by Jessie Horness
Every time I teach a yoga class not full of my regulars, this happens:
“Wait, you want us facing AWAY from the mirror?” Cue lots of confused shuffling.
It’s kind of like my own personal, “It’s bigger on the inside!” Call me traditional (please!), but I like the focus of my yoga turned inwards, not out. This is a pretty well-known fact ‘round these parts, so when I got an e-mail asking me to sub a “Yoga Sculpt” class, I knew they were getting pretty desperate. And while I cringed a little at the idea — I’m an early-twenties yoga instructor with an acting degree — I can’t really afford to turn down work.
Going in, I knew I was not going to be exactly who they were expecting. I knew we’d have the usual mind-blown confusion about the mirrors (what is the obsession with watching ourselves sweat, exactly?). I knew that people would get a little fidgety when I asked them to sit with their eyes closed. I also knew, almost 100%, that the entire class would be women. I was right.
One by one, about fifteen women trickled in and set up their mats. Yes, yoga in the West tends to be pretty female dominated, but in a good-sized class like that I usually get at least one token dude. Coming from the Ashtanga world, I’m used to practicing in a pretty equally mixed group. But Yoga Sculpt is not for men. Yoga Sculpt is of the world of body-as-project that is almost quintessentially female.
(BEFORE YOU GET YOUR PANTIES IN A TWIST: I know body image is an issue for men — and it’s getting worse all the time as the media directs more and more unattainable beauty standards at men everyday. Gender constructs oppress us all. But I want to talk about a way they oppress women here. Simmer down.)
Carve, shape, mold, form, and fashion. These are the thesaurus’s synonyms for sculpt, words that lean more towards making pretty things, not necessarily useful ones. Yoga Sculpt is essentially an art class where the medium is the human form.
Here’s what I have to say to that: My body is not an art project.
There was a time when it was, or considered it to be. When I counted every calorie and based my daily workouts on how many meals I could burn off. When running was about nice legs and core work was about a flat stomach. My body became a block of marble and I, an obsessive perfectionist sculptor, attempted to create David in feminine form. Almost every woman has been there to one degree or another. Sometimes I still go there. But I do my best to let my rational mind send it away. Yoga has helped a lot with that. But that yoga was certainly not in the world of “yoga sculpt.”
The yoga I know doesn’t have time for that shit. It’s too busy trying to control the fluctuations of the mind. It’s yoga that believes that if I’m focusing my energy on how good Utkatasana (often called Chair Pose) is going to make my ass look, then I’m not practicing the one-pointed concentration that is the root of all yogic practice. If I’m thinking about how Navasana (Boat Pose) is going to sculpt my stomach for swimsuit season, my attention isn’t on my breath, and my thoughts, which I am supposed to be starting the process of stepping away from, have pulled me back into the frenetic mind and away from the eternal steadiness of the Self. When these things come up, the framework in which I have been taught to practice teaches me to pay attention to what is going on in my mind, using the physical practice as a training ground to undo thought habits like these that are not conducive to growth. Placing my attention on the aesthetic results takes away from the deeper task at hand.
It’s scarily similar to “The Beauty Myth”’s proposition that encouraging women to focus their energies on achieving impossible beauty standards artfully removes their focus from claiming power in society. Think of all the other things we could do with mental and physical resources we expend treating the body like an art project. The same way turning the focus of yoga postures towards sculpting the body deflects energy from the deeper work at hand, constantly treating it as a project to be perfected expends energy that could be used taking on our goals and building big things.
If nothing else, the concept of a class like Yoga Sculpt takes away the amazing potential of the body as a tool. Yogic philosophy, with roots in the Hindu concept of reincarnation, tells us that taking human form is a rare and beautiful opportunity. When you stop treating your body as something to be tamed, embodiment becomes really fucking cool. You have this incredible vessel with which you get to move through the world. Even if you’re not seeing it as an access point on a journey to higher spiritual planes, the body is amazing beyond aesthetics. I’ve seen many “well-sculpted” bodies that have no practical strength, and many bodies that, without consideration to aesthetics, have learned to do mind-blowing things.
My body is not an art project, and it is stronger and healthier now than it ever was in the days when I treated it as one. My journey through practice is constantly teaching me just how strong I can be, inside and out, and how much my energies can create if focused correctly. It’s time to stop wasting our resources sculpting our bodies and channel them into sculpting a better world.
It’s time to turn our backs on the mirror.
Jessie Horness is an Ashtanga practitioner and yoga instructor (though she is happiest as a student) proud to live in beautiful Northern Michigan. Off the mat, she loves playing with words, whether that means writing them or reading them, and exploring the world on as many adventures as possible. The path to her heart is paved with witty conversation, quality music, and vegan milkshakes.