5 Ways Yoga Improves Body Image / by Lauren Minear

Cultivating a yoga practice can help you heal your relationship with your body.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), body image is defined as "how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind". It includes beliefs about your appearance, feelings about your shape and size, and how you feel in your body when you move.

Those with negative body image describe having a distorted perception of their shape or size; feelings of shame, self-consciousness, or anxiety about their body; feelings of discomfort or awkwardness in their body; and body hatred, feeling that their body is unattractive and a sign of failure.

Positive body image involves having an accurate perception or your size, shape, and parts; an acceptance of your body's natural shape; an understanding and acceptance of the fact that a person's character is not defined by how they look; feelings of pride about your unique shape; a refusal to spend a lot of time worrying about food and weight; and a feeling of confidence and comfort in the body.

I find, and research supports, that practicing yoga helps to cultivate positive body image. It does so by teaching the skills necessary to have a neutral or enjoyable embodied experience. The objectification and sexualization of bodies by the media is undeniable and overwhelming. We cope by internalizing it, viewing our own bodies with the same critical, hyper-sexualized eye as does the media that we consume. The yoga practice brings us inside of ourselves and back in touch with our subjective awareness so that we are free to choose what we want based on how we feel rather than based on how we think we appear to others.

1. Relaxation

Complete physiological relaxation takes about ten minutes. I find that many people have never experienced it before practicing yoga. Simply feeling the release of control is can be ground breaking for anyone who spends energy scanning the environment for cues or wondering "how do I look?". One of my clients had a major breakthrough when she relaxed for the first time in a restorative yoga pose, tasting a moment of compassion for herself that enticed her to continue her work.

2. Body Awareness

Objectification takes us out of the body. It instructs us to look outside of ourselves for cues about when to eat, sleep, drink, and feel. Mindful movement through yoga poses asks the practitioner to observe physical sensations in the body without judgement, which increases attunement to and discernment between internal cues in daily life (e.g. hunger, fullness, fatigue, boredom).

3. Body Responsiveness

Noticing the body leads to responding to the body. The yoga practice invites practitioners to listen to their bodies, to respect painful sensations, neutral sensations, & pleasurable sensations. (I find that this concept feels vague to many people. Click here to watch a video discussion of me and Kathryn C. Holt addressing what it means to listen to the body, as well as how to do it).

4. Frustration Tolerance

Yoga asks people to challenge the physical body to hold postures that are at times uncomfortable, while soothing and regulating the emotions that come up during discomfort. The practice of sitting with discomfort with the knowledge that it will end is incredibly healing.

5. Boundary-setting

Practicing yoga is all about respecting personal boundaries - pushing oneself, but not to the point of breaking; opening one's heart, but not to the point of harm. Body image sufferers are more attuned to what others expect of them than they are to what they need. The yoga practice cultivates the practice of self care.

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