Creating Body-Positive Yoga Practice

by Aubrey Butts

You know it's January when every other ad is a diet-based, fitness-frenzied gimmick. Resolutions are set and broken and food policing is rampant. As a yoga instructor, and someone in recovery from over ten years in eating disorder hell, the new year is a hard time. I don't want to discount how powerful yoga was for me in my healing process but I also want to encourage anyone curious about yoga to be mindful about what they are being "fed" about the practice. At the gym this morning, there was an hour long infomercial about a yoga DVD program that was basically a weight loss program with postures. If you search Pinterest for yoga sequences, 75% or so are about "getting abs,” "losing back fat,” "toning up,” or achieving a "yoga booty." The way Western culture has adopted these ancient practices can be problematic, but for today's purpose, let me narrow it down to six ways you can establish a more body-positive practice at home or in the class you attend. 

Note: many of these tips can be translated to any fitness class you attend.

  1. Connect with the breathe and let it be the guide.  Yoga is a union of the body, mind and the soul, and the breathe is the embroidery stitching the three together. Start with the breathe and continue to connect to the inhale and exhale anytime the mind wanders, especially to any thoughts of body shaming.
  2. Set an intention at the beginning of your practice. Whether this is before your personal practice at home or at the start of class, spend a few moments in quiet reflection of what brought you to your mat. What was your inspiration, motivation, or hope? How would you like to feel during and after practice? Is there something heavy on your heart that needs relief? Someone you want to send well wishes to? Maybe a sore body part? Whatever it is for you, intention will make the movement more meaningful.
  3. Check in with how you feel after the practice, the goal is to feel expansive, not depleted. In general do you feel better about your body? Not just how it looks or even what it can do, but do you feel more at home in your body? Are you present with the sensations that arise, more attuned to your emotions and your unique needs throughout the day? Are you inspired to tend to your whole self and not just your body?  Or do you leave feel flustered? Do you find yourself feeling more rigidity or guilt around food after your practice? Do negative body image thoughts increase throughout the day? Is the practice adding to your heart or taking away?
  4. If it feels "off"-- adjust or stop, knowing that you can always come back to the practice another time.  You have the right to stop your practice early, to leave the class, or to adjust the sequence to fit what you need that day. A good instructor will hold space for you to show up just as you are and to tailor the practice to exactly what you need moment by moment. An "advanced" yogi knows when they need to rest in child's pose.
  5. Find a community that promotes body positive beliefs. Notice how you feel in the studio, what sort of ads do you see and what kind of talk do you hear. This may be a clue about the community of the studio. Seek communities where you feel safe, heard and seen just as you are. Seekers of growth, not just to weigh less. 
  6. Allow yourself time to play. A set class with an instructor who inspires you is a beautiful thing, but do not discount the value and fun of just getting on your mat (or the floor, the grass, the beach...) and just moving your body. Let the breathe be your guide (see, I said it again...) and explore, whether it turns into a sun salutation, another asana, or maybe not a "real" yoga pose at all, let yourself play. After all, as one of my teachers said, it's not yoga if you're not smiling.