Body Positive, Body Inclusive, Body Neutral Yoga

Making yoga more inclusive, accessible, and challenging diet culture in yoga and beyond.

with Heather Agnew, ERYT-500, Lead Trainer

Watch the video, or read a few discussion notes below, along with some recommended resources.

Body Positive, Body Inclusive, Body Neutral Yoga

To begin, I wanted to talk about a few definitions, what is body positivity, body neutrality, and body inclusivity, and diet culture?

What is body positivity?

The Body positivity movement is about loving our bodies regardless of our shape or size, or our color, gender expression or ability. This movement began in the 60’s to challenge beauty standards as a social construct that is arbitrary and inconsistent, and deeply tied to capitalism.

Quick side note: There is a lot of money to be made through perpetuating body negativity – hating your body, your body parts, or how your body functions.

What is body neutrality?

Body neutrality is about appreciating what our bodies can do, not what our bodies look like.  You might think of body neutrality as a middle-of-the-road approach between body positivity and body negativity. It’s not about loving or hating your body – just having acceptance and respect for your body and prioritizing how we care for our bodies, rather than how they look.

The key difference between body positivity and body neutrality is in the idea of value.

Body Positivity says you are beautiful no matter what you look like.

Body Neutrality says it doesn’t matter whether you think your body is beautiful or not, your value is not tied to what you look like.

Body Neutrality might be practiced by letting go of the diet culture talk, which can fuel disordered thinking about what we eat, how we move, what our bodies look like, and what our value is. We’ll talk about this more today.

What is body inclusivity?

It’s a movement that promotes acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities.  This has been a particularly important movement in the fashion industry, as more and more brands have made size inclusivity a part of their business practice. In yoga, this might show up as offering options for all bodies, providing pose versions, props, and languaging for all bodies.

Criticisms of body positivity:

Body Positivity can sometimes be seen as ‘toxic positivity’, imposing a mindset on people without recognizing the reality that we have all been conditioned to a certain extent to see our bodies as a reflection of our inner life, our values, and morals. This is part of yoga culture as well as our wider society.

Because this is the society we exist in, not recognizing that can be harmful. For many of us, unconditionally loving our bodies regardless of their appearance is a hard ask.  The other criticism of the body positivity movement is that it has, in the past, not been inclusive of people with disability and the LGBTQ community.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture is an inconsistent lens through which our bodies, our health, and our wellbeing is viewed in society.  I say inconsistent because if you look at the ‘ideal body’ through history there are huge swings of the pendulum from curvy to thin, from waiflike to athletic and muscular, swinging back and forth over and over again.

Diet culture equates health with weight, shape, and size. It relies on the belief that “health” is a simple act of personal responsibility rather than relying on a combination of a variety of factors, including personal factors like race and genetics, and communal factors like access to food, education, movement, and public health.

Diet culture tells us that a larger body is inherently unhealthy, and a thinner body is inherently healthy and superior.  We know this isn’t true, but it’s a belief that’s been around a long time and has been hard to shift, particularly in this time of social media.

If you are as old as I am, you’ve been through various swings of that pendulum, from the aerobics queens and shoulder padded power suits of the 80’s, to heroin chic and waif ideal of the 90’s, to the JLo and Beyonce era of juicier behinds.  Know that capitalism benefited from, and in many cases created these ideals to sell us push up bras, low rise jeans, diet pills and plastic surgery.

Diet culture impacts everyone

I want to mention at this point that while we often talk about this subject in the context of its impact on women, diet culture affects all people.

Let’s look at how the American Council on Exercise definition of diet culture to understand how this might impact people of all ages, genders, and sizes:

“Diet Culture

  • Conflates body size and health – pathologizing some body sizes and shapes
  • Encourages following external rules about what, when and how much to eat.
  • Suggests that people are more or less good/moral/worthy based on their body size.
  • Creates thin privilege, which makes thinness a gatekeeper for things like jobs, benefits, comfort and accommodation.
  • Suggests movement as punishment for, or prevention of, being larger, rather than for other reasons like fun or personal goals.
  • Views people in larger bodies as less valuable and emphasizes that the goal of being thin is worth the risk of losing their lives.”

Diet culture and size exclusion in yoga

In yoga, we see the most common media representation of a yogi as a thin, white, conventionally attractive woman.  This excludes a lot of folks who start to feel like yoga isn’t for them if they don’t fit that mold.  So, who does that exclude?

It excludes people in bigger bodies, older bodies, different gender expressions, different abilities, men and boys, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (even excluding native yoga practitioners from India or of Indian heritage.)

Yoga has a problem with diet culture, which is woven into amongst other problems like the pervasiveness of bio-medical-miracle claims, anti-science narratives, and beliefs that are both overt and subtle that your body has to look a certain way, move a certain way, be able to do certain movements etc. in order for you to have value.

Yoga culture, at least modern postural yoga, has created a false connection between thinness or asana ability and health, spirituality, or morality.

Even the narrative around vegetarianism can be harmful – not everyone can or wants to be vegetarian, and vegetarianism isn’t inherently more ‘yogic’.

The message is that if you just do these movements, eat these foods, live this lifestyle, you too can look like a Yoga Journal cover model or InstaYogi.  That’s just not the case.  There are many factors including genetics, history of movement, and of course airbrushing.

Also, consider that the pervasiveness of these narratives can impose goals onto your students that they may not have come to yoga with.  Some people are there just to be in their bodies and move joyfully, and here they are being hit with more messages that their bodies aren’t acceptable, that to feel joy in their bodies they first have to change them.

There’s nothing wrong with being thin or being perceived as fit, there’s nothing wrong with having goals around weight loss or fitness. The problem lies in the expectation that all yogis look a certain way, and that all people are taking part in yoga, or fitness, or movement, in order to meet a particular physical goal.

How do we change the narrative?

Begin with changing your own relationship to yoga media, model self acceptance in your classes, let go of talk about fixing or changing our bodies through yoga or meditation or nutrition.  In fact, we don’t have to talk about diet or nutrition at all, that’s not our role.

The messaging that consumers receive from the yoga media, social media, and even in our classes, is that there is a right way to do yoga and look like a yogi.  This can lead to disordered eating or disordered thinking around food and exercise.  This includes ideas around purifying, toxins, and ‘clean eating’ which can lead to disorders like orthorexia.

A few strategies to make your classes more inclusive:

Social media strategies

  • Follow teachers and leaders who speak up on issues of diet culture, fatphobia, body neutrality, ableism, and racism in yoga.
  • Boost voices of teachers who are making yoga more accessible and welcoming, those who celebrate all bodies in yoga
  • Share your own messages, posts, and images about inclusion.
  • “You can’t be what you can’t see”. Representation matters. Use images in your marketing and social media of all different types of bodies – different ages, races, shapes, sizes, abilities, etc.
  • Strike up conversations about how yoga is for everyone, and how we are working towards yoga being more inclusive.

Languaging strategies

  • Watch your language – let go of old jokes like ‘burning off Christmas dinner’ and ‘sweat is just your fat crying’.
  • Call out harmful rhetoric when you encounter it
  • Talk about the joy of moving, being with your body, finding your own intention for practice, celebrating how good it feels to move and breath and rest in ease – rather than speaking excessively about goals, changing your body, valuing a different kind of body.

Teaching strategies:

Provide pose versions, props and options that will suit all bodies, if you don’t know how to make room in a pose for bigger body parts, learn from some experts.

Consider using language like ‘if you need more space’, ‘to find more ease’, ‘give your body some room’ when offering regressions, props, and pose versions.

If you are teaching adults, you don’t have to pretend that people aren’t in bigger bodies – if you need more space for boobs and bellies try…

Don’t assume people can find bony landmarks, try to find some alternative landmarks for things like front hip bones (ASIS)

A few quick pose examples:

  • If you need some more space in Child’s Pose, add some bricks under your elbows or your seat, cuddle a bolster, or rest over the seat of a chair.
  • To take some weight off your arms in DWD, or give your body more room to step through into Warrior 1, add bricks under your hands.
  • If your belly is in the way in Seated Forward Fold, lift your belly up over your thighs, or widen your legs a bit to give yourself some more space.
  • If you’d like a more comfortable reach, add a strap around your shins in Reclining Pigeon, Reclining Forward Fold, Wind Relieving Pose, or any binds.

In closing

I’m so glad that we had the opportunity to share a conversation today about body positivity, body neutrality, and body inclusivity. We covered a lot of ground in our discussion, and it’s completely natural if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed initially. It’s important to recognize that we’ve been immersed in a diet culture our whole lives, and this has deeply ingrained certain beliefs, narratives, and stereotypes within us and society as a whole. Overcoming these ingrained notions can be challenging.

Creating a positive change will require conscious awareness and consistent effort. We must reframe how we discuss bodies during our classes, ensure that our offerings are accessible to all, rethink how yoga is portrayed on social media, and work towards creating an environment within yoga where every individual feels welcomed and celebrated.

As leaders in yoga, this process of learning and transformation is ongoing, and I’m truly grateful to be a part of this journey together with you.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

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