Maintaining a positive body image is an issue many Americans, especially women, struggle with. In the yoga industry what often gets portrayed as a “yoga body” is frequently youthful, slim and perfectly toned. Media and wellness brands tout these bodies as the epitome of health and beauty.
When we live in a culture that places a premium on this particular body type, and we don't fit the mold, it can be challenging to find acceptance of our own bodies. We may be older, heavier, shorter, wider, or not as bendy as some of the yogis that grace the glossy covers of yoga magazines and Instagram feeds. It can be easy to fall into the trap of self-judgement and sink into feelings of worthlessness.
The irony, of course, is that the practice of yoga is supposed to help us transcend our ego and ultimately find unity with the Divine. Yoga is a process by which we learn to uncover our higher Self and recognize that ultimately we are Brahman, and as such, perfect just as we are. (Learn more in So'ham. I Am That.)
In the spirit of reclaiming yoga as a tool for transformation and not as a yardstick of self-judgement, we have put together several suggestions and exercises to help you reconnect with the inherent beauty of you.
Appreciate the Miracle of You
Appreciation for the amazing things your body does is the perfect starting point in developing a deeper love for yourself. Here’s are just three of the many miraculous feats of renewal your body performs on a regular basis.
Think you’re the same person you were a decade ago? Your body completely regenerates all of its cells, that’s right folks, all of them, in a 7 year period. That means, today, all the cells in your body are completely different from the cells that were there 7 years ago!
Even more amazing is that your skeletal system, all the bones in your body, renew themselves completely every 3 months. That means all new bones four times a year!
As the largest organ in your body, your skin makes up approximately 16 percent of your total body weight. It is the single biggest barrier against bacteria and viruses and renews itself completely every 28 days.
As you reflect on the amazing feats your body performs you can begin to cultivate a little more gratitude for this house you live in. Thank your body for everything it does.
Your Body, Your Home
Take a few minutes and think about all the things you use your body for on a daily basis.
For example, if you’re a mom, that includes chauffeuring the kids back and forth to school, making breakfast, or caring for a sick parent. If you’re a yoga instructor, that means demonstrating asanas to your students in class and physically holding space for them. Your body is your home, it takes you from place to place, through your life and allows you to accomplish all the things you do. It’s your soul’s primary residence.
Next, ask yourself, what have you been doing to care for your body in return? Do you schedule time for meditation or do you have a mindfulness practice? Do you exercise regularly, or do any other type of body-mind centering practices like pranayama or tai-chi? What about food? Have you been eating foods that fuel your body?
Become a Compassionate Observer
If you like to journal, carve out some time on a daily basis to jot down your thoughts and feelings about your body. Your body is your emotional memory bank. It can be an incredible teacher if you know how to listen and what questions to ask it.
A powerful journaling exercise is to keep a log of all the thoughts and feelings you have about your body image. Simply write them down in your journal. It helps to have a place dedicated specifically to this exercise. Remember, a journal is a safe space for you to express your vulnerability.
At the end of the week, review your body thoughts and look for patterns. There will usually be a couple recurring themes. Identify what thoughts keep coming up for you and begin to bring awareness to those thoughts as they arise in your day-to-day life. If you can, look for triggers that set those thoughts into motion. As you get more practice witnessing those thoughts as they arise you will be able to have more freedom around how you choose to react to them.
For example, you may have the persistent thought: “I hate the stretch marks on my belly!” You are now aware that it's a thought you ruminate about on a regular basis and that it no longer serves you. Now, experiment with flipping the thought on its head. Look for a creative affirmation, even if it's tiny, to be grateful to those stretch marks. For example, “Thank you skin for helping keep my baby safe and in place while it grew in my belly for 9 months.”
Over time, you will find it easier to overwrite negative thinking patterns with uplifting ones. This particular journaling exercise can be applied to any negative recurring thought pattern. (Read more in Finding Beauty in the Broken.)
Connect With a Body Scan
Another way to foster self-love and understanding is to connect with your body through a body scan meditation. You can do this meditation anywhere, even on the subway. Start by taking a deep breath and feeling the air travel into your lungs. Feel your diaphragm rise and fall. Feel deeply into your belly. Allow your belly to soften, let it pouch out. Bring your awareness to your feet and explore the sensations you feel. Get granular in your exploration. What sensations can you feel between the creases of the skin on the soles of your feet? Continue in this manner all the way up your body, ending in the crown of your head. When your done, take note of how you feel versus how you felt when you began the meditation. Did you discover any places that felt numb? Or places where you were surprised to find tension? Send those places some love and gratitude. Make a mental note and explore the feeling tone or bhavana next time you sit down to write. This meditation can be used a prelude to the above journaling exercise. (Learn more in Discovering Yourself Through a Body Scan Meditation)
Find Body Positivity Heros
Lastly, seek our others who are champions of body positivity in our community. There are many yogis and yoginis out there who are vocal advocates for accepting our bodies as they are. Look for them locally, there are body positive yoga studios popping up all over the United States. They're even on social media! Many of them, like Jessamyn Stanley @mynameisjassamyn and Anne Guest-Jelley @curvyyoga speak openly about their own journey to body acceptance. These yoginis can be a great inspiration to all of us on the path to self-compassion and self-acceptance. Seek them out and make them part of your tribe.