April 13, 2018, 9:16 p.m.
*Trigger warning: this blog contains discussion of aesthetic sports and sexual violence - please read with caution.
When I first began practicing yoga, my intentions were pretty surface level. I was coming from a dance background and was mainly focused on flexibility, strength, and even weight loss. My whole world and mindset demonstrated a focus on aesthetics that was incredibly detrimental. An upbringing of mirrors, media, and self-comparison had really shaped my sense of worth and the way I approached movement. My ego hates to admit this, but I even competed with those around me, pushing myself deeper into a pose and risking injury if I saw my neighbor was more advanced.
Truthfully, going from an aesthetic sport *world* to a deeply internal experience of yoga *life* has been one of the most lesson-filled gifts.
Life on the Surface
Ingrained in our culture is the idea that our worth lies in our appearance. Many of us have been taught that what our eyes perceive is more informative than anything else, that health can be seen by someone’s body size, that a smile on someone’s face tells the whole story. No, there is so much beyond the surface. Somewhere beyond our conditioned thought-mind, our heart-mind knows this to be true. However, it takes time to unlearn what society has taught us and I was used to an environment where we danced in only sports bras and used mirrors as a way to exercise surveillance on each other’s bodies. It makes me sad to recall that initially, I sought out studios with mirrors to watch, rather than feel, my way through a class.
I am incredibly grateful that I’ve come so far from that 17-year-old version of myself. Since then, I have been courageous enough to embrace self-compassion, diving deep into the practice, into spirituality, into the roots of yoga, and the roots of self. Now, the messages that come from within my body speak louder than what I see in the mirror. I say this in my classes often: the perfect pose will look different for Every Body, if you are feeling the stretch and approach the pose safely, you are in the perfect pose for You. This is a powerful message and mind shift that breaks cultural barriers… not everything is visible, there is so much beyond the surface, on and off of our mats.
The intention of our practice should go deeper than the surface of our bodies. If you feel strongly attached to weight change as a goal, perhaps you can build upon this and reflect on Why. Many adults that work with children encourage positive reinforcement. They say ‘Eat X’ instead of ‘Don’t eat Y’. This applies not just to kids, but to all of us. Weight Loss is not a positive motivator because it is a loss, a decrease, a mathematic negative.
How can we reframe our intentions so that they come from a positive heart-fueled place?
These are thoughts that can often surface for folks in yoga and other movement classes: “I shouldn’t be shaking/sweating this much”, “I should be stronger than this”, and “everyone else is holding it”. I’ve been here. I’ve had all of these thoughts. Starting with the acknowledgment of how harmful these patterns were, followed by self-forgiveness, I began making some big changes. In the past few years, I’ve committed to self-care as a first priority and have surrounded myself with communities that are body positive, supportive, and educational. Teaching empowerment-focused yoga and volunteering with NEDIC are opportunities that have played a powerful role in reframing the way I relate to my body. I’m grateful that my journey has led me to more beautiful options, which allow the practice to facilitate deep, soul-level healing. This has transformed yoga into an avenue to deeply heal my relationship to my body, especially after experiencing trauma. At one time, I was so incredibly mad at my body for reacting the way it did to sexual violence. Yoga offered me a path to reconnect, to make peace, to find safety in my own body, my own home. I began seeing my strength rather than my brokenness.
Our bodies are so incredibly resilient- despite all the physical, mental, emotional injury we may have been through, our bodies are still here, still breathing.
Our mats are a place to celebrate that. I often come back to this quote from the amazing documentary Embrace, “My body is not an ornament, it is a vehicle”.
I am so incredibly fortunate that despite everything, my body can move, my arms can dance, my heart can beat steady and strong, my legs can carry me up mountains, and my breath can always bring me to a home deep within. Let us drop the negative self-talk and clear the clouds of self-doubt that eat away at our strength.
Let us stop banging our heads against the wall in pursuit of self-love.
When I show up on my mat with body-based gratitude, everything changes: I move simply because my body craves movement, not a punishment, but a gift. I get to witness what I am capable of, what my body has survived. I get to feel how it is to sit into my strength, to ground into the earth like I could make craters below my feet, to hold myself up, to simply breathe through it all. The picture is so much bigger than any picture could capture. Give your body permission to speak louder than the mirror and give your heart permission to observe more than your eyes. Know that you are worthy of unlearning falsehoods, of embracing unbound self-love, and of celebrating your bodies incredible resilience on and off the mat.
Marlee Liss is a yoga instructor, author, social work student, and volunteer at NEDIC. Teaching internationally, including a 2018 women’s retreat in France, she makes it her mission to fuse her passion and provide yoga classes that facilitate empowerment, body positivity, and self-love. Marlee is the author and founder of Re-Humanize, a movement challenging objectification and sexual violence through workshops, literature, fundraisers, and more. For more information please visit marleeliss.com