Today in yoga I risked believing, once again, that I am beautiful. There is a strange and cruel phenomenon that I’ve witnessed in my counseling practice — and I’ve certainly known it in my own skin. I call it “reflection whiplash”– that jarring experience in which one moment the mirror magnifies flaws and failures, followed by another when a hint of loveliness dares to answer back. For those who have felt disqualified by the cultural ideal of beauty, the roller coaster of self-criticism, self-improvement, and self-shame can be dizzying. For those suffering from disordered eating and distorted body image, reality versus the reflection they see is connected by nothing less than a bridge of unrelenting self-contempt. How does a woman despise her body, her face, and her own frame one day and find the courage to call it lovely or, at least, “acceptable” the next? The number on the scale has not changed, the nose is still the same, that familiar smile adorns her face. But the experience of self as beautiful (or not) changes like shadows. Triggers can take her from the glory of painting on her eye shadow with loving attention to the shape of her brow to the heaping pile of clothing on the closet floor as she frantically searches for a way to hide her shame. Regardless of the trigger– encounters with others (both real and fabricated through photoshop), natural hormonal fluctuations in weight, or merciless self-talk–her soul is battered.
Yoga, I have found, provides a powerful path to step off that roller coaster and see oneself through a different, more compassionate lens. At 5’2″ and with figure that I choose to describe as “petite and curvy” (as opposed to other less-affirming words), ballerina dreams were never mine. I am a master at wall sits and weighted squats. I run hills like a champ, little baby goat steps propelling me upward. Lunges and stair climbing fit me well — but twirling through space with bird-like grace–well, this is not my go to move. However, today felt different. Today, through vinyasa flow, my yoga teacher invited us to move our wrists, our ankles, our limbs, and our necks in the way of ballerinas. Not so much through her words, but through joyfully expressing her own inner ballerina. Yoga invites you to slow down time and pay attention to those things neglected–the elements of your spine, the angle of your hips, the spaces between your fingers. This slowing allows you to notice and embrace the exquisite parts of your being that hide in quiet shadows. Yoga widens your eyes so that you can capture the curve of your foot, the precision of your pointed toes, the elegance of your simple mountain pose.
On this day, the welcoming space of yoga beckoned me to extend my limbs into a virtual silken slipper. Here, I connected with my inner swan. She was lovely.
Bird-like flight is not always my experience of yoga. Sometimes yoga invites me to a different (yet still nourishing) encounter that reminds me I am centered, grounded, and tethered to God. Those days, yoga is about my connection to trees, to earth, and to the One who created all things and called them good. Some days, yoga softens my jagged edges as my teacher meditates on loving kindness–toward myself and others. Still other days, yoga brings me to repentance for my own self-abuse, when I have pushed my body and mind too hard, too long, and I weep for my unkindness.
The yoga experience depends not only on the unique need I bring to the mat, but also on the particular gifts of my teacher brings. One glory of yoga practiced in community is its deeply personal interchange between humans. Some teachers are champions of love and body acceptance. Some meditate on the healing effects of forgiveness. Some, like the teacher who gently touched my arm and whispered “you are working too hard,” illuminate my blind spots. Others come bearing scented oils and eye pillows and music, even a glorious foot rub, all of which open my heart to sound and scent and sensuality. As yoga teachers offer their most presently felt treasures, they link to their students in shared time, space, and the engagement of healing. The encounter is thus spontaneous and vulnerable. It connects my need with the mat, my body, and the wisdom of another soul in an intricate dance of giving and receiving. Today, my teacher invited me to elegant flow. My inner ballerina was awake and present, if even for a moment.
If, each time we approach our mats, we will do so in anticipation of meeting forgotten, denied, or unknown parts of ourselves, we will certainly come away with more than we started with. Has this been your experience in yoga or other movement experience? Who have you discovered on your yoga mat? What part of yourself would you like to rediscover? How can you open yourself to the goodness of another as you are guided in the discipline of movement? Take the time to slow down and see, look beyond the morning mirror, and open your eyes to the beauty of your own glorious, complex self. Namaste.