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.
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