Yoga and All or Nothing ThinkingWhen I think back on the incredible insecurity and self-consciousness I used to feel just leaving my house in the morning, I think it’s truly remarkable that I was able to take part in classes such as yoga and meditation and personal growth workshops, etc., before my recovery from binge eating and exercise bulimia. There was something in me that knew, as there clearly is in you if you are reading this, that there had to be some way for me to be in the world without feeling so bloody small and anxious all the time. I mean, others could do it. Or at least it seemed like they could. So maybe, just maybe, I could too. And so the 20-year-old me existed with fingers crossed; breath held; hoping for the best but fearing the worst, sheepishly inching forward. Ahhh, but at least I was moving forward! Back in my early 20s when I still believed that every aspect of my life hinged on me weighing 115lbs (for the record my natural weight where I have been without effort of any kind for 15+ years is 127ish lbs, so I was clearly a little off in my goals – no wonder my body wouldn’t cooperate!) and when my happiness hinged on having no fat on my body whatsoever, I felt a stirring towards what was then referred to as “New Age Thinking.” Now at the time, “New Age Thinking” was frowned upon by most of the people I knew. Certainly my family was not shy about referring to such activities as yoga, meditation or a vegetarian lifestyle as “Hippy Shit” and other clearly derogatory judgements. My colleagues at work we clean cut yuppies and that “New Age” approach to life was just plain weird. Now, to be fair, 20+ years ago when I began to dabble in such things in my conservative Canada, it was pretty out there, both in contrast to the mainstream meat and potatoes, don’t do anything the Jones aren’t doing, culture in which I was raised. It was also pretty out there because at that time, activities like vegetarianism, meditation and yoga were, unfortunately, more often than not, linked to the lifestyles of those with belief systems which revolved around past lives; reincarnation; deism; channeling of sprits; psychic powers, etc. These belief systems were unnecessarily but, it seemed almost always, if not always associated, with the activities of yoga, meditation and healthy eating. Science has yet to prove or even lend the slightest credence whatsoever to these belief systems and supposed powers of certain humans, and so naturally at that time, as now, there is an appropriate amount of scepticism about anyone or anything associated with these beliefs. I’m not here to say what’s true and what isn’t. I am here to say that I think it’s sad that people feel such a need to attach magical thinking and/or their own belief systems to things that stand quite well enough on their own. It muddies the waters, confuses the intention and makes things far more rigid and “right” or “wrong” than they need to be. Case in point? Yoga: The word Yoga means Union. It is meant to refer to the union between breath and body when you are moving in conscious awareness of both and bringing your movements into conscious alignment with every inhale and every exhale. It was initially devised, as far as we know at this time, as a conduit to meditation. The Yogi’s from long ago practiced aligning their breath with a certain set of movements (Asana’s or yoga poses) to help clear their minds of all but the present moment and found that such a practice made it easier for them to settle into a deep meditative state. The value for any human, of being more present in this moment and more aware of your breath and your body and how you are feeling physically and emotionally is obvious: How can you know what is impacting you and what, if anything, you need to change in your life if you’re not aware of how you are feeling and what is triggering that feeling? Sounds pretty damn good, right? You betcha. Only, because of the association of this amazing tool for consciousness with certain belief systems it has historically had some unnecessary scepticism and judgement attached to it. These days, at least in British Columbia, Canada where I live, yoga studios are becoming as common as coffee shops! The pursuit of the union of mind and body has become a far more widely accepted act of self-care and has ceased, for the most part, to be exclusively linked to any belief system. My favourite yoga studio does have a statue of Buddha in a meditative pose and the teachers say “Namaste” (The divine in me recognizes the divine in you) at the end of each class, but otherwise it’s just about you being present with your breath and your body in the moment; deepening your meditation and enhancing your body’s flexibility and ease of motion with each practice. That’s what yoga is all about. And I think that when I was in my early 20s and binging and exercising up a storm, that’s what I was looking for: a sense of true connection with my body and a sense of safety being fully present in the here and now. Back then, though, yoga was still very much a “New Age-y” thing and often came linked with obligatory chanting and engagement in the surrounding spiritual/religious community. I felt very much an outsider at the yoga classes I attended at that time. For starters, I did not wear long flowy clothing; I didn’t wear a turban; I didn’t burn incense; I ate meat – gasp!; I also ate junk food – double gasp; I did not perceive my body as a temple but rather as this 160+ pound thing I had to carry around with me whether I liked it or not and which I did my best to ignore, living from the neck up as much as possible. Most of the other people at the yoga classes were slim and lithe, graceful and easy in their bodies. Some were clearly uptight and rigid with themselves and their world – those ones scared me! I didn’t know whether they were going to flip out on me for doing the pose wrong or excommunicate me from the little community I was doing my best to fake some affinity with. Suffice it to say that while I had no judgement of them, I had tonnes upon tonnes for myself. While others were enjoying the peaceful alignment of breath and body, my experience was something….a little, um, different. Regardless of what I may have looked like from the outside, my inner experience went something like this:
- What the hell is your problem!!
- Why aren’t you more spiritual!!!?
- Why aren’t you thinner!!?
- What’s wrong with you anyway? If these people knew you ate meat they wouldn’t even speak to you! Why do you eat meat anyway!? (This, as it turns out, lead to my 10-year stint as a vegetarian, eating mostly pasta, salads and tofu – oh, and did I mention, joy upon joy, that junk food doesn’t have meat in it!!! – Wooohooo – that made being a vegetarian much easier! Of course in hindsight it’s clear I missed the point of the vegetarian lifestyle, and really wasn’t doing it for the animals or for my health, but what the hell! At the time, I got to have the cache of saying I was vegetarian while still “enjoying” all the benefits of a crappy North American diet.) Back to my brain in yoga class…
- Why can’t your hips be as flexible as hers?
- Why can’t you just shut off your brain and just be present in this moment? (This is rather ironic as it was my good old DS nattering away at me and then giving me crap for his nattering!! ARGGGG! No wonder I felt so crazy most of the time.)
- These mirrors make you look so fat!
- Why are you so fat?
- When are you going to get a grip on your weight?
- You shouldn’t eat anything after class and just go hungry then you’ll lose weight faster and be prettier.
- Actually, maybe you should see how long you can go without eating at all. That would really speed things up! (of course I had tried this thousands of times already and was, at that point, struggling to go half an hour without eating – who the heck did I think I was kidding! Why on earth did I think I could possibly restrict food for any length of time when I had been repeatedly unable to do so for years and nothing had changed?)
- Why do they have to have so many mirrors in this place?
- Damn I hate that girl! Why is she so thin!? It’s not fair!!
- That guy keeps looking at her, why isn’t he looking at me? (“Because you’re fat and she’s not!” my Drill Sgt. helpfully chimes in.)
- Why does the teacher look at me like that? Does she think I shouldn’t be here? Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should leave right now in the middle of class; just give up and never come back; this is stupid anyway. But no, I can’t leave. Then people will judge me as a loser and a failure and they’ll talk about me and how I couldn’t cut it behind my back.
- I’m gross! I’m just fat and gross!
- I can’t stand these stupid mirrors!!!
- Thank God this stupid class is over, I’m going to McDonalds!
- Yeah, yeah, yeah, Namaste shmamaste!
- I chat up my teacher and co-students before and after class if I feel like it, but don’t judge myself if I don’t,and I don’t get caught up in taking their desire, or lack thereof at times, to connect with me, personally. yoga is about being present with yourself so it’s not about meeting needs for connection or socialization with anyone but ourselves.
- If I feel it would be helpful to them or beneficial to my practice,I will tell my teacher what I liked or didn’t like about the lesson and how her/his instruction helped or what I need more help with. I don’t assume, as I would have way back when, that the teacher doesn’t care about what I think or that my opinion is wrong or stupid.
- Now, in yoga class, if my teacher mentions something in the class about how I personally need to adjust a pose, I feel grateful for the suggestion and feel the shift of energy flowing into that part of my body with the suggested change. I open myself to the learning experience and to deepening my practice.
- Whereas before, I would have been mortified to be singled out as being less than perfect, I now feel grateful for the guidance and for the opportunity to learn. I also notice that in being open and receptive to this guidance in class, I help others to receive feedback in the same vein rather than setting a tone for self-consciousness and insecurity as I did back in the days of old.
- If our teacher says, “How’s everybody doing today!?” I am often the first, if not the only one to say, “Great! How about you!?” And when, during the class, the teacher cracks a joke, I feel free to laugh openly, regardless of whether others do or don’t. This is just normal, self-confident human being functioning, but for the old me, it would have been unthinkable: “No one else is speaking or laughing or smiling. How dare I?”
- Bliss upon bliss! I don’t care so much about sticking with the class and doing the poses perfectly. I care about being present in my body and listening to what it’s telling me about how I’m feeling and what I need.
- Some days I can do the Camel pose no problem, other days I need to stop half way and just breathe and stay there. Some days my balance is great and I am able to stay in Eagle pose forever, other days I can’t even balance for 5 seconds (This could, perhaps, be related to the ingestion of a little too much wine the night before…or a lack of sleep, or my menstrual cycle, etc., etc. No biggie. The point is, I don’t judge myself or get caught up in what I could do yesterday vs. today. It is what it is. I am where I am that day, in that moment, and isn’t it wonderful to just be present in my body, breathing, feeling, taking time just for me? Yes it is!)
Posted in: All-or-Nothing ThinkingLeave a Comment (2) ↓
That’s pretty cool Michelle 🙂 I enjoyed reading your story.
Great article; so honest and ives great insight into the mindset of those struggling with body images issues and the consequential isolation that it causes. Thanks!