By Tara Caguiat, Freelance Writer, YogaPose.com
Wikipedia defines body image as, “a person's perception of the aesthetics or sexual attractiveness of their own body. It involves how a person sees themselves, compared to the standards that have been set by society.”
Most people have aspects of their body they would like to change—five pounds here, an inch taller there—and while disliking things about your body isn’t ideal, it’s only normal. However, on the extreme end of the spectrum, negative body image and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) can result in depression, anxiety, increased likelihood of eating disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In addition, obsessing over body image causes strong feelings of shame and can affect a person’s health, personal relationships, and career.
Why Yoga Is a Powerful Tool for Improving Mental Health and Body Image
Yoga is a form of natural anxiety relief. It incorporates soothing techniques, like breathing, meditation, and exercise to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which normalizes the body’s stress response by lowering blood pressure and slowing the heart rate.
Yoga isn’t about comparison, achievement, or even physical fitness. It’s about the inward journey that’s taken when you bring your awareness to your body and breath, in the present moment. Yoga takes the focus away from the outside world, where we are bombarded with obsessing over outward appearance standards and shifts it to what’s going on inside you. It teaches you appreciation for your body’s amazing capabilities—whether big or small—and to be kinder to yourself. Meditation, a main aspect of yoga, allows you to find the source of your negative thoughts and change the narrative.
Plus, one of the most powerful benefits of yoga on mental health is its accessibility. Yoga is widely available around the world, including online, and can be practiced at home with no equipment necessary! There are yoga modifications that make it beneficial even for those struggling with immobility.
Science Backs Yoga’s Benefits on Body Image
In a 2018 study, the University of Minnesota studied the impact of yoga on body image in a group of 34 women and 12 men. They found that yoga has a positive impact on body image via, “perceived physical changes, gratitude for one's body, a sense of accomplishment within one's yoga practice, self-confidence, and witnessing different types of bodies practicing yoga.” However, some participants cited negative impacts as well, specifically regarding comparing themselves with others and negative self-talk. One key takeaway from the study is how yoga instructors can increase the positive body image benefits of yoga through inclusion of diverse body types in class. Similarly, the 15-year Project EAT study revealed that practicing yoga improves body satisfaction “particularly among young adults with low prior body satisfaction.”
Getting Started with Yoga
Overall, practicing yoga can have a profound impact on improving body image, but it depends how it is approached by the individual. When you treat yoga as a tool for body appreciation, healthy movement, and inner reflection, it helps improve body image and mental health.
Avoid comparing yourself with others or thinking there’s one type of “yoga body.” Start small, with a few poses or a beginner level class, and try to focus on the process instead of the result. Choose to celebrate the challenge when you hit a particularly challenging pose or class! Once you’re finished with a yoga session, name three things you are proud of yourself—and your body—for trying.
Tara Caguiat is a certified yoga instructor (RYT 500) and freelance writer with a passion for all things travel, minimalism and extreme sports. When she's not practicing a new yoga pose or writing, she’s exploring a new destination—likely with her dive and kiteboarding gear in tow. Read more of her work on her blog SheNeedsLess.com.