• How to Practice Compassion for Someone with an Eating Disorder

    Facing an eating disorder is hard. Really hard. That goes for if you are a person who has an eating disorder yourself, or if you have someone in your life with one: a friend, loved one, co-worker, or student. Facing an eating disorder can be confusing, scary, frustrating, and sad. An eating disorder is a beast of an illness.

    You may wonder what you can do to help. It is so natural and caring to want to help relieve suffering, your own or someone else’s. But attempts to help and fix an eating problem can often be met with anger, resistance, or withdrawal. Helping is often the wrong place to start when facing an eating disorder. Compassion, instead, needs to come first.

    What is compassion? Kristin Neff, a well-known mindfulness teacher, teaches that the word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” To have compassion, we start by making a lot of room to be present with the lived experience of someone who is suffering. This takes time, true listening, and open-mindedness. And then, with this deep presence, we offer kindness, understanding, and patience. Compassion can be profoundly healing—truly, the most important ingredient in relieving suffering.

    How can we develop compassion for the people in our lives with eating disorders? Real compassion takes real work to develop. Start with yourself, acknowledging how hard this might be, and move forward without expecting it to be easy, perfect, or permanent. Just like yoga offers different practices to move towards liberation—study, meditation, asana, pranayama—so we can draw tools from yoga to help you cultivate compassion (karuna in Sanskrit):

    Self-study: mindfulness of your own stories

    Before you listen, take time to acknowledge and understand stories or judgments you may carry about people with eating disorders. We all have stories and stereotypes about who gets eating disorders and why—whether from life experiences, media, or a class in school. Some common stories are that eating disorders only happen to thin, white, young, wealthy girls. Or that they are about control, vanity, or attention. That they are caused by bad parenting, societal messages, or incorrect nutritional information. That if a sufferer could just love their body, they would get better. That having an eating disorder is a choice. That because you learned to love your body or because you fully recovered from an eating disorder, you know everyone else can recover like you did. Some of these stories are true for some people with eating disorders. They are not true for every person—we are truly all so different as human beings.

    Ask yourself—how do your stories affect how you respond to a person with an eating disorder? How do they affect your listening, your expectations, and your patience?

    Beginner’s mind: cultivate curiosity

    Take time to learn about the complexity of eating disorders, and the diverse ways they present. Start by educating yourself without putting the burden of teaching you on your loved one. Read stories about people who have eating disorders that don’t fit the conventional narrative. Read about people of color, transgender people, men, fat people, older people. Learn about genetic research, which can help you let go of blame.  Learn about how how malnutrition affects behavior, about the link between restrictive eating and binge eating, about how systematic oppression affects both illness and recovery, about health at every size. Hold each new fact or idea with tentative, flexible understanding.

    Then be open to learning directly from the person in your life with an eating disorder. Ask with gentle, non-demanding curiosity if the person would like to share, and let them know it’s okay if they don’t. If they do share with you, express gratitude. Let go of your own shame or blame, as these emotions make it very difficult to learn.

    Seeking truth: awareness of suffering

    People with eating disorders can experience a great deal of emotional suffering, even well into the recovery process. They usually experience intense physical suffering as well—digestive difficulties, headaches, fatigue. Unfortunately, neither of these types of suffering are visible to onlookers. It is a great myth that you can tell who has an eating disorder or “how sick” someone with an eating disorder is by looking at them. People can have anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other food struggles and look any kind of way—thin, fat, and everything in between. Yet people with eating disorders almost always believe that they are not sick enough—not sick enough to really have an eating disorder, not sick enough to deserve care, not sick enough to heal.

    Unfortunately, our culture reinforces this idea of “not sick enough” with a medical system that only offers care to sick patients that show up in certain bodies, and with media that highlights only super skinny people. This is a double suffering—to suffer and then to have that suffering invalidated, ignored, and invisible.

    You can practice compassion by reminding yourself that eating disorders are also illnesses of the mind and heart, even when someone appears physically well. Stay curious about the person’s emotional state, instead of focusing on their physical behaviors or appearance. Welcome expressions of suffering by calmly asking questions to elicit more, or saying, “thanks for sharing with me.” Avoid criticizing emotions as irrational or turning away from suffering by offering positive thoughts or minimizing discomfort with comments like, “focus on the good things in your life” or “this too shall pass.”

    Practice equanimity: acknowledge and tend to your own emotions

    How do you feel when you approach someone who has an eating disorder? Do you feel anxious? Scared? Annoyed? Angry? Triggered? Ashamed? Where do you feel those emotions in your body? What thoughts or memories come up?

    Do not make it the responsibility of the suffering person to make your discomfort go away. Tend to your own body, mind, and heart. Get support for yourself. Care for yourself is crucial to have the endurance to be present for the long and winding path of the healing process.

    Lovingkindness: offer patience and hope

    We each express and experience kindness in our own unique way. Act from your heart. Know that being kind doesn’t mean that you can’t set limits or boundaries with your loved one—it just means that you set those boundaries with love and understanding of the emotions they bring up. Keep the light of hope for the other person’s healing alive within you.

    There are many ways to offer help—lots to do for someone with an eating disorder. But start with compassion, and you will not only have offered a gift to the person who is suffering. You will also have opened up your own heart and your own capacity for healing, presence, and love.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image

    By Suzannah Neufeld, MFT, C-IAYT

    Suzannah Neufeld, MFT, CEDS-S, C-IAYT, is a licensed psychotherapist, certified eating disorder specialist, and certified yoga therapist. Suzannah’s dedication to compassion for people with eating disorders comes from her work supporting individuals and families in their healing since 2003, as well as from her own lived experience with an eating disorder–she has seen again and again the profound power of compassionate relationships in the recovery process. She is a co-founder of Rockridge Wellness Center, a counseling and health collective in Oakland, CA, where she has a private practice. Suzannah is the author of the book Awake at 3 a.m.: Yoga Therapy for Anxiety and Depression in Pregnancy and Early Motherhood (Parallax Press, 2018). She is also a contributing author in the anthology Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. Learn more at www.suzannahneufeld.com.

  • Working with Pleasure, Power, and Agency in Yoga Spaces

    Earlier this year, I had the unexpected opportunity to present at a yoga conference. With less than 24 hours to prepare, I sequestered myself and started researching and grinding out a PowerPoint on the foremost topic on my mind: power, consent, and agency in the yoga classroom, and the relationship between these concepts and issues of access.

    The resulting presentation drew from a number of sources of knowledge and inspiration, notably my trauma-sensitive yoga training with David Emerson , the written work of Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis , the gathered works encompassed in Adrienne Maree Brown ’s latest release Pleasure Activism : The Politics of Feeling Good , and, of course, the inspiring work around access and inclusion that a number of organizations are doing in the yoga world.

    We often associate power and agency with sexual assault and abuse. This conversation is vital, and we need conversations around power and agency in a broader context. In continuing to learn from resources like Pleasure Activism and its authors, and from my own experiences, it also occurs to me that we could tap into the erotic as a source of teaching within our own self-study practices–perhaps, as suggested in Audre Lorde’s essay “ Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power ,” a seminal work of black feminist thought originally published in 1978 (and not without some problematic passages indicative of societally-held attitudes of its time), we could use our erotic experiences and resulting understanding of sexual agency to better conceptualize what it looks like to be agents in other realms–a template for how disempowered people might take some power back.

    I am in absolutely no way suggesting that we sexualize the yoga space–in fact, I believe to do so would both disrespect the traditions we’re teaching from and create immense harm. However, in our private lives, we could work to recognize that our attitudes and behaviors towards sex and the broadly erotic largely mirror our beliefs and behavior elsewhere. We could use what we gather from the exploration of our sexual selves and the larger sexual politic to help us understand our relationships to power, pleasure, and agency in a larger context.

    Personally, this recognition has created a dynamic shift in all of my relationships. It has influenced my understanding of what it means to sit in the teacher’s seat as well as my perception of my rights as a student. It’s also led me to this gem of what feels like understanding: as a fat, queer, non-binary femme, the dominant culture is opposed to my pleasure. If I understand what I desire, what makes me feel good, full, and fulfilled, and I am able to actively seek it, then I might reject the systems that keep that dominant culture imbued with the power to dominate. I might start demanding equitable treatment for myself and other marginalized people. My pleasure is both indicative and a source of my power.

    Examine who the dominant culture desexualizes and/or fetishizes and I bet you’ll find that many of the same people viewed through these disempowering lenses are underrepresented in Western yoga spaces. These issues of constructed desirability and access are not extricable–sexuality is co-opted and intentionally weaponized against marginalized groups, and dominant culture continues to feed the narrative that only certain bodies (white, cis, thin, etc.) are appropriately sexual and, therefore, that only these bodies deserve pleasure. Don’t even get me started on the ways that the so-called wellness industry subtly correlates sex and food (sources of pleasure and survival) and implies that fat people, especially fat women and femmes, are deserving of neither.

    When the wellness and yoga industries place the baggage of their systematized fat phobia on me and I internalize it, my body image suffers and I feel less desirable, less worthy of pleasure and joy. Instead of moving towards my pleasure, I move towards assimilation–I diet and buy products I don’t even like, all in the name of becoming someone deserving of happiness. However, when I am resourced with real agency and knowledge of my desires, when I recognize that I am deserving just by nature of my existence, I am able to instead move towards those experiences which I find genuinely pleasurable in the body I have.

    In the yoga classroom, we have the opportunity to work towards an agency-based culture that allows each individual practitioner means to access the teachings of yoga in genuine-to-themselves, agentful ways. Teachers can create opt-in scenarios and provide variations to give students a more active decision-making role in their own practices. We can practice asking for and giving consent to touch. We can create more transparency around power dynamics and start to resource one another with the tools we need to assert our rights and desires in other realms.

    But by and large, we don’t. Instead, we reinforce oppressive power structures by allowing them to dictate who has access to yoga spaces (often those with the most privilege already), by centering dominant culture (through emphasis and exaltation of only highly-athletic asana and whitewashing our spaces and teachings), and by upholding authoritarian classroom management styles (insinuating there’s only one real option or insisting there’s zero space to question the teacher). When we talk about agency in the context of sexuality, we value autonomy, choice, freedom, equitable partnership, and pleasure in alignment with our ethics–why don’t we emphasize the same values in our yoga spaces? Why don’t we extend them to everybody?

    I’m not sure how we practice yoga with the intentionality and discernment it asks of us without agency. There must be the possibility of “no” for “yes” to exist. If we cannot give consent (to sex, adjustments in a yoga class, or anything else) without agency, could we practice surrender, ishvara pranidhana, without it? Could we engage in deep and honest self-inquiry? I don’t believe we’re living our yoga if we’re not working to create a just and equitable world. Part of this work is giving stolen resources and opportunities for agency back to those who are marginalized through systems of oppression, those systems that hijack and manipulate essential parts of our humanity to diminish our pleasure and our joy in order to keep us disempowered.

    We cannot keep recreating and upholding those systems in our yoga spaces. Instead, we might consider collectively creating an agency-based culture on the mat, the mattress, and everywhere else

    By Melanie Williams

    Melanie Williams is an East-Coast-based, fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and self-love advocate, called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry and the inward journey by integrating mindfulness and adaptive movement practices with the spirit of social justice. They believe that the goal of yoga, as of life, is collective liberation and in turn challenge contemporary yogis to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. In addition to teaching group and private yoga classes, Melanie offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, leads adaptive yoga teacher trainings, helps coordinate trainings internationally for Accessible Yoga, champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team, and serves leading industry groups as an expert advisor on diversity and accessibility.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

  • What does it mean to be at peace with your body

    What does body positivity really mean?

    I’m struggling with the term, “body positivity” these days. It seems as though the term has been watered down from its original roots in the fat acceptance movement, which began in the 1970’s. Nowadays, the term “body positivity” has become a hollow shadow of its former self. The focus has been redirected from genuine acceptance, back to heteronormative standards of beauty. Body positivity is now being used as trope. It is a buzzword that minimizes what it means to be at peace with who you really are. More often than not, we see the term being utilized by major clothing brands in an attempt to sell us the “one sizes fits all” guarantee. This is not acceptable – body positivity has to mean more than that.

    Body positive should mean justice and visibility for all bodies – regardless of their size, color, ability or sexual orientation. We’ve brought the term body positivity into our mainstream culture, but now the message has been co-opted. As a result, I’ve decided to move away from the term body positivity, and instead, am embracing a more introspective connection to my body. My new, more peaceful approach to connecting with my body allows me to experience the full range of my human emotions. This means that some days I feel great about my body, and other days I don’t. Some days diet culture gets a hold of me, but I remember that I have the knowledge and power to break free from those destructive thought patterns. In my new definition of body positivity, I aim to remind myself and others that, above all else: you are enough.

    The Quest for Making Peace with Your Body

    Making peace with your body may seem like an impossible task. It’s hard find peace in a world that has a vested in keeping us entrenched in feelings of dissatisfaction. Our western culture is imbued with a drive towards perfectionism. We are told that the goal is always to be better: to work harder, to be thinner. Fighting for peace in my body often leaves me feeling as though I am toeing the thin line between seeking outward validation and finding inward acceptance. How can I make peace with my body in a world that doesn’t fully appreciate the diversity of humanity? We live in a culture that is continually seeking to reinforce the status quo, making it harder for us to break free from the social constructs that hold us captive to the drive for perfectionism. The desire to lower my blood pressure has recently lead me on the quest for better cardiovascular health. As a result. I’ve found myself back in the world of fitness, with all the negative trapping of diet and fitness culture. Our body image is influenced by the people around us, and it is hard to be around people who are constantly preoccupied with how they look over their level of physical fitness.

    These are the people who are exercising as a form of punishment, in order to burn off what they ate. Or, the ones who are perpetually trying to lose those “last 10 pounds”. The scale in the locker room is a trigger that reminds me that being fat is not the desired outcome – regardless of my cardiovascular health. I’ve reached an interesting point in my journey towards making peace with my body. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid. Hyperthyroidism, or Graves Disease, really messed with my head. As a person dissatisfied with the shape of my body, this disease gave me everything I ever wanted: I could eat anything I wanted and still lose copious amounts of weight. Graves disease had an internal dialogue with my history of disordered eating, which always lingers beneath the surface, regardless of where I’m at in my journey towards self-love. To make matters more challenging, I’ve found that triggering an eating disorder is comfortable, if not celebrated, in a culture that uses eating disorders to push the “wellness” culture. We see things like specialized diets that exclude entire food groups, fasting and excessive exercising as normalized behaviors.

    So, how do we make peace with our bodies in a world of conflicting messages?

    I believe the limiting outside influences and creating a personal dialogue about our bodies, is the first step in making peace with our bodies and improving our body image. We need to reinforce our internal dialogue with practices that make us feel worthy. It’s a tall order. The first step is awareness. Who are your peers and how do they talk about their bodies? Studies have shown that who you hang out with impacts your life and your self-worth. What if you could create a circle of friends and peers that aren’t excessively focused their bodies? What if you created a circle of friends who just enjoyed life as it comes? “Our research suggests that social context has a meaningful impact on how we feel about our bodies in general and on a given day,” said Kathryn Miller, PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Waterloo. “Specifically, when others around us are not focused on their body it can be helpful to our own body image.” For me, this means that it’s time to break away from social norms and create my own custom path to body acceptance.

    Finding My Way

    To improve my relationship with my body, I needed to surround myself with people who weren’t hyper focused on the way their body looks. I changed my relationship with exercise from a place of counting steps to a place of enjoying nature, hanging out with friends and exploring my strength and endurance outside the gym. I began to marvel at my connection to my body, and my understand of my body’s purpose evolved. My body wasn’t something I needed to fight with, she was my co-pilot in experiencing the intricacies of my life. Above all else, my body had been my friend all along – I had just chosen to listen to all the wrong things. It is freeing not to care about what others think. My body shows up the best she can in all circumstances. Once I figured out that my body was my friend, not my foe, I could begin to deconstruct the forces that kept me feeling small and insecure.

    Cultivating a positive body image is a practice. In fact, it is a very challenging practice given the hundreds of years of social conditioning that we must first unlearn before we can begin to befriend our bodies. Being media savvy, changing your perspective on your body, and focusing on the entirety of your life experience – are essential in overcoming the idea that there is a perfect way to be in this world. Rather than framing your experience of life based on the number on the scale, start by challenging yourself to experience life by living, tasting, feeling, exploring existing mindfully in each moment. Stay strong and be brave enough to end toxic relationships that diminish your sense of self-worth. To begin repairing our relationship with our bodies, we must stop looking outwards, and venture deeper inwards.

    By Dianne Bondy

    Seek Up interview with Dianne Bondy

    Dianne Bondy is a social justice activist, author, accessible yoga teacher, and the leader of the Yoga For All movement. Her inclusive approach to yoga empowers anyone to practice—regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability. Dianne is revolutionizing yoga by educating yoga instructors around the world on how to make their classes welcoming and safe for all kinds of practitioners. Dianne is the author of Yoga for Everyone (DK Publishing, Penguin Random House) and a frequent contributor to Yoga International, DoYouYoga, Yoga Girl, and Omstars. She has been featured in publications such as The Guardian, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, and People. Dianne’s commitment to increasing diversity in yoga has been recognized in her work with Pennington’s, Gaiam, and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition, as well as in speaking engagements at Princeton and UC Berkeley on Yoga, Race, and Diversity. Her writing is published in Yoga and Body Image Volume 1, Yoga Rising, and Yes Yoga Has Curves. Find Dianne online on IG, Facebook and Twitter or at diannebondyyoga.com and  yogaforalltraining.com.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

  • The Fear of Fatness was Originally a Fear of Racial Integration

    When I was a teenager, my grandmother would always ask me, “Why are these white women dying to be thin?” I guess she thought that since I’d grown up in an integrated community, I had the info on what white people were up to.
    I did not.

    Usually when she started in on this question, I’d shrug my shoulders or roll my eyes. Sometimes I’d take on the deadened expression characteristic of a 16 year old. She’d eventually drop it and let me go back to watching Yo! MTV Raps. In hindsight, her confusion was understandable. My grandmother grew up in the Jim Crow south. In 1940s Atlanta, poor black folk weren’t doing their utmost to lose weight. Eating regular meals was a triumph. She’d once told me that one year her parents had given her oranges for Christmas, and it was one of her happiest memories. You can imagine her befuddlement upon arriving in Pasadena, CA in 1960. For the first time, she was living near and working with tons of white women. A lot of them were trying to “reduce,” the fashionable way to describe dieting in the 1960s. What was this all about, really? I used to think she’d never found a satisfactory answer to the question in her lifetime. For my part, I was too busy in the mid-90s trying to master the choreography to Brandy’s I Wanna Be Down to engage her decades-long query.

    My change of heart came in 2003.  I was working at an HIV medication adherence clinic in the Bayview Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco. It was my job to interview the patients about their drug use, their housing situation, and whether or not they were taking their meds. One day, I’d interviewed two different women, a light-skinned black woman and a white Latina. Both had refused to take their HIV meds because it might cause them to gain weight. My mind was blown. These women, whose HIV had advanced to AIDS, were willing to risk death, rather than gain weight.  I thought back to my grandmother’s question and noticed that she seemed to be on to something. Today, no community in the U.S. is unfamiliar with the thin ideal. But, scholars like Naomi Wolf and Kim Chernin had long shown it was white women who had, historically, been most invested in slimness. But why?

    This became the topic of my book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019). In the book, I show that in the Western world, the widespread fear of fatness—and particularly fat women—developed in tandem with the growth of the transatlantic slave trade. At the height of slavery, race scientists claimed that Africans were commonly what we might today call “thicc” but they called “robust.” Black people’s purported sturdy frames made them ideal laborers, and also proved their wanton and “low” natures, as they would supposedly readily succumb to their animal appetites.This discourse proved particularly salient for women in the U.S. Self-described Anglo-Saxons wanting to prove their racial superiority elevated fat phobia and its mirror image, the thin ideal, to new heights. They openly proclaimed fatness evidence of blackness and racial inferiority. Anglo-Saxon women hoping to justify their place in a racial hierarchy were told routinely that they’d better keep their figures trim. Fatness was evidence of racial “un-assimilability.”  To put it plainly, there is clear evidence that the original drive to slenderness among white persons was motivated, partially, by anti-blackness, and fears of racial integration.  Practical Amalgamation by Edward Williams Clay, 1839. This image was one of many suggesting the absurdity of desegregation. Integration would make white men stoop to wooing black women, whose presumed “savagery” was evinced by their weight.

    Practical Amalgamation by Edward Williams Clay, 1839. This image was one of many suggesting the absurdity of desegregation. Integration would make white men stoop to wooing black women, whose presumed “savagery” was evinced by their weight.

    It seems my grandmother had been on to an important development in American history that had been under-theorized. She had seen it in 1960 as a black woman in her late 20s, traveling from Georgia to California as part of the Great Migration. With my grandfather and their two kids in tow, they were among the black families integrating their little slice of Los Angeles county. Meanwhile, she was meeting scores of white women who were (undoubtedly unconsciously) invested in a 200 year-old practice intended among other things, to reveal the farcical nature of black-white integration. My grandmother died in 2000. I never got to tell her that I’d took the time to research her question. That I’d gotten a few answers for her. I used to feel a way about that. But then I realized, she already knew.  My grandmother didn’t have more than an 8th grade education. She’d left school young, took up work picking cotton. But Alma Jean was nobody’s fool. I came to realize the question itself was the answer. The way she’d shake her head and suck her teeth. She’d grunt, “uhnt, uhnt, uhnt” every time she saw a character on one of her favorite soaps squeeze themselves down to unholy dimensions. She’d called on me not as a scientist, but as a witness. This right here was racial.

    How does this relate to yoga, you ask? The answer is simple. Yoga spaces are also frequently segregated. Several articles in the mass media have interrogated the whiteness of yoga studios. Larger bodied persons, too, often feel unwelcome or ostracized in yoga spaces. When practitioners happen to be people of color and larger bodied, their alienation is magnified, as I describe in my article “Black Women are Undeniable.”If we expect yoga to be a practice that can benefit everyone, we first have to face our culture’s inherent anti-black and fat phobic biases. But, isn’t fat stigma somehow normal or justified in the context of the “obesity epidemic” in the U.S.? As I explore in my book, the anti-blackness of fat phobia has existed long before the “obesity epidemic,” and fear of racial others was present even the medical disdain for “excess” weight.

    By Sabrina Strings

    Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. is Asst. Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Prior to coming to UCI, she was a UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow with a joint appointment in the School of Public Health and Department of Sociology. She has been featured in The Feminist Wire, Yoga International, and LA Yoga. Her writing can be found in diverse venues, including Ethnic and Racial Studies; Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society and Feminist Media Studies. She was the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Article Award for the Race, Gender and Class section of the American Sociological Association. Her new book is titled Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019). It has been featured on NPR, KPFA and WNYC, as well as three “must read” lists.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

  • Body Acceptance: Tools for Cultural Upheaval

    Gordi. Flaca. Chula. Fea. Vieja. Linda. Fatty. Skinny. Sexy. Ugly. Old lady. Cute. Whether positive or negative association, I grew up hearing terms that were quick to remind us that we were defined by our appearance.

    These were terms of endearment. I grew up believing that describing others based on their outer appearances was not only normal, but expected. And though I occasionally encountered someone who interpreted these descriptors as malicious, I usually dismissed those responses as excessive sensitivity, especially since my initial descriptions were most often welcomed. Not until much later did I realize that this was not the way I wanted to relate to others, nor how I wanted others to relate to me.

    Partially, I recognize that this experience as a woman, and woman of color, it is inescapable to be described and critiqued in a physical context. Mexican, native, fiery Latina, curvy, tribal, dark skinned, too sexy, too loud, too weird, too bossy, too opinionated, too intense; these were descriptions I came to know all too well. When I think about the future generations, I never want them to hear or feel that they’re too much of anything. We need all of their intensity and passion and skills. So how do we come to welcome all of their existence in a world that asks us to be small?

    When I think of growth, I am reminded of the old tenant, “the personal is political.”, and remember that we always start with ourselves. We start by exploring our relationship to ourselves; by living in our awareness intentionally. Yoga is filled with beautiful practices to explore mind, body and their intersections. Though in recent history, the term “yoga” has come to be known almost exclusively as the postures, there are other practices, such as meditation and breathwork, that can help us deepen our connection to ourselves.

    Prochaska and DiClemente developed the Stages of Change transtheoretical model in 1983, and it remains a core teaching of psychology and recovery programs. Following Precontemplation, comes Contemplation, which is such a powerful step in exploring our motivation for change. Yoga and other forms of meditation, journaling, dance are all examples of contemplative practices. Within the context of personal development, we can examine if our external judgements of others a representation of the narrative we carry about ourselves. Practicing mindful meditation can help train us to notice our thoughts enough to discover the themes of our internal narrative. Is it critical or encouraging? Is it filled with compassion or condemnation? As with all forms of yoga, remember, this is a practice to give you a sense of agency over your thoughts. Meditation is the work of change, and change is difficult.

    Within the context of exploring our relationship with our bodies, I love using Breathwork, or Pranayama practice. Breathwork and breath retraining has long been used to support mental wellness and has gained popularity for addressing stress, anxiety and depression (1, 2). Although breathing is an involuntary process, struggles with posture and stress can lead to improper breathing and lead to increased cortisol release, the hormone our body produces to cope with stress (4).

    Breathwork practice can be destabilizing, so it’s important to explore these techniques with a trained or experienced practitioner. My experience with breathwork has been one of bringing awareness to my felt experience I have frequently worked to avoid as someone who recovered from an eating disorder and someone living with chronic pain. Practicing breathwork allows me space to embody my experience and encourages me to let go of the idea to simply “tolerate” discomfort. In breathwork practice, it may be helpful to explore our relationships with physical and emotional pain. Where do our thoughts go when we experience discomfort? Is that a time our mind goes to judgement, criticism, or blame? How does our experience of discomfort change when we approach it with compassion?

    Contemplating our inner experience allows space for us to become better allies, better equipped to hold space for the experience of others. Recognizing that we are impacted by situations outside of our control may be easier to do within the context of ourselves than others, according to the Attribution Theory (2). Meditation and practicing awareness of our thoughts allows us the necessary interruption to see that we are all reacting and responding with the skills available to us today.

    Coming to a place of acceptance of our body, all of our body, all of our thoughts, all of our worries, and anxieties and joys and anger and pain, is a tool in taking back our power, our autonomy, our agency. This is not a small endeavor, but it is worth it. Next time your mind wanders down the path of judgement or criticism, take a few diaphragmatic breaths when you notice. This negative or critical voice developed over time, in effort to keep you safe, to help you fit in, to protect you from examining potentially painful or complex issues. Now, as an adult, allow yourself to consider that criticism isn’t typically an effective way to interact with ourselves or the world, even when the effort feels to be coming from a place of concern. Embrace compassion as an experiment and examine how your relationships with yourself and others change.

    By Celisa Flores

    Celisa Flores: Since obtaining a Master’s degree in Counseling in 2007 at CSU Fresno and a PsyD in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2013, Dr. Flores worked as a therapist and program director in a wide variety of mental health treatment setting. This diversity of experience allowed research and training to expand her skills as a Feminist therapist with emphasis on Eating Disorders, Mindfulness and women’s issues. With a history of providing individual, group, family, and couples counseling services, as well as therapeutic yoga services, Dr. Flores has focused on evidence-based practices, providing guidance and support in Mindfulness in Recovery, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and other self-empowerment strategies. In addition to training as a therapist, she is a Certified Yoga Teacher, also trained in Mindful Stress Reduction, Reiki and as a doula. By integrating a variety of holistic tools into recovery and wellness, she works to create a long-lasting, sustainable wellness plan.  Now proudly with Center for Discovery, providing clinical outreach for Orange County and the Central California region.  This role has included national and international training and speaking engagements on eating disorders, mindfulness, yoga, body acceptance, and professional wellness, as well as facilitating accessible, body-affirming yoga annually at the Los Angeles NEDA walk.  With a passion to support other therapists and community members with understanding eating disorders and treatment as well as self-care and overall wellness, she is always working to share information, research and training. 

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image
    (1) Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005). Sudarshan kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part II – clinical applications and guidelines. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(4), 711-717
    (2) O’Donohue, W.T. and Fisher, J.E. (Eds.). (2008). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Applying Empirically Supported Techniques in your Practice (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
    (3) Ross, L. (1977). The Intuitive Psychologist And His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). Academic Press.
    (4) Thibodeux, W. (Feb 8, 2018). Science Says You’ve Been Breathing Wrong. Here’s how to do it right. Inc.com.

  • How to Be an Ally to Fat Folks in your Yoga Community

    When you picture a fat person practicing yoga, what do you see?

    I recognize ‘fat’ is subjective, that some of you might feel uncomfortable with my using the word. It’s what I choose to define the size of my body, instead of overweight, obese, or morbidly obese. Those medical terms pathologize my body and encourage people to see my size as a direct correlation of my health and worth. But back to my question – how do you imagine a fat person engaged in yoga? I’ve seen answers centered around the image of a fat person struggling, sweating, inelegantly positioning themselves, and ultimately laying on the floor, defeated. You may or may not have had the same image in your mind, but the prevalence of this response is indicative of the problem plaguing yoga studios. The first step in creating a more welcoming, supportive environment for fat folks is examining your own internalized fatphobia. How does it manifest in your heart, mind, and behavior?

    Are you uncomfortable yet? This is not easy work, but here you are! You want to be more compassionate and loving toward fat folks in your community. You want them to feel safe and empowered to come to class, to come back to class! Allow yourself this discomfort by being open to learning and growing from it.

    My own introduction to the world of yoga is a cautionary tale I think we can all learn from.

    After years of hounding by friends to try yoga, I finally acquiesced and went to class. The ‘Yoga for All Bodies’ class sounded promising, since its description explicitly said it was good for beginners and ‘overweight’ students. Are you cringing too? I should have known. The instructor, bless her heart, had no idea what to do with my body. Panicking, she engaged in two main damaging behaviors I’ve come to know from terrified teachers confronted with fat folks in class. First, I was over-highlighted in every pose, drawing the other students’ attention to my balance or flexibility, clearly desperate to make me feel wanted and welcome. Then, after realizing she didn’t know how to offer helpful options, she completely ignored me and I was left to contort myself as best I could and try not to get hurt. My face burned with shame, and I barely held back tears. When I drove away I cried so hard I could barely see the road. Despite the instructor’s intentions I felt unwelcome and unwanted, my body a gross problem I didn’t know how to solve. Yoga was definitely not for me. After that experience I stayed away for almost a decade.

    Over the last 18 years my opinion about yoga has changed. I did fall in love with it and it did change my life, no thanks to the traditional yoga studio industrial complex. I’ve continued to experience fatphobia, racism, ableism, and no shortage of well-meaning behavior that only serves to de-humanize and further marginalize my fat body. I want better for other fat folks, and I think you do too! I’ve put together a list of tangible ways to be a better ally to the fat folks in your yoga community. This is not exhaustive, but it’s a start.

    Be Open

    Allow yourself to be open and vulnerable. Notice how you think of fat folks, what you think of them, and how they make you feel. Do you find yourself judging their ability or choices, comparing yourself to them, etc? What kind of fatphobia have you been taught by our thin-obsessed culture? Practicing self-study, or Svadhyaya, is part of practicing yoga. Dig deep and question your beliefs about body size and worth.

    Part of creating a more inclusive, welcoming community is embracing diversity and learning from others. Start with your social media feed! Follow fat yogis on Instagram. Follow yogis of color, disabled yogis, old yogis! Be open to growing and changing. Allow your courageous heart the freedom to love more.

    Don’t Make Assumptions

    Do you practice the Four Agreements? Here’s your chance to start or continue that work. When you meet a fat person in your community, don’t assume you know anything about their yoga experience, goals, or abilities. I can’t tell you how many times someone looked me up and down and assumed it was my very first class simply because my body doesn’t fit their idea of what a long-term yoga practitioner looks like. Also, don’t assume they’ve come to yoga to lose weight! Regardless of whether it’s true, your assumption tells you find their body size unacceptable. Additionally, don’t assume they are only interested in yin, restorative, or beginner classes. These assumptions are dangerous and oppressive ways of thinking that harm our communities. Instead of assuming anything, ask them! Simply asking can reveal the truth behind their experiences, goals, and abilities AND make them feel welcome at the same time.

    Be Welcoming

    I know this sounds like a given, and you’re probably friendly with everyone at your studio. What I’m suggesting is an extra effort when it comes to fat folks in your community. Entering a new yoga space/community can be daunting when you are in a marginalized body. Fat folks, and super-fat folks like me, carry the trauma of being fat with us ALWAYS, and that’s not even adding race, age, or ability to the equation.There isn’t a space where we don’t feel bothered, so sometimes a normal level of friendliness just isn’t enough. I’m not saying to be fake, but make a little extra effort to include fat folks in your conversations, activities, and interactions. However, be mindful of how you interact: avoid calling them ‘brave’ or ‘inspiring’ or otherwise tokenizing their presence and contributions to the community. Some may take a little longer to warm up to you,because they’ve spent a lifetime building walls to protect themselves. I definitely fall into this category, but with perseverance by friendly classmates I’ve allowed myself to be open to community.

    This list, while not exhaustive, is a great start toward a more welcoming and supportive community for fat yogis. If you’re a yoga practitioner, consider this a start if you’d like to see more diverse bodies in your classes and around the studio. If you’re a yoga teacher, there is a whole world of options to create accessible and inclusive classes beyond these suggestions! I challenge you to discover more ways to be welcoming and sensitive to the needs of diverse bodies. There are articles, teacher trainings, and the wisdom that comes from students themselves. Change happens when we all participate, so let’s each take responsibility for creating inclusive and compassionate yoga communities.

    By Laura Burns

    Laura Burns is the fierce, fat, feminist founder of Radical Body Love Yoga. She’s obsessed with bringing body-affirming yoga and self-love coaching into as many lives as possible. Her commitment is to helping folks honor their bodies in each moment, regardless of size, ability, age, gender expression, ethnicity, and experience with trauma. She feels called to help people become more present in their bodies, more loving toward themselves, and to move forward toward living the life they want and deserve. Through her online courses, workshops, classes, and radical body-love activism, Laura is sharing her personal experience with the life-saving power of yoga and body-positivity with the world. Accessibility, trauma-sensitivity, and body-autonomy are the guiding principles of all her work and interactions with the world. Laura is an E-RYT 200, YACEP, trained and certified by Curvy Yoga, a Certified Punk Rock Hoops Instructor, a Community Partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and the creator of the HoopAsana and Radical Body Love Yoga philosophies and practices. She lives in Houston, Texas and sets up shop online at radicalbodylove.com.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.
    Photo Credit: Art by Kathryn Hack, @kathrynhack on Instagram

  • Why it’s Not Just Up to You to Heal Your Own Body Image

    It’s easy for me to rhapsodize about the way yoga has held me in my relationship with my body. Like so many of us from so many backgrounds, my early life taught me to experience my body as a source of shame, vulnerability, and discomfort. When I began practicing yoga in my early adulthood as part of eating disorder recovery, it gave me a new sense of my body as a source of vitality, joy, and strength. I especially loved that it bypassed my struggle to fix my “body image issues.” When I move and breathe, I feel viscerally that, in fact, my body isn’t an image—it’s me, an ever-changing reality to be experienced, not gazed at.

    Yoga led me to spend the last twenty years trying to understand how we heal our relationships with our bodies. I became a psychotherapist. I sit with people day in and day out, supporting healing, self-discovery, and self-compassion. As a white, thin, Jewish woman and mother, my understanding is informed by my own privilege, perspective, and experiences of how I felt and feel I was supposed to look to fit in to belong and feel safe in today’s American culture. I invite my clients, too, to investigate how their own cultural experiences and experiences of oppression influence them. We talk a lot about how society influences body image, and inevitably I ask, how can *you* resist negative cultural messages?

    But here is what I have learned over time—it is a rare person indeed who can resist all the cultural messages about bodies and all that lies within our beauty/health standards—sexism, racism, ableism, classism, concepts of privilege and power. Even some of the bravest, most resilient, most culture-resisting people I know share in private that their body image issues have not disappeared. I am one of those people. To be quite vulnerable, despite the fact that I have been immersed in the recovery, yoga, and body positivity worlds for all these years, I often notice societal messages zooming through my mind.

    Because of this, I have come to believe that expecting perfect body image from ourselves is a setup, and one built on a major cultural trap: the idea that healing is an individual endeavor and an individual responsibility.

    We are taught: If you are poor, it’s because *you* haven’t worked hard enough. If you have health problems, the cause is *your* lifestyle. If you have an eating disorder or body issues, well, that’s because *you* haven’t resisted the cultural messages enough. Which is just what you need—something else wrong with you that you should spend some money to fix.

    Here’s where I come back to yoga: the ultimate aim of yoga is for liberation—individual and collective. Yet, in contemporary US culture, yoga can become zeroed in on individual healing. I am certainly guilty of using it this way—I wrote a whole book about yoga for healing. This approach has powerful gifts to offer, but I worry that when it is the only approach taken, it lets the culture off the hook. Most health problems owe far more to societal factors than individual.

    How are we to heal as individuals in a culture that continues to cause harm? How are we to heal if we are taught that, on basis of size, race, gender, age, or ability, our bodies are only meant to be sources of shame, vulnerability and discomfort? How do we learn to trust ourselves when our thoughts—based on very real messages we have absorbed in an undistorted manner—are labeled as distorted?

    I’m not going to stop supporting people in their individual healing because I know that work is crucial, too. The individual counts—our stories and voices matter. Eating disorders are not simply reactions to a toxic culture. People with eating disorders haven’t just failed worse than everyone else at resisting cultural messages. Eating disorders are illnesses with clear roots in genetics and life histories. Recovery must involve understanding and finding compassion for your unique temperament and biology in order to learn how to be a steadfast self-caretaker.

    But for that inner work to flourish, we need to collectively change systems, not just people. Changing society will not cure eating disorders—but it sure would remove many of the obstacles that make recovery and healing so very hard.

    Here are some tiny starting points for change:

    • Change systems that perpetuate fatphobia and weight stigma: this means media-makers creating messaging that counters the boogie monster “obesity epidemic.” Doctors can educate medical schools and organizations about Health at Every SizeÒ. Eating disorder professionals like me can change the norms in our professional communities—to stop reassuring clients that they are not fat and won’t get fat, and replace that with the message: being fat is just fine, and let’s help you survive in a world that works hard to teach you otherwise.
    • Expose the fact that most of our understanding of eating disorders and body image is based on research done by white, thin, privileged people about white, thin privileged people. Much of the research has been done by straight men, when the issue disproportionally affects women and LBGTQ people. Let’s fight for better research.
    • Change systems based on fatphobia, racism, and classism that affect who has access to care. This means changing a system that only insures some of us, and underinsures even the most privileged. Vote! In professional communities, we can ask why our public health campaigns, diagnostic categories, and treatment centers send a message that only people with thin, white, young bodies are “sick enough” to merit treatment.
    • In yoga communities, we can challenge the use of yoga to hoard thin-privilege and health-privilege, and teach yoga with a purpose—to fortify ourselves for real liberation work, for creating changes much bigger than our own bodies.

    A final note—please know that it is never up to one person to heal the world. If you are stuck in an eating disorder or body image struggle, please focus on your individual healing, however you may find it. Let those of us who are not as stuck do some of the fighting until you are ready to join in. As yoga teaches us—we are all connected, our healing intimately bound up together. In the words of Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image

     By Suzannah Neufeld

    Suzannah Neufeld, MFT, C-IAYT, is a licensed psychotherapist, certified yoga therapist, and mom of two who has specialized in supporting people coping with eating disorders, body image concerns, and maternal mental health since 2003. She is a co-founder of Rockridge Wellness Center, a counseling and health collective in Oakland, CA, where she has a private practice. Suzannah is the author of the book Awake at 3 a.m.: Yoga Therapy for Anxiety and Depression in Pregnancy and Early Motherhood (Parallax Press, 2018). She is also a contributing author in the anthology Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. Learn more at www.suzannahneufeld.com

     

     

  • How To Speak Lovingly About Larger Bodies

    “How can I lovingly refer to larger-bodied people in my yoga classes?”

     

    This question was posed by a thin, white, woman-identified yoga teacher in a weekend immersion focused primarily on physical accessibility and adaptive teaching. The lead trainer happened to be a fat-identified woman. Aside from her, I was the only fat person in the room. The question was very much directed at the two of us. We both knew it. We both stammered over our words trying to answer her question.

     

    As a fat yoga teacher, I’m asked this question all the time, almost exclusively by thin, white, able-bodied, woman-identified teachers. They hear me talk about my body using particular words or phrases, they watch me adapt postures or use my hands to move my belly out of the way in a twist or a fold, and then they approach me with their well-intentioned posits: “How do I instruct this without making it about body size?”, “How do I advise a student to manually adjust their belly to make more room without making them uncomfortable?”, or, as ambiguous a question as the one posed at the weekend immersion, “How do I talk about fat without offending anyone?”

     

    In the particular instance at the weekend immersion, I had the good fortune of being able to connect with the trainer, a teacher and friend of mine, over dinner after the training. It was a nice and necessary experience to be able to process our feelings about being the only fat people in that particular space. We started talking about this woman’s question and the difficulty we had in answering it.

     

    As we struggled to find words that equally honored our truths and our feelings, gave practical advice, and avoided alienating her or putting her on the defensive (a really tall order), I grew exasperated.

     

    “Maybe you could just try loving them,” I said. My friend sighed and emphatically agreed.

     

    My exasperated statement is at the crux of why these questions are so hard to answer. They’re hard to answer, because they shouldn’t need to be asked in the first place. If we lived in a world where all bodies were assigned equal value regardless of factors like size or perceived health, if all yoga teachers and practitioners were actually embodying the universal love towards all beings that they like to preach, if “inclusion,” “accessibility,” and “body-positivity” were more than marketing buzzwords to the mainstream wellness businesses that co-opt and capitalize on them, if fat wasn’t demonized in our industry and our society to the point that stigma and aversion are present in every single conversation we have about that one particular type of body tissue, then speaking “lovingly” about someone’s body, no matter their size, would not be something we struggled so deeply with. If we loved fat people as a norm, the way we love thin people, then we would always be speaking to and about them from that wellspring of love.

     

    I struggle to want to extend credit to thin people who ask me how to treat fat people lovingly and supportively. On one hand, I appreciate that there are teachers asking these questions when so many more simply won’t. On the other hand, it feels a little bit like when father’s say they’re “babysitting” their kids–no sir, that’s just called parenting. Treating fat people well shouldn’t be considered extraordinary–it’s your responsibility.

     

    I could spend this post giving you some suggested language or best practices. I could talk to you about the history of fat phobia or the fat liberation, civil rights, and accessibility movements that laid the groundwork for modern-day body positive activism. I could talk about the reclamation of the word “fat,” tell you how finally embracing that word as my own has freed me in ways I never knew were possible. But I won’t, at least not today. I hope you’ll seek out resources (including the blog posts yet to come in this series) that can provide all of those things, but in this moment, they feel beyond the point: you can’t speak lovingly to someone without loving them first.

     

    So, to all of the yoga practitioners and teachers out there who are asking these sorts of questions, I have a question for you: What is it going to take for you to start actively loving fat people and their bodies?

     

    Is it a matter of re-educating yourself about the relationship between weight and health? Of seeing diverse body sizes represented in a positive light in the media? Seeing more fat-identified people in leadership roles, heading studios and teaching prime-time yoga classes? Does it potentially mean confronting some harsh realities about the ways you’ve perpetuated harm towards fat people in the past? Or the ways you’ve talked about and treated your own glorious body?

     

    Are you doing that internal work? How about the external work? Are you clearing the way for fat leadership? Are you calling upon your media sources to diversify representation? Are you supporting fat yoga teachers and making sure yoga spaces are actually accessible? These are examples of active love.

     

    As practitioners of yoga, we’re called to engage in active love, active service, and unwavering ahimsa, non-violence, as a practice, not just a thought experiment. We’re also asked practice discernment as part of our greater engagement with satya, truth-telling. We’re called to act mindfully, and to remain ever open to self-study and reflection. If we’re honestly living these values, then we’re living in love and service to all people. Fat people are not excluded.

     

    If you want to speak lovingly about fat people, practice actively loving us. Build genuine relationships with us and listen when we open up about the impact of fat phobia on our lives. Question the messaging that continues to reinforce thin supremacy the way you would question messages that sought to marginalize other people you love. Do the work. I promise, the loving words will come to you.

    By Melanie Williams

     Photo credit: Cinthya Zuniga, cinthyazuniga.com, @zunigaphotography on Instagram.

    Melanie Williams is an East-Coast-based, fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and self-love advocate, called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry and the inward journey by integrating mindfulness and adaptive movement practices with the spirit of social justice. They believe that the goal of yoga, as of life, is collective liberation and in turn challenge contemporary yogis to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. In addition to teaching group and private yoga classes, Melanie offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, leads adaptive yoga teacher trainings, helps coordinate trainings internationally for Accessible Yoga, champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team, and serves leading industry groups as an expert advisor on diversity and accessibility.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image
  • Rewriting Our Body Narratives with Compassion

    “Body image is not a fact.” 

    I first heard this statement while in treatment for an eating disorder. I remember sitting in group therapy feeling outright annoyed upon hearing this statement. Who was this put-together looking therapist (also thin and white like me) attempting to convince me that my absolute intolerance for every square inch of my body wasn’t based on fact? Was she for real? Who did she think she was, invalidating the pathetic reflection I glimpsed in every single mirror and storefront window day in and day out?

    I amassed decades of evidence telling me that my body was wrong, disgusting, and took up too much space—from the size of my jeans to the teeny models on the magazine covers to my own unhelpful inner narrative. And so did the women with whom I was in treatment. Most of us were white and young-ish with varying body sizes, genders, creeds, and sexual orientations. We believed our body-loathing to be 100% legit. Not only did we “see” with our own brain-starved eyes our “lumpy,” “squishy,” and “overflowing” flesh, but the supreme keeper of fact, the almighty scale, would surely prove us right. The girls and I could rationalize for hours why the number, right down to the decimal, sufficiently proved that our so-called body image was indeed a fact.

    The Trap of Disempowering Body Narratives

    Years and a whole lot of healing later, I find myself compassionately sharing that same sentiment—body image is not a fact—with my yoga therapy clients. Do they believe me? Maybe. Probably not. At least not the first 15 times I say it. After all, we aren’t ready to hear something until we are ready to hear it (like when I was in treatment). I also deeply know how invalidating those word can feel when one’s body narrative absolutely feels like a fact—an inescapable plight of guilt, shame, and comparison and the thoughts and behaviors that express these painful states.

    Research on body image illuminates the extent to which body image influences self-esteem and self-worth. According to research presented by Dr. Margo Maine in 2017 at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s Body Image and Self-Esteem Conference, 15% of girls reportedly skip school, 13% will not speak out to give an opinion, 5% will not go to a job interview, and 3% will call out of work when they feel bad about their bodies. Similarly, 17% of women reportedly will not show up for a job interview, and 8% will not go to work.

    The journal Body Image reported a high prevalence of body dissatisfaction among adults in the United States. The study, which included 12,176 US men and women who completed an online survey, found that only about a quarter of the participants were satisfied with their appearance.

    The 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report, which interviewed 5,165 girls aged 10 to 17 across 14 countries, reported that higher levels of body esteem have a lasting impact on a girls’ confidence, resilience, and life satisfaction. Conversely, poor body image was associated with not participating in social activities due to feeling self-conscious about their appearance. The report found that girls generally would prefer that the media include more diverse body sizes and are dissatisfied with the emphasis on beauty as a means of happiness.

    Shifting Perceptions

    What exactly is body image, and why is compassion vital for creating personal and social transformation? According to Judith Lightstone, author of the article, “Improving Body Image,” body image involves our perception, imagination, emotions, and physical sensations of and about our bodies. Body image is sensitive to mood, environment, and physical experience. It is learned in the family, among peers, and through social and cultural expectations. Perception is fluid; fact is a hard stop.

    When we finally come around to giving ourselves permission to embrace (or at least consider) that body image is a perception rather than fact, portals to healing open in unexpected and powerful ways as new body narratives have space to emerge. Unlike fact, perceptions can be challenged, shifted, and reoriented. We can relieve ourselves from the oppression of self-hate and rewrite body narratives grounded in possibility. Although our body narratives are strongly influenced by social messages, cultural expectations, and familial beliefs, they still belong to us, which means we have the capacity to challenge, shift, and reorient our perceptions about our bodies. We have freedom to relate to our bodies in new ways and explore their power and grace.

    I wholeheartedly own that I write this article from a privileged perspective. Who am I to speak of oppression? I am uncomfortably and acutely aware that my body and skin color afford me social acceptance. Embracing body image as a perception I am free to revise is also a privilege. From my education (another privilege), conversations with others, and seeking out the stories of those whose lives look very different than mine, I respect the fact that power structures reinforce which bodies “belong” and which do not. Power structures that are sexist, racist, able-ist, size-ist, classist, heteronormative, and ageist are burdensome barriers, exacerbating the efforts of many to perceive their bodies in affirming or even more neutral ways. Although these barriers are mighty, compassion is a force that can move the human spirit in surprising ways and represents the possibility for shifts in perceptions about all bodies.

    Practicing Compassionate Listening

    If you wish for a kinder relationship with your own body and the same for others and their bodies, my call to action, then, is twofold: First, compassionate listening so that everyone feels heard, seen, and valued. Fervently listen with compassion to the stories of those whose life circumstances are different than yours. Be curious, ask questions, invite others to speak about the barriers in their lives. Practice dropping your biases and open your heart to the greatest capacity for empathy and connection. Listen without giving advice or sharing your own story. Allow the other person to truly be seen and heard, as it’s in these moments—when we take up the space we rightly deserve—that the subtle and clear energy of healing shows up. Listening with compassion allows everyone to feel their life experiences are included, validated, and valued. And as we learn to listen without judgement to others, we show ourselves where there is room for compassionate listening within ourselves.

    Practice bringing this open, compassionate energy to your social media use, too. Diversify your social media newsfeeds so that you are learning from and about other groups’ experiences, the challenges they face, and understand what they value. In the spirit of compassionate listening and social empowerment, you might even share these posts on your own newsfeeds, amplifying those voices engaged in conversations about body image that our world needs to hear. Additionally, be mindful of the words included in your own posts to avoid perpetuating insensitive cultural and social messages about bodies.

    Honoring the Threads of Shared Experience

    Secondly, hold compassion for the intimate beauty of shared experience. Despite our varying life circumstances, we share a common thread, that at one time or another we were locked into the painful belief that our body image is a fact, that we can relate the weight of guilt, shame, and comparison, that we know the depths of despair that accompanies body loathing. This is a deeply powerful inner knowing, the kind that doesn’t even require we know each other’s names or other personal information. By nature of this shared common thread, we speak the same language.

    Connecting through such palpable understanding and empathy is a defining moment of human affinity from which personal and social transformation stems. For example, it’s because of this shared understanding with my clients that I can authentically embody compassion through my eyes, tone, body language, and words, allowing them a safe space to speak their truth. From this compassionate space flows the safety they need to move toward new, empowering perspectives and self-care practices.

    Compassion Creates Change

    I invite you to reflect on where there is room for compassion toward your own body and other’s bodies, too. What “facts” that inform your own body narratives are holding you back from offering this compassion to yourself and others? Take time to be with these questions, and no matter the answers that come, remember compassion. This is our greatest source of power as we seek an affirming relationship with our body and find healing in our shared experiences with others.

     

    References

    Judy Lightstone, “Improving Body Image,” Auckland PSI (Psycho Somatic Integration) Institute,

    Additional Reading, http:www.psychotherapist.org/improving-body-image.html.

    Margo Maine, “Invisible Women: Eating Disorders and the Pressure to Be Perfect at Midlife and Beyond: A Relational Culture Approach,” National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), http://nedic.ca/node/976. 7.

    David A. Frederick, Gaganjyot Sandhu, Patrick J. Morse, and Viren Swami, “Correlates of Appearance and Weight Satisfaction in a U.S. National Sample: Personality, Attachment Style, Television Viewing, Self-Esteem, and Life Satisfaction,” Body Image 17 (June 2016): 191–203, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.04.001

    “Girls on Beauty: New Dove Research Finds Low Beauty Confidence Driving 8 in 10 Girls to Opt Out of Future Opportunities,” PRNewswire, October 5, 2017, https://www .prnewswire.com/news-releases/girls-on-beauty-new-dove-research-finds-low-beautyconfidence-driving-8-in-10-girls-to-opt-out-of-future-opportunities-649549253.html.

     

     By Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

    Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. She is an inspirational speaker and author of Body Mindful Yoga: Create a Powerful and Affirming Relationship With Your Body. Jennifer provides yoga therapy via online and in person at YogaLife Institute in Wayne, PA, and leads yoga therapy groups at Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia. She teaches workshops, retreats, and specialized trainings for clinicians, professionals, and yoga teachers. She also mentors professionals who wish to integrate yoga into their work with eating disorder clients. Jennifer is a partner with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and writes for Yoga International and Yoga Journal and other influential blogs. She has appeared on Fox29 news and WHYY’s “The Pulse,” and has been featured in the Huffington Post, Real Woman Magazine, Medill Reports Chicago, Philly.com, The Yoga International Podcast, and ED Matters Podcast. Connect with Jennifer: www.Yoga4EatingDisorders.com.

  • YOGA & BODY IMAGE: OUR INTENTION + GUIDELINES FOR LISTENING AND ALLYSHIP

    “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” – bell hooks

    It is in the spirit of building sacred community through conscious listening, compassion and love that this blog series was created. Our intention is to educate, demystify misconceptions, smash stereotypes and offer new perspectives on body image as it intersects with our race and ethnicity, our gender identity and sexual orientation, our socioeconomic class, age, size and dis/ability. In short, our intention is to raise consciousness and create bridges in understanding.

    It is our hope that through raised consciousness, more and more of us will be moved into mindful action. Because social change requires more than awareness… it requires awareness plus action. And raising consciousness and living consciously are at the heart of mindfulness practices. This where the real work begins for us. Off the mat. Off the meditation cushion.

    Each writer in this series weaves personal narrative with years of experience, research and professional expertise. The words may move you to tears, bring you a sigh of relief or comfort… or they may make you angry. Or maybe the words simply make you uncomfortable or challenge a long-held belief. Whatever arises, it’s a gift in the form of an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to practice, listen, learn and grow. It may also be an opportunity to detect and identify internalized and unexamined prejudice or bias in our heart.

    This space is an opportunity to do the work as a collective. Because we must also work mindfully in community to elevate the collective vibration of society.

    Here are a few ways to practice this intention of identifying (and obliterating) prejudice and bias as well as working as allies and comrades in solidarity and love.

    –         Examine your own privilege. This may be challenging, if not painful, and may induce feelings of shame or guilt but this is a necessary step. Meditate on how YOU benefit from the existing power structures that are sexist, racist, able-ist, size-ist, classist, heteronormative and ageist.

    • Be an ally by opening your heart and listening.
    • Breathe and pause when you’re moved out of your comfort zone.
    • Reflect before you challenge the information presented or comment on it publicly.
    • Do the work. Allow your increased awareness to move you into action, however that may play out for you.
    • Ask yourself how you can contribute to an accessible, welcoming space for all without tokenizing anyone.
    • Recognize the humanity in everyone.
    • Identify how your experience connects you to others and how it differs.
    • Practice on and off the mat. Cultivate mindfulness on and off the cushion.
    • Allow your practice to grow your heart, make you vulnerable and willing to work actively as a member of a wider community.

    We all benefit from this process. Mindfulness, specifically the practice of yoga, has the potential to create both personal and social transformation. The practice of yoga has the potential to elevate us to our highest good and create equity for all.

    I invite you to read what is offered in this series in that spirit of connection and collective liberation. Seize the opportunity to expand your capacity for compassion, empathy and love.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image. Be sure to read the first post in the series here.

    By Melanie Klein

    Melanie C. Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Photo credit: Sarit Z. Rogers