25 Aug 2017

How Yoga Can Help You Learn to Love Your Body: Yoga & Feminism Series, Part 2

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It’s no secret that I came to yoga deep in the throes of an eating disorder. Body image has been one of my major long-term struggles. Even though I’ve always been in or near the “ideal” societal weight range, the body-hate demon loves to nest in my brain and wreak havoc on my self-esteem, driving me to make unhealthy choices around food and exercise.

My body image struggles were always rooted in perfectionism. I thought if I could just be or look perfect enough, then all would be well. I would be above reproach. I would have the love and approval I desperately wanted without fear of judgment or rejection. Or at least so my warped thinking told me.

Nothing has been more powerful in helping me unravel this distorted thinking than my yoga practice. Coming from a dance background, I was used to thinking of my body as a vehicle for performance; in yoga, I learned that it could be a tool for experience and personal growth. I’m so grateful that my practice began at a studio with a gentle, therapeutic orientation. I think if I’d found yoga through more performative, achievement-based styles my practice might have kept me in my body image negativity. Instead, a physical-yet-gentle practice allowed me to challenge my body image assumptions in the familiar context of movement.

A handful of simple yet powerful moments planted the seeds to for me to give up the fight with my body. I remember vividly the first time I fell out of Tree pose. The most radical thing about that moment was that absolutely nothing happened. Nobody died. Nobody yelled at me. Nobody judged me. My body had been imperfect, and it affected nothing. It was mind-boggling to consider that I could be less than perfect without any sort of consequence. What’s more, in the safety of a supportive class, I was able to laugh off my fall and attempt my Tree pose again. I could experience what I’d been taught was a “failure,” have a laugh about it, and try again. I’d never felt so much freedom around the actions of my body.

There have certainly been times in the almost fifteen years I’ve practiced that my yoga became more about achievement than experience. For a while, I dated an Ashtanga teacher who always wanted to practice together. His hyper-focus on “correct” alignment and accomplishing his poses triggered my old patterns of perfectionism in a very deep way. I began to beat myself up for not being able to do certain poses as “correctly” as he was able to. My practice took on a dark tone during that time, in which I felt the need to push myself and present a certain way on the mat. After he and I broke up, I realized that I’d lost the joy of my practice and that I needed to refocus my energy on loving myself and the way I authentically move. For months, my only intention on the mat was compassion for my body, which helped me heal not only from the heartbreak of that relationship but also from the ways it brought up old feelings of body hate. Over time, I reconnected with the original joy of my practice–the joy that allows me to fall out of my Tree pose and laugh about it.

Ultimately, what my yoga practice has given me is the knowledge that I have the capacity to give myself all of the love and approval I sought in trying to manipulate the size, shape, and presentation of my body, and that that approval is not contingent on how I look but on who I am and my inherent worth as a person. My practice taught me that how I feel on the inside is far more important than how I look on the outside.

It also taught me that this body of mine is capable of some truly extraordinary things. When I’m in loving, compassionate relationship with my body, it serves me well and provides some amazing adventures. I’ll never grow tired of the exhilaration of kicking up into a Forearm Balance and feeling the strength and steadiness in my shoulders. But I’ve learned for certain that I have to be in a healthy state of mind to do those exciting things. The second I begin to criticize my body and push it, it shuts down on me. I fumble and fall and get frustrated. It’s only in allowing my body to be exactly as it is that it can thrive and strengthen and provide me with increasingly more beautiful experiences.

In an age when body image struggles seem to be epidemic, yoga provides a space to challenge and heal from negative beliefs around our bodies, to embrace the idea that we’re good enough as we are, and to give our bodies the love and acceptance they deserve. In order to achieve those goals, we must first uncouple our practice from the belief that it must be perfect. Once we learn that there is no wrong way to be on the mat, a world of healing and joy can open up in practice. And we can find that space to be a beautiful place to learn to love these amazing bodies we have.

Interested yoga and feminism? Check out my new book, White Girl in Yoga Pants, coming out September 14th. It’s a collection of essays about yoga, feminist issues, and inner strength. Available on Amazon and Kindle. Sign up for my newsletter for more details and to be the first to know when it comes out!

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