Published Yoga International 10/2014
Bodies. We each have one.
According to yogic science, they are rare and precious gifts which enable us to perceive and understand the world, as well as to manipulate and create in it. These vehicles are important tools on the journey of self-transformation and realization.
Yet, instead of honoring and respecting the gift of the body, many of us have learned to detest it. Hating our bellies, thighs, breasts, arms, and other features, we turn to restricted diets, obsessive exercise, and even dangerous medical procedures. The unconscious hope is that by fitting into some idealized definition of beauty, we will finally fulfill deeper longings for love, success, and acceptance.
The cost is high. Attention, energy, and money, once available to fulfill our passions and purpose, are sacrificed to counting calories, purchasing weight loss products, and engaging in thoughts of self-abuse. Malnutrition from low-calorie, low-fat, processed foods affects our energy, mind, and spirit. We become disconnected from feelings of pleasure and the ability to express joy, and instead experience the body as a source of shame, discomfort, and insecurity.
While placing blame or playing the victim can undermine our responsibility and power, it's also important to understand the backdrop in which we live.
Advertising is a $250 billion dollar business. The average American sees 3,000 ads every day. They are in schools, buildings, billboards, buses, cars, elevators, emails, social media, smart phones, and more. The majority of individuals say they feel personally exempt from the effects of advertising, yet the editor of Advertising Age reports that only 8% of advertising is received by the conscious mind. The messages are sent straight to the subconscious, activating latent tendencies and enforcing the belief that we are inherently flawed. They say we're not sexy, thin, young, beautiful, or rich enough, and that to be happy, we must be different.
The average American sees 3,000 ads every day. These messages ride on the top of glossy, photoshopped images. Pores are airbrushed, legs lengthened, waists reduced, and different parts of women combined into an unrealistic, exaggerated whole. These images, seen thousands of times a day, weave themselves into the recesses of our mind and shape our subtle thoughts, words, actions, habits, and beliefs about who and how we should be.
Yoga + Body Image
The practices of yoga can help us unwind unconscious beliefs and habits and resist the powerful forces of media imagery. Yet, as yoga grows into a multi-billion dollar industry, it has adopted the same destructive marketing tactics—impossibly thin, provocative women and strong, powerful men are shown holding ultra-advanced postures. Sex sells, and so do acrobatics.
Today, yoga is equated with these images, selling everything from magazines, to classes, to products, to teachers. As a result, new and beginner yoga practitioners often feel intimidated. Teachers who have great yogic wisdom to share doubt their proficiency because they cannot hold the handstand in the middle of the room. Others, caught up in the body-hate paradigm themselves, use fitness, and the fear of fat, as classroom motivation. While mastering a form may be a sign of excellence, when perfecting poses becomes our sole focus, it undermines the deeper teachings of practice, and it may also undermine our health.
Health + Body Image
Only a small percentage of women naturally possess the body type idealized by both the yoga industry and the culture at large. To obtain this image—tall, lean, with thin hips and large breasts—many engage in disordered eating. Restricting food (from meals to types), binge eating, compulsive exercise, bulimia, and anorexia are all forms of disordered eating that affect women of all ages. Even mild cases of disordered eating result in malnutrition, which impairs one’s ability to think and discern, robs energy and life force, and disrupts hormonal and brain functions, among other problems.Another strategy to obtain this externalized, idealized form is to engage in surgery. Often painful, and sometimes dangerous, cosmetic procedures have increased drastically—over 450% since 1997.
Beyond the physical, the quest for “beauty” results in psychological damage such as low self-esteem, increased rates of depression, and an inability to feel free, comfortable, or content in our own space and life.
Turning Back to Practice
As a yogini and recovering bulimic who threw up 20 times a day, everyday, for over 18 years, I have found several important and basic practices that supported my recovery from both the disorder and the underlying body-hating meme. In the early stages of recovery, advanced techniques like tapas (sense training), brahmacharya (energy management), and abhyasa (applying effort) only added guilt and shame to the disorder that I could not seem to overcome. While these yogic strategies became important tools years later, they were useful only after I had gained a foothold and started to love my body again.
I had gained a foothold and started to love my body again. Instead, I turned to practices that fostered virtues such as compassion, patience, and acceptance in the beginning. Turning to what I had deemed “basic practices” and learning self-acceptance led me further down the path of yoga than any of the complex and severe practices to which I had initially been drawn.
If you suffer from poor body image, disordered eating, or any compulsive body awareness, consider the following practices:
1. Avoid the trigger
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika tells us, “avoid the company of common people to bring success in yoga” (verse 1:16). In this case, the common people are those who propel the illusionary body image. Magazines, movies, TV shows, and hanging out with friends with compulsive exercise or eating habits need to be put on hold for a while. Giving them up during these early stages may seem challenging, but avoiding the triggers is invaluable in healing. It consciously removes the material that feeds the spin-cycle of body-hate.
2. Let asana truly mean “seat”
Take the exercise out of asana. Too many people come to yoga for the workout, hoping for the perfect “yoga butt,” “chaturanga arms,” or “crow-into-handstand shoulders.” Those same people rail against their belly fat while practicing shoulderstand. Yoga as exercise keeps us locked in the disordered paradigm. If you need exercise, go swimming. If you want to practice asana, consider a practice that gently invites steadiness, stability, and comfort without the sweat (Yoga Sutra 2.47).
3. Stabilize the mind with the breath
Despite our best intentions, sometimes the mind jumps on the merry-go-round of body-hate. To disengage, utilize gentle, easy breath control. Turn your attention inward, and let the inhale be equal to the exhale. A 1:1 ratio of breath for 5 to 15 minutes helps the mind disengage from the spin-cycle of negativity, and brings clarity and ease that helps you navigate with greater self-love.
4. Cultivate compassion
Yoga Sutra 1.33 says that we can make the mind fit and clear by cultivating essential virtues, including the virtue of extending compassion toward those who suffer. Whenever we are engaged in body-hate, we are suffering, whether we recognize it or not. Instead of heaping on any more judgment, blame, or hatred, offer yourself compassion. Terrible thoughts may continue to swirl, but when you notice thoughts like, “I‘m hideous,” “I hate my thighs,” “I’m fat and disgusting,” or “I need to lose 10 pounds,” offer yourself some empathy. Tell yourself that you are lovable anyway. This simple process was the key to my recovery. After 17 years of trying to fight my way out of bulimia and failing, I simply started to tell myself, “even though I do this thing I hate, and may have to live with it for the rest of my life, I’m going to love myself anyway.” Three months later, “I love myself anyway” brought me into full recovery for the first time in my life.
5. Make your mind your best friend
When the lies scream “you’re fat,” “worthless,” or any number of wicked beliefs, simply remind yourself that you can’t believe everything you think. Then turn your mind to something pleasant (Yoga Sutra 1.39). I made gratitude lists, even when it felt impossible to do so. I made lists of what I appreciated about my surroundings, my talents and gifts, this world, and, yes, even my body. This practice helped me to become friends with my mind and to learn to trust myself again.
6. Build agni
Black magic is the act of making someone feel bad so they will do what you want. Similar to media messaging, it hooks our basic fears, aversions, and attachments. We fear being alone, of being kicked out of the tribe and not surviving. We feel a great aversion to pain and the absence of pleasure. We are deeply attracted to being powerful in our world and molding it to meet our whims. These three energies—fear, attachment, and aversion—live in the first three chakras. The root chakra holds the energy of security, the sacral chakra holds the energy of pleasure, and the solar plexus hold the energy of power.
The practice of agni sara tonifies these centers. It's almost like it removes receptor sites that might otherwise be hooked by the messages of “not good enough, not safe, and not powerful.” When my inner fire is strong, I can better discern what is helpful and true, and what is painful and untrue.
7. Make the unconscious conscious
After we have stabilized the body and mind through regular practice, made the mind our friend, and built our inner fire, it's time to dig a bit deeper. How have you internalized your beliefs about body image, and how does it play out in daily life? Yoga offers a meditation practice known as vichara. The crux of the practice is to take your biggest distraction—for example, “I’m fat,” and ask “why?” Keep asking, and eventually you will get to the root belief, or what my yoga teacher calls “the lies we live by.” Conscious of the lie, we are better able to choose whether to believe it or not. I used bulimia to prove my unconscious belief that I was indeed fat, unlovable, and a failure in every way.
How have you internalized your beliefs about body image? Be forewarned, the voice of the lie may not go away. It may, in fact, be with you for life. Battling it will only increase its power, so instead, simply learn to recognize it, offer it understanding (it showed up for a reason), decide if you want to believe it, and then compassionately make a decision to let something else run the show.
Body image, beauty, and eating disorders are complex issues facing our culture today. To consciously step away from the cultural memes of thinness and "not-enough-ness," and to decide to love your unique form as it is, in this moment, is a radical act of defiance and self-love. It's a step toward the infinite. And to again quote a master, “whoever chooses the infinite, is chosen by the infinite.” Choosing to nourish and nurture this vehicle of transformation will aid you as you step further into the practice and state of yoga.