It’s hard to deny that there’s something about a bleached-out yummy mummy storming her spandex-clad ass full-speed into a yoga studio, Starbucks travel mug in tow, that just completely slaughters the idea of love and unity.
–From this Vice article, which seems to be written by a white person and is missing some basic punctuation occasionally but is mildly hilarious
First of all: workout videos on the internet are generally awful. They’re like those ’80s jazzercize videos featuring a bunch of people who are ridiculously more fit than you are but pretend like you can be.
Lies. They’re all lies.
This video in particular is both hilarious and extremely culturally appropriating with its “b-ball” white ladies (with the one occasional token black woman to prove that they’re “diverse”) snapping on a choreographed beat in Lakers’ jerseys, completely ignoring that jazz both is specifically from American black culture and focuses on syncopation, improvisation, and communication–essentially, everything that that video is not. The modern equivalent of jazzercize is Popsugar videos featuring celebrity trainers and “workout host”s promising in the title that you, too, can look like a Victoria’s Secret model.
As retired dancer, of course, I’m hyper-aware of how toxic such thinking can be to one’s health. Working out because you’re trying to look a certain way–instead of working out to feel healthy and energetic–leads to eating disorders and injuries. Western culture consistently focuses on how we look as a way to motivate us to move: whereas earlier societies required movement for staying alive, our modern society no longer requires regular movement for basic survival. So instead we use vanity as a motivating factor. We ask ourselves:
Don’t you want to be beautiful, as defined by our constantly shifting, unrealistic standards of what bodies should look like, hyper-sexualized and airbrushed?
–to which the only societally acceptable answer is yes. We shame ourselves into exercising. We shame ourselves into contorting our bodies into ways our body is not naturally meant to be.
It’s worse with mirrors, and modern Western culture is full of those. In ballet, they’re expressly used to perfect your alignment, to show where your butt is sticking out or whether your hip isn’t rotated outward enough or to expose how low your arabesque is, and, by proxy, how underdeveloped your lower-back muscles are. In ballet, it’s good if you receive corrections, bad if you don’t.
Put another way: a teacher pointing out your flaws and telling you how to fix them is a student’s primary goal in ballet, making sporadic praise feel substantial and euphoric.
The environment is competitive, aided by the mirrors: you’re in class not to feel good, but to achieve an ideal at least as well as everyone else, if not better. You’re there to challenge yourself. You’re there to make the impossible possible.
It’s no wonder dancers have such a high rate of eating disorders. We’re practically handed systematic low self-esteem on a plate. There’s a neverending pursuit of “perfection,” of taking overt control over your body, of coaxing it by force to do incredible things, and the elitist draw of knowing that you’re among the exclusive batch of people who have the power to do so. Athletes consistently undergo this kind of self-traumatizing thinking, all with different goals in mind*.
Plenty of workouts-for-the-modern-person focus similarly on this self-esteem thing. (I went to a bar-method class once and was horrifically appalled at how I was essentially being trained to injure myself; this writer was turned off from the lack of results and the emphasis on achieving “perfection.”) Working out is about amplifying and enhancing our bodies, not about working with our bodies to make sure they’re strong enough to survive, limber enough to move and adjust with old age, and participate in life.
Therefore, I felt lazy when I started pregnancy workouts. There’s a more limited range of motion that’s considered “safe” for pregnancy, and the first thing I learned about working out during pregnancy is that pregnancy isn’t the time to push your body, because your body is already pushing itself.
Which brings me to yoga.
Ironically, immediately after pregnancy, it’s all back to normal: barre-method-style workout shops even advertise directly to new moms in hopes of luring them back to “getting fit” by shaming their new mom-bods:
Fun customer quote, featured on their website:
“These last 10 pounds will probably be the hardest to lose but every week I feel like I’m looking a little bit better and better.”
The class’s description focuses on the weight-gain women experience while, you know, growing an entire human. It implies, much like Justin Timberlake implies that I’ve lost my sexy and that he has to bring it back, that you’ve lost your body:
Here, some Pure Barre studio owners and new moms themselves share insights on how the technique has helped them — and many clients — get their bodies back.
But you know what? I don’t have to get my body “back,” because my body never left.
THAT’S RIGHT, JT. SEXY NEVER LEFT. STICK THAT IN YOUR JUICE BOX AND SUCK IT.
Anyway, back to yoga.
It’s been commonly established that Western modern yoga–particularly in our watered-down exploitation of this 2,500-year-old Indian cultural practice for body-building and “ab-flattening, waist-cinching, booty-strengthening” purposes–is a form of cultural appropriation. But the best part about yoga is that it’s intended to be all-encompassing. As first-generation-American yoga teacher Rina Deshpande writes in Self:
Growing up in Florida as a first-generation Indian American, I was raised to practice yoga, but it never required breaking a sweat, nor did it involve special attire or equipment. My family learned yoga by lecture and practice, but mostly it was embedded—hidden, really—in everything we did. This is because true yoga is not just a workout. Yoga, meaning “union” in Sanskrit, has many forms. But classically, it is an ancient Indian philosophy espousing an eight-limbed approach to conscious living.
I feel really stupid, a lot of times, practicing my YouTube-style yoga as a white-passing pregnant woman in my Pasadena living room. Yes, I do use yoga primarily as a form of exercise–but for the most part, I take it as a way to also practice mindfulness. It’s a form of self-acceptance, of daring to love oneself. And it’s changed how I feel about exercise in general. I’m no longer exercising to build specific muscles or to shape my body in a specific way, especially because I no longer have a full-length-mirror-lined room with which to judge myself.
Instead, I now exercise with my baby in mind: because she is connected to me, and not by her own choice, I have to choose to provide health for myself so that she can receive that same health. I cannot let my anxiety rule me or run me over. I cannot criticize my body, and despite my last couple of posts, I absolutely must find a way to make peace with it.
It’s helped me focus more on being than looking like I’m being. And that’s the most radical thing I can do–for both myself and for my child.
I’d like to try to learn more about the history of yoga and reading more from yogic texts. Thank you, India, and thank you to Indian immigrants for bringing holistic mindfulness and whole-body, whole-spirit energy to the US, to people like me who so desperately need this kind of culture. I apologize on behalf of our (yours and mine) country for ignoring the tradition from where this revolutionary-to-Americans practice comes.
I hope that the love-yourself-and-your-body-for-where-you-are-right-now mentality of prenatal yoga lasts well into motherhood. At the very least, I can try to make that happen.
*Unrelated, but: I always think it’s funny how you see plenty of YouTube videos with American-football players doing ballet and realizing how tough it is but you never see ballerinas on the field playing American football. This may be because of the risk of muscular or tendon tears, since football players are significantly higher-paid and have ridiculously better healthcare than professional ballet dancers, and such tears can be career-ending and leave ballet dancers in poverty whereas an injury for a football player may have much lower consequences. Regardless, I have a theory that a bunch of professional ballet dancers playing football would be hilarious not because of how dainty it would look but because of how rough-and-tumble ballet dancers are and how surprised football players would be that dancers won’t stop for things like blood or injuries.)