The experience I describe here is not limited to a yoga practice. However, I believe that yoga in combination with a contemplative practice leads the way to greater self-esteem.
My body and mind have gone through significant changes over the last two years. We will celebrate my son’s first birthday in a week and it is striking to simply look back on the process of pregnancy through delivery to recovery. I recognize each woman’s experience is massively different, but I find myself having a transformation when it came to the way I viewed my body.
I fully expected to go through a slump after Arlo’s delivery in April 2016. I had a cesarean section and knew the recovery would keep me from jumping back into an active life. There certainly were feelings of unfamiliarity with my own body and wanting desperately to fit into my pre-pregnancy jeans again, but at the same time, my pre-pregnancy mindset was not one I wanted to go back to. For as long as I can remember, I stood in the mirror and criticized myself for not being “good enough” – whatever that meant! Holding high expectations and a need to control almost every aspect of myself translated to a constant analysis and review of the curves of my body. I was never comfortable in my own skin, no matter how much I exercised. I also never opened to anyone about this, because after too many strange looks from those I trusted, and responses of, “You are so beautiful! You are so skinny!” I could not find a friend who would let down their guard long enough to really listen. I gave up.
I knew it was wrong. It was unsettling. In my mind, I tried to rationalize and convince myself to stop. No one spoke like this to me, except myself. If we really think about what happens when we criticize our own bodies, we realize how uncanny it is. We should be advocates, not the ones who tear down. It is the most heartbreaking thing in the world.
During pregnancy I felt so beautiful. I felt like my body was in the right place and doing the thing it was created to do. Actually, I was shocked at this revelation. I never dreamed about being a mommy or identified as one whose highest calling is motherhood. I love the women who do. I love the women who do not. We are all goddesses. But, I was surprised at the glory I felt emerging out of this growing belly.
I was worried that after delivery I would go back to the routine of daily self-criticism that threatened to paralyze and kept me from entering fully into the love given by others.
A remarkable thing happened when Arlo was born. Early on, I was too busy to notice my body in ways beyond what I provided for my new baby. This is the fear that some worry about, but for me it was a blessing in disguise. In fact, it was empowering. I continued to see purpose in this body. Previously, I lived like the opinion of others mattered and held myself to a ridiculous standard. In America, young women are cultivated to believe the falsehood that their bodies are for display. Fitness exists to form the body into a perfect physique. It requires blood, sweat, and tears. Now, post-delivery, I completely disagree with a one-dimensional approach to fitness. It should nourish – mind, body, and spirit.
I realized this when I rediscovered yoga. I say, “rediscovered,” though I practiced steadily for nearly twenty years, because it was like I met yoga again for the first time.
Finding a quiet spot in an unused room, I placed my yoga mat for the hours in between nursing and playtime. The stolen moments became vital to my well being, and more than ever, I needed a space to connect to myself. Like cultivating the relationship with one’s partner after the birth of a baby, we need to foster the relationship we have with ourselves.
Finding my space on that mat brought me back into relationship with my true self.
How did this happen? Yoga movement asks us to focus on our breathing. We follow the breath and use it to guide the actions of the body, whether fast or slow. We breathe to stretch our limbs and power through difficult poses. We use breath as a timer and as music. With regular practice, we soon notice the breath is a constant companion throughout the day. It is striking that through yoga we come to rely on ourselves – and the Divine within, no matter what name you call it – instead of on others. This kind of self-reliance is not the same as the separation from others for self-protection. It is trust in the self to build and not to destroy. It is a reconnection to the truest and deepest relationship one has in life. The breath takes us to this place within ourselves.
It is amazing how something as simple as focusing on our breathing can create such significant changes in life. Notice I did not describe the level of fitness I attained through the postures, whether or not I can balance in crow pose for five breaths, or the length and intensity of my yoga sessions. These do not matter.
I started to notice small things: putting on an outfit without changing four times, standing taller, eating well and for health instead of stressing over the last meal… smiling in the mirror. My personal shopping habits also changed. I bought fewer clothes to support my self-worth.
Unfortunately, there is not a set plan to get to this place. Of course, though I write this blog entry, I do not think I attained perfection. The goal will be different for each person! It is a beautiful journey. There are so many modes and styles of yoga that one can find the ideal path. Many Americans do not understand yoga enough to know it is not a religion, but a science, and can be placed in line with any religious belief. In fact, I find I have never felt so connected to my spirituality as I do now. The mental and emotional benefits abound.
You made it to the end of this blog post. Now, please do me a favor.
Take a deep breath… in… out… in… out… in… out.
Now, do it again. Close your eyes and breathe deeply three times.
That is your breath. Yours. It is no one else’s. It is there for you whether you realize it or not. Divine Love gave you this breath and it follows you through every day of your life. You take in the world as you breathe in and give back to it when you breathe out.
But it is yours. Enjoy it.