Very few of us are at peace with our bodies. The disruption of this peace starts quietly and early. “Play” (something done for the sheer joy of doing it) becomes “sport” (something some are “good at” and others are not) at an astonishingly early age. Young bodies shoot up and fill out at different times, leaving kids clumsy, confused and unsure of their new physiques. Long after we’re old enough to “know better,” we still fall prey to trying to measure up to the supremely high standards set for us in the images of “beautiful” that we see everywhere around us.
In short, it is sadly rare to experience our bodies as the miraculous creations that they are. It is much more common for us to experience our bodies as something to work on or to fix. We need to develop more muscle mass. We need to lose weight. We wish for longer legs. We yearn for toned abs. We hope to fill out, trim down, or smooth out. We look in the mirror and see things we wish were different. Even when we’re playing, we’re seeking to get better, to get stronger, or to win.
It is even sadder how rarely we freely receive the gifts our bodies have to offer us. Movement because it feels good. Physical strength because it helps us to feel strong inside too. A good sweat as a way to release tension. Dancing because we’re happy. Curling up in a ball because it comforts our sad heart. The euphoria we feel from working hard, undiluted by thoughts of calories burned or steps accrued for the FitBit or any other outside goal.
Our bodies are here for us. Yet, mostly, we are at odds with them.
This mindset can easily slip onto a yoga mat, distorting a practice designed to reconnect body, mind and spirit. Some days, I still succumb to this. I judge my body – “I need to develop more core strength …,” or “If only my hips were looser ….” I judge my practice – “That stunk. I couldn’t touch my toes …” or “That was awesome! I nailed my headstand…” or “When I can do that, I’ll have a ‘real’ practice …” I can even be violent with myself, trying a posture again and again and again, well past the point when exhaustion makes my attempts unsafe.
It’s sometimes easier to see the error of our ways in others. I point out to student after student how silly it is to judge their practice, which is ultimately designed to bring inner peace, to restore balance and to center, by a physical feat that they did or failed to do. As I do so, I am also reminding myself of the real intention of yoga. While it is possible to approach yoga as one more thing we can succeed at, one more thing we can be good at, or even one more way we can mold, re-shape or reform our bodies, doing so misses the whole point.
In practicing yoga, we are not trying to fix something that needs fixing. In fact, yoga asks us to step away from the very idea that there is something wrong with us at all. Yoga meets us right where we are – in shape or out, strong or weak, flexible or not, lean or full-figured, injured or well. It meets us where we are, ready to impart all of its gifts – teaching us to pay attention, to work hard, to rest fully, to be patient, to better understand ourselves, and to trust in the process.
As a yoga teacher, I frequently hear, “I’m not [insert adjective here: flexible, strong, patient, focused, thin, coordinated, young or old] enough for yoga.” Every time someone says this to me, I say the same thing, “Yoga is for everybody and every body. It will absolutely work for you.” I am overjoyed when I’m heard. But that happiness pales in comparison to the joy I feel when I see someone gradually begin to embrace their body.
This happens quietly and relatively early in most people’s practices. Suddenly, their language shifts. Rather than talking to me about the ways they wish their body was different, they are celebrating something their body has done, a way their body has surprised them or simply how good they suddenly feel. Like progress in a posture, this shift in their relationship with their body will ebb and flow. But over the years, I’ve learned to trust it. Once we begin to inch back into peace our bodies, we eventually get there.
And when we do, we discover (or re-discover) that our body is, as it always has been, here for us. It’s up to us to keep the peace.