Strong is the New Skinny

A body made strong and supple through yoga is becoming the new ideal for both women and men
Chandrika Gibson finds that yoga plays a key role in achieving the latest body ideal

It seems the fitness world has shifted focus from the hard bodies of the 1980s and the super skinny 90s to the new era of defined muscularity combined with suppleness and graceful strength for males and females alike. The latest mantra among the health and body-conscious set is, 'Strong is the new skinny'. It's refreshing to find an actual element of fitness front and centre, rather than a superficial image, as all types of bodies can develop strength and it is better displayed through action than appearance. Yoga is at the forefront of this movement with displays of phenomenal strength a part of many images of yoga.

The media, both mainstream and the online plethora of blogs and news sites, have embraced this new ideal. Through social media, the New York Giants football team can be seen putting their heavily muscled bodies through a challenging vinyasa class; a controversial Equinox ad shows Briohny Smith practising a strong and graceful yoga vinyasa (in her underwear, hence the controversy about the sexing up of yoga); and the image that accompanies 'Strong is the new skinny' is a glistening, sculpted woman performing something like a combination of a gymnastics pommel horse move and yoga posture mayurasana (peacock pose), her muscular legs, arms and back on display. Celebrities have long endorsed yoga; Madonna says she used it to prepare for her recent Superbowl half time performance, Gwyneth Paltrow and Christy Turlington, Sting and lately Adam Levine all credit their impressive physiques to yoga.

How does all this body consciousness fit into the ancient traditions of yoga? And is physical strength something to aspire to? Yoga scholars frequently point out that asana is a very small aspect of the large body of classical and pre-classical yoga literature. The illustrated images of yoga postures tend to appear from the early 20th century on, with very little evidence of a physical yoga culture in the ancient texts. Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body - The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010), is not alone in his assertion that yoga was influenced by physical culture regimes from Europe and America in order to evolve into its modern form. All the scholars agree that what we now associate with the word yoga is light years away from its origins. While the popular styles of yoga around the world now endeavour to build the other seven limbs of Patanjali's eight limbed system into classes in some way, our focus is on the postures we see represented and the bodies performing them.

Could this be indicative of a superficial society? Traditional yoga teachers would probably think so. Coming from the Indian culture there was rarely need for yoga for weight loss due to excess food, and most people had physically active lifestyles. Women, in particular, have traditionally (and still today) carried great loads on their heads, washed clothes and linen by hand and carried children while working. Only the very wealthy or Westernised needed formal exercise as daily life was vigorous enough. The film Yogawoman, currently screening around Australia, describes the way yoga shifted from a male dominated activity to a largely female activity when it spread through the developed world. In some periods of Indian history, women have also been known as great yoga teachers, but males have commonly held the leadership roles, devoted more time to practice and taught those Westerners who began the modern wave of popular yoga.

The process of sharing yoga with the world may explain some of the reasons for the emphasis on physical prowess. Mark Singleton writes about Swami Kuvalayananda who introduced yogic exercise programs to schools on behalf of the Bombay government in the 1920s and 30s. Kuvalayananda's book Popular Yoga Asanas was published in 1931 and championed yoga as health promoting physical exercise especially for students. It was the author's intention to remove much of the mysticism and occultism from yoga. So, while the wandering ascetics of India continued to practise the ancient, often secret, techniques of yoga, new generations were being introduced to yoga as exercise. The swamis who travelled to America and Europe also took pains to separate their teachings from the extremes of the dreadlocked sadhus. To fit their wisdom into cultures with established religious doctrines, the edgier tantric practices were largely excluded.

Yet the nonphysical practices of yoga have increasingly been illuminated as the communication age shrinks the distance between the sages and sadhus and Western yoga students with their appetite for spiritual knowledge. When it comes to strength, the sages say that compared with an elephant, a human has very little physical strength. Yet our psychic or mental strength has the potential to overwhelm all other life forms. Our dharma, our natural tendency, is to be mentally strong. The practices of yoga, including but not limited to asana, develop and enhance our natural psychic strength and this should be our focus. This is the full spectrum of yoga, where inner life is paramount, and the body a transitory tool.

We can certainly use asana as one technique to develop mental strength. While practices such as Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga Vinyasa Primary Series contain at least 30 chaturangas (a movement similar to a push-up) and multiple adho mukha svanasanas (downward dog), they undoubtedly develop physical strength. But the discipline required, especially to practise six times a week, as Jois recommended, will also develop mental strength.

In any style of yoga practised regularly, strength of character can be developed by overcoming inertia. The action of physically attending class or doing a home practice is a kind of karma yoga, at least if one is unattached to the fruits of the effort. This is a significant sticking point for Western yogis - the effort must be enough, the benefits return to the source, not accrue in the individual. So if the practice is motivated by a desire to gain a certain body shape, or skill, or strength, that is a corruption of yoga, and is only as effective as any physical exercise can be. The physical practice should instead be seen as an exercise in developing equanimity of mind, and will to overcome obstacles with steady effort.

Gathering information by reading and exploring the world of yoga is jnana yoga, an important marga (path), yet not generally considered a directly spiritual path. Intellectual strength wins arguments but does not destroy spiritual obstacles or bring the individual closer to Parama Parusa (cosmic consciousness). Yet both jnana and karma yoga increase the strength of bhakti, the devotional path, which does indeed attract the subject and the object towards each other, drawing ever closer to unity, the yoking of self and cosmos that defines yoga.

So the beauty of asana and the yoga body impacts on the tanmatras (senses) and serves to attract people to yoga classes. There they may feel a sense of balm to their wounds that allows them to open to an inner life that will fulfil them more than sculpted arms ever can. This force of attraction people feel towards yoga stimulates devotion to something greater than the self. Truly the beginnings of bhakti can come through the physical senses including the aesthetic beauty of accomplished asana practitioners, and the kinaesthetic pleasure of co-ordinated movement.

For the mind is compelled to move, it cannot remain stagnant. In a world full of interesting and delightful matter, those who are consciously seeking upliftment find themselves attracted to things which help the mind become more subtle. The yoga texts speak of the necessity for constant effort to overcome the great obstacles which present in a life with great tasks. Asana practice can be a training ground for determination and persistence which translates to worldly and spiritual challenges. Well directed effort requires strength of mind, and the first two limbs of yoga (yama and niyama) provide 10 mighty weapons in the fight against distractions. A mind at ease with itself is better equipped to face the practices of yoga sadhana, hence the importance of a moral and ethical lifestyle as described by the yamas and niyamas. And a strong body can more easily serve such a devoted mind and heart. Using all the limbs of yoga, a sadhaka can fight constantly against all limtedness including physical limitations and psychic dogmas. That's a strength worth cultivating.

Chandrika Gibson is a holistic naturopath and yoga teacher

Ed: We farewell Chandrika after several years of writing a monthly column for NOVA. Thanks Chandrika for your learning and grace in fulfilling this monthly commitment and our very best wishes for your many endeavours. Look her up on Facebook and we hope to welcome her back with an occasional feature.