The benefits of yoga are endless: practicing it can not only help with managing stress and anxiety, it can also build strength and improve flexibility – and there are so many different types to try too. But in recent years, the ancient practice has been somewhat usurped with "ideal" body stereotypes (and a feeling of pressure that in order to hit the mat, you need to look a certain way), says one experienced teacher, Emily Harding, founder of The Yeh Yoga Co, who is now passionately speaking out against it.
Taking to Instagram after spotting a pair of "stomach taming" yoga leggings for sale, Emily wanted to share a message of self-love with her followers and to remind them that practicing yoga should have nothing to do with what you wear, or how you look. Seeing the yoga leggings boasting that they could slim the wearer's stomach even prompted her to reach out to the company directly too.
Writing about the experience, Emily said, "Since getting in touch with the brand in question, they've taken down the advert and removed the wording from their website, but it really got me thinking about this continuing messaging in the yoga industry. This may come as a shock to some of you, but DIET CULTURE HAS INVADED WELLNESS. Yoga, and seemingly yogic brands are not safe from the message of 'you are more worthy if you are thin/toned/flat and/add in ridiculous claims as you see fit'. It's got to stop!"
The teacher then broke down some truths alongside a photo of herself in fitness gear, stomach on show: "Yoga is not about having a flat stomach or being 'thin'. Your stomach is not an unruly wild animal, in need of taming and obedience lessons. Yoga is not another stick to beat yourself with. It's not an 'aesthetic' to punish yourself towards."
Emily added, "It breaks my heart that how we look while practicing has become another measure of our 'desirability'. Yoga is about reconnecting to your health (not sacrificing it!) and your most joyous self, it's a way to release ourselves from our mental suffering... [and] it's for everyone, in every body." She then encouraged her followers to challenge any kind of toxic messaging they encountered in future, both in their own minds, then out loud – be it with brands directly or with friends.
On the topic of her own belly, Emily said, "I have a belly. It's constantly morphing and changing, and more often than not it spills over my leggings. And that's neither good nor bad. It just IS. And I've made the active decision to LOVE IT. As that's where ALL the magic happens. It's where my pizza, wine and food get changed into the energy I have to live and to love." We couldn't agree more.
Following her inspiring post, Emily told Cosmopolitan UK that after attending her first yoga class in London, having newly qualified as a teacher in India, she actually left feeling worse about herself. "The class was largely centred around aesthetics and physical fitness," she said. "Ever since, I've been passionate about trying to normalise the way real bodies look. Yoga is meant to be for every body, regardless of shape, ability and size, yet we see such little diversity in the way yoga is marketed by mainstream studios, teachers and brands." Many have criticised yoga, and the wellness industry in general, for it's lack of racial, age and physical diversity too.
Lockdown, Emily says, saw her own relationship with her body change, as for the first time she started teaching online classes and saw herself on screen. "I had a meltdown about how my belly looked while teaching... I could see myself in action and felt like I wasn't living up to the 'yoga body' standards."
She continued, "Diet culture has invaded the yoga industry, and the core message is becoming lost. Yoga is a healing science and a lifelong practice that is meant to help free us from the suffering of our own mind, and gives us tools to live a fulfilling joyful life, rather than being another form of exercise with which to push or punish ourselves with. Yet with the pervasion of diet culture into the industry, yoga is being held up as an aesthetic and used to sell clothing and unattainable body ideals back to us!"
She's now stepping up her fight to challenge expectations of how a 'yogi' should look and openly discusses bloating with her followers and class attendees. "I'm sick of seeing a flat, toned stomach held up as the example of what the ideal yoga body is meant to look like. I am bored of being told that bloated or softer bellies should either be fixed, or only found on pregnant women. Round is a beautiful shape just like all the other shapes."
For Emily's students, she hopes the message is clear: "Real yoga teaches us to be content and grateful in the amazing body that we have, rather than being a workout designed to shape your body into an unrealistic ideal as peddled by most yoga brands these days."
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