I assemble myself on the edge of my chair. Back straight, shoulders relaxed, and hands in lap, I let my eyes close.
My chest rises and falls as a constant cycle of breathing consumes my attention. Falling into awareness, I notice feelings and thoughts circulate in my brain. I choose not to react, not to judge and instead only take note of any thoughts flooding my focus. My nostrils pull in air, my throat expands and my lungs swell. I breath in and out. In and out.
Growing up, I developed a comfortable sense of self-esteem. After the awkward formative middle school years, I gained control of my frog legs, tamed my abundance of curly hair and shed the metal framework from my teeth.
As high school progressed, I grew into myself and developed a self-assured, outgoing persona.
The confident, smiling student I knew began to crumble my senior year. As I heard my dad utter the words “moving out of our house,” I felt the control I once had over my life begin to slip from my hands.
The subsequent divorce catalyzed all sorts of changes, all of which I accepted on the outside, not on the inside. This constant resistance to change forced me to find an aspect of my life I could control, which ended up being my body.
The following year progressed with strictly portioned meals, disheartening criticism and frequent trips to the gym. Constantly summing up calories and exercise regimens and surveying my physical form came to be a consuming, exhaustive aspect of my life.
Many of us may find this feeling familiar; the constant monitoring of nutrition in order to be “healthy” steadily takes up more and more of our time. While we think we know better than to fall into the dark hole of an eating disorder, we tiptoe around the edge, holding on to what we believe is just a highly nutritious lifestyle.
After learning so much about anorexia nervosa, it’d be silly to engage in such dangerous behavior, right? So instead, we focus on sufficient caloric intake (but don’t go too high) and a reasonable amount of physical activity (when will we have time to go today? Tomorrow?).
This behavior is more common than we think among young women, but because there is not a specific name for it, it goes unacknowledged.
What may be causing this high preoccupation is divergence from another issue.
For me, I preferred to focus on the components of my meals rather than the fact that my father was not at the family dinner table. Scientific research will tell you that it was all an “attempt to avoid… internal experiences” I held within me relating to the adjustments in my life (Kristeller 79).
I will tell you the exact same.
On the surface I wanted a healthy life, but on the inside I wanted one in which I knew what was coming around the corner. Although I learned to notice the time I fell into the hole of body anxiety, it was not until this semester that I learned exactly how to get out of it.
The Mindfulness & Compassion class I enrolled in this spring at my university taught me so much more than meditation. The core principles of the practice provide a “state of consciousness” which promotes awareness, non-judgment and calmness.
Having a clear intention, a levelheaded attitude, and a full state of attention allows for one to wholly engage in practice (both formal and informal).
It is through these qualities of practice that mindfulness can “cultivate acceptance and compassion for the self in each moment” (Stewart). Meditation centers on the present moment of consciousness and not towards an end goal of an enlightened mental state. There are no “shoulds” in mindfulness. There is only what “is.”
Studies have shown the effects of mindfulness on eating disorders and body image to be effective and lasting.
In a study of patients with anorexia nervosa, psychologists have tested the “thought parade,” an exercise where participants view their “fat thoughts” as separate entities floating by. By cultivating “the ability to observe cognitions non-judgmentally and with acceptance,” participants were able to fight the desire to stress over the critical thoughts (Kristeller).
In applying this to my own practice, I found I am able to step back and be aware of the times I am too preoccupied with my diet.
Experiencing mindful yoga for the first time allowed me to notice the extraordinary capabilities of the human body. The guided sessions in class provide me with an entirely new way to appreciate the complex workings of our biological construction. The “graceful, purposeful, and confident” movements cultivate the “mind-body connection” so that I am able to see my body as the wonderful, powerful vehicle that is it (Stewart).
Ultimately, my body is more than just an image.
By seeing beyond appearance, I have noticed how my concept of body image has transformed. Mindfulness opens up the scope of vision to include the inner and outer workings of your actions.
I vividly remember this epiphany during a body scan in class. While focusing on the function and workings of my left ankle, a rush of sublime joy ran through my veins. How incredible and magnificent is the intricate structure of this joint that allows for so much mobility and experience?
Broaden that elation to the entire body and that is the appreciation for myself I have found through continuous practice of the body scan. The physical shape of my body becomes irrelevant when compared to the vast scientific miracles of the inner workings within it.
Reflecting back on my time wasted worrying about my abs, my arms, and my legs, I realize how I fled to exercise to escape the changing reality around me. Resisting my overload of emotion got me nowhere except to an unhealthy weight. I now know that mindfulness practices allow for a mental “objectivity” that is so crucial during times of great change (Shapiro).
Acknowledging thoughts and feelings rather than running away will keep me healthy and steady. Sometimes my situation still sits on my shoulders and consumes my attention, but I try to remain calm, sit up straight, and focus on the flow of my breath.
Inhaling and exhaling.
In and out.
In and out.
In. And out.
For anyone noticing the same concern, no matter what the cause, I encourage you to try out any of these mindful resources to regain your focus.
- Awareness of Breathing exercise from a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course in San Diego, CA.
- Mindful movement by Lois Howland (UCSD website)
- Body Scan guided by Steve Hickman of UC San Diego.
Kristeller, Jean, Ruth A. Baer, and Ruth Quillan-Wolever. “Mindfulness-Based Approaches to Eating Disorders.” Trans. Array Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches. Elsevier Inc., 2006. 75-91.
Stewart, Tiffany M. “Light on Body Image Treatment: Acceptance Through Mindfulness.” Sage Journals: Behavior Modification. 28.284 (2004): 783-811. Print. <http://bmo.sagepub.com/content/28/6/783>.
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Apprentice Editor: Bronwyn Petry / Editor: Travis May
Photo: martinak15, Flickr Creative Commons