If yoga is supposed to be about getting in touch with yourself and developing inner peace, for years I was doing it wrong.
Some teachers say that there’s no “wrong” way to do yoga. Modifications and adaptations are all ways of listening to your body wants, and if you’re moving in a genuine expression of what you’re feeling, that’s no less valid than someone who can execute a perfect flying bakasana ten times out of ten. I agree with this. But these yogis weren’t talking about yoga practice the way I was doing it.
I began practicing yoga in the fall of 2011, through a reasonably priced and well-taught program at my university’s gym. I met with a fabulous teacher twice a week who put me through the paces of a vinyasa flow, starting gently and moving into longer sequences of postures. It felt great, especially as at this point I was trying to find a way to exercise while having been forbidden to run or do vigorous cardio. Yoga, it seemed, was the perfect solution to get a workout while leaving my running shoes at home.
Yes, I fell prey to the “yoga body fantasy.” If I spent enough time in downward-facing dog, if I did enough sun salutations, I would finally be able to get the slim, toned, perfect body I had spent so much time running trying to obtain. And even if the results weren’t immediate, at least it was a way of burning calories and toning my muscles instead of sitting on the couch and turning into a fat slob. Which, obviously, would happen within weeks, and would be irreversible. [*sarcasm abounds*]
My teacher told me that yoga was a mental, physical, and spiritual unity. My eating disorder told me it was a cardio workout.
I missed out on so much during these early practices. I focused only on the standing, high-intensity postures and loved the feeling of my leg muscles burning during warrior poses. I once did sun salutation after sun salutation not to get lost in the rhythm of mind-body movement but because it made me sweat and I couldn’t work up the motivation to go for a run. I scorned seated postures and worked every practice to the max. Come hell or high water, my inner perfectionist commanded, I would be the best damn yogi in that room.
Not exactly the best recipe for inner peace.
About a year ago, my recovery from my eating disorder actually took off, and my body began to undergo physical changes. In yoga, a practice so highly intertwined with an awareness of one’s body, where full-body scans are a normal practice, changes in body size create changes in the whole experience. And for me, these changes were almost traumatizing.
I hated the way my belly rested against my thigh when I moved into revolved side angle pose (put aside the fact that revolved side angle pose looks like this, and pretty much requires placing one’s belly on one’s thigh). Shoulder stand was agonizing as my shirt would slide up my chest, revealing the (so I saw) enormous fat rolls cascading towards my face. I’m sure the horrors of plow pose (with my newly-extant belly three inches from my face) need no elaboration. And let’s put aside that my yoga studio doubled as a ballet studio, and the two side walls were covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It was, to put it lightly, not exactly a relaxing hour.
As my recovery progressed, against all reason and logic, I had to take a step back from yoga. I was treating it as a weight loss crutch, and I would leave practice more stressed-out than I entered it after seeing my stomach and thighs from every angle imaginable. For several months, I didn’t touch the mat. I missed the sound of yoga breathing in my lungs, I missed the zone I used to fall into while doing sun salutations. But I wasn’t sure if I could handle it.
Last weekend, I hit the mat again. And it was glorious.
My roommate and I visited a tiny, out-of-the-way yoga studio on the far side of town. Both of us stressed, tense, and stiff (hello, midterms, you lovely beasts, you), we decided a nice, easy, soothing practice would only be beneficial. And you know what? It was the best feeling ever. We spent most of the practice seated, practicing spinal twists and stretching, releasing tension in our muscles. Not a high-intensity vinyasa flow in sight. I didn’t come out of the practice sore and sweating.
My old self would have felt cheated and disappointed. My current self felt energized and relaxed. Stomach resting on my thigh and all.
Yoga does not have to be about obtaining the perfect body. It can be about getting in touch with the body you have now, and treating it well so that it can treat you well in the future. It can be about taking a step back from the difficulties of everyday life and remembering, if only for an hour, to breathe. Yoga is for everybody, not just the lithe models in LuluLemon ads. Even with our complicated relationship in mind, yoga can be for me again.
So body hate, you can kiss my asana.