Lessons in Body Love: How Yoga Heals
The fact that a state of body-acceptance eludes so many of us, is not for lack of trying. Most of us long for an experience of freedom and comfort in our own skin. We don't wish to hate our struggle with our body. There’s plenty of media out there giving advice about positive body image. Yet most of us know first-hand that it’s not so simple. The alarmingly dominant message in our consumer culture is that we need to transform, improve, or somehow change our appearance so that we will be more desirable, and worthy of love. This contradiction between messages of self-acceptance and the pressure to change, are a recipe for self-doubt and negative body image.
In an effort to reconcile these mixed messages, many of us blend them into a mantra that goes something along the lines of “I’ll love myself when….” (Insert your latest self-improvement project here). The problem with this perspective is that it’s future-oriented, so it keeps us trapped in a sense of inadequacy, which robs us of the permission to experience our innate worthiness now.
When this dilemma is clear to us, it’s becomes obvious why standing in front of a mirror, trying to intellectually convince yourself that you’re beautiful when you truly don’t believe it, is exhausting and often fruitless. Rather than trying to think your way to loving yourself, according to the measurements of consumer culture, we can begin instead to build self-acceptance from the inside-out. This happens by including your whole body in the process, so that you become an architect of your own body-acceptance from the inside-out, without having to change one iota of your being.
How do we do this? We learn to embody self-love through practicing, (and fine-tuning the way we practice) yoga. I call it Body Love Yoga. In my own life, I experienced a profound frustration with the simplistic answers offered by the media and society in general that were meant to help me love my body during years of disordered eating and cripplingly low self-worth. Thankfully over the years I gradually pieced together the principles I needed to heal my relationship with body-acceptance. In 2012 I created the Body Love Yoga workshops and counselling program, motivated by a commitment to share the tools that had been so central in this healing. Since then, the Body Love principles have been shared with hundreds of women around Australia, and overseas.
The following principles explore the foundational elements of Body Love Yoga, and can be explored both on the yoga mat, and in your everyday life. You may notice that these principles closely reflect the chakras, whilst also attending to the unique challenges faced in our longing to accept ourselves. Together, the principles form the acronym ‘GIRLSSS’, which makes them easy to remember. Next time you’re feeling distressed about body-criticism, try working through these principles in your mind or better still, in your body on your yoga mat, and explore how they shift your experience of being in your own skin.
1. Grounding in Safety: The grounding practice involves establishing an intention to heal your relationship with your body, rather than transform any aspect of how your body looks. Any practice that orients you towards your intention of healing can offer an experience of grounding in safety. This might be at the start of the day; the beginning of your yoga practice; as your sankalpa in yoga nidra; or anytime you need to re-centre. Gradually, this practice establishes safe boundaries about what’s important to you in order to heal; thereby creating a safe inner experience that allows you to explore the next aspects of building body-love.
2. Inner-gaze: All-too-often our days are spent judging and measuring our body, based on its appearance. The second principle calls on you to enhance your sensory experience of the inner-gaze. Physical yoga postures and pranayama are wonderful tools for this. If you practice yoga to achieve a ‘yoga body’, or believe a certain pose will help you achieve a bikini body (some yoga teachers do encourage this perspective), then you’re valuing your body from the outside-in. Instead, gently draw your gaze away from comparisons, and into the sensory experience of your own body in this moment. This shift in focus allows you to revel in all the things your body can do, rather than what it looks like. The inner life of your body then becomes a sanctuary of close-listening, and loving responses.
3. Respect: In yoga practice, we cultivate the witness mind. From a Body Love Yoga perspective, the witness mind allows you to embody the understanding that critical thoughts such as “I’m not beautiful” are actually a distinct voice from which you can untangle yourself. As you disconnect from any enmeshed identity you may have with the inner critic, you see that you are separate from it, and so begin to realise that the critic is not the authority it appears to be. You then have the power to practice conversing with the critical voice from the stance of a self-respecting inner voice, which emphasises your strengths (if you find this difficult, imagine what a dear friend might say about you). This principle can also be assisted by physically occupying the core of the body with full belly-breaths, and gentle core-stabilising practices.
4. Love: When you regularly practice the first three principles, a sincere capacity to enjoy – and even love - your body, emerges. What’s more, as your own body-criticism begins to ease, your circle of compassion widens to include not only our own history of suffering with body-criticism, but also all those still caught in the struggle. This body-love feels like a safe internal structure that you can rely upon. Finally, you are able to let go of the war with your form. This emergence of genuine Body Love is often experienced as a great ‘load off’ and sense of relief, freeing you to enjoy each moment in your own precious skin.
5. Speak: With our newfound liberation from the shackles of body-shame, our voice is ignited. We come to understand that body-criticism is not a personal problem but rather a social issue, driven by consumerism. You begin to embody the knowledge that healing is possible for each of us, and this compels you to speak up and use the power of your voice to intelligently challenge cultural messages that perpetuate body-criticism. By claiming your power, you light the spark of collective social change for all of us. Exploring mantra, and trying out new ways of expressing your voice can support you to play with this Body Love principle in your own life.
6. See Anew: As the inner structure of Body Love grows, you see with fresh eyes that you have – and have always had - absolute permission to go forth and do the things you love without concern about whether you’ve achieved the ‘ideal body’ before feeling worthy to take action towards your dreams. This principle includes deliberately noticing - and celebrating! - every body-loving thought or action you choose in your life.
7. Surrender: Ultimately, let go of the outcome of your practices. If you hold on tightly to the ‘result’ then you may be pursuing another self-improvement project. Instead, practice showing up, creating the architecture of Body Love in your life, and then step back and surrender. This includes embracing and resting into the imperfections in your practice, your body and your life. Be sure to end your yoga practice with a long resting pose and allow plenty of rest in your life, (especially restful time that involves laughter and silliness where possible!)
When we embrace these practices, we become conduits for positive change. Contrary to what many of us fear when we think of loving our body, a loving perspective doesn’t prevent us from pursuing change. In fact, it encourages personal evolution. We tend to worry that if we stop bullying ourselves or letting critical thoughts ‘motivate’ us to change, then we won’t do anything towards our aspirations. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, practicing Body Love creates more energy and capacity for growth than we’ve previously thought possible. The difference is that now when change inevitably happens, it emerges from a place that is already content, rather than striving and pushing from a place of criticism. To be frank, however, the stronger your architecture of Body Love becomes, the less interested you’ll be in external measurements of beauty anymore. You’ll be having far too much fun enjoying your body from the inside-out and basking in all the freedom this brings to do what you love, live a life you love, and encourage others to do the same.
Join me for a Body Love Yoga workshop. Upcoming course dates can be found here.