What is the Yoga Shame Game? It’s a subtle “I am more yogic than you” communication that exists in advertising, on social media and, yes, even in the studio.

A yoga studio should be a place where we have the opportunity to practice self-love, according to Melanie Klein, a women’s studies professor at California’s Santa Monica College and co-author of Yoga & Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery and Loving Your Body. “The mat and the meditation cushion are spaces in which we can disconnect from the outer cacophony and connect to the inner space we inhabit. This ability to be present goes hand in hand with practicing and developing compassion, forgiveness and self-acceptance,” she says.

But positivity and presence are often not the feeling students leave class with, or experience while searching #Yoga on Instagram. Sometimes there are subtle instructions, comparisons or proclamations that leave us feeling shamed in the very place we came to feel empowered. Many of us have figured out how to ignore these shame traps, but some persist, subtly and effectively. Here’s what to watch out—and not fall—for.

3 Things to Watch Out For While Practicing Yoga

1. Body Comparison

Many yoga teachers, like myself, left the perfection-seeking fitness industry to feel better about our bodies as they are right now, and we got into yoga. Then we discovered that the yoga industry is filled with female stereotypes of perfect beauty, which could again lead to negative feelings about ourselves—if we let them. The term “yoga body” now is meant to signify toned and tight arms, legs, abs and glutes, with idealized images of the flexible physiques of white yoginis on the covers of popular yoga magazines.

While some yoga instructors and other students may be genetically proportioned or flexible, which is what drew them to yoga in the first place, this is not the way every body works or looks. Embrace your natural shape. None of us should do yoga to become beautiful, but to realize that we already are beautiful.

2. Achieving “Advanced” Yoga Poses

The advanced yoga posture, like a handstand or complex arm balance, is billed as “playful” by some teachers. But the only ones laughing are those who have mastered these poses. For many students, the attempt and failure to achieve an advanced pose doesn’t really boost self-esteem—it crushes it.

On top of that, teachers may suggest that mastery of a pose is dependent on how much a student practices. However, if a student practices day after day, week after week, and still can’t do a handstand after two or 10 years, she will feel less confident, not more.

While these yoga teachers may be sincere in wanting to help their students, the pedagogy is fundamentally flawed. Pushing a student to his or her edge is shaming in its own way; it’s shaming their practice. Students inevitably fall into what is called the Attachment (raga)/Aversion (dves’a) cycle. They are happy when they can do a pose and shamed when they can’t.

As a yoga student, instead perhaps challenge yourself to practice daily, breathe more smoothly and keep your mind in the room while you practice. It’s enough. There is nothing wrong with challenge, but when challenge is defined by getting one’s body into a specific pose, it is not sustainable. Even if we can do it temporarily, we won’t be able to do it forever. If we equate success as “doing the pose,” we are in real trouble.

3. The “I Love My Body” Mantra

Body shaming and body glorifying are two sides of the same coin. We all know that if we substitute one extreme with another, the pendulum eventually swings back. Talking ourselves into self-love often feels like just that—talk. Oftentimes, we secretly don’t believe it, and then, in a vulnerable moment, our self-doubt and self-deprecation return. Body glorifying as a cure for body shaming simply does not work.

Here’s why “I love my body” and “I hate my body” hold the same flaw: The “I.” One of the goals of yoga is transcendence of the “I.” While there are many definitions of yoga, from a Vedic/Upanishadic perspective, the point of the practice is to remember that, yes, there is an Individual soul (Atman), but it is comprised of an Infinite reality (Brahman). The Upanishads give us the famous “Mahavakyas” (Four Great Sayings) that teach us “I am That.” The practice of yoga is not meant to make us feel bad or good, but to help us experience the Individual merging with the Infinite. This is where the “We are all one” concept comes from. If “it is all one,” I can neither be beautiful nor ugly—I am both, and neither.

Many years later, the Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali affirmed this idea in defining the final stage of yoga as Dissolution (samadhi). It is when we dissolve our identity as an individual that we experience liberation (moksha). These yogis understood early on that saying, “I am Great” was just as perilous as saying, “I am Terrible.”

So recognize that repeating the mantra, “I love my body,” can be a trap. And remember that anything we love can quickly turn to hate and vice versa.

Setting Yourself Free Through Your Thinking

There are no yogic texts that declare that having a beautiful body is the goal. In fact, the Yoga Shastra of Dattatreya, one of the most preeminent texts ever written about yoga, states that having a beautiful body is an inevitable side effect of yoga and is actually a liability! It proclaims: “The yogi looks like the god of love; then a great obstacle can arise if he is not careful.”

Our bodies (and our feeling about our bodies) are all temporary—they will come and go. The goal of the yoga student is to connect with what lies beyond these emotions, beneath the physical form. Rather than declaring that we should love ourselves, or comparing our bodies or physical prowess to others, it is turning our attention away from “I, Me, Mine” that will set us free.

Questions to Free Yourself from Body Shaming

To help free yourself from these traps and to open up a dialogue, consider journaling about these questions or share your thoughts in the comments here:

  • What is this body that I am ashamed of?
  • Whose body is it really?
  • Who is the “I” that is feeling this way?
  • If “I” were to take the shape of a different form, how might I feel?
  • Do I think that if I did take that form, how long might I feel that way? How long would it take before I found a flaw in that shape? At what age would I start to Shame Game myself again?
  • Have I tried to convince myself that the shape I am is beautiful as it is right now? Has it worked? Why or why not?
  • If it has worked, do I think it will last? At what point do I feel/not feel beautiful?
  • Why does “feeling beautiful” matter to me?
  • What does “feeling beautiful” even mean to me?
  • If I am seeking “feeling beautiful,” what would “feeling ugly” mean? What qualifies as ugly?
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About the author

Sara Elizabeth Ivanhoe celebrated 20 years of teaching yoga by graduating with the inaugural class from Loyola Marymount University with a master’s degree in yoga philosophy. Shes highlighted in the acclaimed documentary Titans of Yoga and Women of Bhakti and is one of the few teachers certified by the Green Yoga Association to teach Yoga and Ecology.