As I held plank in the serene, gently sunlit studio this morning, fingers fanned wide, my yoga teacher read my mind. She did something that caused me to approach her after practice and tell her I believe she’s clairvoyant. It didn’t stop there. Throughout class, my mind continued to act as an open book to my wise, heart-opening yoga master. What she said, as she skillfully instructed us to take plank either with knees down or knees lifted, was profound. I don’t know how many fellow students lifted their knees from the mat. I know I did; that’s all that matters. I lifted my knees, my body engaging energetically, sipping in breath and lengthening from crown of head to tailbone; it felt good. I didn’t expect what came next. My teacher said, “is what you’re doing right now in any way punishment? Harmful? Are you in any way punishing yourself? If so, please take your knees to the mat.”
I stayed in plank, but immediately a far corner of my brain awoke. A place deep in the dark corner of my being let the question resonate, let it echo around inside my skeleton, inside my spirit. Is anything about what you are doing right now harmful or punishing?
I settled on a firm no. I wavered a little, to be quite frank. I want to say I didn’t waver. I want to say I knew for certain that my answer was no. I want to say I lowered my knees in contemplation, airing on the side of caution. I didn’t. But I know why I didn’t. I gain a sense of strength and power in plank pose. I remember when plank was incredibly challenging for me to hold. Now I feel all the parts of my body engage and, on some days, I even can feel like I’m floating there. Other days are harder and by ten seconds in I’m struggling. Those days are few and far between, and today was not one of those days. I suppose the lesson I took from that ominous question was that on the days when it’s a struggle, when my body simply isn’t up for a challenge, I usually push through. That is punishment, that is harmful. How is it that I find words like “listen to the body, nurture and respect the body” to be music to my ears, and yet I struggle when it comes to the physical manifestation of those words? Why am I compelled to satisfy some unconscious urge to be as good as I was yesterday? Why do I expect to hold plank for just as long, to be as energetic, as alert, as positive, as whatever day after day? When is it time to rest?
The other lesson I took away from that question is that I doubt myself. I doubt whether I am smart enough. I doubt whether I am pretty enough. I doubt whether I am a good enough writer to make it as a writer. I doubt myself in making decisions. I doubt myself when I take Tadasana pose…are my feet front hipbone distance apart? Are my feet turned in or out, or are they parallel? I lose sight of my own front hip points and what parallel means trying to get it so damn perfect.
Perfectionism is blinding.
Which leads me to my next point. I’m blinded by my perfectionist need to feel, look, be and act a certain way. I’m often blinded to the present moment by distracting, perfectionist, frequently body-related thoughts. I want to call them superficial thoughts. Is my belly poking out over my waistband? Is the girl next to me thinner than I am? Or is she softer and more womanly and do I admire that about her? Or do I just admire her string of mala? Why am I paying attention to anything off of my own mat, outside of my own being?
I question myself. I judge myself. I punish myself.
I’ve said it before that I’m always questioning my body. I’ve hardly ever had a time in my life where I’ve just been, just been me. I have spent years being obsessed. I’ve been obsessed over being too thin or too “heavy” or too healthy or too unhealthy. I’ve lost sight as to what is “normal” for me, and I don’t trust my own body.
I want desperately to trust my own body.
I recently had my lady doctor tell me that, while my BMI is healthy, it is on the lower end. She said I could stand five extra pounds on me. I felt like I’d been scolded, even though she smiled and told me I’m in great shape and she admires my path of health and wellness. Instead of nodding and saying, “Good to know Doc, thanks and I’ll make sure I’m matching my level of activity with the right amount of nourishing food,” I walked out of the office with that heavy, weighty I’m not good enough feeling. I punished myself, emotionally. I should be supportive of and loving towards my body, my heart, my spirit. I should be grateful I’m not being told to lose weight. I should be grateful I have a healthy BMI. Instead I slipped right into the worn-in, comfortable suit of self-deprication. I began to question myself across the board. Here I am not getting it right again.
I feel like the picture of health, for the most part, for the first time in as long as I can remember. I have constant energy, I don’t doom myself with gym time that I loathe (and I don’t belong to a gym), I don’t run, I nurture my sensitive knees, I practice yoga daily, I eat a plant-based diet, I drink copious amounts of water, I limit caffeine and alcohol. I’m not preaching the aforementioned slew of behaviors to anyone, I’m simply documenting the steps that have led me to feel my most awakened, energized Self.
But I think there’s a hidden issue someplace in there. I question myself and want to see things in black and white. I either drink alcohol or I don’t. I either wear make-up or I don’t. I’m either a serene, quiet soul or a neurotic hot mess. I either drink coffee or I don’t. Either I’m a runner or I’m not. Either I’m fashionable or I’m low-maitenence. Who makes up all these rules? And why am I first in line, eagerly waiting on tip-toes, ready to follow them??
Where is the flexibility?
I want to be flexible, more than anything in the world, and have that flexibility prove to me that I can still be happy in my heart. I can be still and peaceful in my mind. I can be alive and radiant in my body.
While I lead a healthy lifestyle and there’s nothing in it that needs changing, I do want to be more flexible in terms of the future. I want to do things because it’s where my heart is leading me, not because it “fits” into my perceived “lifestyle.” I’m constantly questioning myself. I’m constantly doubting myself. I’m ready to get fearless.
Who’s to say I can’t be me, live this beautiful life I’ve built, and still step outside the box? Who’s to say I can’t redefine aspects of my being on a daily basis? Why can’t I step in and out of the box as I wish?
I know what I am at my core: loving, kind, compassionate, emotional, intense, deep, spiritual, dedicated, sincere. I also know that the veil covering my core contains shreds of apprehension, fear, obsession, guilt, shame, regret. I know that, like stretching sore, tight muscles, I must stretch out of my boundaries to break free of those spider webs. I know what I am at my core, and I know I must break out from beneath the spider webs of doubt and anxiety.
I made the sad realization today that my self-esteem still relies heavily on what my body looks like. It’s still not a fully compassionate, level-headed relationship that I have with body image. I understand it all, and I extend it out to others, but I don’t have it for myself. Not completely. Not yet. I’m so busy embracing other women for their beautiful hearts and unique bodies and unwavering confidence, that sometimes I turn back in towards myself with nothing but doubt. I think, “why can’t you be like them?” It’s as though I’m afraid to accept and embrace myself incase I might change. Well guess what…we all change. Our bodies are transient vehicles for our souls, for the marrow of our being. I get that. I believe that. I hold true to that with every ounce of me.
But then why can’t I extend it towards myself? Why can’t I stop caring whether I’m thin? Why can’t I stop caring what other people think? Why can’t I just be happy and healthy and balanced, and let the thin body be a byproduct to which I pay very little attention?
I’ve gotten better with all of that. I care less what other people think. I’m happy in my own body. But am I happy because I am slim? Is that what my happiness is riding on? If I put on 20lbs would I no longer feel happy? I honestly don’t know.
It’s not that I’m going to put on 20lbs as an experiment, but more that I intend to someday have babies. I know my body will change. I know it will give life and it will feel different, look different, be different. I want to always be healthy. I want to provide a soft and warm body to hold my children against; I want to be fit and lean and energetically able to chase my bliss till my last day on earth. I’m making confessions that are hard to make right now, baring my soul and admitting to caring this much about my soul’s transient vessel, but I know it’s what must be done. I must acknowledge it in order to stop fearing it so much. I envision myself as a happy, healthy mother, wife, daughter, friend, yogi, student of the Universe, who exists within a healthy, thriving body and whose self-worth is based on a sound mind, and the love of those children, that spouse, my parents, those friends, my fellow yogis, my fellow human beings…
I know that this journey of learning to believe my yoga teacher’s words, “you are already perfect, just as you are right now,” is going to be lifelong. I was born with the gene that keeps me a little more attached to body image than the average person; I survived an eating disorder, my brain chemistry was altered for life, and my relationship with my body will be in a constant reparative state. It’s not to say I focus on this everyday, I lose sight of it for days at a time, but I always come back to it.
I know we are in this together, and that it’s not just me. I am simply hyper-aware of bodies, my own and others, and perhaps first to feel inferior given my history. This horrible barrage of judgement, loathing and unattainable perfection from the media doesn’t help. Sometimes I’m convinced that if we could just hide out, all of us who get it, who get
what true, positive body image is about and who value the inner essence of a being rather than the transient body, that we could all make a very happy world. We could be happy and free together, hidden away from the big screens and magazines and judgement. Sometimes I wish we could just erase all of the self-loathing there has ever been and live in the bright, colorful world of you are perfect just as you are.
I believe that world exists, but it must exist within each of us. I understand now why people, particularly yogis, shave their heads and wear simple clothing. The emphasis is on what is within, and it’s accented by a body that isn’t distracted by fancy clothing, make-up and accessories. It’s accentuated by deep, soulful eyes, laughter, a crinkling smile, the rosy flush of warmth, soft and gentle hands.
But I like wearing cute clothes and accessorizing! I like having long hair! I like my bracelets and my toe rings and my collection of shoes and my colorful scarves! I like dressing for the mood I’m in that day, oftentimes yogini, sometimes European fashionista (at least what I consider “fashionista”), sometimes hipster, sometimes hippie, sometimes fancy, often rhymeless and reasonless…I like having a “morphing style” and the effect my garb has on my inner being.
I suppose there’s a fine line between enjoying the decoration of our transient vessels, and mistaking
that decoration as being our identity. We are so much more than anything we could possibly put onto our bodies.
So let it be. Be undefined by a “bad hair day” or an outfit you regret the moment you get to work. Be undefined by a day of your belly poking out over the waistband of your yoga pants. Be undefined by the blemish that has arrived to vacation in the middle of your right cheek for the holiday weekend.
I know it’s easier said than done, but all accomplishments worth accomplishing take effort. Nothing truly worthwhile is ever easy.
Perhaps there’s a blissful freedom in being undefined. To Be Undefined. We’re always so busy defining ourselves (at least I am) as though people are really keeping a tally, as though anyone outside of ourselves really care. Writer, yogi, vegetarian, traveller, student, mother, wife, raw foodist, democrat, republican, teacher, pacifist…we are always working so hard to fit under our own umbrellas that I fear we lose sight of how easy, how natural it is to just let those definitions, those titles, embody us. We are those things whether we harp on the definitions or not, whether we drive around bearing the bumper stickers or not. Owning who we are without the need to broadcast and advertise it is empowering, and challenging. We are what we do, we are what we eat, we are what we say, we are what we think…we simply ARE! No one can take that from us. We have nothing to prove. We manifest and define ourselves and our futures on a moment-to-moment basis.
The spiderwebs that gather and entrap us are all created by the mind. Our minds. Society, media, whatever, they are all contributions, they may weave the web, but we have the broom. We have the limbs to stretch and break these webs apart, yawn and stretch and step up into the light and melt away the labels, the pressures, the definitions, the fear, the doubt. Shatter the webs of perfectionism. Bask in the transience of the body, of what it means to feel good, to feel alive. Extend endless love and warmth because, with true understanding of life’s impermanence, there simply isn’t time to do anything but.
So break off the spider webs. Take a stand. Exalt. Be Undefined. Love. Exist. Radiate.