Yoga Asana, Media & Body Image
We are constantly provided with tips on how we can train our bodies, I myself am one of those who contribute to this. Images of moving and posing yogis have become more common than uncommon. Especially in social media feeds. Sometimes there's time for a little bit of reflection and introspection. What are we creating through all this, and how does it affect us? I think it's healthy to sort out our own thoughts about this from time to time. Here, I offer a summary on body image along with my own thoughts.
First, what about "yoga"?
I like to think about the term yoga as something that has several meanings. Singleton (2010) suggests to describe yoga as a homonym. Both the modern postural practice and several philosophical systems uses the term. Even though they all use this term, it means different things and has different origins. Singleton also point out that these aren't necessarily isolated from each other.
In this text I use the term yoga to describe the modern postural practice called asana alone.
Yoga as a homonym
A little about body image
Body image is a subject close to my heart. There's a relationship between health and how we view, feel, and what we do with our bodies. It is a complex yet absolutely wonderful relationship.
A medical doctor looks at the body in one way. A social scientists sees the body in another manner. A yoga teacher or trainer also looks at the body in a certain way. We're all part of the same as well as different contexts. All this shapes our relationship to the body. What's natural and what's cultural, that's something wildly discussed. There are different ways to approach the body, to understand it, to talk about it, and to look at it. Both in relation to ourselves and the world around us.
A common breakdown of "the body" and body image is the objective, the subjective, and the symbolic body. These overlaps and can sometimes be difficult to separate from each other (Andreasson & Johansson, 2015).
- The objective - the body as a machine. This body image is defined by control och discipline. A view of the body in an instrumental way where we can shape, change and improve our body and its functions.
- The subjective - the experienced body. This body image is defined by experiences and how we learn things through the body. This involves sensations, emotions, cognitive and body awareness.
- The symbolic - the cultural and social body. This view has to do with the learning body. The understanding of it in relation to the cultural and symbolic context it is in and constitute a part of. What meaning, status and significance the body has.
There are many more definitions than this. Often based on a biomedical or a more sociological perspective. The definitions above I find usable when it comes to todays industry of yoga, fitness and health.
Body image and yoga
It's not just the body that can have several meanings. So does yoga, as I mentioned above. Let's take a look at the physical practice of yoga asana that's developed over the past 150 years. Singleton (2010) writes in his book "Yoga Body" about how this development took place parallel to the idea o improving the body and its functions. He further describes how strength, endurance and capacity of the body gets a symbolic meaning during this time. The development of photography and technology also contributed to a fast growing visual culture. A culture where yoga and the "yoga body" has been taking a great place (Singleton, 2010).
The appearance and capacity of the body is also considered to be something closely related to our health. Both socially and culturally. We design and create the truths of the body and what's considered healthy. Both as individuals and as a society influenced by media, family and friends (Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006). The objective body image has a stronghold in our culture and society today. This body as a "project" and status symbol has also become a symbolic body image.
The impact of exercise and social media on body image
First thing first. People who exercise seems to more often have a positive image of their bodies than non-exercisers. Although, this may be due to the possibility that the exercisers more often resemble the aesthetic body ideal. When it comes to the correlation between physical activity and body image there's still questions to explore in research (Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006).
A recent study investigated the impact of media on young women's body image, mood, and appearance comparison. They found that women exposed to Facebook reported a more negative mood right after than women exposed to a neutral website. One reason could be that social media gives the opportunity of social comparison. Another finding was among women who tend to make more appearance comparisons. There, Facebook usage was related to greater desire to change their face, hair and skin-related features. No direct effects on women's satisfaction with their body were found. The authors highlighted that this possibly could be because of the complexity of the definition of body image (Fardouly, 2015).
It does matter
The inputs we get in form of images of yoga asana affects us. Depending on which images you surround yourself with it will affect your view on yourself and others. Therefore awareness is key. But the responsibility cannot be put on the individual alone, the society has to step up. Both governments and corporations.
Who ever uses media has to take their responsibility. A study by Diedrichs (2011) suggests that average-size women can promote positive body image and at the same time appeal to consumers. So there seems to be no conflict in having both.
So what can we do that people with positive body images does? It seems that theories of embodiment could be an answer. How subjective and social experiences can strengthen a positive body image. A few key concepts seems to be first of all acceptance and respect of the own body. Second, focusing on bodily functions like sensations, strength, coordination, and movement. Third, the experience of being one with the body. Finally, a flexible definition of beauty (Frisén et.al., 2014).
I believe yoga asana can help us with practicing the concepts of embodiment. Both as a physical practice and through images.
Yoga asana can help us with practicing the concepts of embodiment
What does this mean?
As always, more research is needed on this topic. But the images that surrounds us has an impact on us as social and cultural beings. Surround yourself with a variety of images that focus on other things than just looks and appearance. Try to practice the key concepts of embodiment and a more subjective form of body image.
Finally, I would love to see a deeper discussion of these topics in the sphere of yoga and health industry.
Andreasson J & Johansson T. (2015). Fitnessrevolutionen: Kropp, Hälsa och Gymkulturens Globalisering. Stockholm: Carlssons Bokförlag.
Diedrichs P C. (2011). Waif goodbye! Average-size female models promote positive body image and appeal to consumers. Psychology and Health, Vol 26, No. 10, October 2011, 1273-1291.
Fardouly J. (2015). Social comparisons on social media: The impact of Facebook on young women's body image concerns and mood. Elsevier, Body Image 13 (2015) 38-45.
Frisén A, Holmqvist Gattario K, Lunde C. (2014). Projekt Perfekt: Om utseendekultur och kroppsuppfattning. Stockholm: Natur & Kultur.
Hausenblas H A & Fallon E A. (2006). Exercise and body image: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Health. February 2006, 21(1): 33-47.
Singleton M. (2010). Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.