My experience of applying to teach yoga at various fitness studios over the past few months has given me a lot to think about in terms of the pressure our culture and fitness industry is placing on people to look a certain way and how much extra work they need to be doing to achieve this certain look. I find the phrase ‘beach ready” to be quite striking. It suggests that there is a certain standard of appearance that must be met before it is acceptable for one to appear in a bathing suit in public and sends the message that unless you obtain this standard of perfection, you should feel embarrassed about being seen. I’m not surprised that I wasn’t hired to teach at this particular pilates and barre studio, as I feel that what I teach in a yoga class is sending the exact opposite message- that you are perfect and worthy exactly as you are. Teaching yoga is not about being a drill sergeant. It is about providing a space for people to find a sense of quiet and stillness- to go inside and start listening to what their body has to tell them. It is about self-exploration, self-transformation, and ultimately self-acceptance. It provides as much physical and mental challenge as the practitioner wants, but only when the student is ready and only when they, themselves, WANT to go there. It teaches you to stop competing with others and with yourself and to stop the process of comparing, which only results in a feeling of lack. And it allows space to let go of the things that are holding you back- things that are only weighing you down and keeping you from fulfilling your potential. Yoga builds strength, flexibility, balance, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of calm and internal peace. This state of calmness balances out the body’s hormonal system. In this space, the body can start to care for itself. I believe that sending the message that you must do this and this and this to achieve some type of standard that may not even be obtainable for your own particular body only results in adding more stress to one’s life and tells you that you need to be something other than you are.
I’ve lived in this type of state for the majority of my life. It’s not an enjoyable place to be. I can always find things that I don’t like about my appearance. I’ve tried no carb diets for weeks at a time in the past in order to lose my excess fat and found it not only to be a miserable experience, but an extremely unsustainable place to be. If you are forcing yourself to do anything, you will not be able to maintain it. And not only will you go back to your former ways, you will likely over-compensate for what you were denying yourself. Now you’ve only managed to double your self-hatred. You not only hate the way that you look, but you failed at what you sought to do.
After the winter I had, in which I did NO walking, and in which the only movement I did was yoga, I am surprised at how my body looks. And for the first time in my life, I feel satisfied with it. At the oldest age I’ve ever been, I finally feel free to lie on the beach in a bikini. Am I the thinnest I’ve ever been? No. I enjoy chocolate and ice cream and scones and coffee too much. They make me feel happy. But because I am not restricting myself from the foods I enjoy, my body is able to stay at a sustainable weight and I still fit into my small clothes. I realized that even if I lost all of my excess fat, I will still be able to come up with a long list of the things I don’t like about my body. (My ribs stick out, I look like a boy, etc. etc). And what good is that doing for me? I will NEVER ever be in a state of “perfection”. That simply doesn’t exist. So instead, why not appreciate everything that I do like about myself in this very moment?
Yoga builds whole body strength, but I believe it is the effect of the calming hormones that do the most to keep the body in a state of homeostasis. I definitively know from my life experiences that weight loss or maintenance is not a matter of “calories in, calories out”. Hormones play a huge role in this regulation. And when you learn to start appreciating all that your body does for you, and learn to start accepting yourself as you are, you stop the warring with yourself and the need to try to be something that you are not, which only serves to ramp up stress, self-hatred, and hormones that actually keep fat on. Who wants to be around someone that hates themselves and who is waiting for the day they look a certain way (which probably will never come) to feel happy?
I am not a fan of these contraptions that count your “steps” and your calories. And I really don’t like how people are encouraged to post their results on social media so they can be compared with the results of their friends. So you set a goal for yourself and don’t achieve it, or see that your friends outdid you. Now what? You’re only going to feel bad about yourself. And what is the point of that? That feeling is going to prevent you from enjoying life and it is going to create a feeling of distance and separation from those around you. Can you actually go to the beach and enjoy the feeling of the sun and the sound of the waves if you are worried that you don’t look good enough? And who exactly do you think you don’t look good enough for? Anyone who truly loves you loves you for who you ARE- not because of the way you look. They love you for the things you do, for your open heart and laughter, for the way you are there for them when they need you. This notion of needing to obtain a certain kind of standard of looking like an air-brushed, photoshopped model is preventing people from living and enjoying the present moment (which quickly turns into an entire lifetime).
A little while ago, I saw a posting from the owner of the barre and pilates studio that urged her clients to take as many different types of classes as possible in order to achieve the best results: “cardio, core, strength, barre burn, weights, circles, bands, intervals, flow, intensity, aerobic and anaerobic”. My head was spinning just reading that! Who needs that kind of pressure in a world where we are extremely over-taxed as it is?! I found it interesting that she ended up hiring another yoga instructor about a month later, billed the classes as “restorative power yoga” (which makes absolutely no sense, as those two things are the exact opposite of one another) and then saw that after a couple of weeks, yoga was completely eliminated from the schedule.
I think that if we can just start learning to slow down, to do less, and to start listening to our own internal needs, we will start gravitating to a more naturally healthy place for ourselves. We will start to do things that we enjoy and that make us feel good. We will live in a more sustainable way. And if we start appreciating who we are now, we will end up positively influencing the people we interact with. I believe that having compassion and acceptance for ourselves is what will create the most positive change in the world. Compassion spreads. No one connects with “perfection”. Perfection doesn’t exist in the first place. We connect with openness, vulnerability, sharing, and understanding. We connect with “real”. We connect with love.