We live in a busy, confusing, convoluted world with messages telling us we aren’t enough and that we need to change. The world is obsessed with appearance and superficial qualities, creating a harmful narrative that leaves so many people struggling with low self-worth, insecurities and diminished self-esteem. We feel like failures for not living up to society’s expectations or conforming to unrealistic standards of beauty, wealth and power because we don’t truly understand ourselves. We begin to believe that we aren’t good enough and that we must change in order to belong, to feel a part of something. We think others will like us better if we look or act a certain way, but nothing can bring you peace but yourself. The truth is that all the answers we’ve ever sought, are within us; we just need to access the right tools to unlock them. When we finally give ourselves the space for personal reflection and exploration and become capable of looking within ourselves- to make peace with ourselves- a flood of self compassion and love will guide and nourish our broken souls. Yoga is that tool; it has the power to change your life. Yoga has changed my life and in this essay I will share how yoga can help you make peace with your body.
I struggled for far too many years of my life fighting against my body. But like any disordered eating pattern, it typically has nothing to do with how you look, at least at first. For me it was all about control. I felt like I had no say in what happened in my life. I never felt like I was enough or worthy of love. I felt unwanted and discarded. I turned to perfectionism, overachievement, and people pleasing to avoid emotional discomfort and have the control I desperately wanted. It was a coping mechanism. If I kept to a routine, controlled my food and exercise then I would be safe. I would find stability, security and comfort. But that was far from the truth. The disorder began to control me. Wu Hsin elegantly states, “controlling the mind doesn’t take one to freedom. Controlling the Mind adds another link to ones shackles.” I was in denial for many years before I realized this. Through my own self exploration and then yoga, I realized that none of the stories I was telling myself were true. Yoga is centered in truth. The niyamas, personal principles, teach you to do what is right by your physical and mental state, have faith and satisfaction in yourself, trust your intuition and not allow something like your physical appearance have the power to alter your emotions. Yoga will teach you to not only live a balanced life and reach meditation, but to love yourself.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is a way of life; a self practice- one time we have to focus on ourselves and shut out all the outside noise and drama. It brings harmony and balance to the body, mind and spirit. I will focus on how this happens through niyama, asana, pranayama and meditation. Much of yoga today focuses solely on the physical practice and forgets the mental and emotional aspect. I too had to learn this. I didn’t practice yoga regularly for many years, even though I wanted to, because I didn’t see it as enough exercise. I didn’t understand the full scope of this amazing, powerful, life affirming practice. But when I surrendered to it, I began to feel the emotional and physical benefits. I would be happier and more peaceful after my practice. I would see the world in a kinder light and eventually myself as well. Yoga can help you see things as they truly are by bestowing upon you clearness of vision. Body image issues are rampant in our society and for me yoga helped solidify and define a mind body connection. I had to reframe how I viewed my body. My body is an experience. It is the vessel that carries me through life. It is not the most important thing about me. We are all worthy regardless of our appearance despite the media messages and the barrage of marketing & advertisements that want us to believe otherwise.
Through the practice of asana, though, you are able to develop awareness of the physical body and that means really listening to its needs. When you are at war with your body, you don’t listen to what it needs. By tuning in you begin to respect your body and respect informs your actions. When we respect ourselves, we take care of ourselves, just like the people we love. Thinking of Your body as your life partner was a way for me to see what I was doing as harmful. You wouldn’t treat someone you love by harming them; the same logic can be applied to your body. I like to see my body as a manifestation of my spirit, seeing the beauty and divine in it no matter its physical qualities. As a vehicle to end suffering and liberation, we must care for our physical body, instead of letting it have the power to influence our emotions- making us happy or sad. When you care for yourself, you feel better and when you feel better, you are better and you do better. Yoga is also a means of not only bettering yourself but by doing right by yourself you are also doing right by the whole of humanity. We are all one. By practicing asanas you will become stronger in your body and have health because asana creates energy in your being, develops the stability of your mind, and will lead to higher awareness.
A Spiritual & Physical Practice
I love the physical practice of yoga and some asanas that I have chosen to share are related to the sacral or swadhistana chakra. This chakra is associated with safety and security, but movement and pleasure as well. For someone suffering from an eating disorder, this chakra can be blocked, leading to feelings of insecurity, addictions and obsessive cravings. I practice a lot of heart opening postures because when your sacral chakra is blocked you feel unloved, you don’t know yourself and you are unable to care for yourself properly. Healing is possible and it’s important to feel love for yourself and body. The asanas I have chosen can increase these emotions in you.
Bhujangasana – The Cobra
The first is a backward bending posture, bhujangasana or cobra pose. In backward bending posture you open your heart to the world, you are exposed and you nourish the attitude of embracing life, not shying away or hiding behind your disorder. You begin by lying flat on your stomach, legs and feet parallel with the soles of your feet facing the sky. Your head and chin will rest on the floor, body in a relaxed state. Your palms should be flat, fingers spread wide, directly underneath your shoulders. Keep your elbows tucked in close to your ribs, facing backward. Do not tense your back and with an inhale, raise your head, squeeze your glutes and straighten your elbows as you arch your spine backwards. You don’t need to strain your neck backwards, or let it fall, a gentle tilt while keeping your chin forward will suffice. Do not lift your pubic bone off the floor. If you cannot straighten your arms all the way without lifting your pelvis, you can slightly bend your arms. In the final position you can hold for as long as comfortable and then slowly exhale returning to the starting position. As with any backward bending posture you should follow it with a forward bending asana. Most people will be able to accomplish this pose, but if you have a hernia or hyperthyroidism you should not practice. The benefits are more than the spiritual I mentioned beforehand but will improve your ability to breathe deeply, help with back pain and make your spine healthier by becoming more flexible. It can whet your appetite, alleviate constipation and benefit your liver and kidneys.
Ardha Chandrasana – The Halfmoon Pose
Ardha chandrasana is another backward bending posture, but also incorporates hip opening and balancing elements. You can start from different positions but in Chandra namaskara, moon salutation, it comes after padahastasana, so i will start there. From forward fold, take your left or right leg behind you with a big step, coming into a low lunge. Keep your hips facing front and your toes curled under, allowing the back knee to touch the mat, front leg at a 90 degree angle. On an inhale raise your arms over head, shoulder width distance apart and slightly arch your back, chin to the sky. In the final position your front foot, back knee and toes will support you, but a strong core will keep you balanced. In the final position breathe normally and exhale as you bring your arms down on the mat outside your front foot. If you have bad knees or injured ankles this posture isn’t suitable. It does provide a stretch for the back and strengthens your hips, ankles, feet and legs. Again another excellent posture for harmonizes the nervous system.
Eka Padasana – One Leg Pose
The last asana is a balancing posture, good for developing steadiness and concentration and emotional and mental balance, and helping remove anxiety and stress. All these benefits are critical for those who are under the stress of an eating disorder or in recovery. Eka Padasana is one of my favorite balancing postures because it strengthens major muscles in the body and takes focus and discipline. I love doing this posture after ashwa sanchalanasana because it adds another dimension of balance and control. But from a standing position, you raise your arms above your head with a deep inhale and I prefer to interlock my fingers letting my pointer fingers release and point upward. Exhale as you bend forward from the hips, a slight anterior pelvic tilt will help you from trying to bend at the waist and will encourage you to lengthen your spine. As you bend forward, put your weight into one leg and at the same time straighten the opposite leg behind you keeping your hips square. In the final posture, your body from your head to your raised leg should be in a straight, horizontal line. Keep your gaze toward your hands and focus on one single point, breathing normally. Stay there as long as your balance allows and then when you are ready, return to the starting position by bringing the back leg down and raising the torso. Exhale and slowly lower your arms to your side. You can follow this asana with a back bending posture or preceded by one. Do not perform this if you have lower back or heart problems, or if you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
Yoga and Mindfulness
When we are more aware, we are more mindful and have better concentration. When your mind is stable enough, you will accept yourself as you are, have faith in yourself and through self reflection you will know you are worthy and won’t require any external validation. In many eating disorders people experience negative voices in their heads, such as food police or a judgemental voice critiquing their every action, clouding their right judgement. Through practicing concentration and eventually meditation those wandering thoughts and the negative self talk will stop. With a stable mind and body, you see yourself and the world more clearly, as you truly are, because you have accessed the whole truth. Your eating disorder will no longer take all your time and attention away, you can be fully present and engaged in life. You will no longer be a prisoner to the voices and your focus on your body will diminish. You will understand that shrinking or manipulating your body isn’t what you need. Your body doesn’t go with you but your heart and mind do and it needs your love. I used mantras like, “Iam enough, I am worthy, I am love” and “I am not defined by my body” to plant the seeds of positivity and recovery in my brain. Science tells us that an “I am” visualization or thought will be taken by your subconscious as a command. That is powerful. I used that to my advantage. I would also and still do, combat negative thoughts by doing the opposite of what they say. Thoughts are not yours, they come and go, so why identify with something so flighty? I make active decisions to nourish myself instead of restrict. I don’t allow the false ideas to manifest, rather I use awareness to recognize them, let them go and transform them. Your thoughts do create your internal behavior and feelings, so choose love and compassion for yourself and you will change your state of being for the better.
Pranayama or Breath Expansion
Pranayama is one of my favorite aspects of yoga. All though it doesn’t actually mean breath control, we use our breath to help the flow of prana, or life force/energy, through our bodies. We all have our breath. I always tell people, when something is stressing you out or you’re feeling anxious, scared, or alone remember to breathe. Deep, long inhales and exhales have a clear effect on the nervous system and the power to relax your agitated mind. Breathing keeps me centered, allows me to feel into my body, calm my mind and quiet unwanted voices. When our thoughts are running rampant we cannot see clearly. Two of my favorite techniques are kappa bhati pranayama and ujjayi pranayma. The first, kapalbhati, is energizing, helps balance and strengthen the nervous system and is also good for the digestive track. I prefer to sit in thunder bolt pose. From there you close your eyes, relax your body and begin with an inhale and then repeat sharp exhales through your nostrils, contracting your abdominals with each exhale. The inhale comes with no effort. As a beginner, repetitions range from 10- 50 depending on your capacity. Again, this breath work brings awareness to the body.
Ujjayi pranayama was a technique I learned in a yoga class a long time ago, but never truly understood. Now, with a better understanding i know why it is so powerful. It energizes my yoga practice but because it also slows your heart rate, it soothes and calms the mind, keeping me centered during my practice. My mind doesn’t wander. To practice this psychic breath, you can sit, stand or lay down. On the inhale you draw the breath in through your throat, not your nose, creating a humming sound and exhale through the throat creating a soft hissing sound. I am also a fan of abdominal or diaphragmatic and full yogic breath because not only so they have help with stress and calming nerves, but encourage practitioners to pay attention to their breathing. In a world full of chest breathers and poor posture, we could all use some yogi breathing!
Meditation: is a practice of being. It clears and relaxes the mind allowing you to look inward without distraction from your senses or busy thoughts racing around like a hamster in a wheel. From focus, to concentration we can achieve meditation. I’m still not great at it, but I feel like I’m working up to it. Meditation is the key to knowing the whole truth and with that knowledge no action can have the capacity to change your emotions and leave you unstable in mind. You will know that you are all you need. Meditation, or at least relaxation techniques have been very useful to me. I am able to calm down and at least focus on myself, my breath and the sensations in my body. My favorite technique for relaxation thus far has been the 61 points exercise where a teacher guides you into full body relaxation by going through all the joints and limbs of the body, or thre 61 sacred points. I have been using it before bed to also quiet anxious thoughts, doubts or worries. It has been very helpful. As for mediation, I prefer using a mantra so the “so-ham” meditation is one I have used. I like that it means “i am that”, simple and divine. Once you’ve completed a relaxation technique you want to come to a comfortable sitting position and gently rest your hands on your legs. With eyes closed, you breathe with your abdomen, taking deep inhales, the belly expands and on exhale you compress your stomach. You want to focus your awareness on your breath and rise and fall on your abdomen. With every inhale you think or say “so” and on the exhale, “Ham”. You continue for as long as you like, observing on your breathe and mind flow together. When you are finished you gently open your eyes and I like to also give gratitude and chant aum after I’m done.
Benefits and Effects of Yoga
All of these practices have helped me to harness my intuition. When you trust in yourself you become indifferent to doubt; Doubt holds you back. I’m still working on developing my intuition because I’ve suppressed my needs for so long. With an eating disorder it’s often difficult to know when or what the body needs. I practice mindfully eating and honing into sensations in my while eating food. I think it’s so important to be calm, not stressed while eating and to have minimal distractions. I have also found in the teachings of yoga, that food really becomes obsolete. In our culture we often obsess over food, making the saying “live to eat” a reality. Now, I do love cooking and it provides a pleasurable and satisfying experience for me to cook the food I eat and express my creativity but cooking might cause more stress for some people with disordered eating. Too much focus on the food can be scary and set some people back. So for some and also myself, I have found that not placing so much importance on food can also be healing. You just eat. You don’t fuss or angst (which I still struggle with) but rather you are content with what is, you go with nature, you flow. You can focus on your food and the pleasure it provides as well as acknowledging how it nourishes your body and soul. Ayurveda teachings can also help here. One bit of information that I share with people is about drinking water. Diet culture teaches you to drink a lot of cold water before and during eating to fill your stomach. This is not a good idea. You will actually slow your digestion. Instead drink at least thirty minutes before a meal and not during. If you must drink take small sips of room temperature water during a meal. Wait some time after a meal as well to drink. Ayurveda recommends always to drink room temperature water as well. As the science or knowledge of life, Ayurveda is a holistic system that sees every person as a unique individual. Depending on your Dosha, or constitution different recommendations can be made for types of food, when to eat and how, lifestyle routines to follow, yoga asanas to practice and herbs to cure ailments. Someone suffering from disordered eating will find that following their nature is difficult at first, but overtime extremely therapeutic. When I started following some of the food and lifestyles suggestions for balancing my vata, my digestion improved as well as my sleep. I love living with the circadian rhythm of nature and eating in accordance to it just makes sense. In today’s vernacular you could call it “eating with the seasons or eating locally.” Once you know your dosha or which one is out of balance you are able to choose foods that support you. In eating disorders like orthorexia, which is an obsession with healthy eating and over exercising, which is the closest to my personal experience, you restrict foods that aren’t clean or have too much fat. When I was learning about vata I realized that I did need more fat in my diet and grounding, nourishing foods. In Ayurveda like increases like so I had to do the opposite of what I was used to eating. I focused on warmer, cooked foods, less raw salads and smoothies. I chose to be vegan long ago, but someone in their first stages of recovery might find this diet as restrictive. However, my rationale for being vegan was born out of compassion and love, not restriction. I follow this lifestyle because it is good for me, for the animals, other humans and the whole world. Beyond veganism, i would also recommend not looking at food packages or counting calories or macronutrients, this will only keep your obsession with numbers and nutrients thriving in your brain, feeding the food police. This was key for me, I had to stop looking at the nutrition label and trust myself to just eat. Trust your own body’s hunger and fullness cues. Intuitive eating is another method of reconnecting to the body. I struggle with it a bit still because I don’t have regular hunger cues, but setting a regular schedule for eating is slowly helping bring them back. Becoming aware of how you feel after eating, emotions as well as physical sensations will also help you know if what you are eating and how much is right for your body. Take all this slowly, one step at a time. Progress isn’t linear and perfection is never the end goal.
I also practice being mindful during other exercise that I do. I love weight lifting and as a personal trainer I try to teach my clients about mind body connection as well. I personally get lost in a workout (in a good way) because I’m paying attention to what and how my body feels. The same has to be considered when over exerting the body as well. You have to pay attention to the sensations of your body and not let ego push you past a point of discomfort or out of imposed obligation. We allow our senses to attach to qualities, looking a certain way for example and this always leads to discontent and pain. Senses attach and that is the opposite of what we want, we want to control them, not be at the whim of your senses. Asanas should give you more energy not take it away and after you will have better control of your mind. Yoga will teach you to have control over your senses and thus trust your intuition. You will have faith in yourself, love yourself and know what is good for you, you won’t do the opposite because you’ve honed your intuition.
Now, my perspective on movement has changed. I move to feel good, to feel at home in my body and to connect to my mind. It doesn’t matter what I look like now, it’s about how I feel in my body; even though some people may look at me and think I’m still obsessed with my body. The truth is, when I finally stopped trying to change myself and started following more Ayurvedic diet principles, my body settled into itself. I also live a very active lifestyle; not only because of my profession but because i choose too- it makes me feel alive and at my best. I don’t need to control food and exercise anymore because I know I’m enough, I am worthy and I am love. I finally have the mental energy and time to reach my full potential, pursue what matters- my passions and purpose. Through yoga I have deepened my understanding of myself and realized my own uniqueness. I want to help others to love themselves so they too can see their own unique capabilities, talents and gifts that they have to offer to the world. I want everyone to be able to do what they love and contribute to the world in their own way without being preoccupied with their body or feeling the need to change themselves for others. We all deserve to feel safe and at home in our bodies. I want everyone to feel peace, love, happiness and joy in this world, not a life clouded by self doubt, self hatred and confusion. When you have known suffering, you want to help others out of it.
I am no longer concerned with living a life that other people do, I choose yoga. I have settled into myself and realized there is a community of people who also care about living a life free or others expectations but a life of self discovery, improvement, non attachment, minimalism, and who understand the power of energy and who want to be themselves, and no one else. To love and be compassionate.