How Yoga Taught Me to Love My Body
The image above is from photographer and plus-size model Silvana Denker's project called #bodylove where she takes to the streets of Germany, asking everyday people to pose in their underwear to promote a message of body positivity and diversity.
I love this image and its message; it lifts my spirits to see these women being celebrated. I can honestly say that they all look beautiful to me - when I first saw this image, I didn't start scanning each body, judging it, and then comparing it to mine. But there was a time when I would have. Like most women growing up with access to TV, magazines, and the internet, I developed strong ideas about what my body should and shouldn't look like from a young age. As a teenager and even into my early twenties, these ideas ruled my relationship with my body. Sometimes I starved my body and then I loved it for being rail thin. Sometimes the cravings for food were too strong and I binged until I felt sick. Mostly I was somewhere in between: always focused on my "flaws", always wishing I was more of this and less of that, and ALWAYS internally putting myself down.
Yoga changed that for me. Through my practice, I completely revolutionized how I thought about my body, and what I thought my body was for.
When I started on my yoga practice, I saw my body as an object and a servant. It was an object in that it's main function was something for other people to look at and hopefully to find attractive. It was a servant in that it's other important function was to work properly and allow me to live my life with minimal hassle. Illness, injury, and an inability to eat a normal amount of food without magically becoming a size zero...these inconvenient truths were all evidence that my body was my enemy.
All of that changed the first time I practiced 108 Sun Salutations. I was nervous beforehand, as I had only been practicing for a few months, and with my general distrust of my body, I was afraid it would betray me and make me look weak in front of the yoga teacher and the other students. But I was determined to try.
After the first few rounds, I got into a rhythm with my breath and started to enjoy the pace. About halfway through, I suddenly thought to myself "hey, I'm hanging in there, my body's not doing too badly." In immediate response, a voice rang out in my head, clear as a bell: I will do this and more for you.
In an instant, I felt the full force of my body's love for me - the love that keeps my heart beating when I'm asleep, that heals my cuts and bruises, that grew me from a tiny infant to the adult I am now. The power of that love brought me to tears.
For the first time in my life, I realized how hard my body works to keep me healthy and alive. And for the first time in my life, I appreciated it.
Most changes that I've made happen almost imperceptibly over a matter of years, and they're only really obvious in retrospect. But this was one time where I can honestly say I changed in an instant. Okay, I didn't go straight from hating my body to full-on, non-stop loving her - I can't say that I never had an unkind thought about my body ever again - but I can say that my relationship with my body was never the same after that one practice. My body was no longer an object and it was certainly not an enemy. It was my biggest ally, my constant companion, and my most precious gift to care for as well as I possibly could.
These days, I eat well because I like how it makes me feel. I exercise, I rarely drink alcohol anymore, and I get enough sleep, because those are the things that help my body do its job, and I want to support it in every way I can. The voice in my head has done a complete turn-around - gone are the days when I criticized and punished my body. I'm no thinner or more curvy than I was then, but I can honestly say I like what I see in the mirror. Every day.
It's important to me to tell this story because feeling good in your own skin is absolutely one of the benefits of a regular yoga practice...BUT that's because a sincere yoga practice will change the way you relate to your body internally, not because it will make you into a skinny, bendy supermodel.
The fact is, I am a fairly young, white woman with an athletic body type. You could say I "fit the mold" of the stereotypical modern, Western yogi. For evidence, here's a screenshot of some of the top image results if you Google "yoga":
Change the search to "yoga girl" and suddenly the bikinis come out:
Let me be clear: I am not shaming anyone who does yoga in a bikini. I myself sometimes do yoga in a bikini, and I even take photos of it, so no judgement here. What I'm saying is that given typical media portrayals of yogis, especially female yogis, it would be easy to assume that the reason yoga helps you love your body is because it turns your body into a socially-acceptable, more "attractive" version of your current body. This is false. My body was more or less the same before I started practicing yoga. My opinions about my body were what transformed.
The reason yoga helps you love your body is because it changes your inner relationship with your body and what/who you think your body is for.
Yes, yoga can certainly make you stronger and more mobile, which will help you feel better physically, and maybe it will even give you a more athletic shape. But I can assure you that none of the outer changes will matter as much as what happens within. After all, that's where the love is.