Embroiled in a Body Narcissism

I’m slowly revisiting all my texts and notes from the Yoga teacher training I took at the end of last year. I have been wanting to do this for a while.

In The Path of Yoga, Feuerstein ends the chapter “Happiness and Moral Foundations” with this paragraph:

“The importance of Yoga’s moral foundations cannot be over-emphasized. […] the traditional yamas and niyamas are critical to harmonious inner growth. All too often, Western practitioners of Yoga ignore the moral disciplines, because they are rather inconvenient and because the postures (asana) are far more alluring. Little surprise that contemporary Western Yoga practice remains embroiled in a body narcissism, which makes the traditional value of spiritual freedom a distant and unappealing goal.”

It has been fascinating, and fascinatingly difficult, to talk to people about my training experience. It’s also been difficult to talk about my experience over the past five years, ever since being “bitten”—that, the softest of bites, that was received during—but only truly noticed just after—the first class I took.

I feel so far from knowing how to respond when it’s my physique—which has, indeed, noticeably changed—that people notice and comment on first. Part of it is the immediate and observable nature of my person, and that recognition is harmless and/or well-meaning. But my body is a surface through and through. I have gained much solace and confidence in how to cope with physical pain and mental unease through physical practice, but to be “embroiled in a body narcissism” is not something I want for anyone. More so, it’s something I’d like to dispel.

Understanding one’s place, in relation to themself, to others, or to Nature is infinitely more interesting to me than muscle definition or a fashionable article of clothing worn for practice. Ideally I’d like to deftly steer any conversation about the superficial into the meaningful. It’s funny to me that during the philosophy and history lectures we students had, I’d internally be trying to relate the moral and spiritual concepts of various yogic traditions to modern or ancient Western thought, in a comparative fashion, summoning Plato, Marx, Nietzsche, whomever. All this despite my cursory-at-best understandings of those stalwarts and their ideas. I did this to help understand esoteric aspects or simply to absorb and orient myself and my beliefs to the new material. I find it funny not because this approach was irrational, but because I was using existing beliefs as a defensive mechanism, against change, against vulnerability to my intellect. Part of how I hope I’ve grown is to use less sophistry, to use ideas less as weapons, but instead as nourishment. I think provocative ideas have their place, especially to change minds with force and energy, but I do not like to be the provocateur.

Being provocative with ideas is not something one should do wantonly, hence my hesitation to be the driver steering towards the deeper elements of Yoga in casual conversation. And not everyone has the same interest in discussing the esoteric ideas of men who have been dead for centuries, if not millennia. This is where it makes sense to defer: when confronted with someone whom I knew I wouldn’t be able to immediately convey a palpable depth to, I’d be excited to describe a certain teacher, class, style, or sequence. Yet this approach wants of immediate experience; it’s mostly a “I guess you had to be there…” sentiment projected into the future; a “take my word for it, go to this class at this time in your busy, busy life,” appended with a quick, if implied, “And oh, I probably won’t be able to make it, I have a thing. that night.”

But perhaps the physicality aspect is what many people need as an introduction, and it has been a proven method of acceptance for widening the path to those harder to reach realms of the mind, society, and the larger workings. While thinking of my own physique as a reflection of my Yogic “skill” isn’t something I subscribe to, feeling okay about one’s body while practicing can be important, at least in the beginning. But this has less to do with actual the actual form of one’s body, and more to do with society and distorted, stereotyped images of what is healthy, attractive, or, *shudder* marketable. One of my teachers, Marissa, recently shared a post, “10 Photos That Smash Every ‘Yoga Body’ Stereotype” that discusses some of the entrenched issues in the studio. The following depressing statistic stood out:

A U.K. study released last year by the grassroots exercise organization Sport England found that 75 percent of British women say they want to exercise more, but a fear of being judged because of their body size is one of the key reasons they don’t go to the gym or to exercise classes.

So body image not only rears its head through consumerism and commodification, but from altogether keeping people at a distance in the first place. This is not a welcoming environment for turning people on to methods for finding their potential.

I began this post because the quoted paragraph hit a nerve, in a good way, with what I believe to be a candid & accurate assessment of the current state of how this system of knowledge gets portrayed and used. I’ve maybe posted only a handful of photos of myself in asanas, but if I ever seem like I’m doing it in a misrepresentative fashion, please, tell me. I want to strive to represent Yoga and what it’s done—and is doing—for me in an honest way, and I’ll continue trying to do that by: practicing, mispronouncing Sanskrit, asking you to attend classes with me, reading reading reading, breathing “funny,” falling over by doing a hokey pseudo-pose, and by writing long, long posts from time to time.

Note: I’ve begun to capitalize the word Yoga, as reasoned by Donna Farhi in this interview, “Donna Farhi on Why Your Yoga Teacher is Not Your Friend”, shared by another teacher of mine, Gabbriella. The title of the article is a bit misleading, in my opinion, though the student-teacher relationship is discussed from multiple angles, and is worth the read.