My first yoga class was at the fitness center on my college campus — it was a complete disaster.
And before that, I'd only ever tried yoga a couple of times with some Rodney Yee videos while I was recovering from knee surgery, so I was very nervous. I also happened to be in the thick of an eating disorder that occupied most of my waking thoughts and emotional energy.
As soon as I walked into that yoga/pilates hybrid class I wanted to bolt. I hadn't recognized her name on the schedule, but the woman teaching the class turned out to be a fellow participant in my eating disorders support group.
The competitive, eating disorder part of my brain took the reins for the entire class, as I pushed myself to "out-yoga" her, ignoring pain in my still-healing knee.
I left the class with a limp and a bruised ego.
I didn't feel physically or emotionally well enough to try another yoga class for about a year, until I found a little class of complete strangers during a semester abroad.
We practiced in a small classroom with ratty carpet, in one of the older buildings on the campus. It wasn't a pretty space, but it felt cozy and supportive. The teacher was a soft spoken woman in her 50s who encouraged us to focus our awareness inward, rather than worrying about what was happening with anyone else's pose.
That yoga class was a safer space than the gym at home, and even though I still had a hard time keeping my eyes on my own practice it was starting to sink in that yoga might be different from a workout.
During that first year or two exploring yoga, I was still struggling with my body image. My body was really feeling the wear and tear of overexercise — a defining part of my eating disorder. Finally, with another knee injury and a heavy heart, I made my way into a therapist's office to start the long journey of healing my relationship with my body. And I warily made my way back to my yoga mat.
Instead of exercise, I tried to let my yoga practice be more of a moving meditation. Each time I stepped onto my mat I did my best to listen for pain, this time committed to backing away from harm. After years of beating up my body and overly critical self-talk, it took serious effort to be gentle with myself. But I was still interested in practicing.
My body was becoming larger than it had ever been, but I was starting to see myself a little more objectively. I started to feel that maybe my body was just a vehicle that took up more space. That was all. No better, no worse.
Every time I unroll my mat, I come to it with a slightly different version of myself. I am constantly changing in small and large ways, so being kind and responsive to this body in its current form at this very moment serves my yoga practice greatly.
Being emotionally attached to my form, however, doesn't do me much good.
I knew that my struggles with body image were far from unique, and I wanted to be a compassionate voice in the ears of others on similar journeys. So as my relationship with my body and yoga practice evolved, I felt called to support other students in practicing yoga authentically and self-compassionately.
I've been teaching yoga for nearly four years now, and when I'm with students any body hangups I had first showed up with, fade into the distance. It took a little extra work, but I've found consistent peace and kindness with my body, even when I look at online yoga videos of myself. My body is simply a wonderful canvas for teaching others how to safely explore their practice. No more, no less.
Every once in a while I get a glimpse of the girl who tried to show off in a college yoga class a decade ago, and I remember how painful it can be to fully inhabit that world of body loathing. To me, finding freedom from that noise is yoga.
Yoga is permission to be in your body, instead of just moving it.
It's learning when to sit with the inner discomfort that helps you grow, and when to back away from physical strain that causes harm.
Yoga is letting go of your grip on how you think you should show up in the world, and finding peace with who you already are.
Your yoga mat doesn't have to be gym equipment. It is an opportunity for making peace with all the beautiful parts of you.
Photo courtesy of the author