Originally published on StartAgain Media
“There is no way I can post that picture! The shirt I’m wearing is not flattering at all.”
“My stomach looks huge in this pose.”
“I just don’t have a yoga body—everyone must be laughing at me for posting these pictures.
“It’s not like I’m doing handstands or arm balances. These aren’t very impressive.”
These are just a small sampling of the judgments that I uttered when looking at pictures of me doing yoga during a recent thirty-day practice challenge. I’ve watched several of my friends who have sophisticated asana practices engage in challenges of various lengths. I found myself marveling at their physical prowess, toned bodies, and the sheer bravery they had in posting their work so openly on Facebook. When my good friend Marta Mrotek, a Phoenix-based yoga teacher, announced her thirty-day recovery yoga challenge on Instagram/Facebook, something inside of me told me, “Go for it.” I responded to the challenge largely because I trust Marta and really enjoy her style in teaching recovery yoga. There was part of me that thought, “Maybe it would be inspirational, on some level, for people to see a woman of size doing yoga poses?” While my trust of Marta and desire to continue advocating for plus-size women gave me the push to get started, within a few days I found myself really struggling with the challenge. As it turned out, the challenge became an exercise in working with my Higher Power to help me practice self-compassion and non-judgment in a fuller more mindful way.
The first pose in the series was child’s pose. No problem. Not only is it one of my favorite poses, but when taken head-on at floor level with an Instagram filter applied, the picture came out really cool! The second pose was the cat/cow sequence, and when I saw my stomach rolls “flowing” in the short 30-second video, I was overcome with a sense of “Shit just got real!” My reaction to the sequence forced me to take a breath and practice acceptance. I accepted that my practice and body were where they were supposed to be at that moment. On day three for downward dog, the inner critic began to roar. The fat-speak was only part of it. Most of the self-criticism was about how incorrect my form looked—I sounded like a critical yoga teacher! Although it genuinely feels good for me to be in downward dog, I generally cannot keep my feet perfectly flat against the floor. Moreover, early on in my practice I discovered that I had to modify the stance somewhat to account for my weight. Looking at the picture, I noticed I was smiling back at myself. It was only after the picture was taken that the criticisms, and the “I’m not good enoughs” poured in. I was eventually able to muster enough perspective to remember that when I began my yoga practice I needed the wall to do Downward Dog. Although it took some time, I now appreciate it as a pose that feels good in my body, even if I don't look like a Yoga Journal model when doing it.
Every day of the thirty-day challenge brought new insights. In the first week, after looking at the pictures, I caught myself saying things like, “I should put on another shirt for this picture and I’ll look better,” The first time I noticed that judgment, I committed to not go out of my way to put on special clothing (i.e., the “look good” outfits) for the challenge. Rather, I would have whoever was available to take the picture of me that day take the pose of the day in whatever outfit I happened to have on. I made a conscious decision to post the pictures, no matter what, as an exercise in self-acceptance, hoping that through this practice, I would build self-compassion. This decision was no easy task as I have struggled with my weight all of my life, enduring constant criticism from my peers and my parents during my formative years about my body.
In the thirty days of the challenge, the universe highlighted some pretty amazing insights. First, I noticed that I rarely judge myself so harshly when I look at pictures of myself dancing. In two years of Dancing Mindfulness pictures, I might have made some passing judgments, but the look of total joy on my face as I dance allows me to see the whole, beautiful picture. Yoga pictures are another matter. It would be easy for me to conclude that since dancing is a more natural practice for me than yoga, of course the dance pictures won’t bother me as much. Although there is some truth to this insight, it strikes me as a shallow explanation. I sat with the contrast in pictures for a while. I realized that stepping out of my comfort zone challenged me to cultivate [a feeling of] self-compassion and self-acceptance. The asana component of yoga is not a limb of the practice that comes easily to me, likely due to my tendency to harshly judge myself and compare myself to others in the class or on a video. As a dance facilitator, this insight enhanced my empathy for those who I facilitate in Dancing Mindfulness; they also make the same comments about how they feel when they dance."
Throughout the challenge I engaged in several conversations in the comments section of the pictures with friends, many of who practice. A major theme in our conversations was that there is no such thing as a “yoga body” or a “dancer’s body.” The very notion of a yoga body is a modern, Western conceptualization, one that emphasizes the physical fitness elements of the practice with little reverence to self-acceptance. I know that for many years I’ve kept myself trapped in doubt by thinking I didn’t have a right to practice either yoga or dance because I didn’t have “the body.” Thank God that today, I know these judgments are totally nonsense. Yet it is not lost on me that there are other women out there who keep themselves from transformative practices like yoga and dance because of these body judgments, fueled by a hypercritical society. Although my work with conscious dance has been a big factor in working through the majority of my body hatred issues, the yoga practice challenge prompted me to work on acceptance at a difference level.
Looking at the pictures allowed me to see parts of my body that I really like, and certain poses gave me different perspectives on how I see my body. When judgments came up on the parts that didn’t look so great in a picture, I asked myself, “That part of your body doesn’t look so great according to whom? Yoga Journal? My mother? The girls I went to elementary school with? The awful guys who say terrible things about fat women?” I checked out the origin of these criticisms and in most cases, realized they were no longer valid. When I caught myself still struggling with a shard or two of doubt, I practiced gratitude. I thanked my Higher Power for giving me a healthy body that allows to practice the asana limb of yoga as gently or as vigorously as I choose to. Today, I am beyond grateful for having that choice. My practice is my practice, and it’s a practice that embraces the process. It is a practice that values self-compassion and self-respect. It is a practice that allows me to work with my Higher Power in a spirit of awareness and acceptance. For that, I am beyond grateful.
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Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity