Is yoga helping or harming our body image?
Research Study At A Glance
The Research Question Asked
Can yoga support a positive body image?
Type of Study
Clinical research study
Study Participants (Sample)
- Sample size: 114 total participants
- All participants female
- Ages 18-30 years old
- Very limited or no previous yoga experience
The study compared the effects of yoga on body image between a yoga treatment group and a control. Those in the yoga treatment attended a 1-hour yoga class once per week for 10 weeks. Participants in the control group did no yoga during the 10-week study. Participants completed a series of questionnaires to evaluate their body image before, during, and after the study.
- Embodiment increased in yoga treatment group compared to control.
- Self-objectification decreased in yoga treatment group compared to control.
- There were no differences between other aspects of positive body image between the yoga treatment group and the control group.
Yoga did improve some aspects of a positive body image, but did not change others. Yoga could likely contribute to a healthy body image when used along with other treatments.
A positive body image is a complex trait that is part of overall health and wellness. Positive body image can be broken down into different specific aspects. These include: appreciation of body functionality, body compassion, reduced self-objectification, and increased embodiment. There are many experiences and influences that can result in people adopting a negative body image.
Shifting our emphasis from body appearance and social expectations to appreciating our body’s functionality, shows promise for improving body image. Functionality is something we can cultivate an appreciation for at any stage of life or health. While there may be aspects of our body image that we feel challenged about, we can learn to focus awareness on what we can do.
Yoga is one practice that seems linked to improving body image. Previous research suggests that yoga may positively impact all aspects of body image. Although other practices, such as writing exercises focused on body appreciation, have been successfully used to improve body image, the researchers hypothesized that movement-based practices might be more effective for some people. They selected yoga as their treatment since one focus in yoga asana practice is embodiment.
Can yoga support a positive body image?
The study included 114 women between the ages of 18 and 30. All participants reported they had either no yoga experience or very little. Researchers randomly assigned the participants to either a yoga treatment group or a control group. Those people in the yoga treatment group attended a Hatha style 1-hour yoga class once per week for 10 weeks. Researchers instructed the control group not to do any yoga during the 10-week study.
A set of questionnaires was used to determine differences between those in the yoga treatment versus the control group on aspects of positive body image. They used questionnaires to evaluate levels of body appreciation, body compassion, appearance evaluation, embodiment, self-objectification, and body functionality. All participants completed a pretest before the study began. Study participants also completed a mid-test questionnaire halfway through the study (5 weeks) and a posttest at the end of the study. Researchers sent all participants a follow-up questionnaire to complete 1 month after the end of the study.
Questionnaires completed before the study, halfway through the study, at the end of the study, and at 1 month after the end of the study included the following:
- Demographic questions
- Functionality Appreciation Scale
- Body Appreciation Scale
- Body Compassion Scale
- Multidimensional Body – Self Relations Questionnaire – Appearance Evaluation Subscale
- Self-objectification Beliefs and Behaviors Scale
- Physical Body Experiences Questionnaire
Embodiment increased in the yoga treatment group over time from pretest to mid-test, and from pretest to posttest. There was no change in embodiment for the control group. Self-objectification decreased in the yoga treatment group compared to the control group. Body appreciation, body compassion, appearance, and evaluation all changed over time for both the yoga treatment and control groups. But, there was no difference between the yoga group and the control for those aspects of body image. There was also no difference in functional appreciation of the body between the yoga group compared to the control group.
Why is this relevant to yoga practitioners?
Based on the research study, it seems that yoga can potentially contribute to a healthy body image. However, body image is a complex concept. Surprisingly, not all aspects of body image improved in the yoga group compared to the control group. One aspect of body image that wasn’t different between the two groups was functional appreciation of the body. Simply put, that just means an appreciation of what your body can do.
The researchers running this study hypothesized that one reason for the lack of increase in functional appreciation of the body among the yoga group was that social comparisons between participants undermined that potential. Qualitative statements from participants suggested that they were to some degree comparing themselves to others in the group yoga classes. The researchers think this is one thing that may have interfered with their potential awareness of and appreciation of their own body functionality.
This suggests that, as practitioners, we might be better off turning off social media presentations of others doing yoga. This could reduce social comparison. And, it could help keep our focus on how our own practice feels, rather than how we imagine it looks. As teachers we also have an opportunity to foster spaces where social comparisons are minimized. Instead, celebrate each individual’s “successes” as they are relevant for that student.
Alleva, J.M., T.L. Tylka, K. van Oorsouw, E. Montanaro, I. Perey, C. Bolle, J. Boselie, M. Peters, and J.B. Webb. 2020. The effects of yoga on functionality appreciation and additional facets of positive body image. Body Image 34:184-195.