On the eve of our first snow, just weeks before my 50th birthday, I bought a bikini.
My last appearance in a bikini was sometime in my early 20's, when I was a competitive cyclist, fun run addict and body-builder, in spite of my tiny size (5'2" and 105 pounds). In the eyes of the world, I was toned, petite and pretty, but I felt ugly and fat. I wanted to look like sleek, beautiful body-building champ Rachel McClish. Instead, when I looked in the mirror, I saw bulked-up Lou Ferrigno.
In my early 30's, I trained less intensely, hoping to become softer and more feminine. Surprisingly, in doing less, I peaked as an inline speed skater and fitness competitor, beating superior athletes against crazy odds.
But winning got me nothing. Sure, I came home with T-shirts, trophies, titles and even cash prizes, but I was never satisfied. Because at 125 pounds of sleek muscle (with medals galore and professional rankings), I was convinced I wasn't worthy.
My career followed the same pattern – I climbed many ladders, promotion after promotion, but then I’d quit and do it all over again at another company. I was successful across multiple industries but regardless of how much I achieved, I believed I was a big loser. I hid behind a string of successes and leaped from opportunity to opportunity with little focus and too much concern for how the world saw me. All along the way, I felt fat – both in my body, and in my life.
At 40, I’d had enough. Yoga was always a part of my life, but it became my greatest tool in bailing on the crazy competition train. No more races and no more leagues. No more career-climbing. No more self-loathing. Ten years ago, I quit my last corporate job to throw myself into yoga full-time. I opened a studio and started living from passion and joy instead of fear and insecurity.
Not everyone sees yoga as free of competition and these days - some styles of yoga surely can come close to those athletic duking-it-out competitions of my earlier years. Bikram yoga even offers a once yearly yoga competition, a sort of yoga olympics. There’s nothing wrong with competition in yoga if it brings someone to the mat to have that first experience. But its usefulness is limited. When my newbie fitness-addict yoga students begin to add-in more breath, more discovery and instant forgiveness on the mat, that competitive spirit slowly fades away. And as it does, the benefits of the yoga practice increase ten-fold.
Because what IS competition? To some degree, it’s a manifestation of anxiety over what people think of you. When you stop caring about what people think OF you, and instead care ABOUT them, you can find mental & physical challenge without all the angst. When we look outside of ourselves for satisfaction, believing we have to kick our own butts or suffer in order to get ahead, we’re more likely to get hurt or feel isolated from people around us. By the way, as yogini Sadie Nardini pointed out recently, more people are injured from coconuts falling on their heads than from doing yoga.
My yoga practice taught me to love myself as I am and embrace every stage of my life. And while I still have moments where my competitive side flares up, I now have tools to recognize the little devil when I see it, and to laugh it off. I believe that you can have a physically & mentally challenging yoga practice without the competition and anxiety. I even developed a kickass Yoga Body Bootcamp class that rates high in sweat-equity, but also teaches that it’s the breath that helps bring ease to any workout – and that practicing ease and relaxation in physical challenge is a great way to stay cool when the shit really hits the fan in your life.
Recently, I flipped through a few photo albums of my bikini-clad beach honeymoon, admiring how lovely and trim I looked. I sure didn’t see myself that way back then. But my yoga practice has made all the difference. Today, I weigh as much as my husband did when we married. Yet I feel more beautiful than ever before. My beauty, self-worth and sense of self are no longer defined by any standards but my own. Thank you, yoga.
To celebrate my big birthday, my hubby and I returned to the Mexican Riviera where we honeymooned more than two decades ago. And I rocked that new bikini.
Because it's not what you have or what you can do that brings happiness. It's who you choose to be. Life is so much better when you love who you are.
Now if I can just get my husband to wear his 1980’s Speedo...