“Stay in your body.” “Don’t worry about what anyone else’s body looks like. Don’t worry about your own body and what it looks like.” The very origin of the word yoga is a reference to the union or yoking of mind and body. But this oft-referenced mind-body connection is terribly nebulous and rather elusive. Body preoccupation has wormed its way front and center, even in yoga, where we have so nobly sought to banish it…from our minds.
I will start by discussing my own experience. I have “fat kid syndrome.” Don’t worry—you can laugh about it, as I do. I was a chubby little girl growing up. Per Eastern European tradition, if a kid does not have utterly pinchable cheeks, that kid is not healthy (see My Big Fat Greek Wedding for further detail); to stay in “yoga shape,” I go through paroxysms of denial, requiring Herculean efforts of will power. For example, I can’t remember the last time I ate cake. I say this as a joke, but the point being is that of all the activities on Earth, it is incredibly amusing that the one I am engaged in so much requires that people *constantly* look at my body! I must really be a masochist.
In all seriousness, however, all I have to do is look around at my fellow teachers and see the same prototype—lean. I have seen many (too many, I would argue) inevitably enervate to gaunt territory as they amp up their teaching. Being a full-time teacher is bloody hard. I won’t regale you with all of the details but only someone who doesn’t do yoga for a living would express a sentiment along the lines of “oh, you get to work out and be paid for it for a living. How fun.” Teaching is incredibly taxing, calorically and otherwise.
But back to body image. When you are front and center, quite literally, in a room full of people, you will find yourself on the receiving end of some interesting (and unsolicited but earnestly offered) commentary from students. “You were a lot more cut last summer.” “You are looking tired.” “You look filled out.” “You are not very flexible.” These are direct quotes. I neither kid nor exaggerate. Your body will enter the public domain.
I only share this with you to illustrate just how hard it is to divorce thoughts about body image from the much bigger (and greater, too) practice of yoga. I am not, however, saying that you are doing it wrong if you have thought about your body in relation to yoga.
I am writing this to offer a flip side to this body consideration, if you will. To not subvert, sublimate, or deny your physical nature any more than you would your “loftier” mind/spiritual one. One is not baser than the other.
As Cara George eloquently put it, “I feel that yoga brings you back into your body, above all else. It moves you from your head to your body, and teaches you that the body is actually a source of quite a bit of wisdom. We feel all of our emotions in the body and can learn a lot about ourselves when we pay attention to it. It’s pretty amazing!”
Or as Katie Randall explained, “the importance of listening to our bodies, accepting and loving all that we are, is crucial to our existence in this life. If we can accept ourselves with all of our stories and experiences our bodies hold, and learn to let go of what no longer serves us, we have more access to accepting others.”
On the flip side, it’s really hard being in a yoga class full of super skinny women sometimes. It’s easy to compare your body to their bodies and feel inferior to them. It’s also easy to compare yourself from a flexibility standpoint and wonder why your body won’t do what others can do. “It’s a constant state of curiosity, but it can turn negative very quickly,” explains Cara.
The only way to navigate away from those sort of corporeal concerns is, ironically enough, to *not* ignore them.
“When you can accept that the body is mysterious, wondrous, and beautiful, you begin to find balance. People always say, ‘I feel comfortable in my own skin’ or ‘I love my body just the way it is.’ But I think those kinds of things are a reflection of your state of mind. Your emotional reaction to what your body is willing to reveal to you. There should be a bit of discomfort when it comes to the body. And while that sounds negative, it is not. I think that the discomfort should come from a place of humility and awe. Because we never really know what our bodies will throw our way. And this is beautiful. Not because of how you look, or how your body functions, but because our bodies are just a small part of this complex thing we are all living. Life. And just like life, we cannot pretend to understand our body, in its entirety ever,” says Hayley Ann.
Cynthia added, “One of the greatest and most subtle gifts of yoga, to me, has been the ability to forget altogether what my appearance may be. The sizes/numbers that society has worked so hard to ingrain into our brains has simply melted away from mine. I no longer feel I should look a certain way, be a certain size/weight at all…I absolutely feel that I can just BE.”
The body is not a trivial thing—it can be a source of as much knowledge as the mind. Listening to it is a practice, just like yoga is; learning not to talk at it but rather converse with it is, too.
Meet the author, Toni, at the studio.