In 1992 when I first read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth a few ideas that had been swirling around in my feminist consciousness suddenly came together. Who decides what is feminine? Who decides what feminine beauty is? Back then the answer was not so obvious but today it is: women themselves do. Today women can wear the power heels or the Birkenstocks. Our choice. Our definition of beauty.
So what is beauty?
Recently I saw a woman, about my age I think: designer suit, high heels; tall and thin; and enough plastic surgery to create a mask in honour of the ‘beauty myth’ gods. She should have been beautiful but her postural alignment was off, she was unsteady in her gait and there was a twist of discontent at the corner of her mouth. My heart ached for her and what I wished for her was yoga. Yoga for vanity.
So now that we have the control over ‘our bodies, ourselves’ let’s further redefine: what is yogic beauty?
On a recent visit to my doctor, he was a little mystified that I had gained back the quarter inch of height I’d lost in the previous decade. “Yoga,” I said and he just shook his head sceptically. But with its emphasis on establishing a pada banda base in the feet, elongating the spine and releasing the shoulders back and down, I’m not surprised. Whether the yoga you do calls itself alignment-based or not, yoga is still about alignment. So those of us who practice yoga, hold ourselves taller, look out at the world with a level ‘soft but purposeful’ gaze, and walk with a firm, light step. Yoga gives us grace. This is beauty.
If you are someone who thinks you could achieve beauty only if you lose a few pound/kilos then yoga may work for you only indirectly. Yoga has not shown well in studies[i] in terms of aerobic value: it does not burn calories at the rate necessary to achieve weight loss and yoga does not raise the metabolic rate. In fact the opposite may be true. However as one nutritionist once has said: ‘the best exercise for weight loss is to push yourself away from the table’. Yoga may help you do this.
One study did note that not only did the yogis feel better about themselves but they also believed they looked better. It’s not what you wear; it’s how you wear it. We come in all shapes and sizes and each one is beautiful if we believe. And if we feel good about ourselves we are less likely to turn to food (or drugs or alcohol) to make us feel better.
Yoga alters our mood. I have seen it time after time: a student walks into a class, demonstrating all the sign of stress. What I notice is tightness in the jaws, the shoulders; a hesitancy in their walk and talk; and, the absence of a smile. I do not notice their beauty. Yet when they are leaving what is most obvious is the smile, the clear eyes, and that firm, graceful stride. This is beauty! Yoga helps one leave behind what happened before the class. As Eckhart Tolle puts it: “When you surrender to what is, and become fully present, the past ceases to have any power.” This helps to give us the optimism to meet whatever life brings us. We have little control over what happens to us but a definite control over how we react/respond to these event/issues. Taking command is beautiful.
I inherited bunions from my paternal grandmother. My feet are not a ‘pretty’ sight. However, although they make shoe fitting very difficult they have never caused me any pain so I didn’t considered the surgery offered. A few years ago I noticed a change which concerned me: the deformity was worsening with the toes starting to come together at a centre point. What to do? Yoga, meanwhile, has changed this (Malcolm pointed the change out to me recently). The bunions are still there, of course, but the toes have opened up and my feet are much more pleasant to look at. They don’t look painful anymore. It was yoga. My emphasis on finding and maintaining the pada banda, in my teaching and in my personal practice, has changed the shape of my feet. I stand amazed.
Yoga has been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. It has also been shown to reduce both physical and emotional stress. Its restorative postures (inversions and twists, especially) improve blood circulation and help detoxify the organs. Some yoga practices (Yin and Nidra) help us sleep better. All of this, in effect slows down the biological clock. Finally we have found the fountain of youth. Ponce de Leon should have headed east to India instead of west to the ‘new world’! Want to feel younger: do yoga. Want to look younger: do yoga. What more do I need to say?
So, if you don’t do yoga for the joy of how great it feels, or how much it improves your health or the changes it brings to your sex life (look for a later blog) or how it calms your stress/anxiety….well, then, do it for beauty. For vanity. Yoga for vanity.
[i]For more discussion of the research done on the effects yoga has on both the physical and psychological self, read The Science of Yoga, William J. Broad; Simon and Shuster, 2012; p.56