January 17, 2015

Western Yoga: Body Image Booster or Fat-Shamer?


Does yoga really promote bodily acceptance, or does it merely increase the insecurities of those who don’t fit the ideal?

Like many women, I’ve had my own relationship with body image over the years—at one point struggled with anorexia and thoughts of inadequacy. I can relate to the approximately 8,000,000 Americans who live with eating disorders, 90% to 95% of whom are women.

As a therapist and yoga teacher, I believe that yoga is a useful tool for those in recovery from eating disorders or facing general body image issues. But in the U.S. so much emphasis is placed on the physical aspect of yoga, and as skin-tight yoga pants and halter tops have become the norm, I wonder if exposure to yoga in a studio setting could also lower one’s level of body satisfaction.

The Beauty of Yoga:

Yoga provides a way to connect to the divine within us.

We acknowledge our innate goodness and observe our misgivings from a place of non-judgement and non-attachment. We learn to accept where we are along our journey, right now. We learn to slow down, quiet down and listen to what’s going on inside. We become attuned to our innermost sensations.

We begin to understand our needs versus our desires.

Given all the introspective awareness that a committed yoga practice provides, we would expect that yoga could help lessen negative body image and disordered eating patterns and perhaps improve body image overall. Yoga actually increases serotonin levels within our bodies while decreasing cortisol production, thus reducing anxiety and stress responses and combating depression.

Today, researchers are continuing to explore the ways in which a consistent and committed yoga practice interacts with body awareness, body responsiveness, intuitive eating and body satisfaction. Studies show that a yoga practice can improve both physical and emotional awareness and that the bodily focus might shift from outward appearance to functionality and pure acceptance.

In one study, women were split into two groups—the first group professed to practice yoga for physical reasons, while the second stated that they practiced primarily for psycho-spiritual purposes. Interestingly, the women who practiced primarily for psycho-spiritual purposes were more likely to have experienced disordered eating in the past. These women also tended to have a more dedicated practice than the women in the physical group (they were more likely to practice on their own and at home and practiced living their yoga off their mats).

In the end, both groups experienced increased levels of body awareness, body responsiveness, intuitive eating and body satisfaction overall, which they attributed to their regular yoga practice.

I was not totally shocked to learn that the majority of participants in this study practiced yoga, at least in part, for physical reasons. Yoga is, after all, an excellent form of physical exercise offering many benefits. However, participants in this study were not asked if their physical reasons for practice were due to a desire to be healthy or a desire to look a certain way.

The Ugly of Yoga:

When looking at yoga in the media, we see a community of thin and graceful dancer-like athletes with elongated muscles and perfect skin. It is commonly slender and beautiful women who get publicly acknowledged as “expert yogis.”

Even within the teaching community, it is often the teachers who are in alignment with America’s physical ideal, and who are able to manipulate their bodies into contortionist-like poses, who are acclaimed as “yoga celebrities.”

This aspect of the yoga world can drive someone with disordered eating further over the edge. With a spiritual connection, perhaps one is able to stay more grounded and self-accepting, comparing one’s body less to the models on the cover of Yoga Journal Magazine. It’s important for future research to question the physical motivations behind yogi‘s practices.


Negative body image and eating disorders affect mood and increase levels of anxiety and risk of depression. Researchers from several other studies have provided positive findings that yoga practitioners report a decrease in mood instability, feelings of unworthiness, self-destructive behaviors and impulsiveness.

Practitioners report feeling less estranged from their bodies, thus lowering practices of self-objectification.

Women report gaining trust in their body, which is incredibly empowering.

One study showed that 75% of women participants reported more acceptance and appreciation for their bodies after developing a physical yoga practice, regardless of number of years of practice. This finding suggest that practicing for even only a short while might assist women in improving their self-concept.

Future Inquiry:

While there are numerous existing studies regarding the effects of yoga in treating disordered eating and improving body image, this concept is still new and necessitates more research. As most of the research has been done with women, studies recruiting men as the primary participants deserve greater attention as well.

That being said, existing research suggests that yoga can truly aid those in recovery from disordered eating and with negative body image drastically improve their qualities of life.


* References

K.A. Dittman & M.R. Freedman. Body awareness, eating attitudes, and spiritual beliefs of women practicing yoga. Eating disorders: The journal of treatment and prevention, 2009, volume 17 (4), p 273-292. Published online July 10, 2009.

S.E. Clancy. The effects of yoga on body dissatisfaction, self-objectification, and mindfulness of the body in college women. Dissertation- Doctor of Philosophy Washington State University, Dept. of Education Leadership and Counseling Psychology, August 2010.


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Author: Nityda Gessel

Apprentice Editor: Toby Israel/ Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

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