Building Self-Respect Through Yoga
By: Julia S.
Project HEAL Social Media Intern
National Instagram Manager
I have a few confessions to make. The first: I am a perfectionist. The second: I don’t give up.
Confession number two creates the foundation for confession three: I am in recovery from an eating disorder.
I have struggled with anorexia nervosa for the past several years. I have also struggled with body dysmorphia. You can ask me which developed first, but I wouldn’t be able to give you a definite answer. That would mirror the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. My anorexia and body dysmorphia went hand in hand, like two peas in a pod. This dynamic duo contributed to years of depression; anxiety around food, weight, and my physical appearance; and fear of not being able to be “good enough” by my eating disorder’s standards.
My eating disorder helped me deal with life: my inability to control anything and everything; regulating my emotions; having social anxiety; and feeling like I could never reach [unrealistic] expectations. Having low self-esteem and poor body image were just more fuel to the fire.
Fast forward a few years after I was diagnosed, and I found myself sitting on a yoga mat waiting for class to begin. There were just a few of us- women, mostly-, and we were going to practice in a mirror-less room…with windows that welcomed the outside world to peer inside the studio. Nerve-wracking is an understatement. Not only were average Joes going to catch a glimpse of me: everyone in the entire class would be examining me, including the instructor. The thought was paralyzing; I already feared judgment about my appearance, and it was my first “real” yoga class, so of course I would make mistakes.
But for some reason, I stayed. And I’m glad that I did.
Yoga is as much a physical practice as it is a practice of the mind and soul. At the time, these areas of my life needed a transformation. I was struggling with finding my inner-strength, and always with my physical strength: I was fatigued with fighting my eating disorder, exhausted by just simply going about my day. I felt like I could never win the never-ending arguments in my mind: to eat or not eat; do I really look f-a-t, or is it just my perception in the mirror? I felt void of any spiritual connection to my faith, and a higher power.
I needed to find something that would renew me: something that would make me feel alive, something that would be drastically different from the routines and rituals I put myself through on a daily basis. I needed to feel a connection to myself again. I needed to separate from the identity of an anorexic young woman. I needed to find Julia.
Yoga was the answer. Yoga is, and continues to be, my saving grace.
When you practice yoga, you have to let go of what’s going on out there in the “real” world, and focus on the present moment: you, on your mat, linking breath and movement, flowing through the asana. You need to be conscious of each inhale and exhale. You need to be aware of engaging your body. You need to be aware of grounding the four corners of your bare feet firmly into the mat for mountain post, standing tall and proud, eyes close, hands open. You need to be aware of flexing and contracting your muscles, twisting your body, transitioning from posture to posture throughout the practice.
Yoga provided me with a mental escape. For the entire 75-minute practice, I was focused on the voice of the instructor rather than the voice in my head telling me that I was too f-a-t. I was focused on breathing in through my nose, and out through my mouth, creating the sound of the ocean. I became calm. I was aware of tension in my neck, back, knees, and legs, where bottled-up and repressed emotions lived, as I was too afraid to reveal to anyone how I was feeling.
The instructor would walk around the studio, making slight adjustments to the students’ bodies during the practice: helping someone twist deeper into a posture, or placing their hand gently on the small of a student’s back during child’s pose. But never, not once, did the instructor say, “Stop! You are doing it wrong, it’s this way,” or “Come on, is that all you have,” or, dare I say, “You are not strong enough. You are not good enough for yoga.”
Perfection was not the goal: being connected with your body was.
I found my calling. I found something that made me feel good about myself, something that made me feel confident and strong. I knew that if I were sick, I wouldn’t be able to practice. I needed to treat myself, and my body, with kindness and respect if I wanted to feel the benefit of the practice. I needed to accept where I was, let go of judgments, and let go of the fear of not being the “best” yogi, or having the “perfect” postures. I needed to be aware of the present moment, not dwell on the past or think about the future. I was in the here and now.
Even at times when I couldn’t physically practice yoga when I was in treatment, or if I was feeling a lapse in motivation, I could always practice the yoga philosophy: being in tune with my body; breathing in the positive and exhaling the negative; and finding my mind, body, and soul in balance with each other.
I am a firm believer that yoga changed me as a person, and that it was a transformative component to my recovery. I hope that others who are struggling with an eating disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, anxiety, depression, or any other challenge in their lives, find something that works for them, drawing them inwards, and helping them find their authentic self.