Many people arrive at yoga in disrepair of some sort—physical, emotional, spiritual. We feel that something is wrong, and we’ve heard that this yoga thing might be able to help.
Not every yoga system is prepared to handle our crisis…Lucky for me, I stumbled into a class where the practice held me in all of these ways.
The core teaching that I learned in my yoga practice was that everything happens in the body—your thoughts happen in your body, your emotions happen in your body, your spiritual life will play out in your body.
And so, if you want to set yourself on a healing path in any of these regards, the way through is via the body. And very often, we have horrible body image. What does this mean?
Literally, body image means “a subjective picture or mental image that you have of your body.”
The trouble is that, to arrive at this picture, we also layer on all kinds of value judgments about the body, and those judgments are usually negative ones. We tend to define the value of the body based on some combination of these four metrics, which I’ve ranked from most prominent to least.
- The way the body looks
- What the body can do
- How the body feels (from the inside, to the person living within)
- Just being or existing
Based on some combination of these things, we create a turbo charged version of “body image” that isn’t confined to this picture we’ve made, but also contingent on the ways that we value these other four metrics.
Very rarely do we have an understanding of ourselves that is accurate. We make pictures of ourselves from the inside, that rarely match well the way that we truly appear from the outside.
When I arrived at yoga, I had a body image belief that told me I was tall, fat, ugly, and that really the way I was going to redeem all of my vast failings in the “looks” category was by really over-performing in the “what my body can do” category.
I had a pretty “negative” body image.
The very first corrective I was introduced to was the question, “what can I feel in my body?”
In the practice of yoga, I was introduced to this also as a value proposition. That the body’s ability to feel was worth something. That the sensitivity of the body brought beauty, and joy to the experience of living. And that this experience, in-and-of-itself, was valuable.
The world teaches women that to be big is unattractive. Don’t be too tall. Don’t be too heavy. Don’t be too loud. As a result we often shrink inside. The part of us that shrinks is the spirit aspect of us. If we also have an eating disorder, this often impairs our mental capacities, and we end up taking up less space inside of our own brains. The spaces within us where WE ought to be living become crowded with all the voices of the people telling us what we ought not to be. And, as a result, we ourselves take up very little space within ourselves. We become a shrunken version of ourselves, living in a tiny and often unwelcoming place within our own bodies. We eat tiny amounts of food. We think little thoughts. We barely breathe.
The second remediation I was introduced to was the right to take up space within my own body.
It began with the invitation to feel physical sensations instead of just stomping them down, and continued with the quest to grow my own breath capacity. In every contemplative tradition the foundation of the teachings begin with the breath. This is for very good reason—breath is the wellspring of life. The magic and the mystery that runs in all things exists within this tremendous energy of life. Breath IS the very essence of life and therefore the spirit of the world.
Through learning to grow my breath, I also learned to explore the internal wilderness, and then to step my foot into the vast and unexplored territory within. I started to cast out the “squatters” –the people who hurt me, abused me, betrayed me, abandoned me—and all the communications their behaviors conveyed, which could be summed up in one statement: you are worthless. Worthless people don’t have a right to take up space. Body image is about so much more than just a sense of ourselves and our bodies—it is also intrinsically linked to our worth and our value.
Like an abused animal, I ventured into the sunlight of my own internal wilderness freshly illuminated by my own breath, and looked around. There were wild and beautiful places to explore! I could at last relinquish the tiny space behind the dumpster where my spirit had been residing, and take up residence in a wide open prairie with ancient oaks and birds, and butterflies, and the sound of the wind and the stars to be seen at night. THIS is an environment in which I could flourish.
As my internal sense of self got bigger, I realized that I too started to take up more space. The force of my character grew. My own sense of my body grew. It couldn’t not. The floodgates of sensation had been thrown open—all by this practice of growing my own breath capacity—and all of this new information had to have a BIG place to live. In me. In my body.
And, as this all happened, I noticed that my sense of my self-worth began to shift, as did my body image, and, concurrently, the way that I valued the body, and the way that I valued myself, as a human. I began to think of the body as valuable less for what it looks like and what it could do, and more for how it feels, and for its capacity to make a beautiful and welcoming home for the spirit within it.
The third big recalibration had to do with my thoughts.
Essentially, yoga is the very early study of the human psyche—what we think about, and what is the effect of our thoughts on us. I had an epiphany. Everything is a plausible delusion. We chose the things that we believe. And therefore we chose the things that we think about ourselves and our bodies. All the striving to make the body look a certain way (thin), and behave a certain way (be graceful and strong) would have no bearing on my body image if I didn’t change my own mind.
What I mean is this. Even if the body was “acceptable” to me, if I still went on thinking the same old thoughts I had forever, it would be the same as if the body had never changed in the first place. What we think is the main ingredient of our realities.
If you think the body is O.K.—no matter what it looks like—then it’s O.K.
If you think the body is NOT O.K.—no matter what it looks like—then it is not O.K.
And, so, through the somatic practice of yoga, I began examining the ways that I think about so many things—my body, my ethics, my integrity, my beliefs about other people, my purpose in the world. And I discovered that once I refused to do battle with my own body, it freed up tremendous resources to consider things that really, truly matter, to me, and to the world.
This is the essence of the body image program I’ve developed, called “Adore Your Body.” The language is aspirational—if we ever grow to adore without interruption, it will be a tremendous victory of human spirit. Nevertheless, aspirations are worth reaching for. The program is about how we think about ourselves, and specifically about our bodies, and as a result, how we show up in the world. All of what I teach in the program, I learned through the embodied practice of yoga and through my 15 years of self-study and reading widely in contemplative and philosophical traditions.
If you’re curious about the program, the first step is to fill out an application to have a conversation. CLICK HERE to access the application. There’s a simple series of questions, that in-and-of-themselves can be pretty revealing and help you understand where you are on a quest to make peace with your body, even if you don’t feel ready to talk to me!
Once I moved through these blockages, I came to realize that our bodies are sources of great wisdom.
In fact, I believe that befriending the body is an imperative, cannot-be-skipped step on our way to living fulfilling lives. Our own self-hatred, which shows up in mistrusting the body, attempting to control the body, reviling and rejecting the body, is a foundational blockage to our own personal growth and satisfaction with our lives. I talk about all the ways that low body confidence sabotages us in this teleseminar.
In the end, I see that cultivating positive body image is a life long task. The tools I find indispensable are: 1) the physical practice of yoga, and 2) the self-study that we are taught IN yoga. I’ve written about what I think are the signs of a body positive yoga teacher. CLICK HERE to read.
Ultimately, healthy body image is about generating a good relationship with the most fundamental part of yourself—your body. It’s a lesson in relationship-building, with a being that we were forced into an arranged marriage with. It’s not the easiest task, but it is an unavoidable one if you want to live your best life.
Finally, I leave you with the words of Lindsay Kite, PhD, of Beauty Redefined.
Having positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good;
It is believing your body IS good, regardless of how it looks.
It isn’t thinking you are beautiful;
It is knowing you are MORE than beautiful.
It is understanding that your body is an instrument for your use, not an ornament to be admired.