What does a yoga body look like? Part 3

Part 3: From Personal to Collective

Continued from Part 1 & Part 2

Personal Dis-ease

As physically embodied creatures, our minds and bodies are intricately interdependent. Thoughts give way to actions, actions meld into habits, and over time our mental activities literally sculpt the bodies we inhabit. Sometimes I wonder if the body, in many ways, is our deepest form of creative expression– a stage upon which we explore and express our inner experiences. I’ve mused on how through yoga I quite literally create a theatrical masterpiece with my body; my bones, my breasts, my fat, and my muscles become performers in the great drama that brings spirit to life.

Other times though, my body feels like anything but a masterpiece. Sometimes I feel like I have no sense of how to gratify its needs, and my body becomes more like the battlefield of the Mahabaratha than the scene in one of Shakespeare’s romantic monologues. I take arms with the latest cleanse to make myself “more pure”, or grab something sweet to elude the emptiness within. I know that piece of chocolate probably won’t satisfy the yearning for sweet comfort I feel in my heart. But I pretend it will… just for a moment… because I don’t want to sit with the pain of longing for something much deeper.

Instead of listening to my body’s voice and responding with compassion, I go into an over-controlling dictator mode– my little inner-Gaddafi kicks in to quell the outcry of my intuition. I bark orders at the innocent citizens– my belly, my muscles, even my ovaries sometimes– demanding they succumb to my will rather than express the wisdom they inhabit. “You will do another chaturanga dandasana!” “Quit with the hunger pangs, it’s not time to eat yet!”

Societal Dis-ease

Just as I’m recognizing these alarming dynamics within myself, I’m also seeing a parallel trend in the way we relate to bodies as a society. Television commercials, Yoga Journal ads, even elementary school health classes inculcate us with the message that the body must be constantly controlled, refined, and purified.

Yes, this is the same woman. Photoshop disaster.

The cultural rituals we’ve developed to “fix” our bodies range from the somewhat benign (e.g. shaving our body hair and concealing “flaws” with makeup) to the more extreme (liposuction, eating disorders, and genital mutilation). In the yoga world, we herald the “cleansing” effects of fanatical diets or become neurotic about getting “perfect” alignment. Masked as health habits and injury prevention, I wonder if the extreme ends of the continuum reflect something deeper at play–a subconscious desire to fit our bodies to the only ideal our culture teaches us has worth.

Collective Dis-ease

I’ve also come to recognize a sort of collective dis-ease showing up in the way we relate to the body we all share—our planet Earth. As a species, we seem to be taking too much and giving too little, consuming like wild in a desperate attempt to fill a void we have no idea how to satisfy. We are engaged in a collective assault on the earthly body, decrying orders like the malevolent dictator I spoke about harboring within myself. And if you ask me, the assault stems from a very tragic and desperate desire to fill a sense of existential emptiness within.

The dis-ease is undeniable; earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, and tornadoes are this body’s way of warning that something is very wrong. We’ve pushed the earth too far, and its immune system is kicking into high gear. I know it hurts to watch the news, see the destruction for what it is rather than shroud it in a myth of “natural climatary fluctuations”, but if there’s anything I’ve learned on my mat it’s that we must see things as they are if we wish them to change. For healing to take place, we have to see the path that got us here, own our responsibility in it… and then, perhaps most importantly, forgive ourselves and move forward.

We could get caught up in self-pity, become paralyzed by the enormity of the situation we face, but in my experience that only sinks us further into inaction. No, the road to healing is paved with uncertainty, it’s in diving fearlessly into the poses that challenge us without attachment to the final outcome. I don’t know that we can “save the earth”– in fact, I think it a little ridiculous we see ourselves so powerful it would need saving– but I do know that all bodies (personal, societal, and collective) are crying for our attention. The question that stands before us, both as individuals and as a collective, is this: When our yoga tells us something’s not right in our body– personal AND collective– how do we respond?

So, what does a yoga body look like?

As I bring this series to a close, I admit that I still don’t know what a “yoga body” looks like. But I’m learning very quickly, thanks to your comments, what it doesn’t. A yoga body is not one that’s so disconnected, so dissociated from what’s happening within, that it fails to hear cries for compassion, pleas for presence, the inner-voice’s call to Love. It is not one that fits the mold placed upon it by a society suffering from a dis-ease of its own. No, a yoga body is grounded in connection… in balance… in something I know no other word for than Love.

The Love we’re looking for will not be found in shopping sprees, barrels of oils, or health fads designed to “fix” our broken bodies. No, the Love remains hidden in the halls of our own hearts. When you feel lonely, when you miss the warm embrace of a mother, I beg you… look no further than the arms you wrap around yourself in garudasana, or the feeling of the earth holding you up as you sink into child’s pose. WE ARE exactly what we’re yearning for. The treasure, I’m learning, is in the hearts of people… not in the empty promises we’ve come to believe will give us worth. With practice, with presence, and with the support of community I believe we have within us the power to heal.

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- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

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