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How Does Yoga Improve Body Image?

A new study reveals the pathways between yoga and positive body image.

Photo by Agung Pandit on Pexels
Source: Photo by Agung Pandit on Pexels

Yoga originated in India over 4,000 years ago and has become extremely popular in Western societies. In the U.S. alone, nearly 37 million adults reported practicing yoga within the past six months. Hatha is the most common form of yoga practiced in Western societies and involves physical postures (i.e., asanas), breathing exercises (i.e., pranayama), and meditation (i.e., dhyana).

Numerous studies have shown that practicing yoga not only helps people to achieve greater peace of mind and physical well-being, but it can also help them to feel more positively about their bodies. In our newest study, my colleagues and I asked the question: How exactly does yoga lead to a more positive body image?

The Study

Participants were 114 women in the Netherlands, who were randomly assigned to a Hatha yoga programme or a waitlist comparison group. The Hatha yoga programme comprised 10 weekly one hour classes, led by a Hatha yoga instructor with 10 years of teaching experience (for the full description of the yoga programme, click here). The classes followed the principles of Hatha yoga and the instructor did not explicitly direct participants to change their feelings towards their body (which would have otherwise biased our results). The instructor was unaware of the aims of the research.

To measure changes in positive body image, and the potential mechanisms of yoga’s effects on positive body image, all participants completed questionnaires before the start of the study, half-way through the yoga programme, at the end of the yoga programme, and one month afterward. In this way, we could test whether there were differences in questionnaire scores between women in the yoga programme compared to women in the comparison group across time, and what explained these changes.

Unexpectedly, we found that women in both groups experienced improvements in body image across time: They felt more appreciative of their bodies, more compassionate toward their bodies, and more satisfied with their appearance. It is unclear why even the women in the comparison group felt more positively about their body, but perhaps enrolling in the study and filling in the questionnaires encouraged them to start reflecting on their body image.

Nevertheless, we did find important group differences with respect to two of our outcomes and these revealed important pathways between yoga and positive body image:

  1. Women in the yoga programme experienced greater decreases in self-objectification. Self-objectification means viewing your own body based mainly on how it looks – rather than what it can do. These reductions in self-objectification led to improvements in body appreciation and body compassion among women in the yoga programme.
  2. Women in the yoga programme experienced greater increases in positive embodiment. Positive embodiment means feeling positively connected to your body, feeling “at home” in your body, rather than viewing your body as an obstacle or something to be fought against. Increases in positive embodiment among women in the yoga programme led to improvements in body appreciation, body compassion, and appearance satisfaction.

The Take-Home Message

Many studies have shown that yoga can help people to feel more positively about their bodies, but the question remained: How?

Based on our study, we can conclude that yoga may lead to improvements in positive body image by helping women to view their body less in terms of how it looks, and more in terms of what it can do. In addition, yoga may help women to feel positively connected to their body, which can lead to further improvements in positive body image. Taken together, when women are less preoccupied with their appearance and feel more positively connected with their body, they may be able to feel more appreciative and compassionate toward their body, and more satisfied with their physical appearance. This is not only a good thing for how women feel about their bodies, but countless studies show that positive body image is important for overall physical and mental well-being.

Last, it is important to note that yoga is often “hijacked” in Western societies, with many of its traditional teachings removed or changed. Studies have shown that yoga is often taught, portrayed, and practiced as a means to achieve a “hot body” or “yoga body.” For example, search for “yoga,” and you’ll see that most images portray cultural beauty ideals. When physical activities are taught, practiced with an appearance mindset (i.e., to lose weight, to get a “yoga body”), this actually harms body image and well-being. Therefore, for yoga to have a positive impact, it is important to follow traditional forms of yoga that emphasise a positive mind-body connection and downplay the importance of appearance.

You can read the full research report for free, here.


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