Showing skin

When being assessed for Iyengar certification, teacher candidates are not supposed to show skin. In other words, no low-cut necklines, no skimpy tanks, no bare midriffs. (I don’t know if this is an official rule or unwritten protocol.)

This topic arose recently in light of the pose sarvangasana (shoulderstand). Don’t most of us do sarvangasana with palms against the skin of our backs? “Skin on skin” gives the best traction: to hold the palms in place, pressing rib cage and shoulder blades inward and upward. But that means reaching underneath your top, which falls open (at least halfway), showing skin.

As an experiment yesterday, I did my usual sarvangasana (reaching underneath my top for “skin on skin”) and then  I tried it again with palms over shirt fabric. Yikes. Slippery. Without enough grip to secure my hand position, my shoulderstand felt loose and tenuous. (Googling “sarvangasana,” I found a YouTube video of John Schumacher teaching the pose with hands against T-shirt, so it is perfectly doable, of course.)

I contemplated the no-skin no-no. On one hand, I agree that gratuitous display of skin is gauche. On the other, why can’t one wear “less” during hot weather or to demonstrate alignment of the kneecaps or shoulder joints? If one’s purpose is legitimate, isn’t that different from baring all for dubious reasons?

Actually, BKS Iyengar himself often wore the equivalent of swimming trunks. Many senior Iyengar teachers wear those classic banded-bottom shorts (and they are short!) to demonstrate leg actions in asana: inward or outward rotation, flexed quadriceps (“lift the kneecaps!”), and so forth. Here, showing skin highlights anatomical form in a visceral way. For the visually oriented, seeing is believing.

To me, it’s obvious when a yoga teacher is wearing short shorts for sound reasons—and when she is not. It’s not the clothing. It’s the attitude.

That said, while I do question the status quo now and then, I certainly won’t go rebel and wear a strappy camisole during assessment. But I wonder about sarvangasana. Is there a “sticky” fabric out there, some high-tech top that acts like a wearable yoga mat?

And what’s your opinion on showing skin?

Images: Yogini (Japanese yoga magazine)www.bksiyengar.com

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10 thoughts on “Showing skin

  1. i suppose i never really thought about it. ive never walked into a classroom and thought: well, that teacher is inappropriate. i wonder if it’s different for hetero men though, with the predominate gender of teachers being female?

    i say, practice in what you genuinely feel is most comfortable. i prefer tight shirts, for example, because they ride up less, especially in dd and forward folds. i talked to my partner, and he actually does too. he says loose shirts make him feel like he’s eating fabric.

    yoga, despite what it might look like it’s becoming, is not a fashion show. look professional, but be comfy. i think that’s my golden rule.

  2. Most of my yoga tops provide good traction for shoulderstand. They are from the usual yoga clothes stores, although I had to add a bunch of fabric to some of them to prevent too much skin (you can see a post about it on my blog.) If I’m not too sweaty, I will sometimes use my skin for traction, but if I’m sweaty, I use my shirt.

  3. When I teach, I try to wear a close-fitting t-shirt. I think it’s modest and also doesn’t draw unwanted attention. It needs to be a moderately tight fit though so that the students can still see the actions of the body. As a student, I wear yoga tanks or t-shirts. And I always wear leggings (variable lengths depending on weather)… have to see the knees and ankles!

    I do agree that there is a strange paradox between the assessment dress code and what we see in pictures from Pune. I can see the logic in both forms of dress. For me, as a teacher, I want students to see how my body moves and aligns, but I think the students’ alignments are of the utmost importance. Therefore, a teacher’s dress can be more modest than a student’s. But ultimately, I agree with you that it’s about attitude. You can tell when someone is wearing short shorts to draw attention and when someone is wearing short shorts to better allow a teacher to correct their asana form.

  4. As one of those hetero men in the studio, I think having a female instructor show too much skin could be distracting, making it a lot more difficult to maintain those drishtes.

    However, I like being able to see clearly the anatomical effects of a pose being demonstrated. More than once in teacher training, an instructor has had to lift up her shirt (or remove it completely in the case of a male instructor) to show what muscles were being engaged for a pose. The first time this happened, I was taken slightly aback, but now I appreciate it.

  5. I went to a workshop with Judith Lasater once in which she called it a moral duty for yoga teachers to wear clothes that show their bodies – no loose tops and baggy pants, no black, either, because it doesn’t show the muscles under the tights.
    Mind you, she didn’t wasn’t thinking about bare skin.
    I’m most comfortable teaching in snug t-shirts, and tights that cling to my thighs and end just below the knee. That way I feel visible enough without displaying any of my saggy bits.
    As far as shoulderstand goes, I always use skin on skin for better grip.
    As a student, it’s hard to see an argument against it. Who but the teacher is going to see your skin? Surely he or she can handle it.
    And that particular patch of skin is far less erotic, in North American culture anyway, than the front of the midriff, which can easily stay covered.
    My question: now that Danskin appears to have gone under, who is making great form-fitting capri tights?

  6. Maybe it’s just that I live in a conservative country (shoulders and knees? risque!!), but I am certainly not a fan of seeing the intimate body parts of my students, teachers or fellow practitioners!!

    As a teacher I am careful to dress in a way that will allow me to demonstrate poses properly (big baggy pants are not so effective for showing leg alignment) without showing cleavage, midriff or whether or not I’ve had a bikini wax.

    As a student I don’t mind so much if someone is practicing in a nice sturdy sports bra although I am a bit too conservative for that move myself! I way prefer that to the guys letting all hang down in baggy shorts, or the busty ladies giving me an eyeful of barely-contained cleavage.

    But when you practice on your own, I say hey, whatever makes you comfortable!! And skin is definitely good traction in shoulderstand unless you’re really sweaty. I do find that cotton has more traction that some of the fancy fibres, but also, it gets sweatier.

    Nice reflections!

  7. When I demo sarvangasana I tuck the front of my tee shirt into my tights and pull down the back to get my hands on my skin for better traction. No belly exposure! I’ve tried with my hands over my shirt–it just doesn’t work well for me. And I don’t think anyone cares if my back shows.

  8. I kind of love when Iyengar teachers rock the Iyengar short shorts. I find the demos fascinating and love to “look at bodies” — the one time I took a workshop with John Friend I was amazed at seeing bodies as moveable art. In Yoga as Medicine, the author (doctor who now is YJ medical expert) recommends practicing in as few clothes as possible at home. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so in class — unless it was 100 degrees and I was feeling really relaxed!

  9. I think there are different standards for teachers and students. As a student, you should wear something in which you feel comfortable and at ease. As a teacher, you have to be aware of the effect you may be having on all the students, intentionally and non-intentionally. The Iyengar Guidelines for Teachers state: “You should be dressed in a modest manner. Your clothing should not be so loose that the students cannot see what you are demonstrating and it should not be too tight as this may restrict your movement. You should not be loud or overly exhibitive in your dressing.” That leaves quite a range of possibilities open and, of course, “modesty” is culturally specific. My teacher’s comment to me about this was “you don’t want to dress in a way that distracts your students.” And your attitude and the vibe you are projecting is very important as to how your mode of dress will be interpreted and received. Finally, the level of the class makes a difference. In a more advanced class, you might want to show your students what is happening with your stomach muscles or your shoulder blades; that level of detail is likely to only be confusing for beginners.

  10. This is an interesting post, and I’m loving all of the comments too.

    I’ve never thought that much about it as a teacher except that I don’t think I should ever look sloppy. I usually wear tanks because that’s what I wear to practice in, and I always wear pants (not shorts) because that’s what I practice in. But the other day I wore a fitted t-shirt to teach because my other stuff wasn’t clean, and a new student mentioned how happy she was that I was wearing a t-shirt. She said she always feels like the only student in the room wearing a t-shirt, and it made her feel better that a teacher would wear one too. It definitely gave me something to think about.

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