Your body is your home, it’s where you’re going to live for your entire life. If you hate your body (and I hear some variation of this from people all the time), there’s a war raging within your home.
There are all kinds of things we could say about the culture that’s breeding this kind of self-hatred. If you want to sell products, you have to make a person feel that they need what you’re selling and a lot of what’s being sold doesn’t even exist. Most of the time what people buy is the promise of how things could be if only (you’d lose ten pounds or live in a bigger house or drink this beer and have these kind of friends and always do and say the cool thing), but there’s no diet that’s going to make you happy. There’s no house, car, or hairspray that’s going to satisfy the beast of your despair if you’re in pain. You cannot buy your way to happiness. You can’t starve your way there, either. And you can do as many reps as you want to, but big biceps aren’t the key to your inner peace.
We are all inundated with images of photo-shopped people on covers of “health” magazines, and as far as I can tell, beauty magazines are designed to make women feel ugly. Like they’re not nearly enough. Men aren’t let off the hook, either. There are pills and creams for baldness and erectile dysfunction, and if the side effects happen to be death, at least you’ll look good in the coffin, although the casket might have to be closed if that blue pill works too well. I don’t buy those magazines, and I don’t watch television, but I drive around and see billboards all over the place. It’s like a constant mantra of “You suck!” and unless you do a lot of work on it, it’s very likely you’re going to internalize those messages. Did you know that Brown University conducted a study and found that 74.4% of normal-weight women said they thought about their weight or appearance “all the time” or “frequently”? And 46% of normal-weight men reported the same. When I give the cue in yoga class, “Your hands are shoulders-distance apart,” I notice almost all the men in my classes have their hands too close together because we’ve got all the men convinced they’re smaller than they are and when I say, “Separate your feet hip-distance apart,” almost all the women take their feet close to the edges of their mats. We’ve got all the women convinced they’re bigger than they are. What is more disempowering to people than the feeling that we all just can’t get it right? Can’t measure up? What drives the desire to distract people so they’re focused on how they look instead of what’s happening in the world?
The language we commonly use when talking about our bodies is aggressive, as in “battle of the bulge,” and “no pain, no gain.” I see people on their mats forcing themselves into poses their bodies aren’t ready to do because it’s so second-nature to think of the body as something we own that needs to bend to our will. I get it, because I struggled for years with body-image issues. I grew up taking ballet and learned early, the thinner the better. In fact, why eat at all? I think I started restricting calories when I was thirteen. I stopped dancing when I was sixteen, but my relationship with my body didn’t get any better. I’d over-exercise and under-eat, and still never be happy, never feel satisfied. Of course there are personality traits that lend themselves to this kind of thinking as well. If I can’t control what’s happening in my life, at least I can control what I put in my body. And so it goes.
The amount of time and energy I spent worrying about my appearance blows my mind when I think about it now. What a waste, and think of all the places that energy could have gone. It truly didn’t change until I started doing yoga. It wasn’t instantaneous, but after I’d been practicing consistently for awhile, I started to tune into my body in a different way. I’d grown up drinking diet soda and eating processed food, with no real awareness that your body doesn’t function well if you feed it a steady diet of chemicals. If something has seventeen syllables, your body really doesn’t know what to do with it. Yoga woke me up and stopped me in my tracks and made me think about things I’d never considered before, like what made me happy. What lit me up. It made me wonder what I was doing here, and what I was offering up to the world around me. Because honestly, when I started doing yoga I had blinders on. I lived in the small world of what’s happening for me? What’s not happening for me? Why isn’t it happening, and what can I do to make it happen faster? And if I wasn’t in that frame of mind, I was depressed and not getting much of anything done at all except dating older men and feeling any sense of myself moving further and further away from me.
Yoga brought me back to myself, in a way I hadn’t been since…I don’t know. I started to have a visceral experience of feeling good in my own skin, of listening and responding with the intent to heal. Of breathing in and breathing out. Little by little I started to know myself. In some ways it was amazing and in others, it was incredibly painful because not everything was pretty and light. When you’ve been hating your body for years, or exerting control over it like it’s something separate from you that needs to be feared lest it betray you, you’re also living in a house of shame.
Your body is an incredible gift. Your beating heart and your legs that get you from point A to point B (if you’re lucky to have two working legs). Your arms that can reach for people and hug them. Your smile, the light in your eyes. It’s all pretty amazing, but you rarely hear anyone say, “I love my body. My body is such a gift.” As I continued practicing, I discovered that when I fed my body well, it performed better and I felt clear in my thinking and full of energy. This was like a revelation to me. I started to educate myself about organic food. Eventually I went the vegan route. I’m not trying to convince you of a thing. What you put in your body is one of the most personal things in the world, and it’s up to you to figure out what feels right, but there’s no way to separate the way you feel about your body from the way you’re feeding it and treating it, or the way you feel about the planet. It’s all connected.
Sometimes people tell me they love food too much to make big changes. I love food. I have a completely different relationship to my body than I did twenty years ago when I started practicing. I’ve also grown two people in my body since then, and if that doesn’t make you realize your body is miraculous, nothing will. If you start to feed a loving voice, if you start to care about yourself, you’re going to want to take care of yourself in a different way, and I can tell you it feels very good. Throw out your scale and get off your diet if you need to. Unroll a yoga mat and get to know your body. Think before you eat. Close your eyes and see if you can really tune into what your body wants. It isn’t diet soda, I can promise you that. This culture of less-than will rob you of the chance to be at peace with yourself if you let it.
Sending you love,