Choosing the Gentle Path – A Yoga and Body Image StoryMay 15, 2015
While I was reading the book Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories about Beauty, Bravery, and Loving Your Body, the words that kept escaping my lips were “me too.”When I attended the book discussion of this book at my favorite studio, Seva Power Yoga in West Chester PA, the words that echoed among the attendees were “me too.” The raw honesty of these stories – written by yogis of all shapes and sizes – created a safe space for sharing our own “shameful” stories about body image.We shared our yoga experiences – both positive and negative – and how those experiences either hurt or healed our relationship with our bodies. We talked about the teachers who made us feel judged and the ones who made us feel safe.We fessed up to the pressure we feel to fit into sexy yoga pants, and perform crazy one-armed “party poses” like all the yogis on our Instagram feed. As Joni Yung writes in the chapter From Body Confident to Body Insecure and Back: “People find out that I do yoga and they ask me to demonstrate my skill. Sadly, no one ever seems interested in my mean savasana.”I laughed out loud at this wonderfully ironic statement. For me, savasana is the most challenging pose in the asana practice.
The first time I did yoga was at a gym. I was running on a treadmill when I noticed the class going on through the glass doors. I ran on a treadmill like I was running for my life – sprinting, faster and faster, my slippery index finger pressing the ‘Up’ arrow again and again until the whole machine was shaking and covered with my sweat.
For days I watched the yoga class from my treadmill. I watched the barefoot students enter the glass doors with their mats rolled under their arms. I watched the teacher dim the lights, and they would begin: arms reaching up to the sky, then bodies folding forward, then up and down again. I felt like an outsider watching some kind of ritualistic dance. I was fascinated, but didn’t dare go in. Yoga was for other people – zen, self-aware, spiritual people. Not a crazy anorexic on a treadmill like me.
After a few weeks of watching, I decided to go to the yoga class as my cool down. Now, the very idea of this makes me want to both laugh and cry – at how sick and crazy I was, going to a 75 minute yoga class after running 8 miles on a treadmill. But at the same time, walking through that door was the sanest thing I have ever done.
The teacher’s name was Jack. He taught a great class but didn’t get too chatty with the students, which was fine with me. Occasionally he gave me a visual cue but never a physical assist. I was grateful to be left alone. Perhaps he sensed my need for a safe space, tucked away in the corner near the door. I was very underweight; a weight where people were “concerned.” This was the word people used. The trainer at the gym was “concerned” about me lifting weights; that’s why I stuck to the treadmill. The treadmill wasn’t concerned.
And neither was Jack – or if he was, he didn’t say it. He didn’t blink when class after class I rolled up my mat and left before savasana, because the thought of being still with my eyes closed made me want to jump out of my skin. To rest in savasana was to awaken all the voices in my head, the voices that called me a lazy piece of shit, and reminded me of how many calories I wasn’t burning lying there like a piece of bacon on a frying pan.
It took me an entire year to make it through savasana, and another two years after that to rest in savasana without wanting to scream. I am not sure how long it took for me to actually enjoy it, but now, I do. It took years of showing up on my mat in a non-competitive studio with a nurturing teacher for me to get to that safe place of surrender.
These days, as a writer and mom of two young children, getting to the studio is not always in the cards. This can make me feel like a failure. But as Alanis Morissette says in the chapter Finding and Loving the Essential Self: “Without a certain approach, it is so easy to use yoga as just another way to beat yourself up.” Amen to that.
The message I take from the stories in Yoga and Body Image is self-compassion. Yoga is learning to be kind to yourself, to nurture yourself, to choose the gentle path. As I grow older and my body changes, so does my yoga practice. In our book discussion, we asked the question: What does a yogi look like? This leads me to another question, one I have been asking myself a lot lately:
What does MY yoga look like?
Some days (but not most) my yoga practice is a full 90 minutes of asana. Some days it is ten minutes of sun salutes in my bedroom. Last Sunday, my yoga was napping in the hammock with my husband. I highly recommend hammock yoga.
When I do yoga with my 5 year-old daughter, she will often say: “Mom, let’s skip straight to savasana.” The pose that once made me roll up my mat and run is now a chance to connect, not only with my daughter, but with myself. Now, when I am in savasana, I can feel my face relax, feel my body melt into the mat, then into the earth. Now I can feel gratitude for these legs that can run, this belly that has carried two babies, and arms that reach for the sky.
- Sharing Strategies to Make Yoga More Broadly Accessible – Part 3 in the Yoga and Body Image Book Discussion Series by Anitra Cottledge
- “I’m sure your story is just like mine.” – Part 2 in the Yoga and Body Image Book Discussion Series by Anitra Cottledge
- “Every exhale is an opportunity to forgive.” – Part 1 in the Yoga and Body Image Book Discussion Series by Anitra Cottledge.
- Yoga and Body Image: Raising Awareness Through Book Clubs by Erin McCloskey
- “I’ve never said this before.” – A Yoga and Body Image Coalition Workshop Weekend by Elen Bahr