When the girl next to me rolled out her mat and immediately began warming up with hanumanasana (the splits) I admit, I rolled my eyes and thought “Great, it’s going to be that kind of yoga class.” You know the kind, where the studio has mirrors on the wall and all the skinniest and best yoga students cram in up front to get a better view of themselves.
“I’m just here because they offer babysitting,” I remind myself; the opportunity to practice for an hour without a toddler hanging all over me. The very last thing in the world I want to do is to be visually reminded of my post-baby body weight as I watch it move through belly-squeezing postures in the handily provided mirror. So I don’t, I don’t look. For the next hour I don’t look at the girl next to me, or the people in front of me, or the image of myself in the mirror. Maybe my gaze burned a hole in the floor in front of me, I’m not sure, but throughout the practice I made it an intention to judge neither myself, nor anyone else around me.
After teaching yoga for nearly a decade, I am well versed in reminding my students to practice compassion for themselves, in guiding focus inward instead of toward the most flexible yogi in the room. But the view is very different when you are in the room, instead of in front of it, when the person who needs reminding is yourself. For the last few weeks, I’ve been sitting with this idea of hanumasana-girl and my reaction to her, and throughout several classes I’ve had the opportunity to witness and practice next to her. Is she a showoff? And why does it matter? We’re here for the same reason, right?
Here is where we begin to get at the heart of the issue. I practice yoga for a myriad of reasons; to breathe more fully, as a spiritual practice, to get an hour to myself away from my kids, and yes, to maintain my figure. In truth, I have no idea why anyone else practices. We all have our own reasons and reactions.
This ancient practice of yoga has so many offerings and it looks different for each person. The cornucopia of yoga styles means that there is, literally, something for everyone. You can get gym yoga, sweaty yoga, chanting yoga, yoga for weight loss, yoga for athletes, yoga for scoliosis…and far from judging the “watering down of yoga” (as it’s been called) I see it as a wonderful evolution of a deeply beneficial practice. But somehow in the process of yoga becoming more main-stream, funny little things have happened. Images of yogis with one kind of body type are everywhere we look, even in advertising for non- yoga products. Not to mention all of the trendy diet fads out there; juice fasts, smoothies, supplements, detox cleanses and super foods. Yoga is a lifestyle, yes, and so we have clothes and food and jewelry to go with it. Which is really rather pleasant, don’t you think? Except for when we allow our yoga to be about image, about how we look, about how well a pose is executed or how advanced the practitioner, rather than about the internal process of growth.
Yoga speaks quite a bit of control: control of breath, body, thoughts. Restraint is another term often heard in philosophical texts. I particularly like the term discrimination. Discrimination is the process through which we begin to wake up to the content of our thoughts, to the nature of our actions and reactions, and in doing so, begin to take more personal responsibility for the lives (and the thoughts) that we cultivate.
The science of a negative self image is subtle, and it’s easy to use yoga’s dis-identification with the body to turn it into something that needs to be controlled, whittled away, starved and beaten into submission. That idea of control lies at the very heart of eating disorders such as anorexia, an issue that more and more of my students are confessing to have suffered from at some time. It’s easy to blame the media, for it certainly doesn’t contribute more than one standard, but we have to go deeper than that. When we take in ideas, even on a lower level of consciousness, and fail to practice discrimination, then we are essentially downloading massive amounts of information without first screening the content.
Of course eating healthy and maintaining your body is a good idea. But so often when I realize I’m comparing my post-baby body to a body I had in my early twenties, I realize that that body wasn’t a healthy body. It was thin, not from exercise or any real effort, but only due to age and the fact that we were too poor to eat well. On the other hand, this body I have today is very strong and capable, the product of eating a healthy diet and maintaining a strong practice, and I don’t often give it enough credit. Our self-perceptions are sometimes the most flawed of any we have, because they attempt to measure our self-worth, or grasp onto what we used to or wish to have. I am sitting on my mat struggling to accept my curvy body, the student next to me is struggling to overcome anorexia and trying to gain weight, or the one trying to accept an aging body, or the one overcoming addiction, or the one suffering from the loss of a loved one. We all practice through different seasons, in the bodies that we’re given. The point is that we practice, in spite of all of our negative voices that tell us how to see the world, and ourselves, in very biased ways.
Back to hanumanasana-girl: the truth of the matter is that I walked into that class already braced for impact. I expected it to be competitive, and so that is how I saw it. I brought all of my own body issues and insecurities and distractions right on in with me when I sat down on my mat. Had I walked into that class expecting something else, I probably would have experienced it that way instead. So the next time you have a bad experience, wouldn’t it be an interesting practice to reflect on how your expectations might have affected your perception of it? We are our own worst friends, and no one judges us as harshly as we do ourselves. We create the world we live in through our own interpretations.
Candice Garrett is a yoga teacher, writer, foodie and mother of three in Monterey, California. She is author of “Prenatal Yoga: Finding Movement in Fullness,” assistant to Female Pelvic Floor Goddess Leslie Howard and director of the Nine Moons Prenatal Yoga teacher training program.
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