Monday, August 9, 2010

Is the Body Beautiful

Predictably, but nonetheless sadly, the ‘debate’ sparked by Judith Lasater’s letter to Yoga Journal in the September issue regarding certain ads featuring nude or semi-nude women has degenerated (mainly) into a discussion about nudity. On one hand, there are those yogis who are questioning the values implicit in advertising per se, and the use of the nudity of – let’s call it as it is – white, thin women to sell product. These yogis, and I am one, feel that the true transformative power of Yoga is in it’s critique of appearance over substance and of its criticism of the assumption of status-quo values in contemporary hatha-yoga, and in Yoga’s primary purpose of waking us up from conditioning. As the Buddha said, Yoga “goes against the stream.” Yet, unthinkingly, the purveyors of such ads – and their defenders – simply adopt and accept mainstream, status-quo values and then think they are being ‘progressive’ while those of us questioning this are ‘prudes’ or repressed!

I say this is predictable, because for years Yoga in this culture has been reduced to the movements and postures of hatha-yoga. As the 10th century Garuda-Purana warned, “if the postures of hatha are practiced outside the meditation of raja, the postures become an obstacle to liberation.” Today’s contemporary sell-out glorification of ‘the body’ only proves this. Yoga teaches us not to identify body or mind as 'self.' The physical-oriented approach to hatha-yoga so prevalent in the contemporary hatha-yoga movement all too often strengthens practitioners' identification with body. One problem with this, of course, is that whether from age, injury, or illness (not to mention death!) one day you will not be able to practice the postures you may have taken pride in achieving. What happens then?

Elsewhere I, and others such as Roseanne Harvey and Charlotte Bell, have tried to get the debate back on track by pointing out that the original letter and subsequent interview with Judith Lasater, were not about any particular ad or model, nor about nudity. As she says on her Facebook page, “‘Yes’ to nudity and the gorgeous human body; ‘no’ to using it to sell yoga!”

But here, I’d like to take a tangent and address this notion of ‘the body beautiful’ that even Lasater seems to accept, at least based upon the above quote. Is the body beautiful? Really? Is it only beautiful? What yogis like the Buddha point out is that such concepts themselves are conditioned and empty of any inherent nature or essence. For all those who think they are being progressive and perhaps even transgressive in arguing that these ads are beautiful because they portray the ‘beauty of the human body,’ I ask, “Really? Then why not portray a 64 year-old man with a bit of a belly-roll?” How about a nice nude shot of the character George Constanza from Seinfeld? Would you then argue for the ‘beauty of the human body? As much as I would like to think one would, why is it that I doubt it? Because our ideals of “beauty” are culturally and biologically conditioned. Folks somewhat facilely use abstract concepts and fail to see that they are caught in them.

And, for the sake of argument, let’s posit that they do see beauty in a 64 year old, round man (or even in George!), let’s analyze their position more clearly. They say the body is beautiful. I don’t argue that, but I do say we need to also remember (be mindful – the word sati, which we translate as ‘mindfulness’ actually means to remember) that it isn’t only beautiful and is often gross! This body they celebrate takes quite a bit of maintenance. Just go a week or two without bathing, and tell me how ‘beautiful’ you think the body is.

As everyone seems to be harping on Kathryn Budig, the model in an ad for a ridiculous product called “Toesox,” let’s look a bit more closely. Say you think she has lovely hair. What if you found even just one of her hairs in your soup? Would you feel the same about that hair? Considering that she is naked, how about if it were one of her pubic hairs? Still celebrating the ‘beauty of the human body?’

See, what Yoga offers us is a clearer, more complete understanding of reality. The surface and general form of the body we feel is beautiful because of our biological conditioning. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, most images of beauty presented by mainstream media are white, thin and female. This is cultural conditioning. But the great yogis point out that the body is inherently neither beautiful nor disgusting. As the Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra declares about reality, it is “Neither produced nor destroyed; neither pure nor impure; neither increasing nor decreasing.” Get that? Not pure; not impure. It’s the coming together of many causes and conditions that create what we think of as ‘beauty.’ And the coming together of other causes and conditions that create what we think of as ‘ugliness.’

The next time you catch yourself thinking someone has beautiful eyes, contemplate briefly if the beauty is really inherent in their eyes. Would you think they were beautiful if s/he plucked them out and handed them to you? Or is beauty created (conditioned or constructed) because they are in their ‘proper’ place, they are balanced and relatively symmetrical, and the rest of her face is pleasing etc. All phenomena arise interdependently. This is what is meant by 'form being empty.' We need to ask, “empty of what?” And the answer is “empty of an inherent self-essence.”

If we merely stop and proclaim the beauty of the human body, we fail to go deeper; we fail to see reality and so we get caught in grasping and clinging. Freedom – the purpose of Yoga practice, remember? – is to go beyond conditioning. This does not mean we stop appreciating the human form. What is changed is the quality of our relationship to the body, and to all beings. Going beyond the surface, we reach a much deeper intimacy. My wife told me of a dream she had years ago, before we had really made any commitment to each other. She dreamt her guts were spilling out, and she was experiencing some mortification that I was seeing them. And she felt an upswelling of love and gratitude as, with no sign of repulsion, I helped her to put her guts back in place. I share this only to offer a vivid image of the kind of unconditional love Yoga offers us. When she shared this dream image with me, I knew her intuitive mind had revealed a truth about my love for her. But in order to open to this kind of love, we need ‘to see things as it is,’ as Suzuki Roshi would often say. And advertising NEVER shows us things as it is!