Yoga and Body Image: How Yoga Can Help You Make Friends with Your Body
We’ve all heard about the amazing benefits that yoga offers the human body, from strength and balance to relaxation and better sleep. The effects of yoga are a trending research topic; so far, studies have shown that a regular yoga practice can help lower blood pressure, increase concentration, decrease back pain, alleviate mild depression, and, according to a study of women in India, increase satisfaction during sex, among other things.
I can’t tell you the underlying mechanisms behind most of the benefits yoga is credited with, but I can tell you that yoga helped me heal both my negative body image and my disordered relationship with food. The yoga practice I teach focuses on appreciating the body as it is, with an emphasis on how yoga can help us look into the mirror without fear, and sit down before a meal with enjoyment, and see ourselves as worthy the whole time. In relation to food and body-image issues, yoga works on these three levels: changing the body itself (more strength, flexibility, etc.), strengthening the relationship between the body and the mind (proprioception and interoception), and changing how the mind relates to the body (compassion, listening, and trust).
The Power of Yoga: Creating a New Relationship with Your Body
The power of yoga lies both in its physicality and its philosophy. From the moment we show up on the mat and start to tune in to where our bodies are in space, astonishing changes begin to occur. “Lift your back thigh a little higher away from the earth,” seems like a simple instruction, but when you’re looking forward over your front knee and you can’t see your back leg, things get interesting. Many people can’t feel whether or not their back leg is slightly bent or fully straight without looking at it. You have to “find” your back leg, not with your eyes, but by feeling for it on the inside. Then you have to ask it to do something specific: lift a little higher. Does your back thigh listen when you talk to it?
Over time, yoga facilitates this conversation between your brain and thigh—and many other parts of your body—into a working relationship. When we do this, we reinforce the internal and external feedback loop that lets us and all the various parts of our bodies work together smoothly, maybe even gracefully. And occasionally falling over (a normal and expected occurrence) gives us further information about how to engage our muscles and balance from the soles of our feet to our fingertips. Instructions that ask us to feel subtle actions in parts of our bodies that we can’t see help us to appreciate our bodies from the inside out, as opposed to valuing ourselves purely based on how we look on the outside.
Yoga increases both our proprioception (the term for this neural brain-body mapping in space) and our interoception (our ability to feel internal sensations like our own heartbeat and hunger or fullness). This in turn encourages us to identify with the body as a living being with its own wants and needs as opposed to an object we have to manipulate and control. Just these neurological and physiological benefits are tremendous, in addition to helping us feel stronger and more at ease in our bodies.
But beyond the physical benefits of yoga—if we’re willing to stick with the practice long enough to scratch beneath the surface—lies a philosophical system that starts with two main principles: non-harming (ahimsa) and truth (satya). Non-harming and truth, I learned as a novice yoga student, start at home, in our own hearts and bodies. In the yoga teachings my teachers shared, we were encouraged to be completely honest with ourselves about the ways in which we self-harmed through self-criticism, guilt, and blame, or by putting ourselves in harm’s way.
Lessons from the Yoga Mat: Moving from Self-Harming to Self-Healing
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was self-harming pretty much every day—by criticizing how my hips fit into my pants and how I’d spread too much butter on my toast, by bingeing on chocolate ice cream and later telling myself I wasn’t allowed to eat for the rest of the week. How could I expect to not harm others, if my body didn’t feel safe in the company of my own mind? Yoga helped me finally see these mental patterns clearly, and encouraged me to treat myself with compassion and respect, instead of with anger and judgment. I started to see how, for most of my life, I had mistakenly valued my body’s appearance over how it felt on the inside, from minor transgressions like wearing painfully too-small shoes, to life-threatening ones like denying myself food. Consistently trying to treat my body with more compassion was what ultimately led me to learn to put my body’s needs over my mind’s preoccupation with the image in the mirror.
One of the most important lessons you hear on the yoga mat, and one that nearly every teacher will share at some point, is that your body is your greatest teacher, and that it has tremendous wisdom that you need to learn to trust. “Listen to your body,” were words that I first heard while trying to force my chin towards my outstretched leg, words that reminded me to back off and not let my mind inflict a strain on my hamstring. “Listen to your body,” echoed in my head when the teacher gave us the choice to rest or take a more advanced pose. Eyes closed, I asked my body, “What do you want to do?” and then let my body answer.
Eventually, “Listen to your body,” started to whisper to me not just in yoga class, but when I walked through the stalls at the farmers market and pushed my cart through the grocery store, while I cooked over the stove and even when I reached for a chocolate bar at the end of the day. “What do you want, body? What sounds good to you? How much? More? Less? Tell me when.” Without my knowing it, yoga had landed me squarely in the realm of intuitive eating and greater enjoyment and fulfillment in my body, by teaching me to treat myself with more compassion and listen to my body’s wise counsel.
And ultimately, yoga helped me connect to a larger perspective on my body. It allowed me to see honestly and compassionately that all the time I’d spent obsessing about the stretch marks that showed at the edges of my swimsuit—I could never get those hours back. What I could get back was my future time: all the hours I have now to write and laugh and spend with my family and friends, time that before I would have spent agonizing over my body’s supposed inadequacies. Yoga allowed me to see that my body’s just been doing the best it could all along. Thanks, Yoga!
Rachel Smith also shares her yoga and body image journey in Big Benefits: How Yoga Benefits Big Bodies On and Off the Mat
Learn more about your own natural healing systems in YogaUOnline’s wellness course: Ayurvedic Guide to Effortless Weight Reduction: Resetting the Digestive Fire
Printed with permision from ASDAH ( Association of Size Diversity and Health) and their blog HAES (Health At Every Size)
Sixteen years ago Kimber Simpkins gave up being a lawyer and dove into the intensive study of yoga, with barely a glance back. Since then, yoga has brought more joy and delight to her life every day. A long-time Bay Area resident, she lives with the love of her life, son, dog, and cat in Oakland. Her new memoir, FULL, tells the story of how she recovered from anorexia and eased the emotional pain of her hunger through yoga and Buddhism. Visit Kimber at KimberYoga.com or follow her on Twitter @kimbersyoga.