I’ve been trying to restart my yoga practice recently. I first started doing yoga back in 2007 when a good friend needed people to take her very first classes so that she could complete her yoga teacher certification. I realized that I had been doing “yoga” for a few years at least in the form of my own stretching regimen at home. She asked me, “Are you sure you’ve never taken a yoga class before?!” Like many things in my life, I had been doing something that others do, I just didn’t know that’s what I was doing until I found them!
I found yoga profoundly moving yet calming, and it instilled a confidence in my body that I had never had. I have always had a *strong* body, but it wasn’t something I was really proud of or confident in, particularly after a childhood in American physical education classes. I recall PE as something torturous run by lesbians-in-denial who were unsatisfied if I could not run cross-country without getting a stitch in my side or do the beginning-of-the-year fitness assessment as well as everyone else. Chin-ups? *points and laughs* Consequently I spent the greater part of my life feeling inadequate and weak, not to mention just plain fat and ugly thanks to growing up in the 1980s and its standards of beauty that no one could possibly live up to.
A lot of that changed with yoga. Spurred by the newfound knowledge of what my body could do, I searched for any and all outlets. Fortunately I live in a city with so many yoga studios it’s not even funny, including an actual chain of yoga studios that is responsible for churning out a steady stream of fresh graduates from their training program. I had no fewer than three yoga studios within a five minute drive of my house, and I utilized them heavily. I wanted something more, though. The local yoga chain largely caters to the segment of America that just wants somewhere quiet to stretch after work, which is fantastic. I was more interested in the spiritual aspects of yoga and the teachings of Patanjali. Yoga wasn’t just exercise to me: it was a form of physical enlightenment. I found my way to another studio further away but with a heavy emphasis on Buddhism. The classes were also much harder.
The journey to yoga’s enlightenment is not without its troubles, though. Yoga teachers often speak of practicing without judgment, which is extraordinarily difficult in a society defined by judgment. We judge each other constantly in Western society, for our appearance, for our careers, for our clothes, for the food we eat, for the subdivisions we live in, for the cars we drive, etc. We are steeped in judgment from the day we’re born. Yet judgment has no place in yoga and will in fact hinder the precise work one hopes to do. It creeps in there, though. It casts its glance about the yoga studio and says, “You’re not bending as deeply as that person. Your shoulders aren’t as flexible as that person’s. Your hips are too tight. You’re shaking too much.” So on and so forth. Without a lot of care, an otherwise extremely pleasant yoga session can be completely ruined by the monkey mind upstairs prattling on endlessly about all the ways I’m not measuring up.
I have to remember that the only person I’m not measuring up to is myself. My yoga teacher isn’t judging me. The other students aren’t judging me, unless it’s to similarly get on their own case about how they’re not doing something well enough to their taste. The thing is that there really isn’t any one right way to do yoga. It’s so incredibly individual that to compare one’s practice to another’s is foolhardy and self-defeating.
I have to work with my judgment if I want it to go away, though. I have to acknowledge it and tell it, “I see you. What do you want?” Because judgment wants something. It’s trying to tell me something, even if it’s going about it in an unhealthy way. I listen to my judgment so I can figure out how to make it happy and send it away. More often than not, my judgment is unhappy with my shoulders, which are fairly stiff and inflexible after a life of sitting at keyboards and hunching forward in an effort to minimize what is some fairly ample boobage. Many women would flaunt their boobage, but since I’ve been the object of unwanted sexual attention from the age of 7, I’ve unconsciously slouched since Mother Nature decided to make my chest expand at the age of 14. But that’s another post.
All that has resulted in shoulders and chest muscles that are almost wholly unfamiliar with being flexible and open. They’re also laden with emotional baggage: I’m a firm believer in the theory that trauma lives in our body until we figure out a way to process it. When I work with my shoulders, a well of anger and sadness opens up inside me and comes pouring out. Or tries to anyway. I’m in a room full of practicing yogis and yoginis, so it’s really not the time to have myself a little tantrum, which is often what I feel like doing. Then comes the flood of judgment.
“Why can’t I get my shoulders where I want them to go? Why am I so stiff? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be like everyone else in the room? Why am I even doing this? I’ll just fail at it like everything else. I hate my shoulders. I hate my body. I hate myself.”
And so I stand there in the remotest corner of the room possible with hot tears running down my face, trying to hide them from anyone else who might be looking at me, struggling through whatever the pose is. When I first started doing yoga, when this happened I would just try to ignore it and plug through the rest of the class, suppressing my feelings. I would usually leave those classes feeling terrible instead of better like I should have (and I have indeed attended some magical yoga classes, free of my internal judgment, that I left floating on a cloud of peace and calm). Well what’s the fucking point in that?! I actually stopped going to formal yoga classes for some time because I was unable to stop being so goddamned judgmental of myself. I was standing in a room surrounded by beautiful people, a beautiful non-judgmental instructor, and statues of the Buddha: it seemed sacrilege to violate the space with my own negative feelings.
Over the next couple of years I continued to do yoga at home, and I continued to read about yoga and its underlying principles. I also began to study Buddhism much more fervently. It was no longer just something with pleasant imagery that made me happy to look at. Slowly I figured out how to sit with my judgment and counteract it. Not completely, but enough that I could do yoga without ruining it. Eventually, I figured out what my judgment really wants. It wants love. Love from the most important source of all: me.
When I feel that judgment creeping in, when I feel that inner hatred rising up, when I hear the inner voice saying “I hate this part of myself,” I tell myself in another voice, “I love this part of myself.” Because I really do, deep down underneath all of that judgment. Judgment which actually DID serve a very important purpose in my life for many years. It was a survival mechanism that allowed me to discern people’s loving behaviors from their damaging ones, which is a very difficult game to play with some people. I got very good at it, and when there were no more people around to play the game with, my brain began to play it with myself, which was inappropriate. It made me label parts of myself as bad when they really weren’t.
I’m still undoing some of that self-damage. Going to yoga is part of that, because it brings me face to face with my feelings and my ego, which one of my instructors tells us manifests the “pain-body”: the ego’s attempts to prevent us from seeing things how they really are. My ego was very, very good at protecting me for a very long time, and now that I don’t need that protection anymore, it’s giving up its post very reluctantly. It’s convinced I’m making a mistake, that there’s still danger out there that I need protecting from, and even if it has to make me feel like a pile of shit, it’s going to keep its vigilant guard over my borders.
It has to go, though. Like an overprotective parent who keeps telling their kids, “You can’t do that!”, it has to be told, “Yes I can. I don’t need your help anymore.”
This particular journey is harder than anything else I’ve done in my life. I’ve finally managed to quit smoking (and there was much rejoicing, yay!), and I’m halfway through losing ninety pounds (for the second time in my life): this is harder. Loving myself is harder. Loving my body is harder. Forcing myself to look away from the mirror when I find myself being critical is harder. Telling myself “I love my shoulders,” is harder than telling myself how much I hate them. I don’t know why, either! It makes no logical sense to me, but something else I’m learning as I shed the protective mechanisms that I no longer need is that logic often has no place in determining the emotional vagaries of human beings. I may as well try to make sense of why cats find it necessary for doors to be open, at all times.
So that is my path these days. The path of judgment, or rather, the lack thereof. The path of self-love instead of self-hatred.
I love my shoulders. They are strong and can carry impressive loads.
I love my arms. They are strong and can punch targets HARD.
I love my legs. They do a good job of moving me around all day long.
I love my feet. They support this body impossibly well (have you ever really contemplated what your feet have to do?).
I love my hands. They type amazingly fast and can create beautiful art.
I love my back. It holds the rest of me up very well.
I love my belly. It carried my daughter for nine months.
I love my brain. It’s the only reason I’m not dead or crazy.
I love me, and one day I will believe that as strongly as everyone else who tells me that without bursting into tears.