Ever had one – or one million – of those moments when someone makes a lighthearted joke but you're tired and your sense of humor is nonexistent so you freak out, get ultra defensive and become the ultimate buzzkill?
Welcome to my friendship circle. And don't worry, f*** the haters. It’s not our fault we’re passionate and sleepy, right?
My most recent one of these moments came in the form of defending yoga – and boy did I get defensive. Surprisingly defensive.
So much so that I received a private apology later that evening. I almost apologized in response to the apology – the worst – and tried to brush it off as an overreaction but then I realized that I wasn’t sorry. So instead, I accepted their apology and explained that yoga, while not for everyone, is a part of who I am.
I’m not sure I’d be here without it – at least not this version of me.
I’ve disrespected my body in almost every way I can imagine. I know I am not alone in this. In fact, I’m dolefully aware of how many of my friends and loved ones share in this with me. Between the physical self harm and more “subtle” self-injurious behaviors, I have had a twisted, complicated relationship with my body since puberty, ranging from directing aggression towards it to feeling completely disconnected from it. At times I was sure it was not my own. I can remember holding a pair of kitchen shears around a fold in my stomach, fighting the urge to let them rip into my skin and tear the foreign matter from my body. And while moments like that may be far in the past, it doesn't mean the effects of them are.
My body and I have been going to couples therapy errr, I mean, yoga, however, and we’re happy to report that it’s working.
While I’ve been doing yoga since I was 15, I don't think I started practicing yoga until about two years ago. The difference came when I allowed myself to experience the connection to one's body that yoga offers.
As Lisa Mareb, LCSW, the West Coast Clinical Assessment Manager for the Eating Recovery Center said, "for individuals in eating disorder treatment or recovery, yoga is a practice of getting out of the mind…and into the very body and soul that they struggle against.”
For the first five years I had been doing yoga, the act lived primarily in my mind. It was practiced mostly with a goal of burning calories or body thinning. That got me little in return. Over time, I met some wonderful teachers and friends who gently guided me to an opportunity to escape that mindset. Somewhere along the way, I started to truly practice yoga – with intentions like strength, self-love, exploration and mindfulness – and my relationship with my body was forever changed.
Through the practice of yoga, and now regular meditation and mindfulness, I have found a way to live within and through my body rather than in conflict with it. The lessons, both concrete and abstract, I’ve taken from my practice are numerous but these are a few of the one's I use daily:
Acceptance, Failure and the Acceptance of Failure: In yoga, the idea of failure is relatively nonexistent – at least it is in the way I’ve been guided in my practice. Rather than failing to get into a pose or master a technique, you’re encouraged to explore the process of working towards it. You are challenged to accept that not every pose fits every body. There is no shame in failure, only the acknowledgement of your body’s relationship with that specific action.
Eating Disorders are known for being “for-life” in that they are sort of incurable and have a high relapse rate. They are also not something we, as a culture, often talk about openly. This is challenging and often creates quite a bit of shame. Exploring the idea that you can fail with dignity and challenging yourself to accept limitations and relapses can change the paradigm of a person’s struggle – from eating disorders and beyond.
Change can be beautiful: This is my first week as a cycle instructor and, while practicing with a fellow instructor; I was praised for my transitions. This struck me as profound. Change is not something I used to handle well. As a person who deals with both anxiety and ED, the idea of change can be wildly threatening. Physically moving through a yoga flow opens up a dialogue between the mind and body about what change means to an individual and the way those changes can me made easier. In yoga, that may involve moving with deeper breath, lifting a foot or using a block or support. The metaphor is obvious here, right?
Tolerating unpleasant sensations: Yoga encourages exploring uncomfortable places – like a challenging posture or stretch – without pain or force. That part is important because one of the core values of yoga. ahisma, calls for nonviolence toward all living things, which includes yourself. Ahisma basically says that if you’re harming yourself or someone else, you’re not doing yoga. Learning to grow stronger and stretch deeper while respecting the line between discomfort and pain can be a challenge for someone who is notoriously hard on themselves. Doing so can also provide practical tools and knowledge to apply off the mat for dealing with panic attacks or triggering moments like schedule changes, unhealthy eating and stress.
Being Present:Call it a cliché but I don’t care. Struggling with anxiety and having such a complicated relationship with food, my body and control has had a very “one foot in, one foot out” effect on my life. When your mind is constantly focused on what’s to come, it's hard to devote the right amount of time and care to your relationships and friendships. That means risking missing some beautiful shit. Yoga asks and requires you to pay attention to a moment and to let the outside world go for a brief period of your day. Looking back on the past year, I can see this bleeding into my lifestyle even through small actions like putting my phone down or learning to leave my FitBit at home or agreeing to impromptu dinners and dates despite unplanned meals and workout interruptions.
So now is the part where I say again that yoga isn't for everyone and I realize that. It's not a cure-all and, just like with anything else, it might not work for you in the ways it has for me. But it has done a damn lot for me and, to show my gratitude for that, I've included a bonus list of some of my favorite spaces to practice yoga, some helpful poses and flows for specific mental health issues, etc.
I'd love to hear in the comments where/how you practice or, if it isn't yoga, what you practice that's meaningful to you!
Spaces I Love:
If you live in Cincinnati, Ohio:
Body Alive - This is conveniently where I practice sometimes and where I teach cycle, so naturally you should come visit.
If you struggle with ED, food, body-image related issues: Try focusing on "grounding" postures for strength and courage. I like to sit in "Sukhasana" or "Easy Pose" on bad days to start or end a flow.
If you struggle with depression, try back bending poses for energy and to open your heart.
If you struggle with anxiety, try working forward bends into your flow to create a sense of calm and comfort.
Working on a home practice? I keep a "yoga journal" to create small flows and keep track of how often I'm practicing and things I'm struggling with. I suggest Rifle Paper Co.journals because they're gorgeous & lay flat next to your mat!
Finally, don't compare yourself to people on Instagram. I'm serious. I know yoga instructors of 5+ years who can't do a handstand. Perspective is everything, people.
*Taken from a mixture of YogaBasics.com, yoga instructors, myself and yoga-loving pals, Please note I am not a certified instructor!