Continuing some thoughts from my last entry...
I first heard the term “body image issues” in the 1980’s in association with eating disorder education. With anorexia and bulimia on the rise, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) was entering the mainstream narrative. Thousands of young women whose body weight fell into healthy, normal ranges were looking in mirrors and seeing themselves as fat, unacceptable and in need of a body overhaul. I was one of those young women. I spent many painful years struggling with bulimia and with a long recovery-relapse process that involved compulsive over-eating, purging through extreme exercise, numerous healthy eating programs, countless fitness regimes as well as psychotherapy, 12-step recovery groups, New-Age cults, various traditional religions and all kinds of yoga. You name it. I have done it. Or I have done something like it.
Nowadays, I hear the word body image to refer to a more general self-hating malaise that people have about their bodies and the ways they fall short of unrealistic cultural ideals. Somewhere along the way it became normal and expected to be dissatisfied with how we look. Somewhere along the line we lost our ability to maintain a perspective on the insanity that marketing agencies everywhere are selling in an effort make us feel so terrible about who we are that our only obvious option for salvation will be to buy their products. It seems like the noise of this particular narrative has become so loud that it is almost impossible to bear up against it. And, as I outlined in Yoga From the Inside Out all those years ago, the Sleeping World cultural ideals have entered the yoga culture, bringing with them a host of problems ranging from eating disorders to depression, racial tensions, fat-shaming, thin-shaming and more.
I have been thinking a lot about my own recovery process from bulimia and from BDD and how yoga has been a part of the process. From my current vantage point, I have to say that I do not think yoga helps body image. I think yoga can help. I think yoga may help. However, I think whether or not yoga hurts or helps depends on whose hands the yoga is in, how the tool of yoga is implemented over the life of one’s practice and the tenor within the community of practitioners with whom one is associated.
In 1999, I hit a very profound bottom in my relationship to my body. Coming off a relapse cycle of bulimia and compulsive exercise that had taken me into competitive body-building and the extreme dieting that goes along with it, I had returned to asana practice looking for a way to exercise that might not reinforce my negative thinking and behavioral patterns. I was not new to yoga but asana had been more of a background practice for a while— stretching out after a run or using asana as a recovery day after a hard week of training. Returning to yoga was necessary and horrible. My muscles were tight, my emotions were frozen from having been subverted to my compulsive and addictive processes and I was far from my Spirit. The yoga room seemed to be full of happy people with skinny bodies who seemed to be able to enjoy themselves and be “open-hearted” with no problem at all.
To be fair, I had no idea what was going on for anyone in the room since at the time I was so self-obsessed. I was making the classic error in thinking and perception: I was comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. My point is that walking into a yoga room did not magically help my body image issues even though everyone was probably really nice to me and doing their best to be welcoming and inclusive. I still felt awful.
I felt awful because the problem I was dealing with was inside, not outside.
My situation got worse because my teacher was saying things like “make your pose an offering” and “express the posture from the beauty of your heart” and all I felt was stiff, tight, distant from myself and angry. And sad. So very sad. And, as the relentlessly-affirming instructions continued, I felt worse, not better. Not only did I not “feel the love” I actually felt my self-hatred, self-abuse, and self-neglect more acutely than ever. I was smack up against myself with no buffers, nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. No matter how inclusive that teacher might have been, all I felt was the way my life had been the exact opposite of this heart-centered philosophical premise. I felt awful.
Yoga did not help my body image. Not one bit.
There is always an And yet… in these blog entries, right?
Yoga did help me see myself clearly in the moment. And the great paradox of transformation is that when we see ourselves with stark clarity, things often change. My spiritual teacher rarely gave techniques for change. He knew them all. However, he saw spiritual life as a process of surrender rather than a process of structured or self-determined outcomes. We never made visions boards, did affirmations, wrote goals or launched self-improvement programs. Instead, the primary practices he gave us involved self-observation, accepting Life As it Is, asserting Just This in the face of all of life’s circumstance, serving what was both Wanted and Needed in the moment and Being With What Arises with no story-line added.I can not tell you the number of times one of us would be suffering and looking for a formula to fix said suffering only to be given instructions for "being with it." I wish I had a dollar for every time Lee explained that if we let go of fixing what we thought was our problem and could truly see it as it was, the shift we wanted would paradoxically be there. It seems wanting to change something can work against changing the thing itself.
And that is how I work with body image. I do not try to love my body. I really don’t. I practice seeing my as it is, being with it as it is and taking care of it, whether I do or do not love it in the moment. Starting from where I actually am— even when the moment is bleak— moves me into acceptance of what is as it is before I add a narrative, even a loving one. For me, I have never had a lot of success jumping from “I hate my body” straight to “I love my body.” Affirming “I love my curves, etc.” has always felt false and inauthentic to me. And while there can be value in “fake it till you make it,” that approach hasn’t been the primary road I have taken.
For me, navigating the terrain in between self-hate and self-love has been the bulk of my work. The paradox is that the most loving thing I can do for myself is to accept myself as I am. The same idea goes with my friends and family. The practice for me is to love my friends as they actually are- with their neurotic tendencies, shortcomings, scars, quirks and idiosyncratic behavior as well as for their generous spirits, resilient hearts and keen insights. True intimacy does not turn away from the aspects I do not prefer in myself or others but somehow involves a struggle to make room for it all, which is a loving process that does not always feel like what I wish love felt like.
So— For those of you looking for practical examples of the difference I am talking about, here are some ideas. While this is by no means an exhaustive list and is certainly not a comprehensive recovery plan, perhaps one or two of these practices can give you some help or insight.
1. Sit comfortably. Place hands on your abdomen. Relax your belly completely. Feel where your hands and stomach meet. Do not add a narrative such as “Oh, stomach, I love your roundness and I appreciate your softness” That is great work. I love it. Totally into it. However, that kind of dialogue work is different than what I am talking about which is to focus on developing a direct, kinesthetic relationship to your belly as it is.
2. Sit on a chair with your feel flat on the floor. Let your legs spread completely and totally relax your legs. Feel where the skin on the back of your legs meets the chair. Feel the width and depth and height of your legs. Don’t thank them for being strong, don’t add a commentary—just practice being with how your legs actually feel.
3. Practice an asana or series of asana with your eyes closed. Focus on the sensations of stretch, of rooting, of lifting and how your body actually feels in the posture.
4. Rub oil or lotion all over your body and focus on the way your skin and hands and muscles feel. If self-criticism arises, do not automatically talk yourself out of it or turn it around into a comliment- just let it be.
5. When you feel any emotion, focus on where you feel the feeling in your body. Fear might have a compelling story associated with it but it also has a sensation or series of sensations such as sweaty palms, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, butterflies in the stomach and so on.
6. Stand naked in front of a mirror for 5 full minutes. Do not do your best tadasana or jockey for the best angle. Meet yourself straight on. See your body as it is. Stand there— once again, this is not an exercise in telling yourself “You look great and I love you” unless that arises naturally, in which case go with it. If self-criticism arises, let that be what it is also.
7. Take a day without makeup. Meet yourself as you are. You may like it or hate it but the point is to be with what is, not how to “improve” you feel about what is.
8. Go to a yoga class where there is a mirror. Where shorts and a fitted top. See yourself as you are in the shapes. Getting the picture? This is not, a “I love my stretch marks” kind-of-process, this is more a “I have stretch marks. Yep. There they are” kind-of-exercise.
I could go on because the ways the present, fully-embodied moment just as it is can be a doorway into the inner life are endless. Again, the paradoxical thing is that by moving deeper into the embodied experience, something other than physicality-only opens up.
Eventually what I have came to learn about the voice of my own negative body-image is that something else is always going on whenever it rears its ugly head. Many times, after I have made an amazing offering in my work, I am greeted, not with an inner “Great job, Christina,” but with “Yeah, well you have gained weight” commentary instead. Or perhaps I find myself plotting a new diet and I realize I am scared about a change I need to make and so I am focusing on losing weight rather than the ways I am scared that a necessary change may result in a loss of love or approval.
And so on.
All right, more could be said but that is enough for now.
Oh-- one more thing. None of this is easy.
In 2001 I wrote Yoga From the Inside Out: Making Peace with your Body Through Yoga. Having struggled with body image isses, food addiction, and self-hatred for much of my life, I had experienced a moment of clarity about my relationship with my body and wrote a book how to use yoga to create a covenant of peace. I suggested that endless dieting and practicing yoga as a workout only could keep a war-with-self alive rather than be a practice that would serve as an agent of healing, as a peace offering.
Throughout the book I cautioned that the yoga industry was selling yoga to us with the same distorted images of beauty that the fashion industry used and that these narrowly defined images were as much a problem in yoga magazinea as they are in fashion magazines. I suggested that if our dominant cultural values come into yoga practice we can expect eating disorders, self-hatred and addiction to follow us into yoga and get worse instead of better through our practice.
I wrote Yoga From the Inside Out in 2001 and it was published in 2003. Here we are in 2015 and body image in yoga is a very hot topic. Every day I see an article, advertisement or commentary in my social media feed about Body Image and Yoga. While I am not an activist, I am happy that people have joined together to confront the damaging stereotypes and to create a narrative that is more positive, affirming and inclusive. When I wrote about my struggles and insights, I never thought that the industry would change. I figured it would continue on much as it always had, and my only hope would be to identify the negative influences and “reprogram” myself through my inner work.
I think maintaining perspective about body image may be harder now than it was when I first wrote about it. More people are doing yoga than ever before and with the advent of social media, we are bombarded, not just once-a-month with a thin, white, leggy model posing on a magazine cover, but all-day-every-day through image-based streams on our computers and phones. There is an entire generation of yoga practitioners whose yoga has never not been broadcasted across the world wide web and who have never had the joy of yoga as a counter-culture experience where vanity, image and the pursuit of celebrity didn’t dominate the discussion.
I think it would be lovely for yogi’s of all sizes, shapes, ages and colors to see images that reflected a more diverse picture of beauty than what we have had so far. I can imagine a world where our daughters and sons and aging parents and everyone in between was invited into an accepting relationship with their unique physicality through more inclusive marketing campaigns and more consciously created educational materials. Clearly, it is time. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars are wasted every day in self-obsession, self-hatred and their accompanying self-destructive behaviors. While some folks live wrapped up in an inner, negative body-image fueled torment that leads to anxiety and depression, others binge and purge, starve themselves, overeat, and can’t sit down to a meal without it being “clean.” While I am a fan of eating healthy food, I am a fan of food becoming less of an issue, not more of an issue. So while we are imagining a better world here, let’s not forget to imagine a world where we lived free from the obsession with food—even “clean” food.
I love seeing people stand up to a dysfunctional cultural paradigm and band together to speak up for the kind of world in which they want to live. My hope is that the work on body image doesn’t stop at getting different images on magazines, as positive as I think that outcome is. Because I believe the value of a yoga practice is deeper than image, my hope is that we can eventually step off the conversation of body image and step into the conversation of who we are beyond the body. I don’t mean that we engage some bizarre “the body is an illusion” rap here either. I do, however, mean to call us to a direct relationship with the body, not with the image of our body, and to the remembrance that from the yoga persepective, the body is not limited to our physicality, but includes who we are at increasingly more subtle energetic layers.
The physical body, no matter how fat or thin or how affirmed or disregarded, is going to go. Very few of us, regardless of how awesome we are at asana and how great our diet is are going to be breathing our last breaths in a yoga posture while sipping on a kale smoothie. Let’s face it, if BKS Iyengar died in a hospital bed, I am pretty sure, I am not dying on a sticky mat. So I figure that if I don’t move beyond the image of my physicality and into the experience of my energetic bodies, I am going to miss the huge opportunity that yoga practice has for me. The value of a life in yoga is to tap into the aspect of us that is eternal and that is not dependant on a cute ass, a flat stomach or affirming media campaigns. In fact, the promise of yoga I am going for is off that topic entirely.
My spiritual teacher once told me that the cure for self-hatred wasn’t self-love. I looked at him disbelievingly. He told me, “Well, when you realize you are not actually a self, what will there be to hate anymore? When you realize you are not your body only, your preoccupation with its image will be obviated.”
He also told me that having a healthy body image had nothing to do with sadhana. Again, I looked at him disbelievingly. He said, “Practice on the Path is about Reality, not about an image. Now, ask me what a healthy body has to do with sadhana and I will give you a different answer.”
So clearly, these types of recognition are Life’s Work, not easily achieveable or immediately accessible. However, they are my governing context for how to work with body image issues as a yoga practitioner and teacher. I would rather spend my life energy pursuing who I am Essentially than improving my image about my body. If, along the way to my Essential Self, I need to do some work on my self-talk, some work on the communal narrative or dive into my personal history where some of the old wounds live, this reclamation work is also my yoga. I do not mean to imply an all-or-nothing stance on the topic or an either-or approach.
I think the world will be a better place with a more inclusive narrative and I applaud the activism that some great yogi’s are spear-heading. I am a huge fan of self-love and self-acceptance. The yoga teachers, bodyworkers and psychotherapists who are working to help yogi’s practice with greater compassion and care have my gratitude and respect. And I think that there is a spiritual malady inside self-hatred that will only heal when we know ourselves in a deeper truth than image, culture and conventional values—when we know who we are in Spirit.
More could be said. More can always be said.
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