I used to care so much about what other people thought of me.
I think, under the surface, we all do.
I remember during my middle school years, I would buy clothes that I saw on other girls because I thought it would make me cool. I ditched my old “kid stuff” for makeup, padded bras, and skinny jeans. I wanted so badly to fit in, to be accepted, that I lost all sense of personal identity I had cultivated.
I defined myself through the acceptance of others. I gave away pieces of myself in order to feel loved, to feel like I was enough…until eventually, there was nothing left to give. I had become an empty shell of who I really was. I was living exclusively through others, with nothing left to call my own.
As an adult, I thought I’d come so far from the girl who was desperately trying to fit in. I thought I had healed that part of my life.
But to my surprise, I’ve noticed comparison, judgment, and self-doubt creeping up in a place I never thought I’d find it: the yoga studio.
I’ve found myself looking around class and comparing myself to others, analyzing where I fall in the ranks.
How do I look compared to them? Are my clothes as nice as theirs? Does my hair look as pretty in the messy bun we all have on top of our heads? Should I have worn more makeup? Less? Why don’t my thighs look like that? How come she has such a small waist? Those pants look expensive…I wonder if they can tell where I bought mine. How can she get into a handstand so easily? How does she make that pose look so simple? I’ve been practicing that for years and I still can’t get there…what’s wrong with me?
And just like that, I’m right back in the halls of middle school.
I discovered yoga at a time in my life when I needed to relearn how to love myself. I was recovering from an eating disorder and all the negative beliefs that accompany it. I was in a new city with not many friends, far away from my family and the place I’d learned to call home. I was healing from an abusive relationship and struggling with self-harm, alcohol abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts, and so much darkness. The yoga studio provided me with a safe space to be inside my body without feeling like I was trapped. It gave me permission to feel good. It allowed me to breathe without thinking about when it would all end.
As I got deeper into my practice, I started to feel more at home in my body. I slowly became a healthier, happier, and more balanced human being. I felt uplifted. I started to move beyond the ego, beyond thoughts of “me,” “my stories,” and “my struggles,” and began to tap into something bigger. I started to see beauty in places I hadn’t noticed it before. I felt optimistic, at peace, and like I was enough—for the first time in a long time.
Our yoga practice is a gift. It’s a direct path to go inward and learn what it’s like to be at home in your body, and present with your deepest self.
It’s a way to love your body, just as it is, no matter whether you’re in savasana during the entire class or nailing a headstand in the middle of the room. That’s not the point. The external doesn’t matter in yoga. The point is to be with your breath, with your body, with your true self, for as long as you possibly can, and to learn how to take that connection with you off of your mat and out into the rest of your life, spreading it to those around you.
The point is to light yourself up so damn much that you start to light up the rest of the world. You can’t do that if you’re worrying about how you look compared to everyone else.
But sadly, it’s easy to get pulled into the same old bullsh*t we all struggle with, even in yoga.
Social media feeds us images of beautiful people holding difficult poses, seemingly without any effort at all. Popular clothing brands successfully have us buy into a lifestyle they’ve created, because that’s how marketing works. We start to equate happiness and good health with the right clothes, the juice cleanses, the pricey studio memberships, nailing the inversions, having the perfect bodies, and the number of likes on our Instagram pictures.
I see what it’s doing to our physical bodies, how it’s creating an unattainable standard for yogis in Western society. And I can’t help but wonder what it’s doing to our minds.
We have to remember that we’re responsible for the way we spread our message to others. We’re accountable for how we portray this practice, and how we take the lessons we learn on our mats out into the world.
We have to remember that this practice is a gift.
It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and has saved my life in more ways than I can count, which is why I have decided to spend the rest of my life giving back as a yoga teacher and student. I don’t want to live my life any other way. As a community, we need to remember to promote a message of love, a message that everyone belongs. That it doesn’t matter what you look like, or what clothes you have on, or where you practice, or if you can touch your toes, or what shapes you can make with your body, or whether you’re vegan or not, or if you like to drink and smoke and party on the weekends, or how far along on your spiritual journey you’ve come.
At the end of the day, yoga is just about connecting your body, mind, and spirit, which really doesn’t involve any of the other nonsense.
So, how can we work together to promote a message of love? What can you do in your community to teach others about this beautiful practice? How can we share what we know? What can you do today to live your practice off your mat?
How can you light up the world?
Author: Lauren Madden
Image: Helen Alfvegren/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman