yoga didn’t heal my body image, but teaching yoga did

Goddess pose, Little Switch Yoga Aberdeen Washington

I didn’t want to write a post about my body image – ever, really! – but here we are.

My terms of reluctance are legion: first, the cultural conversation seems over-saturated, often surface-level, full of the same platitudes and (increasingly) commercialized languaging.

Secondly, as a white American voices like mine are over-represented in health and wellness spaces. Why should I add my thoughts? Who would be interested in hearing them, anyway?

But it goes deeper than that.

I’m tired of the body image conversation. 

A conversation I haven’t even dipped my toe in!

I’m tired.

Let’s be real: I’m exhausted from watching the Diet and Wellness Industrial Complex shoehorn the sacred constructs of self-care and self-love into programs selling weight-loss subscriptions, quack remedies, diet programs and foodstuffs, and flat tummy teas.

In fact the other day Facebook so kindly showed me a fat loss ad using the phraseology: “I’ve learned my inability to release weight is a trauma response.”

Reader, that headline alone made me feel D-O-N-E.

Nothing more disgusting than telling a trauma victim it’s their own fault they can’t be smaller.

***

But here’s the thing.

Under Capitalism – and its little red rover buddies White Supremacy and the Patriarchy – all our bodies are under assault, being sold and sold to, up for grabs. All human and non-human animals are served up, sliced and diced (for billions, literally), commodified in every way and marketed to relentlessly.

Now: I didn’t set that up.

But I have to survive it.

And so do you!

And just because I’m Tired –

Doesn’t mean I have nothing of value to add.

I deserve to have my say, in the chance maybe – just maybe – I could help someone reading here.

Because I know my interests and my goals are far more wholesome than those of Capitalism.

***

Some day I’ll tell my story of what I am up against.

What it was like growing up in my maternal family lineage – surrounded by the women who sang duets and trios with one another about how they needed to lose weight, or how they were “bad” for eating that cheesecake, or how their asses were too fat and their features too unlovely –

and the men who encouraged these women to care about this stuff. The men (including my beloved Grandfather) who wanted these women to make themselves smaller, the men who took pains to compliment women when they shrank (physically or socially).

Some day I’ll tell my story what it was like growing up, crammed into the wrong gender. Because if you think you know how it feels to have your body shape and size policed, growing up trans is a whole ‘nother Level. My whole childhood it was “girls” or “boys” and which one was I, har har. I was complimented for any “femininity” of figure and form – I was never given space for my own gender autonomy. “Look at you here,” my mother says to me, jabbing a finger at a photo of me on the dock, at the lake. I’m thirteen, here. “You’ve a wasp waist,” she flushes, beaming with pride.

No, I didn’t.

I did not, and have never, had a wasp waist.

Nor did I want or need one.

This was my mother’s jam: she wanted to eat up my mind, my body to serve her own dreams.

I grew up in this battlefield, to say nothing of the larger culture in which I was indoctrinated.

It wasn’t healthy – to put it mildly.

***

I’ve practiced yoga twenty one years.

And practicing yoga didn’t change my mind about my body very much.

I didn’t suddenly start experiencing an empowered nonbinary state. I didn’t lose weight – or any of those weight loss-attendant dreams so many chase! I didn’t achieve that body, those accomplishments that had been sold to me my whole life.

None of that happened.

Now yoga didn’t change my MIND about my body –

but it certainly changed my body itself!

Because it’s impossible to practice yoga regularly and properly (properly: don’t push yourself and listen to your body!) without change.

When you practice, you get stronger.

And so did I.

So in those early years I was creaky. I felt a pain behind my knee when I’d practice trikonasana, shortness of breath when I held ananda balasana. I couldn’t hold myself up in a plank for more than a few breath cycles – trembling and (silently) cursing the teacher! And headstand, handstand? No way!

That pain is long gone. That body is stronger, more flexible, more mobile.

I really do feel better!

I can do things today (at forty-six) I couldn’t even do as a child.

And it wasn’t just my body that began to change.

I also began to experience more peace of mind, more honest endorphins, an hour at least of less self-absorption, less anxiety, less obsession.

I’ve always felt better after getting off the mat. Always!

***

Oddly though, my changing body and mind didn’t make me love my body more.

I still felt the same – really, as I had all my life.

And while I’d rejected the more harmful familial and cultural narratives – I still hadn’t formed my own.

Until.

***

Teaching gave me a breakthrough.

Now listen: teaching yoga is an impressive skillset. And while I’m pretty new, I take it seriously.

First, I had to acquire (and continue to deepen) a yoga education – we’re talking about studying a multitude of traditions 5,000 years old!

Second, I had to learn how to actually practice asana – as well as the other seven limbs of yoga: the yamas, niyamas, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi – and begin to transmit this knowledge to students.

Then I had to get in front of a class and demonstrate how to move through practice. I have to run physical practice and provide verbal cues all while watching my students and adjusting my teaching style and aims depending on what I observe.

I’ve gotta deal with the practical aspects of running a business. Even though I’m not yet making a wage – I still have to show up as a professional (and that’s fair)!

Now: there are plenty of yoga teachers who get to a degree of competency here, and can end up on autopilot pretty fast.

But if you know me, you know I’ve never been on autopilot a moment of my life!

***

In my first few weeks of teaching regularly, I had the benefit of a huge studio mirror in the space we worked.

I had the privilege of seeing my body – clear as day! – in a multitude of asana, contortions, silly little sweaty shapes.

I got to see my body how it really is, and WHILE my body was being observed by others.

We’re talking: trembling limbs, shaky voice (at times), saying “left” when I meant “right”. We’re talking having my physical form on display for an hour straight to a room of people – sometimes, complete strangers!

I lost the anonymity of the mat – because all eyes were now on me!

And it didn’t take long for what remained of my reservations about my body, to burn right out of my body.

In a deep revolved lunge, to see my t-shirt cling to every fat roll on my back and to my sweaty face in the mirror and – to be forced to see it, and to know everyone else was looking too.

But –

Honestly, it was only a little bit jarring at first. 

In fact I felt a great friendliness with myself, in a way I hadn’t ever before!

I had work to do, after all. And I was doing it!

Because just like my students look beautiful when they’re exerting Right Effort in asana

So do I!

Because Right Effort is beautiful.

Always.

And Right Effort almost never, ever looks like the heavily-doctored, artfully posed moments in a glossy yoga magazine or brochure.

Since I see yoga as beautiful, I see myself in practice – not my idea or imaginings of self, but my actual Self – as beautiful.

And since I see myself that way on the regular now,

I’ve changed.

The way I feel about myself, has changed.

***

Listen, I’m as surprised as anyone that this developed out of teaching.

Like I said: I practiced two decades without my body image budging an inch.

So I’d long ago given up the idea I could really change it.

But: it changed.

And it continues to change!

I love teaching. So much!

The practice is also neither a competition, or a series of pretty shapes to make or strain towards.

The Practice is there for us every minute of every day. 

If you can breathe, you can do yoga!

And I sincerely hope to get more people to see it the way I do.

They might be surprised to discover how they see themselves, over time.

my yoga story (so far)

I am currently reading The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele. In one chapter the author discusses the different times of our lives, and the different values that serve us during these stages. She exhorts us to perform some kind of ritual marking the passage of one stage of life into the next: so we can step into our new purpose and leave our emotional and thought baggage of the past behind.

She also talks about how important it is to honor the lessons we’ve learned – as they brought us to where we are today.

This is her wonderful, diplomatic way of saying:

Yeah there were some big messes back there, but painful as they were – you learned something, right?

***

My yoga story is rather mundane. Yoga didn’t change my life in some ground-shifting way; but it has been my constant companion through career changes, many moves, through difficulty (and reconciliation) within my marriage, through having children – and through addiction then, sobriety.

I guess that DOES sound rather dramatic when I write that all out like that!

***

I was not brought up in any kind of spiritual tradition, any kind of ethical practice. My father was an atheist-agnostic who deeply appreciated Buddhist thought; therefore the only “spiritual” books in my home were Buddhist ones.

(To the family’s surprise) my mother converted to Christianity when I was seventeen. This didn’t make much of an impact on me to be honest because by then of course, I had begun to carry my own ideas of right and wrong, of ethical conduct, of divinity versus impiety.

It seems an absolutely lifetime between the time I left my family home at age eighteen (1995) and when I first set foot in a yoga class – around 2002, I think. In those seven short years I’d lived through many harrowing “adventures” and I’d arrived to the greatest adventure of my life (so far): partnership, and children.

By the time I stepped on the mat for the first time I knew I wanted something grounding, something to practice on my path. I’d had enough of the things we worship as Americans – beauty, sex, power, intoxication and titilation – and I knew material possessions didn’t bring happiness. 

There had to be more!

This was where I was, when I set foot on my first yoga mat. A new parent, a new life. Ready to grow!

And of course way back in 2002 – well like many Americans introduced to yoga, I didn’t realize there was a philosophical and spiritual path involved. I thought it was another workout, a new style of fitness to try. I vaguely knew – or thought I knew – that a good deal of strength and flexibility was involved.

But even in that first class – the none-too-clean basement of a gym in Port Townsend – I could tell yoga was something special.

For one thing, it felt good! Sweaty, challenging – but wonderful.

My body felt better, lighter, more energized and open when I left.

For another thing, it was so delightfully simple! I was amazed that just by using one’s own body – no equipment, no mathematical weightlifting metrics, no steroids or enhancers – that just by being there with myself I could get stronger, more whole – I could go deeper!

I left that first session floating on cloud nine.

I wanted more!

***

But the next yoga class I remember going to, wasn’t so great.

I somehow found my way to an advanced Kundalini yoga class. In an upstairs room  downtown I took my place next to our instructor, and two other students. One of the students was obviously very advanced, very practiced – just like the teacher. The two of them sped through very strenuous, difficult poses without offering assistance or modification. Myself and the other student – also a beginner – well, we huffed and puffed and sweated and (internally at least) cursed.

I felt sweaty, inelegant, flabby – ashamed. I left with my spirits low.

You see: that was my first lesson in unskillful teachers.

Teachers who don’t know how to watch their students. Teachers who can’t (or won’t) tactfully offer alternatives, variations, and modifications.

Teachers who didn’t know how to read the room!

But as bad as that experience was I kept going back – to any class I could find, any class I could afford.

I couldn’t stay away!

***

Eventually I began to learn yoga was not an exercise fad or craze – that it was a 5,000 year old way of life imbued with many many schools of learning, many texts and books, many teachers.

Yoga isn’t about “self-improvement” or gain – it is a dance deeper into a better way of living. Into more integrity, love, joy – and humor!

(People don’t talk about the humor in yoga enough, I find!)

At first I thought I had to learn everything – or at least learn enough yoga to impress anyone who wanted to query me.

Eventually I came to realize I could never learn it all, so the best thing was just to start learning what I could.

***

I have obviously been to terrible yoga classes over the last twenty-one years. I’ve been to the worst kind of “workout” style classes, with teachers who were used shaming language or infused orthorexia and fitness culture into our every move. I’ve been in classes with incompetent or cruel teachers, teachers who perform adjustments without consent, teachers who say things that leave students in tears.

But what’s wild is that even through the worst class I always found some benefit.

That’s how I know I love yoga and I’ll never stop.

Thanks to yoga I am physically stronger now than ever (if you come to a class, you’ll see)! Obviously, this feels wonderful- and energizing!

But yoga asana (that is: the physical practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga) isn’t a destination, or a competition.

It really is a practice.

That is: something that we do regularly.

And (as I keep reminding us here) yoga is more than asana, more than a physical practice. For instance: you are generally supposed to practice the yamas and niyamas – that is, ten of yoga’s ethical guidelines laid out in the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eightfold path – before you focus on asana (the third limb).

Most Americans just bust right into asana – looking to reduce their flabby tummies, or tone their bum, or whatever.

So if that’s how you got here, that’s fine! 

And in my class, you will definitely get stronger.

But!

What I want to deliver to you is a pure joy – joy in being on the mat, in learning how to make contact with ourselves.

Through physical practice we become more connected with who we are, and who we want to be.

We become more confident that what we do, that who we are, can make a difference in our community and in our world.

So from my many years ago in that grubby gym basement –

I have come a long way.

I look forward to joining you on the mat!

***
Notes:

Here is a link to The Yamas & Nijamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice book site; this is not an affiliate link.

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