The Vagenda

When Magazines Made Me Hate My Body, Yoga Made Me Love It Again


Before I begin, a disclaimer: sport is not my thing. For most of my time at school, I had a highly unoriginal excuse to get out of it (three periods a month was my personal best.) So I’m not exactly the kind of person you’d describe as ‘active’. Nor am I the type to shop at Wholefoods, think that kale chips are an appropriate substitute to the real thing, or Instagram myself in yoga poses on top of mountains at sunrise and tweet them. In the immortal words of Skepta, That’s Not Me.

Yet, I have found myself hooked on yoga. It’s not just for yummy mummies, new age hipsters and gym aficionados – in fact, all these unhelpful stereotypes that yoga is linked to has obscured the fact that it has been one of the most feminist activities I’ve partaken in. So hear me out.

Through the brilliant vinyasa sessions at Yoga To The People in New York (if anyone has found an equivalent in London, then recommendations welcome!) as well as more traditional hatha yoga back at home in London, I have become more appreciative, aware and accepting of my body – and in turn have been able to give it the compassion and respect it deserves.

Yoga has endowed me with the body confidence that no other exercise – or activity – ever afforded me. It’s made me realise that my body is something to be celebrated and that I should be proud of. I mean, it can’t be an accident that two of the most popular poses are called ‘goddess’ and ‘warrior’. When in the studio doing sun salutations or breathing exercises, I couldn’t give two shits about what everyone else is doing, and how they look compared to me. It’s a brilliant form of me-time where I’m able to focus on my body and my needs, push myself further when I want to, and step back when I don’t. But more importantly, it has given me an opportunity to appreciate, value and connect with it during every stretch, salutation and pose, as well as off the mat. Yes, my body may not be svelte and toned (and is a feeling a little worse for wear post-Christmas party season), but I’ve learnt to appreciate it as a force: something that holds within it strength, flexibility and potential. It’s a continuous process, but yoga has allowed me to develop compassion for myself in a non-competitive and tranquil space. I am no longer going to punish my body for not conforming to my unrealistic expectations of it because if my body can do a plow, then my body is FIERCE and therefore so am I.

While of course each session allows you to practice and perfect each pose, more important is the connection you form with your body and breath. It’s not about competing with others or yourself, but about a deep exploration of your body. It is practice-, rather than goal-oriented. In each session, I learn a little more about how my body works and what it is capable of, and in the process some of my many body hang-ups fall aside.

In that hour, I feel like I know my body infinitely better than a good fifteen years’ worth of imbibing magazines’ expert advice on ‘how to dress for my shape’ or for any man. I don’t believe that I need to starve myself on weird-sounding concoctions anymore. And if the latest look I love is “unflattering”, whatever. If ‘he’ – that omnipresent ‘he’ mentioned sinisterly throughout these magazines – doesn’t appreciate that zebra print jumpsuit that you absolutely adore despite the fact that a) you feel like a BOSS in it, and b) you bought it in a vintage shop where they were playing Haddaway as you stepped in, then he’s probably not worth it anyway.

As anyone who has left yoga class totally blissed-out can testify, yoga cannot be separated from its meditative/mindfulness element – and as more and more scientific research is demonstrating, this is incredibly important. On those days spent in the throes of an existential/quarter-life crisis, where the haters keep on hating and the rat race keeps on racing, where you leave and arrive home from work/unpaid internship in the dark after a shitty commute following a signal failure, have some kind of wardrobe malfunction, and spend no small part of your day contemplating an apocalyptic post-election outcome where the new cycle hire bikes are a questionable shade of UKIP purple … even five minutes in savasana/corpse-pose allows you to distance yourself from the problems, over-projections, and over-analysis. And while I don’t dispute that it is good and important to be angry about things and channel that into something productive, at the same time, for the sake of emotional, mental and physical freedom, meditation allows you to switch off, be in the present, and LET GO of all the irrelevant things that make you sad and stressed. Of which you may well find there are many.

All of these things that yoga cultivates make for better sex (alone or with a partner), and not in a ‘position of the fortnight’, ‘look at how these human beings/Barbie dolls are more flexible than humanly possible’ kind of way. At a recent feminist book club we discussed ‘Vagina’ by Naomi Wolf, and the connections between good yoga and great sex became astoundingly apparent to me – not least as she references the ancient yogic practice of tantra. Yoga serves as a reminder that it’s not just a race to orgasm, pleasing someone else at the expense of yourself, or conforming to a certain ideal of how it’s supposed to be. Sex and yoga can allow us to practice and value intimacy, connectedness, and consciousness of the body and its sensations – engrossing oneself in the moment rather than thinking about what’s for dinner or making a mental to-do list for tomorrow, or just waiting for it to be over or faking it because you’re not feeling it. And in the process, effective yoga practice translated into sex makes for heightened relaxation and arousal – and with it, more confidence, creativity, and all manner of other good things. Might sound new age to you, but it feels pretty great to me.

So to all my fierce goddess warriors, and to any new recruits, here’s to a 2015 free of self-recrimination but full of savasana. If you can’t beat us, join us – and I fully guarantee that you will enjoy it, even if you were the type to have three periods rather than attend gym class.

-Alisha Patel

17 thoughts on “When Magazines Made Me Hate My Body, Yoga Made Me Love It Again

  1. Yes! I’ve had the same experience, more or less. I’m not at all athletic, but yoga makes me feel like I can become strong. The stretches feel so good and help my back. And the breathing and mindfulness help me slow down and de-stress. It’s the only form of exercise I’ve been able to stick with and that I actually enjoy doing. Yoga is non-competitive, so I make sure to do any modifications to poses that my body needs so I don’t hurt myself. It’s about working on my body, from the place where it is at that moment, not from some nebulous “ideal.”

  2. I started going to yoga at the beginning of the year and now I’m absolutely addicted. I love pushing myself, I love the sweat and I love achieving a full pose for the first time. It’s good for the soul

  3. This is something of a tangent, but I recently took up roller derby and I feel very similarly about that to how you do about yoga. I’d never done a sport before (ever. EVEEEEEEER) but the reason I joined the all-female team I did was when I saw them play the diversity in the team genuinely was an asset. It wasn’t just mouth-service to ‘all body shapes are good body shapes’, it was really true? Tiny and stocky? That can be useful. Got an ass that covers half the track? That can be useful too. Built like a wisp of grass? A brick house? A ballet dancer? A rhinoceros? You can make that shape work for you and your team. It was a real eye-opener for me in terms of how I think about my body and what it can do. Yeah, I’ll never be a graceful slender fairy-like being, but I can knock you to the floor with my shoulder and that’s pretty good!

  4. Ugh i’ll bet y’all are white. Do you feel more privileged having robbed a culture off its heritage? Just because you can?

  5. I feel disappointed that you haven’t acknowledged the issue of cultural appropriation surrounding yoga. It’s fine you do it, but a little statement of awareness would go far.

  6. I agree with Fen. It’s disappointing that the issue of cultural appropriation in yoga isn’t acknowledged at all here.

    Other than that, nice article. I have had a similar experience with Egyptian dance (which has similar appropriation issues, too…) – it helped me to enjoy physical exercise for its own sake after really hating PE at school. There are so many activities that can create a more healthy, mindful relationship with exercise and the body, when taught well. Anything that allows you to work with your body as it currently is, developing your skills, without shaming or humiliating you or expecting you to reach unrealistic goals…

  7. I feel the same about rock climbing! Since I started climbing I have tonnes of motivation to go the gym- more ever than when my motivation was “to look good” now I want to go because I want to train and get stronger for when I am on the wall. It gives me an enormous sense of wellbeing and pride in my body. Surely the key is to find a form of exercise that you genuinely enjoy and do it because of that and that alone.

  8. My chap and I thoroughly enjoy going to see roller derby games! My friend has a mechanic heart and she’s a ref in stripes, two of my partners friend play. One buddy ( male) joined to meet women but now loves it for what it is and all thoughts of meeting someone that way are out the window. He refs on the women’s team and skates on the fellas. His friend GemARRRGH is a great player. There’s such diversity and body positivity!

    Also, not too shabby that I won cupcakes on a raffle that raised money for a food bank and for an anorexia charity. AND I was stood next to a very hairy, beardy, tall man who when he won on the raffle, “YEAH! WHISKY STONES!”… It was never like that at the raffles and fairs my mum took me to with little old people winning 16pence bodywash or a nail file =P

  9. I can’t wait to test Yoga to the People here in Bk (one evening on my way home from unpaid internship…)! You’ve inspired me even more now :)

  10. Haha, awesome. Yes, there’s usually a good supply of cakes at these things, despite the fact we’d swear bling we are a ‘real sport’ :D

  11. I can´t help but to agree with some of the comments here. Besides the cultural appropiation, yoga is extremely overpriced (at least in London), so the activity becomes available only to those who can afford it, making it a “middle upper class treat”. I always thought feminism has to recognize in its base class issues, and has to analyze general access to certain benefits. Right now, I can’t afford to pay for yoga classes, so I do them at home with my computer, but I know that not many women have access to technology as me. Besides, some women are worried about problems like domestic violence when it comes to their bodies, so I believe yoga is the last thing on their minds. Yoga is NOT a universal solution, because it doesn´t grant universal access.

    Having said that, I also agree that this is a nice article, and I do believe yoga is good for our bodies. Like someone said, it could have been good to refer to the cultural and monetary issues.

  12. Hi Bell, I understand your concerns but just to let you know: I believe the writer of this article, Alisha Patel, is actually a woman of colour.

  13. Hi Danila – I go to yoga at the council gyms in central London and it costs me £5 a two hour session. If you’re looking for somewhere affordable that isn’t mentioned in the article, I can’t recommend the Better gyms around Holloway Road, Highbury, Archway, etc, enough. Their yoga programmes are very cheap and really wonderful.

  14. I thought this article was beautifully done and it really hit home with me. I’m glad yet another person is learning to love and be okay with her body!

    As for the comments on cultural appropriation… well, that’s not what the article was about. It was simply about using a particular tool (in this case yoga) to make a lasting and positive change in a person’s life, outlook and “in look.” Should we be upset that cultural appropriation wasn’t dealt with here or the price of yoga classes not mentioned? How about the cost of clothes appropriate to yoga? Or about the cost to the environment of those clothes, the cost of travel to and from classes or any other number of issues associated with yoga? Sure! These are all valid and important things to talk about and each one is worth an article (or ten) on its own.

    But that’s not what this article was about. It was simply about one person finding a way to learn to accept herself the way she is and THAT is a good thing, worth writing about and worth accepting just on its own. This is a goal worth pursuing whether we use yoga or dance or walking or meditation or knitting or day dreaming or throwing clay or whatever positive pursuit that enables us to even begin to contemplate this goal in an open hearted way. Everything we do has a potentially negative aspect to it- but sometimes it’s okay to just focus on the good.

  15. I chose yoga and do it following YouTube videos As with in person yoga classes, there are great YouTube channels and not so great ones. It is worth it to try some beginner classes and see if you like it, then commit, and look for a drop-in class or two to work on improving your form. Both can work together really well.

  16. Couldn’t agree more with your comment!

    I also just started yoga and I am loving it. As mentioned above somewhere I am doing to it from home with a lovely instruction from Yoga With Adriene on YouTube. Now I am looking into a drop in class to see what that’s like but I love my journey at home so far!!