This is a vulnerable topic for me to write about, and this post has been sitting in my drafts folder for quite some time now, but I wanted to share this to help shed light on what a healing journey really means, away from the shiny glare of social media squares, whereby it's easy to skirt over real issues that so many of us face. When we are able to acknowledge the true nature of those hardships, both as yoga teachers and practitioners, then we can really get to the efficacy of using yoga as a healing tool. TW: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, drug and alcohol abuse.
A lot of what has plagued me has been centred around perfectionism and putting things off because I don't deem myself 'ready'; I'm not thin enough, I don't have enough money, I'm not experienced enough and so on. For years I wouldn't allow myself to take off a baggy t-shirt when practising in a warm yoga studio environment, despite being roasting hot. I knew in my rational mind no one would have cared either way, but something inside me said I didn't deserve to.
Whilst it is true that fellow students in class probably don't care and are way too focused on their own practice to determine the validity of my visible midriff, diet culture weighs heavy on the yoga we teach and practise in the West. I've actually found a lot of healing for my own body issues through reading the traditional texts and reframing my typically Western view of my body to fit a more Eastern perception; that it is impermanent and not a goal upon which my happiness depends, but rather an ever changing channel through which my emotions can move and harmonise.
In Light on Yoga, Mr. Iyengar calls the body 'a laboratory', which not only describes the work of a yoga practitioner, but, I think, could be used to describe how human beings treat their bodies. We are forever trying to change something about our physical selves and sometimes we experiment with our extremes. I experimented with how little I could eat and how much I could exercise, how late I could stay up working and how early I would get up to teach, how many drugs I could take to overcome social anxiety at parties, how much alcohol I could drink to make the stimulus of those parties less intense, how numb could I make myself before I actually slipped under; mine was the most active laboratory around, but perhaps not in the way Iyengar had recommended.
Truth be told, this whole topic is still raw for me. I am grateful to be free of disordered eating for over 3 years now; although my body image hasn't quite resolved itself but I can live with that. I am also no longer living under the illusion that I can drink a bottle of wine of an evening and get up the next day and teach because I am just so high functioning (I'm not). Being sober and well is great but also brings a fresh set of challenges because you have to then reckon with all the other addict energy you operate on.
The words 'addict' and 'addiction' are still a bit taboo, but what I find interesting is the way in which we shun some addictions and applaud others. Drug addiction and alcoholism are shameful right? Don't even get me started on food addiction. But yet we champion workaholism, over-exercising, perfectionism like they are shiny, capitalist badges of honour. I remember back in 2016 I did a 30 day 'cleanse' that denied many food groups, alcohol, caffeine, anything remotely joyful/dirty for the system, that actually saw me regress into some of the darkest recesses of my old eating disorder. My take on diets, cleanses, intermittent fasting (glorified anorexia) is just this; fuck them all. I don't know any other way to say this. They are oppressive in so many ways, but that's for another post entirely. Anyway. When I did this cleanse I felt great, high even, because that is what eating disorders do, they literally make you high, like a drug, but also like a drug they make you indescribably low. The igniting of such addict energy in me no thanks to the 'Whole 30' cleanse also triggered the work addict and the achievement addict in me, so that when I came home after a long day and couldn't dive straight into an XL glass of wine I instead had to busy myself with 'work'. Not mindful work, but rather a level of productivity that meant the quantity of what I was putting out was far more important than the quality.
Are you exhausted reading this so far? Does any of it sound like you? You are someone who loves yoga and spirituality but yet you display some of these addict tendencies on the regular, does that make you messy? I used to describe myself that way and to be fair, so did my friends. It can make you feel really insincere and inauthentic in the world. But what I have learned is that yoga has a way of attracting such personalities. We are simply ardent seekers looking in all the wrong places. It sounds cliche but I haven't found better words to describe it as of yet; yoga brought me home to what I was seeking.
I tried first to find it in the opposite sex, then in partying, in showing off, in eating too much, in eating too little, in working myself to the bone and filling my teaching schedule to over 20 classes a week (spoiler alert: no you can't, see my post about thinking I could here.) Some might consider some of those things I mentioned rites of passage, and they are to an extent, but I will always be as candid as possible about how I got here, because I hope it helps you understand that it isn't a smooth path to peace. I even used yoga in the wrong way to fill the void; mainly through extreme asana and trying to show off what my body could do and, full transparency, I still do fall into that trap sometimes.
Yoga asana is a wonderful thing, and for pretty much all of us, it is the gateway in to yoga. Patanjali would have us first observe being good people and take our head out of our proverbial arse before attempting to stand on it, but, let's face it, we are too impatient these days. Even as early as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th century) it was acknowledged that asana was a good way to get on the path to experiencing true yoga. At first asana for me was about testing my limits. I am hypermobile, so I would relish how far forward I could fold, how deep I could get into a bind etc., which unfortunately left me with little strength or resilience. Physical resilience in asana absolutely translates into mental resilience. I'm not yet at a stage where I feel I can hold my students in warrior 2 for minutes at a time, but my teacher can and boy, do you find out who you are when she keeps you there. It is that staying power you cultivate in asanas (particularly the ones you don't necessarily enjoy) that bring the greatest transformation.
When I allowed myself to stay long enough to build physical resilience, huge shifts took place in my life. I went from party girl that everyone relied on to be the loudest and the most entertaining (which was quite a fun mask to wear sometimes), to a strong and vulnerable sober person who can make real connections in real conversations at social events (to be fair this hasn't been tested all that much in 2020 because pandemic) and also to someone who is learning to just be in my body, without needing it to be a different shape or size than it is, without needing it to do the craziest of pretzel poses, but enjoying them none the less when they come. The thing I am most grateful for in my journey of healing through yoga, is the fact that, for the first time, I am ok to just be. I don't feel the need anymore to fill every second of every day with distraction and noise, even if that looks like productivity.
Because really, that is what this yoga journey is all about; accepting where you are, accepting the fact that that might never be where you think you should be and learning to embrace your shadow and all the yucky and uncomfortable things that it is. I have learned to integrate my pain first in order to transcend it. It isn't easy, but yoga isn't meant to be just easy. It is Stira and Sukha (effort and ease in equal measure) in everything we do, and that is such a gift because if we are truly observing that delicate balance, then we have no choice but to be present, and being present is one of the best cures for anxiety that I have found; it is true skill in action.
In a post guru world (thanks to some very bad men and one or two women), we actually have to be our own guru. Guru means literally 'from dark to light' and, whilst we have largely turned our backs on some of the darkness that some of the gurus brought, we have also forgotten how to look at our own darkness in favour of 'love and light'. Love and light in this day and age, especially in this year is about as useful as going out with a covid face covering over your eyes. We need the dark too, and more than the light we need the truth; we need all of it. To heal fully is to look at every aspect of ourselves and hold each and every part with compassion and understanding. Once we begin to master that inner healing, then we can go out into our fractured world and start to heal there too.