I skimmed through an article the other day about how yoga fosters body confidence. I say 'skimmed' because the article wasn't giving me any new information. Nothing profound jumped off the page. Yoga teaches you to let go of perfection and to focus on your inner self. Ideally...this is what yoga teaches, but letting go of the idea of perfection in yoga is not so easy to see visually. Not until recently, like in maybe in the last two years, has yoga magazines like Yoga Journal graced their covers with models who are not super thin and wirey with muscles. Iyengar and Brikram yoga practices put an emphasis on alignment and perfection in poses and I have heard stories of serious Ashtanga teachers sending students away until they have mastered a pose in the ashtanga sequence.
It is not just the yoga media and some forms of practices that seem counter intuitive to promoting body confidence though. There have been many times when I have walked into a yoga studio, looked around me and thought "I do not belong here." I have looked at the other students, I have met the teacher and I have immediately started listing all the ways I am not enough for this class. I am not fit enough, strong enough, young enough, skinny enough, enlightened enough. All of those not enoughs dissipate once I am moving on my mat, but to someone new to yoga, that whole experience can be very intimidating. Though Yoga Journal has gotten a lot better at showing a more diverse group of yogis throughout their pages, many yoga studios feel a little less diverse. It can be difficult to cultivate body confidence in that sort of environment.
There have been many psychological studies on the effects yoga has women's body confidence. A study released in the September 2016 issue of Body Image handed out questionnaires to a hundred and something yoga practitioners and a hundred and something non-yoga practitioners and found that people who practice yoga scored higher on body confidence than those who do not practice yoga. They also found that the people who practice yoga scored lower on self-objectification. A study released in Psychology of Sports and Exercise in March of this year focused on the effects of mirrors on yoga students in a yoga practice and found that women in yoga classes with mirrors had greater body image anxiety. It is clear that yoga is good for us, but it is also clear that it has it's own set of complicated pros and cons.
One reason I choose to teach at the Y is because it is a way to expose people who normally would not go to a studio to yoga. My classes at the Y are a diversity of age, size, color and fitness and it is beautiful. I try every week to put an emphasis on safety over so called perfection. I purposefully set my class up in a way that they are facing away from the mirrors. I tell them to find the joy in their practice and I have started to see my students grow in their own confidence. These lessons are all well and good and something any yoga teacher worth their salt teaches. Something I feel I could do better as a teacher is pushing my students to create their own personal practice. Because this is where true self confidence blooms into the sweetest flower. Those times I practice on my own are moments when I feel the most beautiful.
I know that cultivating a personal yoga practice hard. There are days I unroll my mat and think "I don't want to do anything." but I do something. It may be simply sitting back in child's pose and counting my breaths to ten, but it is something. There are no hard set rules of how long you should be on your mat or what you even need to be doing. That's the joy of making it your own. If you are a teacher, I encourage you to impress the importance of a yoga practice outside of a class. If you are a student, I challenge you to spend just five minutes every day this week on your mat, on your own.