(My) Truth About Yoga and Body Image

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There’s a popular idea people seem to have that once they obtain the body they want, they will all of a sudden be happy. Both women and men are constantly exposed to advertisements with images of scantily clad, tanned bodies with tips and tricks on how to achieve rock hard abs, tight butts, sculpted arms and impossibly thin waistlines, as if to say “Hey asshole, you look like shit and no one will ever love you, unless you resemble these fucks!” Ok, so maybe that’s a bit harsh, but not far from reality. Despite it being common knowledge that these images are photoshopped to oblivion, people still aim to achieve the impossible. So much so that they focus their entire lives on it, not realizing it is a never-ending wild goose chase!

In most cases you will never attain the body you want, because you will never like what you see in the mirror until you are happy with what you see. Happiness precedes having the body you want, not the other way around! I work in the fitness industry and am surrounded by colleagues who have bodies people would literally be willing to die for. The unfortunate truth is, most of these people are never happy with what they have. There is always someone with a rounder butt, more of a washboard on their tummies, bigger biceps, etc. This is a realm where eating disorders (disguised as “cleansing”), exercise addiction, illegal substances, and complete and total insecurity (think the emotional maturity of a middle schooler) run wild and free. The behavior I have seen from these fitness professionals is NOT healthy!

I wish I could tell you that yoga was a safe haven from this insanity, but it’s not. I’m here to tell you my personal story about body image, hoping it will help you have a healthier practice and help you transcend the bullshit.

I have to preface this by saying that I grew up in the eighties, but not in a typical household that promoted gender roles in children. My immigrant mother was raised to value education more than social experience and my hippie feminist father never placed any emphasis on the way that I looked. Neither of them ever spoke to me about body image, because it wasn’t important to them, but it seemed to be the only thing that my middle school peers cared about. At the time, my source of female body inspiration was shitty magazines targeted at teens (this was before the internet). Most of the popular girls in my school were blonde, white and thin. I was not. I’d always been fairly athletic and muscular, but that look wasn’t “in” back then. I would often shy away from pool parties and the like because I was thicker and darker than the ideal “pretty girl”. Boys were interested in me, probably because I had boobs, but that’s not what I cared about. I wanted to look like them.

Enter body dysmorphia, which at the time seemed so normal for a teenage girl that it was overlooked. One summer, I got my tonsils removed and the surgeon botched the surgery. I ended up not being able to eat solid foods for about 3 weeks. I lost so much weight that I had to be re-hospitalized. However, when I went to the beach that summer, everyone kept telling me how awesome I looked. I remember starving myself and hiding food from my parents, desperately trying to cling to my thin-ness and becoming terribly depressed when all the FAT came back. This led to drugs (lots of drugs…) so that I could emotionally cope with the feelings of being a fucking loser (the girls at my high school were really mean- but I forgive all you hoes in case you are reading this…).

The first couple years of college, I was able to pull my shit together because I became really interested in academics. Turned out I was really good at school and being an intellectual badass. I also got into martial arts, which was fun and healthy. But then came yoga… and not the yoga (you know, the real hippie shit) that my dad had been teaching me since I was 8… these people were doing headstands and other cool shit. I wanted to do cool shit too! Yet again, the popular yogis were so, so thin… clearly if I wanted to be good at this, I had to be thinner. I had to have a “yoga body”!

Along came exercise addiction. I used to make myself run 4 miles every morning before school (I FUCKING HATE RUNNING). I started biking, kayaking, rock climbing every weekend… but not because I loved to do those things, because I wanted to burn more calories. Then I became vegan, because, you know I didn’t want to hurt animals and shit… only later to realize that my veganism was a disguised eating disorder (as I, unfortunately, think is the case for a lot of yogis). This was hard, and my body fought all of this like crazy. It is literally written in our DNA that our bodies will try to force us to expend as little energy as possible while eating as much as we can (it was a survival mechanism for our species at one point).

My weight fluctuated constantly. I used to buy weight loss supplements and do “cleanses” to try to keep the fat off. During this time I landed a pretty sweet job at the University and I started traveling a lot, going on yoga retreats. Somehow I ended up in New York City and I immediately fell in love. Once I moved here, I started hanging out with a bunch of raw vegan yogis. I adopted this diet and the pounds immediately started shedding off! This was mostly because your body doesn’t absorb too many nutrients from raw foods because, you know, we aren’t fucking rabbits. You pretty much just shit everything out, but who cares! I was a size mother fucking 2! For once in my life I WAS THIN!

But alas, this didn’t last… I became bloated. My weight started fluctuating again. I started suffering from various health disorders like irritable bowel, athletic dysmenorrhea, migraines… oh and my fucking hair was falling out. But I was so convinced that I could be thin again, I stuck with it. I started counting calories. I literally limited my calorie intake to 1,200 a day. I was starving ALL. OF. THE. TIME. Enter bulimia. By this time, I was teaching yoga. Yes, I was trying to teach people how to find inner peace while sneaking sugary snacks in the wee hours of the night and puking my brains out. The fucked up part? I wasn’t the only one. I have heard horror stories of other yoga teachers teaching their students aggressive vomiting techniques as kriya (cleansing practices). Teachers telling their students that if they lost some weight, they would be able to perform certain poses better. Teachers encouraging students to go on liquid diets. NO, NO, NO, NO! This is beyond wrong! How has a practice that is supposed to build inner peace and self love turned into this???

Now, the yoga hustle in NY is real and the pay for classes is shit. I was getting turned down left and right for gigs. Two very well known studios flat out told me I didn’t have the “body” they wanted a teacher to have. I wasn’t thin enough and I wasn’t white enough (by the way, this is a thing and if you don’t believe me, ask any person of color who has ever stepped foot in a yoga studio). Well, as I mentioned before, I was really great at studying and so I started to go back to becoming an anatomy nerd so that I could differentiate myself from other teachers. If I couldn’t get by with my looks, might as well use my brain. That and I started personal training. Turns out this was a place that welcomed muscular bitches such as myself.

So I started eating meat. I stopped counting calories. I started lifting. I started dancing. I started biking. I started judo-ing. I started jiu-jistu-ing. I started kickboxing…ing. I stopped going to yoga classes. Then something incredible happened. I felt fucking strong as hell. All of a sudden that became WAY more important than being thin. I started focusing on how fast my mile was on a bike, how much my 1 rep max was on a dead lift and how many chokes I had in my repertoire. I started feeling amazing! I’m a fucking sexy, badass fireball of muscle and sarcasm and I. ABSOLUTELY. LOVE. MY. BODY! I used to stand in front of a mirror, assessing every part of my body and crying over how much I hated it! Now when I look at a mirror, I wonder how that shit doesn’t break from handling all this sexiness!

This is what happy looks like.
This is what happy looks like.

Now when I return to MY yoga practice, it feels more authentic. It feels more like home. MY body is my home. It’s comfortable because it’s me and not someone else. It’s incredible because of what it can do. It’s perfect because there is nothing else it can be. This is, I think, what yoga is supposed to feel like. Finally… I have a yoga body. My fucking body.

My advice? Stop obsessing over fat. Don’t let it control you. There are way more important things in life…

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