For most of my life, I hated my body.
My body was too big and too much. Yet I was never enough. My mind tells me that no matter what I accomplish I could have done more and I should have done it better. Too much and not enough are different sides of the same coin.
My body and my self esteem are forever intertwined, and I do not know which one came first, or if that even matters. What I do know is that the size of my body and its attractiveness or perceived lack of it has taken up more space in my mind then anything else, trumping sex, money and even mothering.
I learned about the importance of physical appearance from my mother.
When I was seven or eight, I remember sitting with my Mom at the edge of the beach, dipping our bare toes in the foamy ocean. We sat side by side in low-slung beach chairs sharing a can of diet soda. My mom always got cocoa brown during the summer. I was envious. The only color I turned was a firetruck red that blistered and eventually peeled. Together, we were hypnotized by the rhythm of the ocean as strands of sea weed moved back and forth.
Sitting on beach chairs, looking out over the ocean, my mom counted heads. Once she identified all of her kids heads, four including me, then she could relax until the counting began again. If she turned her head for even a moment, a violent wave or mysterious under tow could make us disappear.
One of my most loving memories of my mom is her counting to four.
My youngest brother Jimmy, who was three or four at the time, was usually behind us on a beach blanket under a striped umbrella stuck in the sand. The umbrella protected him from the sun, and our beach chairs kept him from getting lapped up by the tide. Jimmy was a mild mannered kid with blue eyes, blond hair that stuck up unevenly and an infectious smile.
He had cerebral palsy and mental retardation and could not sit up in a chair without his spine collapsing and his neck and head hanging off to the side. Sitting, standing and walking were out of the question. The only way he could be comfortable was to lie on his belly. If he needed to get anywhere, he would propel himself forward on his forearms like a miniature soldier crawling from bunker to bunker.
Because of Jimmy, my mom was pretty much stuck to her beach chair and the immediate area surrounding him. She couldn’t get lost in a book, go for a swim or take a walk down the beach unless another adult took over. She had four kids under the age of eight, one of whom was severely handicapped. She couldn’t take any chances.
Sitting next to my mom, with multicolored beach umbrellas, families on blankets, and radio stations competing for sound behind us, the waves crashed in front of us making everything uniform and clear. My mom and I looked out to the ocean’s vastness dotted with grownups clad in bathing suits, standing in surf up to their thighs, while toddlers with ruffled bottoms filled their plastic pails with water.
We took in the sounds of waves, kids, gulls and an occasional life guard whistle that stopped everyone in their tracks. We bonded.
Mother and oldest daughter, we came together as one.
It was right around then, when I felt content and at ease, that the inquiry would begin. “Do you think I am as big as her? That one in the polka dotted one piece?”
She referred to a woman wading in the water in front of us, far enough away to be out of ear shot. My mom would ask me this question over and over about many different women while we sat on those beach chairs sharing a Tab and taking in the horizon. I would squint my eyes to get a better look. I would do my best to focus and scrutinize the woman she was referring to, taking in her body in her bathing suit.
Was this an attractive body or not? Was she fat or thin? What were her assets and what were her flaws?
I started to see these women in front of me, not as human beings, but as individual body parts: belly, thighs, butt and breasts. These women were either fat, which was ugly and bad, or thin, which was beautiful and good.
The game would end abruptly if one of my mom’s friends appeared to sit with us.
Over time, I became uncomfortable with this line of questioning. I wasn’t sure how to answer without hurting my mom’s feelings. All of the women that she wanted me to compare her to were similar to her in size. My mom was a petite woman, just a little over five feet. Tiny with thick arms, legs and ankles.
As a woman, I am taller than her but built very similarly. So is her mom, my grandmother, who may not have met today’s definition of thinness, but was known for her beauty—as well as her apple pie. I like to think that we are generations of solid woman.
We may have thick legs and arms but we will never fall over in the wind.
Once I heard my mother refer to our legs as “Irish potato picking legs.” I like that. It acknowledges that I am a sturdy, hard working-woman and have a lineage I can claim and be one with.
I was doomed no matter how I answered the questions in my mom’s game of comparison. If I indicated that a woman was bigger than my mom than it meant that she would ask me more questions like, “How is she bigger? Is it her thighs or her butt that is bigger than mine?” or, if I answered that she was thinner than my mother, her feelings could be hurt.
The questioning continued. The summer before I entered Junior High I began to feel that there was something wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but my mother’s line of questioning made me wild with anger.
When she would ask me to compare her to other women, I would pretend not to hear her.
I would stand up from my chair and announce that I was going for a walk on the beach, knowing that she was tied to Jimmy and couldn’t follow. As I walked down the edge of the beach where the water and sand merged, I would be keenly aware of all the female bodies that passed by: old, young, fat, thin, pear shaped, apple shaped, smooth skinned, wrinkled, burned, tanned, voluptuous, pasty white or taken over by cellulite.
While the sun beat its presence on my back, I would suck in my belly and wonder how long I could keep up the illusion of a flat stomach before I needed to take a breath and let it all hang out. My yoga teacher Yoganand says, “You will never find a more worthy spiritual opponent than your own self.”
I believed my body was my worst enemy.
It was the cause of every rejection or disappointment I encountered. The shame I felt over my size followed me like a baby llama bonding to its mama. It went with me into every shitty situation. I held on tight to its familiar discomfort. My body let me down and did not meet the criteria of what was beautiful.
I got ripped off and it wasn’t fair. My body became my opponent. I fought it with dieting, overexercising and shaming it publicly and privately. I never gave it a break. I couldn’t. I was scared of what would become of me if I stopped.
I tried yoga for the first time at 31 in a quest to control my body. As I got more familiar with yoga, instead of battling my body size, I made the decision to stalk the root of my suffering like a hunter.
Yoga became my weapon.
When you have a mindful practice such as yoga or meditation, eventually there is no choice but to dive into your suffering and face it head on. Many students leave yoga because of exactly that. They come up against their own demons and get scared. This is where a compassionate teacher who has worked through his or her own fears is helpful.
There is no such thing as banishing all your fears—as soon as we move through one scary place, another one will eventually reveal itself.
This is human. As yogis we don’t transcend or eliminate fear. We work with it as raw material instead. Hold a yoga pose and there is no place to go. We must stay, breathe and watch what happens.
It is best to start slowly and examine the habits and thoughts that make up the majority of our ways. Supposedly we think the same thoughts 75 percent of the time.
In order to overcome our suffering we must look at what our thought patterns are, the way we hold our bodies, and even the way we breathe. In yoga, this ability to observe ourselves from a place of non judgment is called witness consciousness or buddhi and, according to Swami Kripalu, it is the highest form of spiritual practice.
Even Swami Kripalu wasn’t immune from struggling with his body. He died of prostate cancer, while trying to achieve the perfect body. He was human after all. All bodies are fallible. All teachers are fallible. Even the great ones. In spite of Swami Kripalu’s struggles, he was still an insightful teacher who preached compassion towards self as the antidote to suffering.
“Every time you judge yourself you break your own heart.”
Eventually how you feel about yourself—your capacities and vulnerabilities and your body—becomes transparent when you practice yoga. People start yoga for various reasons and all are valid whether it is to relieve stress or get the same sculpted upper body that Madonna has.
New students are often surprised at what privately reveals itself while they are in a yoga pose. As a teacher, it is my job to see the students as I teach them. That way I can speak to what is actually happening.
As I teach an All Levels class to a dozen students made up of various sizes, shapes, levels and abilities, I ask them to come into frog pose—a pose that is edgy for everyone except the super flexible. On all fours, the yogi takes her knees out as wide as she can in line with her hips and brings her feet into ninety degree angles in line with her knees. She lowers onto her forearms and bows her head looking back at her pelvis.
At this point, I invite the students to close their eyes, relax, and feel. Frog pose evokes intense sensation in the groin, pelvis, hips and thighs. It is additionally vulnerable because your butt is up in the air while your legs are spread wide and your forehead or cheek is pressed into the ground. This can feel sexual and bring up traumatic memories for anyone who has been sexually abused.
In this pose teeth clench and breath stops. One woman looks around to see if she is doing it right. Another makes a mean face at me. I don’t take it personally. My job is not to get trapped in the collective distaste for the pose but to guide students to create ease and space in their bodies. The tools they need to draw on are inside of them. They have been there all along. I ask them to breathe slowly and drop their defenses even if the only thing they can drop is the clenching of their jaw.
Any bit of unshielding in the body will create a window to observe the self.
In this dimly lit room, the sound of their breath begins to get louder. I am reminded of ocean waves rolling in to shore and safety. The melody from a bamboo flute floats through overhead speakers and without any warning, the yoga alchemy begins. Even though Frog pose can be brutal, the collective breathing shifts the energy and students begin to relax.
Someone sighs loudly. It is as if she sighed for everyone. Spines rise and fall. There is no separation between breath and body. For the first time that day, many students feel their bodies as a living, breathing entity. If they are new to yoga, maybe for the first time ever.
Yoga is like that. You feel and breathe and get a momentary awareness about life that is so damn simple it borders on crazy. You don’t have to be at war anymore. Imagine that.
You don’t have to suffer the way you have been suffering.
You don’t have to break your own heart.
When these sparks of knowing go off in our own bodies, mind and hearts at the same time, the real yoga has begun.
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Anne has been teaching yoga for fifteen years. She has taught yoga to over thousands of students from all walks of life. In addition to teaching yoga, yoga teacher training and running a yoga studio Anne has published many articles on yoga and it’s ability to help us navigate through our current times. She is currently working on a book that she hopes to release in the near future. She is also passionate about teaching yoga as a vehicle to heal body image and eating disorders. When Anne is not teaching, practicing or writing about yoga she can be found at home hanging out with Matthew while homeschooling her two teenagers and snuggling with her four year old. Find her at www.annefalkowski.com.
Editor: Carolyn Gilligan