My first yoga teacher had a license plate that read “Ahimsa.” This is the story of my journey to learn the true meaning of Ahimsa and make peace with my body.
I had a less than ideal childhood: I felt unloved, unworthy, and abandoned. I became an overweight child, something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I was teased and bullied because of my size and I felt completely alone and powerless.
As I got older, I tried to find ways to control my life any way that I could. My primary outlets for this became diet and exercise. I'd successfully lose weight, but then I'd gain it all back, a cycle that only contributed to my feelings of self-hate.
I had always been interested in yoga, but didn't think that I could actually do it, until a personal trainer at the gym recommended that give it a try. One day, I finally did. The teacher was kind and supportive and I felt challenged. I was hooked and knew I wanted to learn as much as possible about this practice.
Soon into my yoga journey, I realized that for the 90 minutes I was in class, I could let go of control, negative thoughts, and feelings of self-hate. As I went deeper into yoga, there was a part of me that wanted to be like the other yogis: thin and able to do poses such as upward facing bowpose and handstand. I thought if I looked a certain way and could do certain advanced asanas that I would finally be confident and happy.
I became desperate to lose weight; I just knew that everything I had ever wanted would be mine if I could just maintain a smaller body. I drastically cut my calorie intake and started spending upwards of three hours at the gym every day doing cardio and yoga.
And I saw results! I dropped over 100 pounds in less than nine months. However, I was still beating myself up, physically and mentally. My self-talk was negative, and on top of that, I was over-exercising, pushing my body beyond its limits.
And ironically, despite the increased activity level and the weight loss, I didn’t feel so much better because I weighed less; I was still in pain. Turns out there were something else going on with my body. I had developed persistent knee pain and after several weeks, it hadn’t gone away. I had a series of X-rays and an MRI, which showed I had a torn meniscus and osteoarthritis.
Arthritis at 38—that was difficult to accept!
I had to change everything; I could no longer sustain the activity level that I'd been doing.
All of these realizations led to a downward spiral back into despair. I gained a few pounds and knew I needed to do something about it, but I couldn’t exercise the way I had grown accustomed to. I felt like I had my life torn away from me, I couldn't even walk without being in pain, which meant that the aerobic exercise I had been doing was out of question. As a person who has dealt with compulsive eating, body image issues, and depression, it is a real challenge to pull out of that darkness.
I had gained 20 pounds, 20 became 40, and then 60 pounds. Soon the realization that I might not get back to where I began become a real possibility. I wanted to treat myself with love and compassion, but how could I? I was unworthy at the very level of being able to take care of myself. I had failed.
My knee injury wound up being a defining moment in my life. Isn’t it interesting how injuries become our teachers? I had to give up my strong practice in lieu of a gentle and restorative practice and had to do physical therapy. I went to a counselor and started working on my compulsive eating, self-hate, and body image issues. I began to meditate seriously and found joy in kirtan. I learned to play the harmonium and started singing.
With all of this intensive internal work, I started to shift and I started listening, I learned to connect with compassion and make peace with my body and mind. I had to find out what worked for me and I had to learn that could not let others determine what I should or shouldn’t do in my practice.
I decided that I wanted to live and not hide; I wanted to live an empowered life and not see myself as a victim. Between yoga, meditation, therapy, and, surprisingly a knee injury, I learned to make peace with my body, mind, and spirit.
To say that yoga and kirtan changed my life is an understatement. No one told me I couldn’t practice or teach yoga, and along the way I discovered the true meaning of Ahimsa.
Photo Credit: Robert Sturman