The Glass Ceiling of Yoga: Body Positivity
The picture of a serene and beautiful yoga community that is celebrated by the media actually disguises a disturbing layer of normalized and ubiquitous body type discrimination. However, by unveiling a previously “invisible” glass ceiling over the Western yoga community, students, teachers, and administrators can find ways to effortlessly mold body-positive practice spaces for current, new, and future yoga practitioners.
Gender vs Body Type
I’ve encountered a lot of glass ceilings in my life. Honestly, when you’re black, queer, and born with female genitalia, you encounter them constantly and I’ve grown to expect situations wherein boundaries and limitations are the norm. However, there’s a glass ceiling that limits our Western yoga community to a troubling degree and it’s something I never expected to encounter. I mean, when “glass ceilings” are typically identified in Western society, they are almost invariably related to gender.
Ironically, the yoga community doesn’t really suffer from a gender glass ceiling, at least not one that negatively effects women.
Even though women weren’t taught asana until the 20th century, the vast majority of Western yoga teachers and students are female. And while discrimination against male yoga students and teachers is probably more common than any of us could imagine, it’s still not the most expansive and divisive glass ceiling in the yoga community.
No, the real ceiling within our community is based entirely upon physical presentation and, specifically, body type.
This ceiling is clear as day to those of us who have atypical yoga practitioner bodies. Instead of being slender, white and heaped with physical ability, there’s a growing wave of yoga teachers and students who are plump, multiethnic and powering through life with a wide range of disabilities. However, those of us who challenge the white washed yoga teacher stereotype face a very different practice landscape than our colleagues. For example, it’s inappropriately common to hear a story about a yoga student being shamed out of a yoga studio, based upon comments made by discriminatory yoga teachers and students.
In some communities, it’s nearly impossible for atypical yoga teachers to find teaching opportunities. And even when teaching opportunities are available, they are not on par with options for more traditionally bodied teachers. This problem is well documented within small communities of “different” yoga teachers, but it’s essentially invisible to those who don’t see themselves as “different”. And, what’s worse, there are way too many practitioners and teachers who don’t see this kind of discrimination as a problem. Thus, an “invisible” glass ceiling has domed over our community, and only those who have been discriminated and oppressed are fully aware of its existence.
What Does This “Glass Ceiling” Actually Look Like?
Here’s the thing, no one in the yoga community is ever going to openly bad mouth someone who looks different from the traditional idea of a practitioner. Ok, let me back up. I’m sure it happens. But being openly mean to people is not condoned in our yoga community. It’s a pretty big no-no, actually. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone reading this article right now is truly shocked by the idea that discrimination exists in a community which oozes the kind of saccharine sweetness that can only be honed by decades of marketing and product advertising. Unfortunately, the prettiest bandages can hide the ugliest wounds.
And beneath the surface of our saccharine sweet, mass media approved industry is a festering wound characterized by offensive language, discriminatory hiring practices and a bunch of other negativity that gets swept under the rug.
Admittedly, it’s not fun to acknowledge discrimination. In most cases, it feels very embarrassing, and many people would prefer to pretend as though they are not part of the problem. But anyone who turns a blind eye to this problem is also a key contributor to its existence. But how does this problem actually manifest and what does it look like? Let me paint a clearer picture for you.
Imagine you’re a curvy person who has finally decided to face your fear of practicing yoga in a group setting. Perhaps you’ve practiced yoga online with free videos, and you’re finally feeling confident enough in your understanding of asana to venture out of your living room and into a communally supportive environment under the watchful gaze of a knowledgeable instructor.
With a yoga mat under your arm and an emotionally swollen heart on your sleeve, you proudly stride into your local yoga studio.
When you approach the reception desk to check-in for class, the teacher (who looks, as expected, like a human Barbie doll) gives you a curt visual once-over. “Is this your first class?” Yoga Teacher Barbie chirps nonchalantly. While your knee jerk reaction may be defensive, you calm yourself down mentally. You remind yourself that she’s not trying to be offensive, and that she’s merely trying to take the proverbial temperature of a student she’s never met before. You smile and shake your head. “Nope, but I’m excited to take your class!” you say. Barbie smirks. “Well, this class is pretty intense,” she says.
You stare at her blankly. You’re wondering why she’s decided to tell you that the class is intense. Is it because she thinks you can’t handle the class? All of a sudden, you’re second guessing yourself and hiding sweaty palms. Why did you think you were strong enough to attend live classes? By the time you’ve rolled out your mat and gotten settled with props, the tissue thin confidence you brought into the studio has been shredded beyond repair by the self-doubt you’d managed to keep at bay prior to arrival.
During the class, you notice for the first time that your expressions of various yoga poses look a little different than other people in the class. Maybe your balance is a little less sharp, or you use props and modifications at times when other students seem to be able to go without. While that acknowledgement makes you a little self-conscious, it pales in comparison to the shame you feel at having your movements constantly corrected by Yoga Teacher Barbie.
Because, yes – Barbie has also noticed that your movements look a little different. And she’s decided to make your differences an opportunity for a teaching exercise by constantly correcting your alignment and offering more physical adjustments than you could have ever wanted. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if she’s offering more or less advice to anyone else in the room – in fact, it’s entirely possible that she offers this level of adjustment to every student. But your confidence has been shattered.
The emotionally swollen heart you proudly wore on your sleeve is now openly bleeding.
In the best case scenario, you somehow find the strength to believe in yourself again. In the worst case, you vow to never darken the doorstep of another yoga class for fear of ever feeling this way again.
The thing is, if you’re reading this right now, you’ve probably worn the moccasins of either Yoga Teacher Barbie or our Curvy Protagonist. Maybe both. And the weird thing is, I’ve heard this exact same story told by people who are not necessarily “curvy” or “different” in some other way.
In fact, it’s startlingly common for people who look just like Yoga Teacher Barbie to still feel discrimination at the hands of their instructors.
I could be wrong, but I think this is all the result of the fact that we live in a staunchly body negative society.
Body negativity is endorsed by the mass media – let’s face it, that’s how they get us to buy things. We make purchases because we find ourselves wanting or lacking in one way or another. Unfortunately, in addition to the mass media, body negativity has also fully permeated the yoga community. In fact, many teachers believe their discrimination isn’t discrimination at all – they see it as a kind dose of realism to students who don’t meet their personal standards of yoga perfection. Because that’s really all discrimination is – it’s the state of our judgment when we encounter people, places, and things which jibe with our personal definitions of perfection.
It’s sad to see this happen in a community which has the potential to include every single human being on the planet. Frankly, it’s not absurd to imagine a world where everyone practices a style or hybrid blend of yoga. However, that reality will never come to fruition if we don’t resolve the body negativity and discrimination problem. How do we do that? Well, fight fire with fire.
If body negativity is the disease, then body positivity must be the antidote.
The Antidote: Body Positivity
Body positivity is frequently confused concept. It’s pretty confused even within the body positivity community. You could get a different definition depending on the person you ask, the day of the week, etc. Some people think body positivity is solely tied up in body size acceptance, and others might even go so far as to equate it with fat acceptance and fat positivity. While fat positive movements have their rightful place of importance in the evolution of our society, I don’t believe they are synonymous with body positivity. Another popular way of describing body positivity is by equating it with constant self-pep talks. You know, a pattern of methods to remind yourself that “I’m Great! I’m Beautiful! I’m worthy of breathing oxygen in front of other humans without feeling suicidal!” While pep talks are rad and I fully endorse them, I don’t think they speak to the core of body positivity.
You see, body positivity assumes your constant perfection. It assumes that you’re always beautiful. That you’re always worthwhile. That you’re always capable. That you’re always strong.
In a truly body positive world, these statements are not up for debate – instead, they are seen as impenetrable fact. The only perspective up for debate is that of each individual – are you willing to accept your own perfection? Especially when the mass media tells you that those statements are definitely not true. Body positivity is the confidence to accept your constant perfection and beauty, no matter the proverbial weather. And, most importantly, to accept the constant perfection and beauty of those around you, even if they look and act different from yourself.
When we implement body positivity in our yoga studios and spaces, we create environments where students across an infinite spectrum of differences all feel as though they are equal to one another. This type of attitude is absolutely critical in order to see the yoga community grow beyond the one dimensional image offered by the media. Body positivity doesn’t mean teachers aren’t free to offer alignment tips and adjustments to their students without fear of offending someone. But it does mean that every word, every gesture, and every moment is an opportunity to be encouraging. To make someone feel welcome. To actively avoid discouragement.
Eventually, this kind of environment will lead to the end of classes where certain students are viewed as superior to their fellow students. Good riddance, as far as I’m concerned. This is a glass ceiling that desperately needs to be shattered.
We must all take responsibility for the role we play in a yoga culture which is thoroughly embedded in discrimination and negativity.
We need more than a few people who are proud of their bodies. We need a legion of yoga teachers, administrators and advanced practitioners who truly walk the walk of the eight-limbed path, and who will stop at nothing to spread the practice to every soul across the planet.
Sun Signs Yoga for the Zodiac
Astrology is a wonderful system that can be paired perfectly with your yoga practice. It’s safe to assume that most of us know what our astrological sun sign is, for example, I’m a Scorpio and my son is a Taurus. Each astrological sign represents a part of the body and organs; therefore we can create a yoga practice that focuses on the corresponding body parts and functions that best signifies your astrological sun sign.
The yoga we are most familiar with, the practicing of physical poses or asana, is often called Hatha Yoga. Ha=Sun and Tha=moon. In our yoga practice the sun energy is considered Yang, or energy out. You may hear the phrase, “Shine your Light”, this is indicative of the radiant sun energy pouring out from our heart center. We are taught to look up for most of our asana practice and that is also “sun energy”, which is great.
In astrology we have the Zodiac, which is made up of twelve different sun signs, and your date of birth determines which one you are. Each sign has unique traits lending to our personalities, character traits, motivations, and inclinations. And while there is much more that makes up your full astrological chart, the sun sign is the best place to start as it describes your basic nature and the personality traits that remain consistent through the ups and downs of life. In both yoga and astrology, the sun represents the ego, the self.
With the attention drawn towards your physical body, your astrological sun sign will govern over certain organs and body parts as well as dictate certain emotional patterns and psychological tendencies. We then seek to find the corresponding yoga postures or practices that will help to create more balance and health in your life.
We start with the sun sign of Aries and end with the sun sign Pisces—I would suggest that you try to incorporate some of the poses into your Sadhana, your daily yoga practice.
Aries (March 21st-April 20th)
Aries is a fire element that governs the head and brain and therefore can be prone to headaches, sunstroke, and depression. Indigestion and nervous disorders can be of concern and they’re liable to have accidents and physical injuries due to the “act now, think later” type of approach most are familiar with. Many professional athletes are Aries as they love challenges and coming in first. Aries likes to win and are the “go getters” of the Zodiac. Aries are very action oriented, independent, and aggressive. They have the energy of their ruling planet, Mars, the warrior planet. Sun sign yoga for an Aries would include Virabhadrasana, Warrior Pose, in all variations. While Aries has tremendous power to take action, it is not a sign with a lot of endurance or persistence, it wants to be the pioneer and enter the new territory. However, there is no telling how long they will stick around once they arrive. In the physical sense the warrior postures strengthen your legs, back, hips arms and shoulders as they stretch the muscles of the legs, open the chest and increase your stamina.
Taurus (April 21st-May 21st)
Taurus is an earth element that governs the throat and neck and can be prone to throat infections and respiratory ailments such as asthma. They are said to be at risk for diseases of the liver and kidneys and rheumatism as well. Because Taurus is the most earthly sign of the Zodiac they absolutely love to fully experience all of the physical sensations; touch, taste, smell, etc. They have extreme determination and strength of will and are balanced, stable and unless provoked, are lovers of peace. Taurus is also the sign of beauty and nature with strong aesthetic tastes enjoying art and music. A great yoga pose for the sun sign Taurus is Vrksasana, commonly known as Tree Pose. The earthy feel of being grounded, balanced and centered will resonate with the Taurus energy quite well and is a great pose to help you remain steady in the face of the unexpected. Combining chanting with your yoga pose will help to appease the throat chakra, in which Taurus governs, and bring awareness to the spiritual possibilities.
Gemini (May 22nd- June 21st)
Gemini is an air element that governs the hands, arms, lungs and nervous system. That’s right, there is a lot going on in the sign of the twins. They need to be aware of diseases and accidents associated with the upper body as well as the nervous system and pulmonary disorders. Gemini are prone to taking unnecessary risks and often wind up harming themselves or others in the process. Gemini are very intelligent and have strong analytical minds and love cerebral challenges. Most are outgoing and witty and love to talk as Gemini are the communicators of the Zodiac. Gemini invites us to ignite complimentary opposites, such as night; day, sun; moon, hot; cold, and yoga- Hatha. Because Gemini’s tend to hold tension in their shoulders, poses like Plow (Halasana) and Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) will help to loosen the shoulders and help you sleep better. Drawing your attention to counting your breath can help keep the Gemini mind focused in the present moment while practicing these poses.
Cancer (June 22nd-July 22nd)
Cancer is a water element that governs the chest, breast, stomach and digestion. They can suffer from weak digestion and other stomach ills and there is a tendency to coughs and weakness of vision as well as varicose veins. Most Cancers love their homes and are very loyal to their families with a deep craving to nurture others. They are very intuitive but also emotional, also known as the Crab, they can be downright “crabby” at times. They often pick up on the emotions of others and have a tendency to take on the other person’s emotional state thus leading to unpredictable and severe mood swings as they actually feel what you feel and hurt when you hurt. They are great organizers and have a flare for inventiveness and originality. The Sun Sign Cancer is ruled by the Moon, and therefore the yoga pose, half moon or Ardha Chandrasana, will resonate on a deep level for Cancers. Ardha Chandrasana is both a standing and balancing pose that improves core strength. Another great recommendation would be Pavanamuktasana or Wind Removing Pose, is designed to relieve gas and improve digestion, something all Cancers can benefit from.
Leo (July 23rd-August 21st)
Leo is a fire element that governs the heart, spine, upper back and forearms and its natives are subject to a number of possible ailments from back pain to diseases of the heart and blood. As the most outgoing of all sun signs, Leos are almost always extroverts that are ambitious, courageous, dominant, deliberate, determined, and more often than not, born leaders as well. Leos love to live large and bold but can tend to boastfulness and self-centeredness when out of balance. Leo is ruled by the Sun so your task in life is to let your light shine! Sun Salutations are the perfect sequence of postures for you and seems to be a more natural fit, but you can also benefit from Matsyasana, or Fish Pose which opens the heart.
Virgo (August 22nd-September 23rd)
Virgo is an earth element that governs the central nervous system, spleen, intestines and Virgos can be vulnerable to stomach and bowel troubles as well as nervous instabilities. Their very nature makes them the “worry warts” or worse, the hypochondriacs of the Zodiac. They have an eye for detail and prefer a clean and well organized environment in order to flourish. Lovers of cleanliness and hygiene, they tend to be judgmental or critically inclined of others who do not live up to their expectations. Virgos can be their own worst enemy as they are much harder on themselves then anyone would realize. On the surface they can seem emotionally cold and this is mostly done through an unconscious fear of giving away their emotions freely because they do not trust others, or worse, themselves. Due to their overactive nervous system the best postures for Virgos are going to be of the restorative nature, such as Viparita karani, Legs up the wall pose, however, a supported headstand, Salamba Sirsasana can also be of great benefit for the sun sign Virgo.
Libra (September 24th- October 23rd)
Libra is air element that governs the kidneys, bladder, the lower back lumbar region of the spine and the skin. Although Libras have amazing vitality and are rarely ever sick, their love for sugar and utter disregard for the laws of health may eventually do them in. Libra is the sign of the scales with an emphasis on finding balance, peace and harmony. Known as the relationship sign, Libra is ruled by Venus, the planet of love. Librans are typically intelligent, social and friendly but are also very partner-oriented and loyal to the core- they do not like to be alone. Most have a highly developed artistic side and can be very charming and aesthetically pleasing as well. One of their greatest strengths is the quest for fairness, peace and harmony, which they continuously seek to maintain. A wonderfully balancing yoga practice for Libras would include a breathing exercise called Nadi Shodhana Pranayama. It is an alternate nostril breathing technique that restores balance and harmony to the body, mind and spirit, leaving the Libra to feel most relaxed and at ease.
Scorpio (October 24th-November 22nd)
Scorpio is a water element that governs the pelvis and reproductive systems and can have ailments of the liver, kidneys, bladder and genitals. Scorpio is the symbol of sex and most Scorpios are passionate lovers and are the most sensually energetic, but also most powerful sign of the Zodiac. Ruled by their intense deep emotions, most also possess strong intuition or psychic powers. Scorpio penetrates to the heart of matters with intensity, feeding out the lies, and discarding all that it no longer needs with a passion and power until it transforms into something new and stronger. A great yoga pose for Scorpio would be Ustrasana, or Camel pose. Camel will absorb the Scorpio energy through back bending while stretching and toning the abdominal muscles. Baddha Konasana or Cobbler Pose would be a great option for Scorpio as it creates openness in the pelvis, enhancing the flow of prana through the pelvic floor region.
Sagittarius (November 23rd-December 22nd)
Sagittarius is a fire element that governs the hips, thighs and sacral area and can also be prone to sciatica and to suffer from ailments of the hips and thighs. Certain deficiencies of silicon in their physiques can give them poor skin, nails and hair. Like Aries, a fellow fire sign, Sagittarians are also prone to accidents which arise from sudden dangerous pursuits. Sagittarians are often optimistic and full of enterprise and energy, eager to experience anything beyond the physically familiar. Idealistic in nature, the Sag is most often honest, honorable, generous, and they love anything that has to do with justice. Sagittarians are strong willed and make excellent researchers, having the ability to think rapidly while using their keen intuition. As Sag is ruled by the hips and thighs, Trikonasana, Triangle Pose would help facilitate a nice stretch in the hamstrings, and activate the hips and thighs as well as the spine. Another amazing yoga pose for Sag would be Eka Pada Rajakopotasana, King Pigeon Pose, to gently open the hips.
Capricorn (December 23rd- January 20th)
Capricorn is an earth element that governs the knees, bones and skin, so they may be apt to fractures and strains of the knees and other failings of the legs. Some are prone to skin diseases such as rashes and also digestive upsets may be caused by suppressing their emotions, which Capricorns tend to do. Capricorn is the most reliable and stable signs of the Zodiac and are very independent, strong willed, responsible, practical, cautious and are capable of just about anything they set out to accomplish. Capricorns are the go- to sign for any profession as they’re the most reliable workers, known to be the backbones of many companies. This sign is resourceful, determined and they set high standards for themselves and others. Capricorns are so rational, logical and clear headed that getting them to open up emotionally can prove to be quite the challenge. A great yoga pose for this Earth sign would be King Pigeon Pose, Eka Pada Rajakopotanasana, taking variations that put most of the body in contact with the earth. The pigeon postures stretch and strengthen the hips, thighs, groin and spine. It also helps to open the chest and massage the kidneys and adrenal glands.
Aquarius (January 21st- February 19th)
Aquarius is an air element that governs the legs from knees to ankles and the circulation of blood. Aquarius can be susceptible to cramping in the legs and ankles and can be prone to spasmodic nervous issues, diarrhea, goiter and those that drink alcohol can be prone to delirium tremens. Aquarians are almost always intelligent and logical in their thinking – very clear and concise. Many are psychically intuitive and can be very spiritual. They do not give of themselves easily, and can come across as cold at times, but once deemed worthy of their friendship or love, they can be almost hypnotic and irresistible. Aquarians are very faithful once committed and will undertake huge sacrifices for the ones they love. Preferred yoga poses for Aquarius would include Bridge Pose, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, as Aquarius is a bridge from old to new and symbolizes the transition from past to future all while strengthening the lower back, neck and shoulder muscles . Savangasana, Shoulder Stand, stimulates the thyroid and pituitary glands and provides a stretch to the neck and spine and reverses the flow of blood as well as the direction of gravity on the body.
Pisces (February 20th- March 20th)
Pisces is a water element that governs the lymphatic system, liver and feet as well as skin diseases, gout and inflammation difficulties. Pisces are emotional and very sensitive to the feelings of those around them and have a deep capacity for empathy towards others, even strangers. Pisceans are often gentle, easygoing, and submissive by nature. They often put others before themselves and will adapt to suit others to avoid any sort of confrontation or conflict. Pisces is the dreamer of the Zodiac and tends to withdraw into their own private dreamland. They’re often very intuitive and most possess abundant artistic abilities. Piscean energy is a healing, compassionate and sensitive energy. Yoga for Pisces looks like Fish Pose, Matsyasana, when if practiced in water, enables you to float in the depths of the Piscean energy. Also, with the feet being the focal body point of Pisces, Cobbler Pose, Baddha Konasana, would be appropriate since you bow towards your feet with the option of holding the feet as well.
That concludes our Sun Signs Yoga for all twelve astrological signs, focusing on the Yang energy or Sun energy for the majority of the signs. Equally important is your Moon sign and the Yin Yoga, the Moon energy that helps to balance out the ego and sun energy.