When I teach skiing during college, the leaders of the ski school check “finished forms.” Instructors need to ski with impeccable precision to demonstrate perfectly for students. Every few weeks a videographer focuses singly on each of us as we make our way down an open slope. She follows and records every turn. We review the film and give each other feedback. The first time the tape runs, I do not see my flawless form, exact turns and easy style. The instant I spot my yellow pants and navy parka on the screen, I gasp, “Eww! I am so short and fat.”
Many of us struggle with how we look, or think we look, before we learn to feel into the body with delight, respect, peace and pleasure. Rather, we suffer: anguish, pain, hurt, guilt, despair, disgust. A drive for thinness, supreme fitness or wanting to be taller than we are takes its toll. Dying to have a different body can eclipse self-care. Some die to be thin.
Embodying agility, strength and energy all lead to health. Yet for years I obsessed only about body sculpture. I once bought a course, called “Remove Ab Flab,” and learned about obliques, the muscle fibers used in side-bending. I didn’t care about trunk flexion. Unaware of the body’s great intelligence, and imprisoned by a fat-phobic culture, I religiously performed the DVD’s crunches and sit-ups to disappear my love handles and create a home-brewed tummy tuck. Speaking of religion, I hopped on the scale daily and bowed to that metal god on the bathroom floor, which dictated how I felt about myself that day.
I became addictively preoccupied with the transversus abdominis, which, when contracted, reduces the diameter of the abdomen. I yanked in my belly so hard for so long that my back screamed tense and sore all the time. No matter. I craved ripped abs. No more midri bulge for me.
Letting the organs soften in order to breathe and avoid back injury never occurred to me. I violated the natural rhythm of breathing, perhaps the saddest wound in my quest for sleek and taut. Sucking in the stomach constricts the diaphragm and restricts breath, allowing less oxygen. A refusal to “fill up” crushes life energy. Yoga teacher and author Donna Farhi calls this sapping of natural vitality a “self-imposed psychic girdle.” When our deep demons win, open belly-breathing and activities like speaking, coughing and eating lose.
I loathed my curves, rolls and adipose tissue, yet wanted a kinder relationship to the body-home I inhabit. After a gentle nudge from a wise friend, I adopted a Buddhist practice based on this teaching: “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
Love alone offers a nourishing release from the grasp of “I am too short, too fat, my hair is too straggly, nothing fits, and I can’t go out like this.” Yet, early self-condemning conditioning dies hard. Most of us need repeated nurturing antidotes to “yuck, gross” when we look in the mirror. If, for 67 years, I recoiled in shame every time I passed a store window, it will take a while to transform old messages.
I am 56. I watch a videotape of me teaching a yoga class. I look for the details in my teaching. Chuckling, I note that years ago, I would have wondered if my purple shirt matched the needs for this activity. Today I do not criticize my 5 foot 1 inch frame or my waist. I observe how I teach postures, how my voice sounds.
I affirm that I like the tone and quality of my speech: soft, accepting, nurturing and clear. I note how often I smile. This person I observe (me) improvises, relaxes and has fun. I give lots of permission for students to explore, make yoga their own. I like how I include the yoginis in the process. I gently coax the life force to come through me and the learners.
I feel kindness toward myself when I detect my places of discomfort, reluctance to push people, hesitancy to introduce certain poses. No longer consumed by how much I weigh, not fixated on whether my arms are too flabby, I appreciate the whole truth.
Question: How am I journeying toward body acceptance and a felt sense of harmony? Answer: Self-compassion and coming to know we are more than an image, so much more than our figure. My teachers say, “Every living thing thrives with loving kindness.” So for years, as I hear the echoes of what society told me about my body, I offer myself these goodwill phrases as remedy. Over and over, again and again. “May my body be at ease.
May my body be happy and well.
May I remember the beauty of my radiant true nature. May I be healed.”
Embracing healthy body image is an inside job and, research shows, has little to do with outer contours. May we all let the belly fill on the in-breath. May we befriend ourselves. And on the out-breath, may we wish that all be healed.