January 28

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Body Image and Aqua Yoga

Anytime you ask a group of women to get in their bathing suits in a public place, body image issues are bound to come up.

I’ve been reluctant to write on this topic because of my own body image story.  Before I address the larger societal issues, I want to share my personal experience on this topic so you see the lens I’m writing through.

Yes, I’m skinny.  Yes, society has a lot of cultural pressure to be skinny and I get a lot of comments about my weight.  I put zero effort into being skinny.  Yes, ZERO.  I don’t “diet”.  I don’t avoid any foods because of weight concerns.  I’m skinny because of what I call “diet by disease”.  I live with four autoimmune diseases.  I try VERY hard to minimize their impact on my life by managing the factors I can control such as my diet and exercise levels.  I don’t eat wheat, dairy, and very little sugar because avoiding those things makes me feel better, and my disease flares are smaller and less frequent.  I exercise in moderation regularly.  Both of these areas are about being as healthy as possible, not a certain weight.  Yes, they make me skinnier but that is far from the point.  Skinny doesn’t equal healthy.

I’ve also struggled with hyperthyroidism.  Between a flare-up of that or my autoimmune diseases, I might lose 15 pounds in a month.  Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are unfortunately very common in the yoga community but they are not the only reasons people are skinny or lose weight.

I used to shoe horses.  When I did that, I weighed 15 pounds more than I do now.  That 15 pounds was muscle as I literally moved tons of hay, horses and manure on a daily basis.  I was healthier.  My weight was great.  Given the choice, I’d rather weigh more and be healthier like I was before.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a choice any more than someone’s genetic make up predisposes them to be a certain weight or mandates their height.  We all have factors around our weight we can and can’t control.

Most of the people commenting on my weight are not aware of my health struggles.  Some think I have an eating disorder.  The comments are usually meant as compliments. Society rewards being skinny, and many women want to be skinnier no matter where they’re currently at.

What I’ve learned from this is, neither my weight nor anyone else’s is anyone’s business. None of us are helping each other out by commenting on people’s weight.  Comments about personal features often lack compassion and empathy.  None of us knows other people’s journeys.  If I commented on a woman’s weight who society would judge as heavy do I know if she’s dealing with post-partum depression, a gall bladder disorder, or is the perfectly healthy ideal weight for her genetic makeup and her weight is perfectly where she wants it to be?  NO!

If as women we comment on other women’s weight, breast size, or other features are we lifting each other up to raise all boats? Or are we lifting ourselves up at someone else’s expense because we don’t feel good about ourselves? 

Does fear of these kinds of comments keep you out of your bathing suit?  Avoiding your bathing suit on a practical level because you don’t want comments about any physical aspect of yourself is only doubly hurting yourself. You’re not getting the benefits of aquatic exercise and you never actually got any negative comments, you just said judgemental things about yourself. If you can’t keep the negativity towards yourself at bay, is it a surprise to get it from others? You can’t expect anyone else to love you more than you love yourself.

Body image and aqua yoga isn’t just about weight

This isn’t just a weight issue. Women are embarrassed to wear a swim cap to cover hair loss, a shower cap to avoid chlorine in their kinky hair, a hijab because of religious observances, or take their shoes off to show arthritic damage to their feet.

What all the issues have in common is the body shaming and it has to STOP now.

S – Stop the shaming

T – Take a breath

O – Observe how it makes you feel

P – Probably lousy, so stop

If you need help with a body image issue from a professional, absolutely do it. If you have an eating disorder, get help ASAP.

I’m addressing avoiding your bathing suit on a philosophical or emotional level from a yoga perspective.  Like any other aspect of your practice, the Yamas and Niyamas can help you in your body image journey.

Ahimsa (being kind) – Non harming language applies to any weight.  I have a nose piercing.  The reason I got the nose piercing was to override the negative body talk around my arthritis. Instead of seeing arthritis, I see the nose piercing. It’s there to remind me how resilient I am and how much I have overcome.  How can you reframe the negative self talk into something empowering?

Satya (honesty) – Do you buy push up/cover up swimsuits? Why? Buy swimsuits for you, not your audience.

Asteya (being generous) – Take up space! You deserve every inch you occupy.

Brahmacharya (non excess) – Are your filling your body with junk food, drugs or alcohol? Are you excessive the other way with dieting or fasting?

Aparigraha (non-grasping) – It’s futile to grasp at and pay disproportionate attention to how we look.  If we’re lucky enough to get old, our best physical features fade and transform with time.

Saucha (self care) – Take care of your body.  It’s the best and most beautiful thing you will ever own.

Santosha (contentment) – Can you love your body as it is? Not where you want it to be. Not how it was. How it is today.

Tapas (self-discipline) – Take care of yourself.  Give your body what it needs.  Make the effort to DO what you know is good for you Avoid the junk food, get your exercise, drink your water.

Svadhyaya (self-knowledge) – If you have body image issues it’s better to own it and be honest than pretend it doesn’t exist. Get help if you need it.

Ishvara Pranidhana (trust yourself and the universe) – Your body is what it is.  Love it for what it is. Love it for where it takes you to like amazing travel locales post COVID.  Love it for what it does for you like birthing babies.  Show appreciation and joy for how your body lets you practice aqua yoga. Cherish it for the time that it is yours.

Research shows yoga does improve your body image as a woman, but it’s not about the shapes. It’s about the mental attitudes we develop through yoga. I hope you’re able to use these ideas to develop a more positive attitude towards yourself and your own body.

If you want a deeper dive into yoga philosophy for body image and aqua yoga

I wrote a whole book on applying yoga philosophy to an aqua yoga practice. It will help you explore these 10 principles in more depth and includes a full aqua yoga practice.


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