This week I was asked to teach yoga to teenagers at a secondary school with body image in mind, as part of mental health awareness week 2019.
It was an exciting opportunity to share the practice of yoga with young people and to present them with a potentially invaluable resource for self care. It also provided me with an opportunity to reflect, remind and re-educate myself; how can yoga help with body image!? It’s a good question…
Like many, many people, poor body image is something I’ve lived with (or should I say lived in spite of, or even perhaps not lived life to the fullest at times because of!) on and off (mostly on) since the age of 10. And actually this week I realised that long standing habit of hating on my own body had crept in unconsciously. Whaaat?
Yes. It’s true. While I know I am in pretty good shape due to the fact that I enjoy exercise and exercise quite a lot, paired with eating healthily most of the time, I still tend to negatively obsess about my body when I am stressed or anxious. I project my anxiety outward on to the body in the mirror as a form of deflection.
It is a a distorted way of managing anxiety and I understand it is extremely common. In my experience, this generally works for a time but then at some point becomes exhausting. Whether it is pushing my body too hard at the gym, ("the body project") comfort eating to the point of feeling uncomfortable in my body, or avoiding food as a way to feel in control to the point of becoming isolated and unhappy.
I had forgotten this. So rather than take time to slow down and rest following a major life transition, I confess I have been fretting about my weight and feeling anxious around food to the detriment of my wellbeing.
At various times over the years, this has been the case. I’ve been fatter and thinner, tried all kinds of diets and exercise regimes starting with weight watchers at 12, and what I know is this: you can practise yoga until the cows come home (I practice all the time!) and it won’t change how you feel about yourself or your body until you slow down enough to pay close attention to your breath, sensation and feeling.
It is perfectly possible to practise yoga in a way that simply reinforces patterns of perfectionism and striving, competitiveness and comparison, zoning out etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, (and it even has some benefits) but there is more to it.
If you- like I have and continue to do in stressful times if I’m not looking after myself – eat as a way to self soothe, or avoid food in order to control or defend against difficult feelings, or even just struggle with feeling bad about your body, then yoga can truly support us in providing space for exploring and trusting our feelings. We can feel more at home in and thankful for our bodies and begin to take better care of ourselves and the world we live in.
It is a practice, and it can be work to slow down. We need reminding again and again why we are doing this – especially when yoga has become another commodity within advertising with which to sell us an idealised, unrealistic, unsustainable image of ourselves.
If we practice in a way that is relatively simple, in a way that allows us time to pay close attention to the quality and flow of our breath, to physical sensations, to the support of the ground beneath us and to notice where our minds go, we have the opportunity to transform energy – apparent in the form of muscular contraction, mental tension, fear, doubt, pushing or lethargy – into something more creative and beneficial. Connection, calm and clarity. Not just endorphin release and high, but true insight into our patterns of holding tension and thinking. The so called "vrittis" in Sanskrit, the fluctuations of the mind.
In the different shapes we take on the mat, our body becomes a container within which we can feel and experience the energy of our feelings fully and safely, so this energy can move through us and shift. This is truly the gift of yoga, insight, spacious presence, the doorway to our essential goodness and enoughness.
Xenia teaches Yoga conditioning on Wednesdays at 12.15 – 1.15pm.
Class info and details of how to book can be found here.
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Or learn more about Xenia at www.xenyoga.com