(First published by Yoga Journal, May 1997)
by Blake More
What do you do when your yoga practice becomes just one more way of telling yourself you’re not good enough?
A few summers ago, I took a two-week teacher training course in southern California. During the training, two-thirds of the 24 women present admitted to having a troubled relationship with food. At least six—including myself—had once been hard-core anorexics or bulimics, and all of us still were still grappling with our distorted body images and dietary obsessions.
Since food was abundant at the training, there were lots of opportunities to see this thinking in action. I noticed women worry about how much (or often) they ate or compare their intake to the consumption of others. I also saw them fight over desserts and pile their plates high even when specifically asked not to.
On incident particularly stands out. On the last day of the course, I watched one woman embark on a full-fledged binge. As part of the training, we were each teaching a sample class as a test of our ability. Halfway through, she got up and disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later, she returned, whispering (to nobody in particular) that there wasn’t enough food—despite the fact that she had a plate of breakfast leftovers. She then proceeded to eat as others taught their 10 minute routines, either taking bites in-between postures or sitting out entirely. This continued for a couple of rounds, with her intake growing more frenetic with each trip back from the kitchen. Finally, just before it was her turn to teach, she went into the bathroom. I do not claim to know what she did behind that bathroom door, but she was able to teach her segment without any of the problems that might have come from practicing on a full stomach. What was most disturbing, though, was that she seemed completely unaware of the fact that we had noticed her binge.
A few weeks later, I relayed these observations to a friend who had his own yoga-related binge-purge stories. One tale had a notably strong impact on me: At a dinner after the conclusion of an asana workshop, a prominent yoga instructor kept a coffee mug next to her and threw up into it as she ate. When somebody asked her why she was doing this, she replied that she had “come out of the closet” about her bulimia.
How is it that a person so devoted to yoga can continue to have such a tormented relationship with her body? The word “yoga” conjures up blissful images: threads of sunlight linking a roomful of peaceful bodies; the tranquil silence between inhale and exhale. But what of yoga’s shadow side, the one many of us sense in our practice but don’t dare express. I’m talking about the unattainable images of yogic perfection: Gumby-like flexibility, the perfect Scorpion Pose, shoulder muscles that could have been sculpted by Michaelangeo. For many of us with body-images issues, these ideals prove to us that, despite our daily practice, our bodies (and thus, we ourselves) still aren’t good enough. Far from being a sanctuary from our insecurities, yoga—and the yoga community—can reinforce them.
We live in a culture that imposes insane standards of beauty on women in particular. For instance, the average height and weight of an American woman is 5’4” and 142lbs—yet we are constantly comparing ourselves to fashion models, who average 5’9” and 110 pounds. The national reported incidence of anorexia and bulimia has doubled since 1970 and 48 percent of all women say they are dissatisfied with their bodies. Fashion is clearly leaving a slew of casualties in its wake.
I should know—I am one of the recovering wounded. As a former anorexic/bulimic, I remember my pre-yoga years, the time when I stuffed myself so full of pastries that all I could do was lie on the ground and writhe in pain until my stomach emptied enough for me to get up and start the process over again. For 12 years, I lived in a trance that centered around the food I ate, the food I didn’t eat, and the food I planned to eat. I became a compulsive exerciser—if I missed one day at the gym, I was so guilt-ridden that I wold start a new binge.
Eventually, I found help through a marvelous therapist named, aptly enough, Lila (the Hindu word for the drama of life). Together, she and I spent hours hashing out the peculiarities of my psyche—why I resented being in a woman’s body, why I used food as punishment, why I didn’t want to feel. It wasn’t easy, but with dedication and lots of support, I learned how to acknowledge and accept my demons rather than numb them with food.
Around this time, I turned my attention to yoga. Although I had been practicing intermittently since I’d begun therapy, yoga had always taken a back seat to my rigorous aerobics and weight-training schedule. Since my body looked healthy and I no longer binged and purged, I considered myself free from my body-image issues—even though I continued to rely on the gym mirrors and bathroom scale to validate my sense of self.
But one day, full of some greater “reason,” I got up from the weight machines, grabbed my backpack, and walked out of the gym, never to return again. Today, I realize that it was yoga that gave me the courage to take this step away from the workout rituals I had long performed—rituals that imposed unrealistic demands on my body and constantly reminded that I wasn’t perfect enough. A few Salutations, a Triangle, and a Forward Bend every couple week—with my attention guided to the feeling and the process, not the result—had softened my image-centered identity and encouraged me to consider changing my perspective.
But even my first encounters with yoga had their shadow sides. I took to yoga immediately, quickly advancing into more and more difficult asanas after just a few classes. Enjoying the attention of my classmates, who marveled over my rapid progress, I fell into the familiar habit of focusing on how I looked from the outside.
Not only that, but I began to sense the same attitude in my teacher. Adored by all her students, she initially seemed to embody everything I thought yoga should be. She was beautiful, flexible, and strong, and her voice had the melodic resonance of a self-realized songbird (so unlike my aerobics instructors who were always yelling, “No pain, no gain!” over the blare of the stereo system). But after a few classes, I began to recognize in her the same embattled gym mentality I so desperately wanted to escape.
Including both her private and group classes, my role model was teaching up to six classes a day. She was also getting up at five every morning for two hours of hard personal practice, in which she pushed herself relentlessly. She had deep moons under her eyes, a never-ending sniffle and sore throat, and she perpetually suffered from one injury or another. I noticed her tugging uncomfortably at her waistband and wearing baggy sweatshirts one day, while prancing around like a contented gazelle in a leotard the next. Then I bumped into her at the grocery store and understood what was going on. Like many of the women I knew from the locker room, she pushed a cart that was essentially empty, except for a six-pack of Slim Fasts, some diet bars, and a bag of cookies. My radar had been correct: She too was on the binge-purge cycle that I had thought would be absent from the yoga world.
I was crushed. I knew that all yoga teachers weren’t like this, but since I didn’t want to risk reactivating my own deeply ingrained pattern of validating my body based on how it looked, I gave up the yoga studio and embarked on a period of self-study. At home, I had no one to measure myself against: I was the skinniest person in the room, as well as the most flexible. Nobody could hold a standing posture longer than I could. Sure, I still had the fashion mavens and my internal body-image police to contend with, but they had far less power over me in the safe setting of my own living room.
Around this time, I also began to practice in the nude, an act which gave me a whole new perspective on my body. My self-image became less influenced by the fit of my clothes—I allowed myself to move with more acceptance through my monthly changes. With no mirror or teacher to correct me, I had no choice but to focus on my own experience—to get inside my skin as I had never quite done before.
Each time I practiced, it felt like I was rewiring the tracks of my awareness. The old tracks ran over every inch and bulge—complete with nasty comments pointing out my flaws and telling me I was a disgusting, fat, inflexible beast. The fresh ones didn’t care about any of that craziness; they were laid down to help me negotiate peace inside the war zone of my body.
And as these reparations unfolded, I found that my “hate tracks” were actually a blessing in disguise. Hate had helped me develop an intimate knowledge of my body—a knowledge that, through the practice of yoga, begged to be translated into love. Every posture became an opportunity to place a new awareness on an old message: I could now consciously choose whether I mapped my body with disgust or with compassion. As positive choices became second nature, my self-criticism dropped away, leaving me open to other more expansive energies.
My solo approach isn’t foolproof. Years later, I still crash into barricaded parts of myself; yet even though I continue to confront my body issues again and again, it’s totally worth it, and definitely with less intensity and a bit more insight each time.
Sometimes, I still find myself measuring my worth against some airbrushed debutante (or yoga calendar model, for that matter), but when I feel that familiar terror careening through me, or catch myself standing in front of the mirror calling my stomach dumpy, I look instead to the purple sticky mat propped up against the corner of my couch. Plato said we behold beauty in the eye of the mind. I guess that’s the way I’m learning to consider my body as well.
Blake More is a freelance writer and poet. Published in Yoga Journal, May 1997.