Almost six years ago, I started practicing yoga. At first, I went to relieve muscles that were tight from so much time spent in front of a computer and hunched over books. I had no idea at the time that yoga would propel me down a life-changing path.
In the beginning, I felt awkward and conspicuous. But it felt good, so I kept at it.
My yoga studio is really special. Each 90-minute class begins with a short lecture on various aspects of yoga history, culture, and philosophy. Then there is focus on the breath and encouragement to set an intention for the class. It offers a beautifully supportive environment and encourages students to be true to themselves and listen to their bodies.
Two years later, I happened upon a special edition of Yoga Journal magazine that focused on weight loss. Every single article in the magazine spoke to me. I knew yoga would play a significant role in my journey.
This journey of change still had to wait a bit, as I was about to become pregnant with my second child. Through both of my pregnancies, I continued my yoga practice in a prenatal class. Not only was it beneficial to my physical self, but the groups were so supportive and provided a wonderful space to exchange information and make friends. Knowing there was a little life growing inside of me also helped me listen more carefully to my body and not push myself beyond my limits merely for the sake of keeping up with my neighbor.
What have I learned in yoga?
Throughout my years of practice, I have grown stronger and more flexible. I can now do poses that I thought I would never get into. My heels touch the ground in downward dog (well, most of the time!). I never thought my tight shoulders would allow me to get into eagle arms, but not too long ago I tried again and was thrilled to find I could twist my arms into the previously impossible pose! Hurrah! Ooooh, it feels so good to see and feel the progress! Does it matter that it’s take 5 years to get there? No way! If I’d never tried, I never would have gotten there.
But the benefits have been far more than physical. I have learned – and continue to learn – to focus on my own body and not compare myself to others in the class. My teachers always encourage this mindset of non-judgment. “Listen to your own body before you listen to me,” one says. As I practice the skill of non-judgement, I have become more accepting of my body. And in turn, I have come to appreciate my body more and more. Look at what it can do! And the more I appreciate my body, the more it is capable of doing.
Yes, I have become stronger and more flexible. But even from the very beginning, there were poses I could easily slip in to. I not only felt strong and flexible in these poses: I felt graceful … even beautiful at times. Focusing on these positive feelings inspires me to continue my practice. And I was further able to take these feelings of grace and beauty with me off the mat and into my daily life.
I learned that I have strengths and weaknesses. And both can always be improved upon. I know that my body still has certain physical weaknesses, including a back left sore from my pregnancies and childbirth. So instead of trying to force myself into backbends and further injuring my low back, I lie face-down on the mat and simply breathe. Sometimes I still have to talk myself out of my fears of judgment from others: even if someone is looking at me (which they probably are not, as they are focused on their own poses), there is no reason for anyone to judge. Remember? We all have strengths and weakness, and we need to honor our bodies for where they are in that moment.
I will admit to a moment of comparison. It was a moment of great revelation for me. A young man accompanied his mother to class one day. He looked to be about college-age and very athletic – maybe a baseball player. I had never considered myself to be athletic. Although I had played a variety of sports as a kid, I always felt inferior – largely due to the feeling of being overweight. It didn’t help that gym teachers never encouraged me or made me feel that I was capable of improving. So there I sat in my yoga class with this young man a few mats over from me in the back row of class. The old feelings of inferiority crept in. But as I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye, I was astonished to see how much difficulty he had with the poses – poses that I easily got into! What? Could this be? This comparison, however, was not one of self-deprecation and was by no means a feeling of superiority over this young man. It was, as I said, a revelation. It may sound obvious, but in that moment I realized that “being athletic” had a thousand different interpretations. It did not simply mean one was good at sports. I finally realized that I, too, was athletic in my yogi way!
It was a huge moment for me. I was no longer that big girl, so horribly self-conscious. Through my yoga class, the awkward, bruised little girl in me, who had felt so inadequate for so long, finally began to feel soothed. My confidence began to grow more and more. And as it did, so did my appreciation and love for my body.
It felt amazing.
I was inspired to finally write this post in part by an article I just read in the latest issue of Yoga Journal about the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and their efforts to raise awareness of yoga as a practice that embraces and can be embraced by every body. (See Yoga Journal, February 2015, p. 50) You can read more about the coalition here.