To a nice, sweet, fat girl.
Those words had become engrained in my heart and soul in the very way they had been penned onto the front page of my 7th grade yearbook. As an overweight child put on my first diet at age 9, the story of “fatness” (and therefore unworthiness) carried me well into my adulthood, leading me to decades of self-abusive behaviors and self-loathing.
Until I was found by yoga. On the mat I was someone else—a young woman who appreciated her body, who felt love and tenderness toward herself, who was able to let go, if even for one hour, of my distaste and distrust. I realized I had the willpower, strength and ability to change. And that’s when the transformation began.
The Truth I experienced of myself on the mat was unmatched by any experience I had of myself in the world. I quickly found that yoga asana, pranayama and meditation consistently led me to a place of quiet contemplation where I could dismantle the armor I had worn for so many years. Through this peeling away of patterned thinking and limiting beliefs, the true nature of who I was revealed itself. That woman was neither fat nor skinny; disarming nor discouraged; helpless nor hopeful.
Most importantly, “she” was not separate from me—“we” were united, open, and filled with unending love.
But that was only on the mat, at least in my early years of self-discovery. The studio I frequented back in those days was in a shopping center so, invariably, the path leading back to my car became my very own “walk of shame”. Filled with self-acceptance and love as I exited the studio door, each step down the sidewalk and past window after window reflected a different truth. And as much as I tried to maintain the peaceful, compassionate feelings that arose during class, eventually the “fat girl” would peer back at me from the glass-lined sidewalk in disgust. Filled with judgments, disparaging remarks, and the pain of feeling unloved and unlovable, the yogi girl standing proud just minutes before shrunk away from the reflection of who stood outside.
Yoga soon taught me that the script I had been repeating over and again throughout the years bound my entire identity to my body. Fat=lack of self control=lack of worth. The equation seemed logical and simple enough. The dynamic of our human experience, however, is not. We are a complex web of thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that are based on past experiences and which inform future ones. In yogic terms, these binding experiences come from the ahamkara (ego mind), the self shaped by the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that validate (or threaten) who we believe we are. Until we learn to discriminate between Truth and ego/stories, our relationship to our self and hence our actions, will lead us to suffering and unhappiness. When we use the discriminative mind (Buddhi or witness mind) to observe ourselves, change begins to occur.
Transformation rarely comes in one fell swoop, but rather slowly eases its way in without much fanfare. Similarly, each time I came to the mat my stories dissipated a little more and the voice of my true self arose in a whisper. The practice taught me how to feel without reacting, to watch without the commentary, to lean in to the joyful bliss that was possible and apparent on the mat. As written in the Bhagavad Gita, “when the mind comes to rest, restrained by the practice of yoga, and when beholding the self by the self, [she] is content in the self” (6:20). Through the practice, and over time, my true voice spoke louder and more clearly.
As seen through Western-world eyes, present day yoga has primarily become a practice of postures, often diluting yoga’s deep and transformative benefits. In its oldest and truest form, however, yoga has always been therapeutic. The technologies of yoga (pranayama, bhanda, mudra, meditation, asana) written about in ancient texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika lay a path to end suffering and dis-ease and lead us back to our place of wholeness. We might think of these technologies as a window through which to watch—they allow us to see inside. Through that opening, we grow in our ability to cultivate compassion, self-acceptance and change.
The yoga didn’t necessarily change my body; it changed my heart and mind by creating a wider spectrum of who I thought I was and helped the stories (samskara) dissolve. On the mat, my breath moved into the darker places where normally I would hide; I could feel the light inside; I could finally see myself for the fullness and wholeness that I was, not just the stories that defined me. The transformation I experienced as a result of yoga worked on and through me without me even understanding the philosophical or academic principles of the practice. Yet it happened!
So, how did it happen?
The Yoga Sutras state that, “The practical means for attaining higher consciousness consist of three components: self-discipline and purification (tapas), self study (svadhyaya), and devotion (Isvara-pranidhana). These practices cultivate an attitude conducive to being absorbed in Spirit and minimize the power of primal causes of suffering” (II 1 and II 2). As most of us can attest to, just coming to the mat some days takes discipline; the various yoga technologies each require a tenacious attitude to practice and watch what happens. Through the course of exploration and discovery on the mat, yoga strengthens our ability to be with what we see and feel and teaches us to open and soften to what is seen without pushing it away or suppressing it. In short, the practice teaches us to lean into trust and Truth.
Practicing yoga—and living—means to understand the depth of our choices and align our actions with the Truth of our nature; to use the witness consciousness derived out of the practice as a guidepost on the path of transformation. The practices on the mat teach the yogi how to experience surface and depth; to learn to watch the fluctuations inside without reacting; to allow the energies to rise and fall over and over without attaching story; to experience ourselves in a much deeper and powerful way.
From the place of ego, seeing only what’s on the surface, we see and feel pain, fear, angst, suffering. When we view the surface from a place of depth (witness), we can see—and accept—the whole spectrum. Rather than outwardly focusing our attention on what we want, we can use yoga to direct our attention inside, to cultivate a compassionate and loving relationship to ourselves, to explore the nature of our true being. In this way, yoga is not about gurus on some far off Indian mountaintop; it’s a path that leads us back to our True Self. And from that place, transformation happens.
Author: Tra Kirkpatrick
Editor: Caroline Beaton