Black Swan Beautiful – or Dangerous?

[image via]

I’m having a hard time reading this article in Vogue about Natalie Portman’s training regimen and transformation for her role in Black Swan.

I don’t disagree with core strength, awareness, beauty and elegance. Mary Helen Bowers, the woman Portman trained with and the creator of the Ballet Beautiful program talks about the physique to which her students aspire:

“The body type is strong. It’s muscular, but the muscles are very long and lean and there is something that’s very elegant about the body, and also very powerful,” she says.

But isn’t there also something dangerous? Mila Kunis talks about how her training and weight loss for the film left her feeling, well, gross. She lost 20 lbs for the role, dwindling to a mere 95 lbs.

“In real life, I looked disgusting, but in photographs and on film, it looked amazing.” [via]

Yikes. I’m glad Kunis says this out loud because even though the pain of training is apparent in the film, and is being discussed in the press, I still feel like there’s this underlying tide of: but don’t they look beautiful?

And that’s what this Ballet Beautiful article talks about too. Train hard, intensely, unforgivably and you, too, can look beautiful. The tagline on the site reads: Artistic. Athletic. Attainable.

Yoga is not ballet. We are not taught to train or restrict for the sake of achieving a certain body type. And, to be honest, I don’t mean to suggest that ballet is a particularly vain pursuit. I simply don’t know enough about it to say that. It is an art, but one that has the surface-workings of painful ego-addiction.

In yoga, we are encouraged to let go of ego all together. But all the tools for vain self-destruction are there: rigorous dedication, cleanses, diets, austerities. The superficial practices – when coupled with the beautiful bodies we see bending and twisting on the pages of magazines – can serve to feed the ego, too.

I don’t have a final word on all of this. I’m not saying that this film is doing women a disservice, or that Yoga Journal is twisting our minds. I’m just aware of my own feelings when I read this article.

Ostensibly, the press coverage is not congratulatory about the rigors of training and weight loss these women undertook for the roles they play in this film. And yet, somehow, I still feel an undercurrent of it. Is it because I can feel the push and pull, the attraction and repulsion of this kind of physique myself?

Is the suggestion there – that this is an acceptable ideal for women – or is it just my sensitivity? Is anyone else feeling it?

Ego, Meet Anatomy

I tell my students that every body is different, and that yoga is not about looking like the pictures in the magazine.

When it comes to my own practice, though, ego rears its ugly head. Why in the name of all that is good and holy can I not externally rotate my shoulders in down dog?! My mind SCREAMS that I must do it the right way, despite the fact that every time I do, my shoulder pinches – sending heat lightning up my arm into my neck.

The other day I had a short clinic with my favorite yoga teacher (hi, Dad!) and we discovered that my elbow joint itself is externally rotated – almost as if I’m double jointed. Meaning that in order for my palms to face each other, my shoulders have to rotate inward. Therefore, in poses where my shoulders are opening, my palms flap out open to the sides. All of a sudden my downdog struggles made so much more sense. Even in bridge pose, my arms never lay comfortable on the floor underneath me. Elbows on the floor, my forearms hover in the air. And now I know why.

(If you are an anatomy geek, here’s an additional point of interest: my legs do the same kind of external rotation – leading to pronation and an odd ability to look like an amphibian or a chalk outline of some broken, splayed out body. One friend suggested I take up swimming. Or posing for chalk outlines.)

So, what does difference does this really make? I already knew that my body didn’t want to form the picture perfect posture; that for me, that arrangement of bones and joints just didn’t work. Just because an outside party confirmed this for me – showed me some kind of anatomical proof – why should that make any difference?

But it did. And while I’m open to the idea that this is some kind of scientific brain block – that you can’t always see what’s going on in your own body as easily as you could see patterns in someone else’s – I have a sneaking suspicion that ego plays a huge part in this revelation.

Someone else, someone I respect, has given me permission to follow my body’s needs. Now, why couldn’t I do that myself? I know that anatomy is individual. If I were my student, I would suggest downdog be done with arms open wider, or fingers facing the corners of the mat. Keep a soft bend in the elbows. Who cares what it looks like, as long as the spirit and the benefit of the pose is attained?

Well, apparently I do*. Anatomy comes up against ego once again. And ego never wins. What is right for the masses, is not always right for the individual body. I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to learn that lesson. So. Many. Times.

*And Iyengar, obvi.