to feel good in the bodies we have, no matter how the passing of time may affect how we look. I’ve heard lots of people say, and I believe it to be true, that body confidence is a lot more attractive, sexy even (and yes, we get to keep being sexy and get to — gasp — keep having sex), than even the most objectively perfect-looking body of an insecure person (remember: the more wedded we are to our looks, the tougher it is to age).

Anyway, if there’s one thing Cindi and I rocked this week it was body confidence. Why? Because both of us feel strong and healthy and energized by what we’re doing. We may not have tons of it, but both of us have some muscle that we didn’t have a few years ago and we feel it. Here’s Cindi, rocking her new found pipes on the beach.

My friend Cindi, looking awesome after beach yoga and a long swim in the ocean.

My friend Cindi, looking awesome after beach yoga and a long swim in the ocean.

And here we are after a bit of a hike to see “the monument” at the top of the ridge, down to the beach on the other side, and then back over again, on our way to the long and deserted beach that ranks as my favourite place to go swimming in the entire world. Smooth white sand, soft surf (on the calmer days), and clear turquoise colored water.

Cindi and I, expressing our trees with enthusiasm from atop the ridge. Photo credit: Jan Hertsens.

Cindi and I, expressing our trees with enthusiasm from atop the ridge. Photo credit: Jan Hertsens.

If Sam is right that aging is a lifestyle choice, it’s a lifestyle choice we’re not choosing to make right now, at least not in that way.  If you’re an older woman whose body isn’t quite the lean machine it once was, or maybe never was, then maybe it’s time to make the choice to love what you have and work it to its best potential.

I’m a bit squishier than my younger self, with the muscle I have hiding under a less lean physique, but I’m feeling strong and vibrant. And life is good. I can still do yoga. I can do squats, lunges, bench presses, dips, and am coming close to being able to complete a full pull-up for the first time in my life (stay tuned for a progress report when that day finally comes). Not to mention (but I will) the triathlons, half marathons, marathons…

We may be getting older, but we are not ready for those tankinis yet, unless that’s what we want, because as the Huff Post rebuttle to the ridiculous idea that people get to police our clothing choices says:

You are over 50 for fuck’s sake. Wear whatever you want. If you’ve made it to 50 and still need to consult articles on how to dress appropriately then you are so missing out on one of the best things about being over 50. One of the best things about getting older is realizing that we don’t have to spend our energy worrying what other people think and we get to be comfortable in our own skin…

 

 

What has happened to my Yoga class? (Guest post)

‘Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose.’
Vanda Scaravelli 

 

When I first thought of writing this article, I struggled as to how to get my point across without sounding like I was whining about how things have changed.  Change can be a good thing.  Some of the changes I have seen over the years have made Yoga more accessible to those who would have never attempted it in the past, which is of course, a good thing. So then, if the changes have brought good things then what is the point of bringing up the things that aren’t so good about what I like to call the “Lululemonization of Yoga”?  Well, I think bringing the not so good things to the forefront can also be a good thing and that hopefully we can be made aware of and will, hopefully change our views and actions.

Now, I know there will be those who will not be happy with my title.  I am not blaming Lululemon on the demise of Yoga, but there is a correlation between the rise of Lululemon paralleling the rise the Yoga in Canada and the United States.

I began practicing Yoga in 1998.  I had been injured running and saw a poster on a local telephone pole for Yoga at the church in my neighbourhood in Hamilton.  At that point in time, I believe there were one or two Yoga studios in all of Hamilton and maybe a few classes at local recreation centres. After moving the chairs out of the way at St. Cuthbert’s, the ambiance was perfect for Yoga.   The teacher was fresh out of her teacher training and was warm and welcoming.  She doted on each and every one of us as if we were the only students in her class.  The class was filled with a diverse group of mainly women, although there were a couple of men in the class even at that time, and of varying size, shape, and athletic ability.  The hour and a half long Hatha class was anything but slow moving.  Although Hatha Yoga is labelled often as gentle, the class was challenging but non-harming, which I fear is missing from today’s typical repertoire in most Yoga classes, my own included.

At the time when I began my practice, Yoga was still a fringe activity that was not a ‘workout’ enough for most people.  Yoga was for the old throwbacks from when the first wave of Yoga made its way to the west in the 60’s or for those who were looking for some stress relief.  As the years went by I saw the classes become more popular, which is when I first noticed the other trend beginning; the rise of the Lululemon.  Admittedly, at first I thought the gear was cool.  Although it was expensive, I thought it was great that Yoga was growing in popularity and everything that I loved about it would spread like wild fire to the public.  My preaching about what I was getting out of my own classes would finally be understood.  When I said, ‘I do Yoga’, I wouldn’t be looked at with a questioning stare, but others would be able to comprehend where I was coming from when I talked about Yoga.  What was so wrong about Lululemon?

In 2006, I began teaching Yoga after receiving my teacher training certification from Sheridan College.  This was a two year, night school program that was very comprehensive and included 4 units of philosophy as well as asana work.  I started my teaching by instructing classes for many different offices on their lunch hours as part of employee health promotion initiatives.  The students were eager and very open to learn.  They were looking for stretching, strengthening, but mainly for stress relief.  They were surprised when they would find some of the poses challenging and we often talked afterwards about the different poses and what the benefits of each were.  The students were warm and welcoming, much like my first teacher was.  There was no Lululemon worn at any of these classes.  Coincidence? Maybe.

Then came the emergence of Hot Yoga.

About 5 years ago, I attended my first hot yoga class.  Now, this was not a traditional Bikram class, which yes, is supposed to be hot.  Bikram was developed to mimic the hot, humid, weather of India for those who were not able to practice there.  The heat, they also believe allows for the body to sweat out toxins.  Lululemon was fast to jump on this band wagon because it meant a whole new line up for sexy new Yoga clothes.  Soon after that, some studios stopped offering not hot classes as the popularity rose for the sweat filled, music thumping, Cirque De Soleil type classes.  In fact, if you didn’t offer hot Yoga, your studio was soon falling behind the times.  Now we see studios that offer no traditional Hatha Yoga at all and only offer their own brand of Yoga taught by teachers that are only trained by them.

Fast forward almost 10 years and if I allow myself to look back, I have mixed feelings about this Yoga evolution. Whether I am a student in a class at the local studio (one of at least 10 in my end of the city, not including the classes available the gym and rec centres), or teaching at a studio, Lululemon is present at each and every one of them.  As a student, I have had teachers who have minimal training taking us through poses with the exuberance of a drill sergeant, only to have people praise them for the great ‘workout’ they just had.   The feel of the class is dramatically different from the St.Cuthbert’s classes I once attended.  I feel that the warm and welcoming openness is lost in the sea of spandex and crop tops.  My own practice alters during these classes as I force my body into poses it has no right being in, ignoring old injuries all for the sake of fitting into the model Yoga student profile, complete with Lululemon ensemble.

As a teacher, my classes have changed as well, to a more Vinyasa (sequence) filled class to ensure that my students get what they are paying for; a workout.  I reflect on this evolution and feel disappointed with myself.  I have allowed the pressure to ‘perform’ cloud my judgement of how I would like my classes to be.  The Lululemonized class I teach now is not the same as it was when I first began.  When the guilt overwhelms me and I go back to my roots and how I was taught, more often than not, there is a student or two leaving never to return to my time slot.  The class was not fast enough.  The class was not challenging enough.  The class was not advanced enough; at least in their heads it wasn’t.  I can’t really blame them.  The Yoga they started with is not the same as the one I did but isn’t it my job to show them all Yoga can give them?  Am I just as guilty as Lululemon because I am forcing myself to fit in to not only their clothes, but their version of what Yoga is?

But from this evolution, can we learn anything?

I find that lately, perhaps because of this guilt, I make sure I instruct my students to attend many different classes.  I express all of their individual benefits, but encourage them to welcome Yoga of all types into their practices, just as Yoga is for all students. I reiterate to them that the mind must listen to the body, instead of the other way around. Most of all I try, and will continue to tell those who ask, that Yoga is just as much for the mind as it is for the body.  If we are moving mindlessly through sequence after sequence, then we are missing out on so much that Yoga can give us.

Sure Lululemon can’t be held responsible for the guilt in my own practice, nor can I point the finger at their clothing for what I see as a slide in the purity of Yoga, but I change the way I teach.  Change is good, after all.

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Nicole Jessome lives in Hamilton, Ontario where she can be found running in the trails or down at the waterfront. Nicole has completed many 5km and 10 km races along with 9 Around the Bay 30km road races. When she isn’t at work, she is teaching Hatha and Vinyasa Yoga, baking and writing for cravelife.org.

 

Why Yoga Needs Levels

Yoga practice, tree concept for your designA rant with the wonderful title “Namaste Bitches” came our way yesterday. I love the juxtaposition of the traditional yoga closing “namaste” — translated from Sanskrit to English it means something like: “may the light in me honor the light in you” — with the aggressive dissing, “bitches.”

So what is the author’s complaint?  Well, it’s a resentful diatribe against “the bullshit that has tarnished the beautiful practice of Yoga, the real benefits of eating for health and the elegance of living a more gentle, inclusive life.”

The lightning rod for her misery is the yoga studio. Yoga, according to her dictionary, is supposed to be this:

Yoga: a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation.

We’ll overlook for now that it’s a bit more complex than that and that it depends which dictionary you consult. But the kind of yoga we’re most fixated on in the West (and in this article) is the physical kind of yoga, namely, hatha yoga. We short-form that to “yoga” in this part of the world, and maybe that’s part of the problem. But that’s for another day.

The complaint is that her yoga studio, far from attracting practitioners who are interested in this peaceful liberation of self, is a magnet for mean girls.

Here it is:

If you have been to a Yoga studio, you know what I am referencing, you have heard them. Sadly, sometimes the instructors are just as shitty. Yoga is a practice, not a fucking competition. I should be able to forego the $200.00 yoga pants and show up in whatever the hell I please. I should be able to gradually improve the yoga postures as my body strengthens and not feel intimidated by the voices of the Namaste Bitches in the back, muttering about how they should have different classes for people who are not very good at yoga. As God is my witness, the next time I hear anything like that directed at me or anyone in the class, I will purposely turn around and raise my middle finger and utter in the most peaceful voice; “Namaste this, Bitch”.

When we posted this on our Facebook page yesterday, the vast majority of people said, “that has not been my experience.” Nor has it been mine.  And I don’t know that I would continue to frequent a yoga studio where more experienced students tried to shame the novices.  It’s not just “not yogic.” It’s rude and disrespectful.

Of course not everyone who takes a yoga class is full of respect and non-judgment for those around them. But seriously, maybe try a different studio if the one you go to gets you that riled up.

I started doing yoga way back before it was trendy.  You couldn’t buy $100 yoga pants when I started, let alone $200 yoga pants.  Every year my instructor took our orders for black Danskin leggings, we gave her our size and our cheques. She got a bulk discount on the shipping. And then a few weeks later, after we’d all but forgotten, the delivery arrived and we all got our new yoga pants.

The proliferation of yoga studios and yoga fashion kind of crept up on us through from the mid- to late-2000s to now. I get that there are lots of things to rant about whenever something pure and sacred has much that is good commodified right out of it.

After over a decade of Iyengar yoga, taught by an exceptionally experienced teacher according to the strict requirements of Iyengar certification (I’ve written about the quality of instruction here), I had some difficulty grasping the approach at the local hot yoga studio. What was the problem?  They had no sense of levels.

Now don’t get me wrong. It didn’t matter to me for my own practice that there were people with hardly any experience taking the classes. It didn’t matter because everyone did the same sequence every class anyway.

But having come from the Iyengar method, I had grown accustomed to working my way through levels, each of which had a slightly different curriculum.  The beginners didn’t do headstand or full-arm balance, for example. And it took some time to work our way to full back-bends. Instructors in the method need to keep advancing in their certification. As they progress in their qualifications, they are permitted to teach more advanced curriculum.

So unless it’s a special workshop day, you just wouldn’t find a lot of people at different levels of practice taking the same classes. That’s not about competition. You don’t need to be competitive to want a class that’s appropriate to your level of experience.

From what I’ve witnessed, novice and advanced students alike feel better in classes geared to their abilities. Yoga is no different from any other physical practice in that it’s a set of skills learned over time. The idea of doing the exact same class with all different levels of experience runs counter to that approach, as if everyone at all times is prepared to do any of the postures.

The more I practiced in the Iyengar tradition, the more I realized just how vast and deep even the physical practice of yoga is, never mind all of the other levels of teaching.

And you can really hurt yourself if you do it wrong. When you have an all-levels class with a potentially inexperienced instructor who just goes through a sequence as if it is an aerobics class, there is a huge possibility that someone is going to get injured.

So while I can definitely get behind the “Namaste Bitches” ranter’s disappointment that there are judgmental mean girls in her yoga studio, I think there are all sorts of good reasons for offering different levels of classes that respond to the different needs and abilities of students.

It’s safer and it respects the idea of yoga as an on-going practice in which students gain insight, understanding, skill, and ability over time, with adequate instruction geared to their level of experience.

Namaste.

Being asked to smile in yoga (Guest Post)

One of my strategies for supporting my mental health, lower blood pressure and dealing with muscle fatigue from triathlon training is to go to yoga classes and do short routines at home.

There are many schools of yoga, some focus on flowing through postures, others holding postures for long periods of time. I like them all because I always learn new things from each instructor through their approach and methodology.

The one thing I struggle with is being asked to smile during yoga. A few weeks back I was having a run of very stressful days. They were days where it was all I could do to get to work, not cry, then come home and support my family. It is those kind of days where yoga helps me stretch my clenched muscles and relax my face. My typical yoga face is expressionless, flat, and slack-jawed. I feel serene and beyond the stress of my day in that face.

On this night I was in a new class with an instructor I didn’t know so I had no expectations. Her approach is from a restorative yoga perspective and she focuses on alignment. I learned a great deal on how to move my feet to take pressure off my knees, how to use the creases in my wrists to align my arms in plank, really good stuff, then she asked us to smile.

I was so grossly unhappy that day I had used up all my energy just not crying and presenting a neutral face to the world. I have epic grumpy faces and I sometimes post them on my facebook feed because I’m a big drama queen. For example, I made this face once simply because I had to make my own coffee at work one day:

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So here I am, barely keeping it together, when the instructor asked us all to smile then went from person to person gently chastising those who weren’t then insisting we smile. She uses this technique as a measure to see if a student is pushing themselves too hard in class. Her thought being if you lose your smile ease back on the stance. It’s a great idea. That night though the effort to try and even gently turn up the corner of my mouth was painful. I was truly sad and the small smile seared a tunnel down into my well of unhappiness and I started to cry. Tears streamed down my face. I just wanted peace that night and here I was openly weeping in front of strangers and an instructor I didn’t know. It felt terrible. I was embarrassed and sad and thankful the lights in the studio were turned down low. I was able to keep myself from sobbing and I went through the postures, tears soaking my mat during child’s pose and downward dog. I got through the class and thought, that will never happen again.

The next week the exact same thing happened. The disconnect between smiling and not feeling happy was just more than I could bear. This was not what I was looking for from my yoga sessions. I stopped going for a couple weeks.

Part of what bugged me was my personal history of receiving messages that, as a women, I ought to always smile, that I should smile to be more pleasing to others, to hide my feelings and be less scary. I think I have a great smile because it is genuine and I don’t stretch my lips across my teeth in a weird, fake way. I am not stingy with my smiles but I also don’t throw them around willy-nilly. More simply put, if I’m happy, I smile.

Fast forward to this past Monday, the smile asking instructor was subbing in for my usual power yoga instructor and I was nervous. It turned out Anita, who runs with Tracy, goes to my gym and was coming to this class. We chatted a bit before class and were laughing at the absurdity of our lives as we grapple with growing humans. (I think we both agree that parenting is, like, way hard.)

Class started and I realized I was a bit self-conscious doing yoga alongside Anita. (Huh, wonder what that was about.) I don’t remember who laughed/groaned/admitted distress first  but I had a lot of fun and when it came to asking us to smile I did and felt great. Maybe I was having a better day, maybe it was being relaxed with my new friend, who knows, but it felt genuine and awesome and that is pretty cool, in fact, it felt a whole lot like this face:

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Gratitude for BKS Iyengar

IyengarBKS Iyengar, the Indian yoga guru who is usually credited with bringing yoga to the West, died on August 20, 2014, at the age of 95.

For those of us who studied and practiced with Iyengar yoga with a certified instructor, his passing marks the end of an era.  His methods and teachings focus on strict alignment, long holdings, props, and the therapeutic benefits of yoga for mind and body.

The New York Times obituary talks about his own practice, but he expected no less of every practioner:

Mr. Iyengar’s practice is characterized by long asanas, or postures, that require extraordinary will and discipline. A reporter who watched daily practice in 2002, when Mr. Iyengar was 83, said that he held one headstand for six minutes, swiveling his legs to the right and the left, and that when he finished, “his shoulder-length hair was awry, he seemed physically depleted,” but he wore the smile of a gleeful child.

My Iyengar instructor routinely keeps us in headstand for at least five and sometimes 10 minutes. And you can expect to hold any asana (i.e. pose) for at least a minute unless she’s going easy on you.  It’s a demanding form of yoga and not everyone’s cup of tea.

Instructors are required to continue their certification throughout their careers. In order to advance to the higher levels of certification, instructors of Iyengar yoga must attend the Ramamani Memorial Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune, India for at least one month every other year.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the harsh approach the instructors at the Institute take. For example:

Past students recalled Mr. Iyengar as warm and charismatic, but also strict. Elizabeth Kadetsky, who wrote a memoir of the year she spent studying with him, recalled that she was standing on her head in a class when he “took his fingers and shoved them in my upper back, and bellowed, ‘In the headstand, this portion of the back is not straight.’ ”

And then there’s this post that is highly critical of the attitude Iyengar and his daughter, Geeta, take toward the foreigners who attend their Institute. She clearly didn’t have the best of times.

I’ve heard senior teachers justify or explain away the behavior in a number of different ways. Sometimes, they point out that Iyengar is from the Brahmin caste, and as such, simply never thought of himself on the same level as his students.  My teacher’s teacher recounts meeting Iyengar for the first time, over thirty years ago, and extending her hand for a handshake.  He didn’t take it up, making it clear that the gesture was inappropriate given the difference between teacher and student.

In any case, yoga has lost a legend.  The Iyengar methods will continue to be taught under BKS Iyengar’s daughter, Geeta and his son, Prashant.  But neither has been as influential as their father, who is deeply respected, admired, and revered around the globe. It will be interesting to see how Iyengar yoga develops without the leadership of the man himself.

BKS Iyengar teaching a headstand class.

BKS Iyengar teaching a headstand class.

To learn more about Iyengar and Iyengar yoga, check out the official Iyengar website here.

See some of previous posts about Iyengar yoga:

Yoga’s Red Tent

There’s Yoga and There’s Yoga

Yoga Sadhana: Deepening Our Practice, Getting Quiet, and Fostering a Sense of Community

 

Naked Yoga: TMI or Good for Body Acceptance?

Nude yoga instructor in a yoga pose on a mat during a nude yoga class.

Nude yoga instructor in a yoga pose (variation on child’s pose) on a mat during a nude yoga class.

Yesterday Sam posted this piece about a co-ed naked yoga studio in New York.  Here’s from the article:

The studio offers various combinations of clothed, naked, same sex, and coed classes. And regarding the naked sessions and Tantric Yogassage offered: “If you are looking for an orgasm, you are in the wrong place,” the Bold & Naked website states.

“By shedding their clothes and practicing yoga in the nude, students literally drop the masks and labels they hide behind all day,” the website says. “Practicing yoga naked frees you from negative feelings about your body and allows you to be more accepting of your physical imperfections.”

It’s not for people “on the make.” Instead, it’s for getting free with yourself, comfortable with and accepting of your body in all of its imperfect glory. These are values I can get behind. And I love yoga. I love being nude (you can read about that in my post about how a nude vacation helped me with body image, here).  And I’m totally comfortable (based on same experience) being around other nude people, whatever their gender might be.

Yet my reaction to nude yoga is: um….no thank you.  And based on the Facebook page comments, I’m not alone (commenters, I hope you don’t mind if I quoted you):

“Stomach turning.”

“Never in a billion years. No no no.”

“To each their own. But FUCK NO for me.”

“Just no.”

“I don’t want to see that.”

” Umm, no. You can let your ‘mask’ off at home if you want, but in a studio or gym, I’m not interested in seeing the real you.”

A few more “no no no” comments and “yuck” comments and a comment about how unhygienic it seems.  A comment about how distracting it might be. One outlier who would be open to the idea and another who points out that nudity is our “natural state.” But generally there’s the view that it’s just “too much information.”

It’s interesting to me that people, myself included, have such a visceral reaction to naked yoga. For me, I just can’t imagine doing downward dog with no clothes on.  It would make me feel both vulnerable and perhaps a bit too aware of my sagging, aging body parts–and perhaps those of others.

But vulnerability is a good thing in a safe space, and I get the impression from the article that they’re interested in making this a safe space. I hope the issue is more about vulnerability than revulsion and body rejection.  Something about yoga in particular, rather than nudity more generally, makes doing it in the nude seem especially vulnerable-making. I mean, it’s not just downward dog, but there’s also badakanasa (cobblers pose), reclining hero, and even child’s pose. Lots of spread legs, in other words.

And why not be aware of my body exactly as it is?  Do I really want to think of it and the bodies of other people with revulsion?  Absolutely not.  Recently I listened to my radio documentary about my first trip to a nude resort. It’s entertaining and has a happy ending. But I was terrified about the prospect of going.

As I listen to it now, though, I see that a lot of my terror had to do with body-rejection and body-shaming. I said at one point that some bodies perhaps should stay covered up–they might be “hideous” I said.  When I hear that now, I cringe.

I had a whole fixation with the possibility of nude volleyball and all the jiggling body parts I imagined it might involve.  But now I think, “so what?” That’s what the human body is like.  Why can we not deal with that.

The reaction to the nude yoga post made me think of those fears I had, and about how many of them had to with attaching a revulsion-factor to the naked human body. As it turns out, my experience was quite the opposite. In a matter of days, I was completely comfortable with nudity–my own and others’.  I had no judgment concerning bodies–they’re just bodies. Some might be especially beautiful, but none was the least bit hideous, regardless of size and shape.

I think this negative gut reaction to naked yoga says a lot about where we are in our social world with the naked human body, especially bodies that are “imperfect.”  And for sure,  the first class or two would be awkward and maybe a bit giggle-inducing. But it wouldn’t take long before people started to sense a freedom and acceptance of the naked human body—their own and those of the others in the class. And that would be a good thing.

Both forms of yoga I do, Iyengar and hot, involve getting up close and personal in different ways. In Iyengar yoga, there’s a lot of hands on helping each other, sometimes in positions that outside of a yoga class might seem compromising. In hot yoga, each of us is on her or his own mat, but people really are wearing as little as possible. They’re practically naked anyway.  To me, nude yoga just pushes this body comfort one step further. And that’s a good thing. It’s really odd to me that after leaving the hot room, the women who were wearing almost nothing hide behind their towels while they get dressed. Suddenly, shame creeps back in.

When I got back from my nude vacation, I felt good about my body. But it didn’t last. My analysis: clothing actually makes it harder to accept our bodies.  A nude yoga class might be just the ticket for keeping that positive body image going year-round.