How Does Yoga Help Body Image?
“You don’t get to overcome the only body you ever have”
- Mathew Sanford
If I asked you to give me a list of all the things you call “mine”, what would be on that list?
For many of us, this list could go on and on…
But of all the items listed, which would you consider truly consider to be something that defines you? In other words, when you think of what makes you uniquely you and gives you a sense of self, what would be first on that list?
Now here’s the hard part:
Imagine for a minute that those things no longer existed. Who would you be? How would you define yourself? Would your identity be lost? Would you even have a sense of self?
Last weekend I was honored to attend the first Accessible Yoga Conference. The entire conference was amazing. I was particularly fascinated with the keynote speaker, Mathew Sanford. He shared his incredible and inspirational story and also spoke about loss; something we all must face at one point in our lives. As human beings living on this earth, we all lose something we call “mine” at one point or another. And for most of us, when we lose one of these external “mines” that we are attached to and that we so strongly identify with, we are faced with incredible suffering.
Sufferings like a mid-life crisis, isolation, depression, lower self-esteem, negative body image and poor health.
Identifying with our body is a biggie and it starts early.
From the minute we’re born we are weighed and measured and then given a thumbs up or a thumbs down; We are instantly placed and ranked. As we grow, our identity continues to be formed from feedback and experiences we have surrounding our physical body; we’re labeled as athletic or picked last for the team. May be we suffer from asthma or chronic injuries so intense physical activity just isn’t our thing. May be we feel ashamed or marginalized due to our size and weight so we avoid anything that brings us attention because we would rather just disappear. As we grow older we’re told we aren’t cute enough for our crush to ask us to prom. We desperately want to fit in so we adorn our body with the clothes we’re told will flatter our figure in order to cover up our flaws. In our job interview we notice we’re up against someone distinctively more attractive than ourselves and blame our appearance when we didn’t get the job and proceed to start a new diet the next day. As we age we are sold tips and tricks to cover up the laugh lines and erase the creases caused by joyful moments because looking young is celebrated and complimented more than the amount of happiness we have experienced throughout our life.
External validation of the body and the body itself is by far one of the most difficult things to untangle from our sense of self and our true identity, but until we do we will suffer endlessly.
So how do we start this untangling process?
(no headstands required or 100 degree rooms)
The first step is to notice when you identify with your body on a day-to-day level. This usually shows up in the form of body shaming and can look like this:
“These pants are so tight on me now, God I’m so fat and gross. I can’t let anyone see me like this, what would they think?”
But it can also show up when you are feeling really awesome about yourself like this:
“Wow! I look so amazing! I bet I’m skinnier than any of the other people here! Yes! I am so winning.”
Two completely different perspectives but both are ways in which we identify or attach to our body.
By first becoming aware of these thoughts (mindfulness) we can then ask ourselves why we’re having this reaction or in other words, "what’s really going on here".
This is the art of self-inquiry. In yoga this is called svadhyaya.
From here we can start practicing non-attachment with our body; understanding and embodying the fact that we are not defined by our body’s appearance, size, shape or ability. In yoga this is called vairagya (detachment)
Once we practice non-attachment we gain a true sense of self from the inside and realize our spirit is what truly defines us. It’s here that we can start embracing our so-called flaws, our disabilities or our physical limitations. The wrinkles deep in our skin become our joyful memories, our scars tell stories, our rolls of skin and fat become a soft pillow for our children’s head, and our thighs that jiggle become the vehicle in which we run to greet a long lost friend.
This is Yoga and this is how it can not only change your body image but also change your story.