Namaste Fat Girl

truth_la_vrit_1870_by_jules_lefebvreI am a yoga teacher with body image issues. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone.)

An unwritten rule for a yoga teacher is that before we sit down all lotus-like in front of our students, waving incense like magic wands, we should have at least worked out our own issues. The authentic and effective yoga teacher, whose job is to guide her students intelligently and respectfully through challenging poses should, at the very least, treat her own body with the same level of care.

Since the first day I tried a yoga class and landed on my back in a long holding of bridge pose, where my thighs burned like in giving birth, I realized I had a serious problem. I hated myself. Every other thought I had was about my body. No matter what else was going on around me. The sun could be rising over the ocean, a child kissing my nose, or a friend offering me a warm cup of tea, and all I could think of was how my body was not measuring up.

My belly is so big and gross. I wish I could afford a tummy tuck. Maybe I shouldn’t have had butter on my popcorn last night. I should put my sneakers on and go for a five mile run and burn off the butter. Can I get away with inhaling the whole pint of left-over pork fried rice in the refrigerator even though it is only ten in the morning and I already had breakfast?

Inside I felt worthless, greedy, hungry, empty, disgusting, obsessed and miserable. On the outside, I was just an ordinary woman in a bridge pose. But somehow in that first yoga class and somewhere between an inhale and an exhale, I made the decision to wake up and face whatever the fuck it was that had gotten a hold of me so strongly that I was now suffocating.

For the next fifteen years, I worked on my body image issues like a dog with a bone. Each will never completely wear the other down. I did the work of self-acceptance and ridding myself of shame in a therapist’s office. I call that the work of my head. The rest of my work was done on a yoga mat.

Every day when I began my own practice, I set my intention to be open to healing and love. This meant loving myself and practicing self-observation without judging. Sun Salutations were my mala beads. I longed to hold each pose sacred between my fingers and feel their bumpy surface. Each back bend was an opportunity to open up and trust that things are exactly as they should be, each downward dog a doorway into what lies beneath the surface.

Sometimes the poses in Sun Salutation felt lousy. A plank was too hard. I felt wooden and wanted to collapse onto the floor. Walk away from the practice. What’s the point? When shame, repulsion and apathy revealed themselves while I moved from one pose to the next, I let them rage and fight inside of me. I didn’t try to deny or change these feelings but instead let them burn like fire, fade away or move on. Let them get buried in the ground. This is the work of my heart.

One thing about a body image or eating disorder is that it can disappear only to resurface during times of stress or uncertainty. It’s a good friend that way.

One evening at my yoga studio, during a period where I was trying to become more assertive with my studio staff but not quite succeeding, I sat on my mat and faced the doorway as students arrived. I was about to teach a vigorous yoga class.

The heat was blowing out of five standing heaters placed strategically around the room. The temperature was already up to 90 degrees. My plan was to work the 20 or so students who regularly attended my class hard with vinyasa flow coupled with long holdings of postures that required stamina, sensitivity, and focus. They would be expected to stay in the poses until every muscle in their body shook with aliveness.

When the body fatigues, the ego lets down its hair. The body and mind falls apart on the yoga mat and comes back together in a new and different way. As class came to an end, the hard would be followed by soft. I would guide supported poses such as reclining bound angle and happy baby. Surrender is essential for wholeness.

That night, every one that walked in the door was fit and beautiful and it occurred to me that I was the fattest girl in the class and I was the one teaching it.

What was wrong with these people?

Didn’t they see the fat girl at the front of the room?

My cheeks burned. I felt naked and wanted to disappear. Once everyone finally settled in onto their yoga mats, I began the class. I closed my eyes and silently asked no one in particular that I lead this practice from a place of openness and let my story of the fat girl go.

Within ten deep breaths, I forgot my self-hate and all was right in the world. The imaginary mala beads were back in my fingers. My whole being was immersed in the art of teaching and the fat girl story book closed itself shut.

Namaste fat girl. The light in me honors the light in you. The fact that I can release my negative thoughts while I teach lets me know I have done a lot of healing.

This is the work of my heart. I continue to do the work because once an obsession, compulsion or addiction gets a hold of us, it can make a groove across our entire being.

Before yoga I was unable to see my groove. Now I see it and feel it. It is no longer as deep. It is not completely gone but when the groove of self-hatred does show up, like when I am teaching yoga, I choose to walk around it, jump over it, or go another way.

I am no longer afraid of it and it cannot claim me. My therapist tells me I have come a long way baby. I believe him.

This post originally appeared in Elephant Journal.

A Fat Girl Does Warrior II.

“You will never find a more worthy spiritual opponent than your own self.”

~ Yoganand Michael Carroll

Anyone can do Warrior Two pose. Anyone who can stand on their legs. Even fat girls.

The first time I held Warrior Two, and I mean really held it, till sweat beaded on my bare back and shoulders like jewelry and heat rose up from my toes and lapped my insides with fire, I felt so beautiful for one slice of brief moment. I imagined I glistened like a night star soaked with moonlight. I was not fat.

But I thought I was.

My whole life, I thought I was fat. Sometimes I was, squeezing my sausage flesh into size 18′s and sometimes I wasn’t, with size 8 Gap jeans falling down on my hips.

But to a girl, who has a long time been a woman, with body hatred that stained her before age 12, true size is irrelevant. Those of us who obsess on the appearance of our body are a secret club of sisters (and brothers) who have become kin to Alice. We have been down in the hole for so long, we no longer know what is real. More importantly we don’t know ourselves, where we begin or end, and how to climb out. We only know how to measure our own sense of worth, black and white, good and bad, with broken rulers.

We are piles of flesh, food and shame.

Some will read this and say I am being overly dramatic. Focus on something more important like starving children. They are much more worthy of our attention. I agree.

But you can’t focus on things more worthy when you are stuck in the pit of your own unworthiness at the most primal level.

There is nothing more primal then our own body. Our bodies get sick, heal, taste, smell, see, hear, fight, love and feel. They feel anger, joy, lust and fear. When we don’t pay attention to our bodies, we disconnect from what is happening in the present moment and live in the limits of our mind.

A yoga teacher once said the only thing we know for certain in each moment is the rise and fall of our breath and the sensation we feel in our bodies.

This is the only truth and everything else is a story. Everything else. My fat girl doesn’t live in the truth of her body. She lives in the drama of her story. But to climb out of story she has to relearn how to live in her body in a truthful and compassionate way.

Warrior Two is a foundational pose.

Foundational because you are standing on your own two legs. Anyone can do it. Its not just for the uber-flexible or the advanced yogi. No matter who you are and how much yoga you have done, this pose will become challenging when held for longer than a few breaths.

Warrior Two is a grounding pose.

Yoga poses are done in bare feet for a reason. To feel the ground which is always underneath us and to remind us that we are a part of it. Plus bare feet make it easier to stay in place and not slip or fall. Although falling would not be the end of the world. Everyone has to fall sometime.

Hold Warrior Two and eventually you will feel heat in your inner legs and thighs. Maybe just a little at first, but wait, more will come. The warmth will seem to come up from the ground and swell throughout your whole body and will eventually lead to sweat.

Heat and sweat are desirable in yoga. Don’t bail. Stay on the mat. By staying, you are mixing your discipline with inner brilliance. Pressure and heat. This is how diamonds are made.

Warrior Two is not a pose for the weak.

It requires grounding, stamina and hugging muscle to the bone. It demands strong quads and arms and a connection to our bellies. It requires the breath. The breath with a capital B, not a meager small one. Without full deep breaths, Warrior Two deadens. It is no longer a fighter. Its weary.

But the thing about Warrior Two is it cannot be all strength and stabilization, or it becomes rigid and inflexible. It will drain you. It requires an openness. A willingness to let in ease and comfort.

The poet Jane Kenyon wrote,

“God will not leave you comfortless.”

Maybe it is only ourselves who leave us comfortless.

Patanjali, the father of yoga said the poses should be both steady and comfortable. That is the only thing he wrote about the physicality of the poses out of hundreds of verses on how to do yoga. So it must be crucial. Steady meaning rock the pose. Hold it firmly. No one can push you over. You look out over your third finger and you are fierce. A don’t mess with me attitude. Don’t fuck with me. I can handle what ever life brings my way. I have to. But if I want to be a yogi, I can’t just push my way through the hard stuff.

What about the comfort? It is true, we are directly responsible for our own comfort. To find it, the yogi has to listen. She has to have the courage to let go of being in charge of everything that is happening in her life at each moment and trust. She has to let go of being perfect and blaming herself or others when things don’t go her way. She has to stop hiding behind whatever tale of woe she has spent her life cultivating and trust that she will be found.

The interior battle is to have faith that if she lets go of the edge of what is known, she will not come crashing down. She must believe that no matter what is happening, it is okay to be both strong and soft.

The power of what can be perceived as opposites will set us free and make us whole.

Yoga is skill in action.

On the yoga mat, the yogi is developing her skills and her connection to what is truthful and humble. Everything else is illusion.

My relationship with Warrior Two began at Kripalu. I was new on the path of yoga. My yoga teacher back home, Brian, convinced me to go to Kripalu because he thought I would like it. “The place was made for you,” he said. “Make sure you get into the hot tub. Don’t miss out on the hot tub.”

Which later on I found out was done naked.

No one wore a bathing suit. A thick veil of steam filled the room. A gathering of a half dozen women or so sat inside the rectangular pool. All were immersed in water up to their shoulders. Only their faces could be seen in the dim light. The motor of the pump that made the bubbles blurred any private conversation. The white towels Kripalu provided barely covered my torso, forget covering my breast, pubic hair and butt. I almost died as I lowered my ample naked body into the steamy water amongst a group of strange woman.

For a moment, they all glanced up. And then they looked away. Back to the bubbles. Chlorine wafted in the air and mingled with my sense of accomplishment. I did not die of shame.

It was with this new secret feeling of being able to go naked in front of strangers far away from home a few hours later in a heated yoga room filled with mirrors, I took my place among yogis. Most were young and beautiful. Lots of bare shoulders and thighs. Out of the corner of my eyes were long braids flowing down muscled backs, tattoos, and piercings.

I felt out of place but wanted to fit in. I wished I was the girl with the nose ring but I could never bring myself to adorn my adult body with something my parents would disapprove of.

As I unrolled my sticky mat, Seth, the yoga teacher, a tall stick of a middle-aged man with a headband wrapped around his bald head, came over to me. He kneeled down in front of me. His joints moved like greased axle rods.

“This is a vigorous class,” he said. “If you are looking for the beginners, its one door down.”

He had a slight lisp. He reminded me of a bird without feathers.

“I know.” I say back. He smiles and walks away. My mind goes crazy. Does he think I don’t belong here? Does he think I am too big to do heated yoga? Does he think I am pregnant because of my belly fat that I cannot hide? Do I belong here? Maybe he checks in with all new students and lets them know what they are getting into. Maybe I am crazy. Calm down, Anne.

I get on hands and knees and lift my butt up into the air for a warm up of downward facing dog. The class has yet to begin and I don’t want to just sit there and pretend to meditate. I don’t want anyone else to look at me. I just want the class to get going.

But then I am looking at me. The yoga room is lined with mirrors.

This is like a house of horrors for me. I am drawn to them. They suck me in. They scare me. I do not like what I see. My belly too big. My arms grotesque. But I cannot look away.

Class begins. With each movement and each breath I start to forget. I forget that I am fat, too mainstream or don’t belong. Whatever mean and crappy story I tell myself, I begin to forget. As my breathing becomes more even and my bra becomes soaked, I forget to bash myself with my own words.

It is amazing how underneath all of my judgement, I feel happy, confident, and alive. Is this what I am scared of? Is this what my judgement keeps down?

There is a moment where Seth, the stickbird yoga teacher, calls out Warrior Two. A pose I have done a thousand times before but never in front of a mirror. I stare myself in the eyes and for one moment I think I see myself plain as day.

My legs are holding me upright. My hips are wide open. My arms reach out a million miles in either direction. My heart moves up and down with the cadence of my breath.

I am a prayer.

Nothing else matters. Let the stars shine down on me. Let the hot air from the heat vent blow in my face. And then I see it. In the copper irises of my eyes. I am neither fat nor thin, weak or strong. The yogi with the flowing long hair, perfect butt and nose ring who I was jealous of earlier, is behind me. She sees me too and smiles.

Holding Warrior Two, somewhere between steady and comfort, I realize I am so much more than this physical body and yet this is the one I got. It doesn’t matter if it is fat or thin, strong or weak. It could all change on a dime anyways.

Today is what matters and today I could stay in Warrior pose all day. Well maybe not all day. But I know I would not fall over in a storm. That has to count for something.

This post originally appeared in Elephant Journal.