Yesterday, after long hike in the mountains, I went to Cottonwood Hot Springs to soak. Easing myself slowly into the sublimely hot water, I smiled at the woman on the opposite side of the tub. She smiled back and said, “I noticed your strength as you walked over here. What do you do to get that strong? Do you do yoga?”
Feeling a bit awkward, I said, “Well, it’s summer so I hike, I bike and I do yoga.”
She said, “What kind of yoga? I don’t look like you do from yoga.”
I replied, “It’s mostly genetic.”
I soaked in the pool, avoiding further eye contact and conversation.
But of course, like so many conversations, I continued the dialogue inside my head.
First, I thought, “Isn’t kind of weird that a woman I have never met and do not know, felt so free to make a comment about my body?”
And secondly, “Isn’t it weirder that I felt obligated to answer her?”
And thirdly, “How in God’s name am I supposed to answer a questions such as, ‘What do you do to look like that?’ ”
I sat, soaking in the tub, contemplating the lifelong story of “what have I done to look like this” as flashes of my life came to my mind, each part of the complicated answer to the seemingly simple question I was asked by a stranger.
I am 13 years old and weigh 98 pounds when my best friend and I go on our first diet. It was called The Sunshine Diet. It consisted of the same menu for 1-2 weeks: Breakfast: 1 orange, 8 oz. skim milk; Lunch: 1 orange, 8 oz. skim milk, 4 oz. hamburger patty; Dinner: 1 orange, 8 oz. hamburger patty, 8 oz. skim milk
Let’s just say, I did lose weight (not that I needed to, mind you), but I certainly didn’t feel too sunny inside.
I am 15 years old cheerleading at a football game when one of the boys in my class yells, “Nice thunder thighs, Tina” from the stands. Let’s just say, I never really loved short skirts much after that moment of shame. Of course, in retrospect, it seems obvious that he should have been ashamed for such a crass, cruel and objectively mean-spirited remark, not me. Instead I felt embarrassed, belittled and ashamed.
I am 18 years old- suicidal, a bit strung-out from mixing drugs, alcohol, and bulimia and I am talking to my psychiatrist about wanting to get some help. Seizing an opening, she said, “Describe to me what it would look like for you and I will find it.” In some moment of clarity, I described, in almost perfect detail, the treatment center I would enroll in within three months: “I would be safe to be honest about my problems. I would have friends who would not care only about how I look. I would be able to go swimming and enjoy feeling the water, not just worry about how I looked in my swimsuit.”
In retrospect, some part of myself knew exactly what I needed and that wise part of me has never left me since that moment. Obviously, I have done better and worse jobs of listening to her and letting her guidance lead my choices over the years, but some part of me was intact back then, even in the midst of a pretty messy time of life. To me, that is Grace.
Images of my healing and recovery working continued to flash through my field of awareness— 12-step groups, psychotherapy, New-age healing circles, more than a few cults, spiritual communities, schools of yoga, esoteric traditions and the like.
I think about how for over three years I weighed and measured my food, according to a protocol of my OA sponsor, in an effort to bring some structure to something as natural as eating that had become so distorted and out of control that I was brought to the brink of suicide more than once.
I think about every kind of eating plan I have tried over the years— raw foods, macrobiotics, low fat/high fiber, South Beach, Atkins, vegan and vegetarian— that each taught me some vital lesson and yet never got close to solving the essential hunger that lived inside me; a hunger for depth, connection and meaning that was insatiable, consuming and which no amount of premium ice cream could ever slake.
I thought about living with the competing inner injunctions of “be skinny” and “don’t make anyone else feel uncomfortable” and “be disciplined” and “don’t be rigid” that created a double-bind where any move in one direction put love, approval and belonging always feels at stake in a game that demanded I keep playing and yet could never be won.
I thought about the various milestones of life that always went along with the curse of gaining weight— puberty, freshman year of college, getting married, turning 40, menopause, etc. What a shame that development along the natural arc of life came with the narrative of “don’t gain weight, or else”, much like an oppressive rider on a good piece of legislation gets slipped through the voting process and accepted as law.
I thought about that “or else” and the power it has had over me, my friends, my students and colleagues to the point where amazing, beautiful, creative and passionate women I know who are kind, smart, hard-working and insightful are also a bit obsessed — existing mostly on kale smoothies and afraid to eat pasta or drink beer. (I know, some of you actually like kale smoothies and many of you are actually are gluten-intolerant. And I am not saying beer is essential for a good life. I know. I mean it metaphorically. Mostly.)
I thought about how my weight fluctuates a good ten pounds throughout any given year, depending on my travel schedule, my stress, my activity level and the degree to which my vanity has a grip on my behavior. And well, truth be told, it’s more like 7.5 pounds but even knowing that the exact number is 7.5 pounds, not ten, speaks to a bit of ongoing crazy that I would rather just keep to myself.
I thought about writing a book on the topic of body image in 2003 and how I thought then that yoga would have answers for me and for other women suffering the same or similar thoughts, feelings and behaviors, only to see overwhelming evidence thirteen years later in my world of work that yoga may just as likely make matters worse as it will make matters better when it comes to body image, weight and food choices.
And yet, Yoga From the Inside Out was about ending war with the body and committing to a lifelong peace-keeping effort where the truce between society’s insane imperatives and my own inner state could be found only in, and through, a life lived from the Heart, dedicated to Grace and grounded in the sanity of practice over time.
So— I deflected the stranger-in-the-hot-tub’s question and said, “It is mostly genetics.”
You see, I have no “5-step Plan For a Strong Body Through Yoga” or a prescribed set of dietary suggestions to offer anyone. I do not actually care what people eat, what kind of exercise they do or even how they look. Nor am I very perfect in the area of food, body image, exercise and health. I prefer breakfast tacos to smoothies, I have stopped trying to overcome my caffeine addiction, nor do any efforts of restriction seem to bear any fruit over the long haul. There is always a swing-back. It may take a week or it may take a decade, but experience has shown me, if I move too far or too fast in any singular direction, the pyschic toll necessitates a swing-back in the other. I have come to appreciate the slow crawl toward change over and above the grand gestures of seemingly rapid transformation.
When I was in therapy groups in my 20’s there were often older women in the circle. I was certain that by the time I was their age, I would not have their issues. Truth be told, I was a bit disappointed in them for not being more together than they were by their age. And of course, I thought that doing all this inner work in my youth would yield a much more “together” older woman than what they seemed to be managing to become.
As I am now closer to 50 than I am 45, I see the whole process a bit differently. I no longer value the perfect picture on the outside or the true-but-trite one-liners that attempt to sum up a lifelong process in a single sentence. I admire the honest struggle to be real. I admire the humility of repeated efforts and repeated failures. I admire faith, tenacity, and any scrap of compassion that is built amidst the shared struggle to live a life of meaning in a body that has weathered the storm of our own or another’s violences. I admire forgiveness. I admire all that it takes for any one of us to live according to our better angels.
Perhaps I should have said these things to this person in the hot tub. Of course if I had, I wouldn’t have written this article.
As always, take what you can use and leave the rest.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."