I 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.