When I was 14, I was snacking on chips at a friend's pool party and an adult commented that I "better be careful and think about my figure." That's one of my earliest memories of the body image issues I've dealt with for most of my adult life. In today's culture, I sometimes wonder if there's anyone who hasn't.
In high school, I would skip meals for a week before a school dance and instead have a Diet Coke at lunch. No food, or how would I look good in a dress? I dreaded summer because it meant I would have to get into a bathing suit. I would cry when I tried on pants in dressing rooms and the size I expected to fit didn't.
It wasn't always about "feeling fat." I wished for so long to have a smaller waist instead of my straight, athletic build. I wanted a prettier and smaller nose. I dreamed of my curly hair being straight. I wished that the big scar on my forehead from a childhood accident would disappear.
The thing is, I've never been overweight. I'm petite by most standards. My friends would get angry with me when I expressed negative feelings about my weight. But I'm a product of a society that has always told us we need to be thinner or look a certain way. Our entire lives, we're shown the ideal images and standards that make someone pretty or attractive. Why are we controlled by someone else's idea of what perfection is?
Thanks to yoga, I struggle a lot less with my self-image today. These are not thoughts that go away overnight, and like yoga, it's a constant practice to get past them. But through my yoga practice, I've begun to transform how I feel about and view my body.
Here are 5 ways yoga can help you build a better self-image:
1. Yoga makes you aware of your body.
You start to notice little movements and nuances that you paid no attention to before, like the flow of your breath or how it feels when your muscles are tired. It becomes less about what you see and more about what you can feel. That sense of feeling in your body reflects what's happening in your mind as well. When you bring awareness to the subtle movements of your inner body, instead of the outer looks of things, it can bring a sense of calm that goes off the mat as well.
2. You discover what feels good.
Once you start to become aware of your body, you start to understand what feels good and right. It becomes easier to be mindful of other habits and see which ones serve us and which do not. For instance, eating healthier, balanced meals makes me feel nourished and whole, exactly the opposite of how I felt when I used to deprive my body by skipping meals.
That mindfulness leads to viewing food and water as real nourishment, so you naturally make smarter choices and don't feel "guilty" about them.
3. Yoga helps you see progress and build strength.
Every time you step onto your mat, you're building more muscle and toning your body. You can actually see the changes as they happen. Years ago, I was self-conscious about wearing tight-fitting clothes. Now I practically live in my form-fitting yoga clothes, and when I look at my body, I am proud of the muscles I've gained from yoga. It doesn't matter if my legs don't fit into size-2 pants—I see the muscles I've gained and I'm proud.
4. You learn to let go.
When you get lost in your practice, you forget about everything else. It doesn't matter what you look like, and no one is paying attention anyway. Yoga gives you the chance to let go of your ideas and opinions of yourself and simply be there in each moment, feeling the strength and challenges your body moves through.
And being in the moment is the key to realizing that your negative perceptions of yourself don't actually define you.
5. The challenges of yoga help you build confidence.
One of the best confidence-boosters is when we suddenly find we're able to get into a new pose or when we're able to hold a dreaded pose (hint: navasana) for longer than we did yesterday. This sense of accomplishment and confidence starts to carry over into our lives off the mat as well.
Confidence is huge in building a positive body image. You need to be able to celebrate your accomplishments and feel proud of how far you've come.
Because of yoga, I'm proud of my imperfections. There are still days I wish I could change things, but when I'm on my mat, I couldn't care less what my pants size is. By learning acceptance, grace, and gratitude on my mat, I've found a freedom and comfort in my body that keeps growing every day.