Over the last ten years I have taught yoga in many different countries around the world. A few years ago I spent several months teaching at a healing and detox center in Thailand where many people were trying to lose weight and would fast anywhere from one week to one month. One of my students fasted for three weeks, spent a lot of money, did not lose a pound, and ended up feeling worse about herself than when she began. She was even accused of cheating by the "supposedly" enlightened staff. When I taught in Japan there were women who, in my eyes, appeared slender and fit but who felt they were overweight and were obsessed with weight loss. Another one of my students was a stunning Scandinavian beauty with a gorgeous figure who was tortured emotionally because she hated her body. I have witnessed and continue to witness the horrible psychological effects of negative body image.
Some of my students come to yoga class solely to achieve some unobtainable physical perfection that they could never achieve in their minds no matter how thin they got. Others have been, and continue to be caught up in a cycle of dieting, fasting and then binging only to end up right back where they started, continually stuck in a pattern of deep self-loathing. In short, I have seen and continue to see a ton of suffering! So I began to ask myself: how can I help? How can yoga help us accept our different body types and shapes and learn to love and accept ourselves as we are? How can yoga help us achieve more love and compassion for ourselves? How can we learn to be content with ourselves and not feel we have to achieve some unobtainable idea of perfection?
My personal belief is that under the desire for perfection is a deep need in all of us to be loved and accepted for who we are. We are all divine beings worthy of love and acceptance, but first we have to begin a journey of self -love and acceptance! This has been challenging for me most of my adult life as I have suffered from low self-esteem. What I have learned over and over is that feeling worthy, content and at peace is an inner job. Nothing outside of yourself whether it is money, relationships, success, approval or being what you perceive to be your "ideal" weight can make you feel better about yourself. If, this were true, then people who lose weight would all feel great about themselves. But, body-experts say people who have lost a lot of weight are disappointed to some extent to discover that they still aren't "perfect."
What is perfection? I have a cousin who was a model when she was younger. She is long legged, has full lips, big eyes, a perfect nose, tall, slender etc...She has a lot more self -confidence now but when she was younger she was plagued by insecurity. She was constantly obsessing about herself and never happy with her looks. And even though she had been blessed with "model" looks she was painfully shy and had very little confidence. Her life has had its hardships and has been far from fairytale perfect. This allowed me to see and realize first hand that the fantasy or belief that many harbor that "if only" they looked like a model they would be deliriously happy and lead charmed lives forever and ever was a fallacy. The reality is careers, which emphasize physical beauty, can cause eating disorders and self-esteem issues.
What I would like to understand is why so many people are suffering from a negative body image, men included. Why are so many people's images of their bodies so distorted? Why is it that so many people feel fatter and less attractive than they really are? Why is it that what people see in the mirror and how they feel about them selves is so different, and so much more critical than how others perceive them? Is it because the media represents unrealistic images that have been photo shopped to appear flawless? Is it because we live in shallow cultures that emphasize and reward what is considered "ideal" physical beauty and youth over other talents and gifts? I believe all of these things are factors. I also believe we must begin to take the focus off the external and make shifts internally. We need to stop thinking about how the world perceives us and heal our inner perception and inner dialogue.
Continued in Yoga and Body Image Part II.
Published On: March 02, 2011