• Yin Yoga: Who Needs It?

    A flow class will get your juices flowing, a restorative class will bring you to a state of deep relaxation, and a yin class will make you ache. Fun, right?  Yin and Yang are two parts of a beautiful whole but most of us are robbing ourselves of half of the gifts that yoga has to offer. I am a huge fan of Yin yoga and want to share it with as many students as I can, and even better, train more teachers to teach it. But I didn’t always love it. In fact, for a time, I really hated it.

    Perhaps you’re indifferent, skeptical, or have convinced yourself that you don’t need or like Yin yoga. I hope that the seeds I plant here might get you to consider working Yin yoga into your regular practice for a month or two to see if you start to feel like you’ve tapped into something really big and incredibly healing. Maybe you’ll even decide to train to teach Yin yoga to others.

    My Yin Yoga Journey

    My first introduction to Yin was in what was supposed to be a restorative class with a beloved teacher in my early yoga days. We always ended with a long restorative pose or supported savasana, but the rest of the class was a pretty intense Yin practice, and that’s exactly the way I liked it.  This practice, and this teacher, saw me through an auto-immune disease diagnosis, a cancer diagnosis, and treatment. After surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy for breast cancer, my body was wrecked. That’s the point, right? Chemotherapy lays to waste everything from the inside out. It’s a rough journey. An incredibly painful one. But it was worth it, because here I am, nine years later. I practiced yoga as I could during treatment, but the cumulative effect was harsh, and my physical recuperation took more than a year after treatment ended. During that time, I leaned into Yin yoga a lot. Naturally flexible, it had always been a go-to for me, and some days I just couldn’t muster the strength it took to take even a heavily modified flow class. I understood that my muscles weakened during treatment, so the many months it took to even attempt a modified chaturanga were not in the least bit frustrating.

    I knew I had to rebuild strength, so I just kept at it as energy allowed.  But I didn’t understand the effect of chemotherapy on my joints and connective tissue. No one talked about that. Not my doctors, not my yoga teacher, not my acupuncturist. It seems obvious now, but really, how much do we pay attention to the strength and vitality of our joint tissue? Injured athletes pay attention. Pregnant women pay attention, for a time. Those with RA and other joint-related chronic illness pay attention. The newer trends of functional mobility exercise pay attention now. But nine years ago? Not so much. So what happened to turn me from love to hate to love again in my yin yoga practice? During my cancer treatment recovery, I went way beyond the limits of my joints in deep, long-held pigeon poses, twists, folds, backbends, and hamstring stretches that were even more accessible to me with weakened, thinned joint tissue throughout my whole body. Most painfully, I damaged my SI joint and herniated a disc which sent ripples through my torso and legs and debilitated me just as I was starting to notice more strength overall. It was a physically painful and emotional setback that took months to recover from. Fast forward through three years of an increasingly strong vinyasa flow practice and I found myself in yoga teacher training. I couldn’t get enough yoga. The anatomy, the philosophy, the practice. It was a magical time. Until we got to Yin yoga week.

    One of my teachers seemed surprised and shocked to see me raise my hand in the “hate Yin yoga” camp. I assume it was because I was naturally flexible and seemed to find the poses relatively easy, but I’m not sure. I never asked him why. I did give him my reasons, though: debilitating injury not completely healed and fear of making it worse. His answer to this shocked me. Yes, he said, these are injuries that you will have the rest of your life. What?! I have a defiantly independent feminist streak in me and although I didn’t say it out loud at the time all I could think was NO, I don’t accept that. This person is not going to tell me that I’m broken. Of course, we’re all broken in some ways, but that wasn’t the point. The point, at the time, was that I knew that there must be more resources out there and it was time for me to do some deeper healing. So I asked around to other yoga teachers and physical therapists and found ways to strengthen around the damaged, weakened connective tissue to find a better balance of strength. Those spots are still vulnerable, of course. But nothing like what they were, even at the height of my strength in athletic style yoga practice. With years of both Yin and Yang practice since that time, I have found ways to work with chronic illness and injury along with a desire and need for strength and athletic conditioning.

    The Physical Practice

    Yin yoga is a complementary practice to the more active and athletic Yang style yoga (Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power yoga, Vinyasa, Hatha). In Yang styles, we focus on contraction of muscles to stimulate, strengthen, and stretch. In Yin yoga, we focus on the dense connective tissues around and within muscles and joints to stretch and strengthen. Our objective in a Yin practice is to stimulate, strengthen and revive tissues that are less emphasized in the active styles of yoga. We move the body into a Yin yoga pose where we stay, passively, while feeling a moderate sensation. We relax and find relative stillness, holding the position for 3 to 10 minutes.  We stimulate dense connective tissue (bones, cartilage, fascia, tendons, ligaments, blood, fat, lymph) to promote its strength and vitality and to hydrate and revive it.

    Those knots in your neck and shoulders aren’t just muscle, but contracted fascia. Likewise with those “tight” and shortened hamstrings: you can try to lengthen the muscle all you want, but if the fascia is contracted and dehydrated, you will return to the same, shortened resting length over and over again.  You get to choose how deeply you go into a yin yoga pose, just as you choose to use 50%, 80%, 100% of your strength and concentration in a power flow class. But in Yin yoga, we slow it way down and keep reminding ourselves to go for the moderate sensation, not beyond. Holding a 10 minute pigeon is no joke, and if you start way beyond your edge, you’ll injure yourself quickly. If you stick with the moderate ache, you will see over time that the range of mobility changes. And even after one class of moderate aching, you will feel freer, lighter, clearer energetically almost immediately.

    Subtle Body Effects

    If connective tissue is, as many energy workers suggest, the biological substratum through which energy flows and communicates within the body, a Yin yoga practice that focuses on the connective tissue promotes energetic circulation and flow. As yogis, we often experience emotional release in our practice. We understand through experience that with or without scientific research, our tissues hold unprocessed emotion. Movement in and out of poses in an active practice as well as long holds using compression, tension, and stretching in a still,

    Yin yoga practice unlock pathways for our emotions to emerge and release. Consider also the mental aspect of your yoga practice. In an active practice, we are asked to concentrate and focus on our breath while tuning into physical sensation. We’re often reminded that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, and too often, that translates in practice to controlling the mind. In a Yin practice, we are asked to be receptive, to increase our capacity for receptivity, to allow for what is, and to cultivate inaction.

    Isn’t Yin Yoga Worth A Try?

    Fluidity in movement, better coordination, stronger joints, body awareness, less injury, emotional release, mental receptivity and clarity. Aren’t each of these benefits of Yin yoga worth an investment of your time? As my personal practice and teaching continues through the years, awareness of Yin and Yang imbalance has become my focus when deciding how to practice each day. Some days I need a strong sweat and strengthening, some days I need release and stillness, and some days I need both. I’m guessing you are the same, so I invite you to build Yin yoga practice into your regular weekly schedule and tap into this powerful other half of yoga.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    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.

  • For Yogis with Chronic Illness or Cancer

    In the spring of 2011 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I was really lucky. Not only did I catch an aggressive form of cancer just before it started to spread, I also had a supportive yoga teacher and community already in place.

    My world came to a standstill when I learned the diagnosis. Actually, a tailspin is more like it. Whatever my everyday life was, that disappeared. What I experienced was constant and intense fear and anxiety at the deepest levels, fueled in part by the trauma of losing my own mother to cancer when she was my age and I was only 11 years old. I remember telling a friend that I should never have had children because now they will lose their mother just like I did. I had spent the last 30 years with “40 = cancer = death” etched in my heart and soul, and then there I was.

    Over the year and a half preceding my diagnosis, I had been practicing regularly with a very special teacher. When we met, I had recently been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune disease that was knocking out my thyroid) and this teacher seemed to know exactly what I needed to hear. Sprinkled into her delightfully sweaty and athletic yoga sequences were words that sparked my curiosity and touched my heart. Her yin and restorative classes reset every part of me like nothing I had ever experienced. After classes, she would often sit with me and go a little deeper into chakras, koshas, and ayurvedic elements. With her guidance, I became much more in tune with my own, inner resources and healing power, and more importantly, I became willing to face what needed to be healed inside me.

    When the cancer diagnosis came crashing down, my teacher was determined to get me as strong as possible before the long months of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy started. During treatment and after, this teacher cared for me in the best ways she knew. Some things were just right, but we made a few mistakes, too. Now a full-time yoga teacher and teacher trainer myself, I’m honored to guide others living with chronic illness or going through cancer treatment drawing on both advanced training and years of personal experience. While chronic illness and cancer treatment are different conditions, many of the same guidelines of practice apply.

    In my own journey through chronic illness and cancer, my yoga community has been an important anchor in my life. Not only has my yoga practice connected me to generous and supportive people, it has taught me more about illness and healing from the inside out.

    My yoga practice continues to change year to year, month to month, and day to day and I encourage you to let yours evolve and change, too. We all age differently, and with chronic illness or a cancer diagnosis, our bodies may seem a lot older than they are. That can be frustrating, but yoga teaches us to respect our bodies, love them, and do no harm. Even at your fittest, there is never a need to compete for the fanciest pose or the deepest stretch. We work with what we have and start where we are, each time we practice. Chronic illness and cancer survivorship continue to teach me to turn away from self-criticism for what I can’t do and in favor of the powerful healing that my body is guiding me toward.

    Honor your energy level each time you choose to practice

    Practicing with an experienced and knowledgeable teacher is always recommended, and if you find the right one, s/he/they will be guiding you always to learn to hear your own inner teacher. Remember that if you are going through chemotherapy, your joint tissue as well as your muscles are affected, and you may be hypermobile in your joints similar to women who are pregnant. Going too far in stretches when the joint tissue is very weak is strongly discouraged.

    With a teacher or on your own, use these energetic, moderate, and gentle movements as an opportunity to notice the before and after, the shift in your energy physically, mentally, and emotionally. Choose just one at a time or string them together to suit your needs.

    Yoga for Fatigue:

    Studies show that even just a little bit of mindful movement can help energize us. Less minutes more times per week have a greater effect in blasting fatigue, so it’s important to change it up during the week if you get easily bored with repetition. And remember, a little inversion goes a long way!

    • Energetic: Sun Salutations (modify as you like; as few as five can do the trick! And a mala of 108 is almost sure to get you out of any funk you can create)
    • Moderate: Seated or standing forward fold to open the energy channels on the back of the body followed by a seated twist (if you like, go for double pigeon with a folding prayer twist to rest your elbow in the arch of your top foot).
    • Gentle: Viparita Karani (legs up the wall, props or no props) for 15 minutes

    Yoga to Reduce Inflammation:

    Stretching helps stimulate the healing process to combat inflammation, so get into those joints as much as you can tolerate. Chair stretches work just as well as more athletic versions of poses if what you’re going for is stimulating joint tissue and stretching, so use all the props that you need.

    • Energetic: Sanding forward fold followed by downward facing dog. Take your time in these poses to lengthen, strengthen, and release where you can. Next: camel pose, flow into it if you need to then hold or do a few rounds, always keeping your lower spine long, your breath expansive, and your shoulders drawn away from your ears. Take a childs pose to reset.
    • Moderate: Lizard pose variations to target the stretched hip flexor (stretch the back toes back and keep the spine upright and lifting with props under hands), the compressed hip flexor (get low and sink into it a bit), the inner thigh (open it up) and the spine (one hand down, open it up into a twist)
    • Gentle: Supported reclined bound angle pose for 15 minutes

    Yoga to Stimulate the Lymphatic System:

    Lymph does not flow automatically like blood does but we need it to move those white blood cells around to help the body get rid of toxins and waste. Yoga poses and sequences that stretch and compress major clusters of lymph nodes (leg-hip joint; armpits; cervical spine) do just that.

    • Energetic: shift between low lunges with one knee down to half splits; move with each breath or hold each for a few breaths, alternating between the two poses for up to 5 sets of 5 on each side. Let the arms rise with each lunge and the spine lengthen in each half splits. On the last lunge of each set, interlace your hands behind your lower back and pause, breathing deeply with a long spine and strong core for 5 breaths before resting between sets. Follow this sequence with neck stretches, neck rolls, or a neck massage.
    • Moderate: self-healing Qigong tapping is a fantastic complement to a regular yoga practice.
    • Gentle: Supported child’s pose for 15 minutes (use all the bolsters, blocks, and blankets that you like)

    Nervous system:

    For cancer survivors, regular monitoring appointments can bring on mild to severe anxiety. We’ve lived through watershed moments when our mortality is brought right in front of our eyes and when our lives change in an instant. Healing from trauma over time includes regular testing that can trigger fears of death and anxiety. Many who suffer from chronic illness or past trauma experience anxiety and other conditions that compound any physical symptoms. When repeated stress becomes chronic, our sympathetic nervous system stays on and floods the body with hormones that overtax just about every other system. Shifting into the restful parasympathetic nervous system is an essential part of our healing and rejuvenation.

    • Energetic: Goddess pose squats with big arm movements to breathe and move the spine in all directions (lateral side stretches with one arm up and over the head followed by arms opening to the side on the inhale and forward on the exhale with flexion and extension of the spine). Follow a few sets of these big breaths with a standing straddle fold hold (but this whole sequence can be done in a seated straddle, too). If you enjoy the pose, try a reclined virasana before spending 10 minutes in savasana.
    • Moderate: flowing bridge pose up and down a few times before holding (supported on a block is OK, too), followed by supine twists and savasana
    • Gentle: Supported savasana with a bolster along the spine and two bolsters under the knees for at least 15 minutes

    However you decide to practice on any given day, let the principle of ahimsa, doing no harm, guide you. Listen to the cues in your body that ask for a little more or a little less. Whether you’re living with chronic illness, cancer treatment, or survivorship, your body, heart, and spirit are asking for you to care.

    Reach out for help when you need it. Advocate for yourself. Stay open to new knowledge from the outside and from within. Learn to respect the way that your body is trying to guide you and give yourself a yoga break to rejuvenate and reset whenever you can.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    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.

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  • Your Quarantine Yoga Practice (and Progress) Looks Different, and That’s Okay

    This heightened awareness that we are experiencing in every other aspect of our lives can also be found within ourselves and what our personal mind, body, and souls need, right now. So, if you’re feeling like you’re “losing” your practice, this is impossible. Your practice is you.

    Redefining Progress

    “Progress not perfection” is a great mantra. It brings into focus the practice of yoga rather than the visual achievements we see such as handstands or that new #yogiseeyogido trend. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the definition we’ve attributed to “progress” is focusing on the “gains” that we are striving towards in yoga. Now don’t get me wrong, I have been working towards my handstand for years and will continue to because it makes it feel strong and challenged and brave. But what if we saw the act of showing up as progress? Even if I never hit a minute handstand (which is quite possible) I am still progressing in my practice by showing up, doing the work, and incorporating the asanas and other limbs into my life. The conscious choice of practicing in order to feel strong and brave is where the magic is.

    Fear-Based Progress

    A little fear that’s popped up a few times during quarantine is that I am going to “lose” all of my progress I’ve made in my yoga journey. ⁣As fears do, this one highlights where I feel unsure or misaligned with where I am and where I want to be. Feelings of shame, embarrassment, frustration, and lots of self-criticisms show up to remind me that the only constant is change. Progress isn’t linear. It evolves and shifts and flexes and expands. Just like a good ol’ flow.⁣ I have been experiencing shame around “losing” my yoga practice. But maybe I’m more worried about the identity that yoga gives me. What I’m really experiencing is my ego not wanting to lose “gains” in my flexibility, inversions, arm balances, etc. I recognize ego is fueling this feeling, but it still comes up.

    Your Body’s Wisdom

    I’ve also been grieving the classroom space. Experiencing the duality of being completely alone in my own flow while being surrounded by others who are experiencing the same is incredibly powerful—an illustration of the connectedness of all of us. In my practice, it is the one place where I never feel I’m supposed to be somewhere or doing something, else. I show up 100% on my mat and just be in my practice. For the most part, no one else exists outside of the four corners of my mat during that 70-minute flow. I am practicing letting the ego go to know that I am having the asana practice that is needed right now. The brilliance of your body is that she knows, inherently, what you need at every moment of every day.

    We’ve learned not to listen, thinking we need to seek external insight and advice for how to make our bodies work better, faster, stronger. But in your unique experience, only your body can tell you what you need. And right now, she’s probably asking you something different than when we’re not in quarantine. This heightened awareness that we are experiencing in every other aspect of our lives can also be found within ourselves and what our personal mind, body, and souls need, right now. So, if you’re feeling like you’re “losing” your practice, this is impossible. Your practice is you.

    By Jordan Page

     

    Jordan Page is a traveling nomad who takes her love of yoga with her everywhere she goes. She also believes you can learn a lot about someone from their Hogwarts House. After completing yoga teacher training in 2017, she and her husband converted a school bus into their tiny home in which they now live and travel in full-time. She has taught in multiple states around the U.S. and in 2019 she completed her professional coach training through iPEC and earned her CPC. Through yoga and coaching, she works to empower and inspire women to own the life of their choosing through conscious, purposeful intention. She is purposefully living, while not taking things too seriously.

    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 Transformative Power of Yoga

    Yoga transformed my life and my relationship with my body. Before yoga, I thought the only way to feel good in my body was through intense physical exercise. Finding yoga taught me that stillness offers a deeper connection. The mind-body connection of yoga transformed my life. But this wasn’t always the case.

    When I was a child, my body was my instrument. I was an athlete, lifeguard, cheerleader, drill team dancer/choreographer, and avid skateboard enthusiast. I thrived on being physically active. It fed my sense of self. In fact, my physical agility drove my dream of wanting to become a dancer/choreographer on Broadway.

    Everything changed when I was 19 years old. I survived a devastating car accident, where I was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury and told I wouldn’t walk again. The news shattered my confidence and complicated my relationship with my body. It felt like I had two lives: life before and after the accident. After a year and half of intense physical therapy, and a miracle, I was able to walk again with the aid of below the knee plastic braces but my journey to self returned in bits and pieces.

    I felt broken after the accident. I disconnected from my body and developed a fear of visibility. I didn’t want to be seen as disabled because I didn’t want others to limit my options. I brushed away help and ignored my physical limitations. The result: I lived in a deep sense of shame for being injured and didn’t know how to reclaim my life.

    On the outside, it looked like I recovered. I returned to college and slowly began sharing parts of my journey with a select few. But the truth was, I was fragile and wounded. I felt insecure when people stared at my limp. Sometimes I body shamed myself and clung to old mindsets that kept my world small. I kept hearing doctor advice in my head that warned that too much activity could erase progress. I now know that doctors were trying to protect me but, in reality, it instilled fear.

    First seismic shift in changing this mindset occurred a few years after the accident. I enrolled in my college’s Study French Abroad Summer Program in Strasbourg, Germany. Many thought I wasn’t up the challenge.

    “How will you manage on your own?” friends and family cautioned. “Europe isn’t accessible – what if you need help?”

    I admit I was scared but I trusted my inner voice. Therefore, I ignored concerns, quieted naysayers, and after asking my Dad for a small loan, my plans proceeded.

    Everything was on track until I met my study abroad professor. Initially, our phone conversation brought hope but my enthusiasm waned after meeting face-to-face.

    I noticed her expression as I walked in. Her eyes fixated on my limp. When, she realized I had caught her gawking, she quickly looked away to avoid eye contact. Even though this interaction was only a few seconds, it trigged rage. Somewhere in my being I wanted to confront her – and stand in my power – I wanted to speak truth to the moment and share hurt feelings. Instead, I shrunk down and squelched my voice to avoid embarrassment.

    Before the trip, many warned that French people hated Americans – but that wasn’t my experience. I bumbled French conversations with waiters and strangers – but never felt judged. I loved walking the streets of Strasbourg alone. Everywhere I went, I received hugs and smiles. I felt accepted for the first time. It boosted my confidence.

    My bubble burst a few weeks later when my professor suggested I separate from the group and take a car ride instead of participating in a group walk through Strasbourg.

    “We’re on a strict schedule and we don’t have time to wait for you to walk the distance,” my professor said in front of everyone.

    “I know my stride is slow but I’m completely capable,” I protested, arguing for inclusion.

    As our conversation grew, I eventually gave in to keep peace. But the opportunity to be real passed. I felt shame for being different but didn’t share because I wanted to belong. Staying silent seemed easier. This encounter taught me a piece of what I needed to embrace. Even though my professor didn’t see me or understand how her actions affected me, it didn’t help that I kept my pain to myself. I’ve learned that I need to speak up to be heard. Stepping into vulnerability is now my super power.

    It’s funny how life begs us to speak truth in moments of confusion. Looking back, I wasn’t ready to face who I was or stand in my own power. Keeping silent was self protection. I was in denial. When I found yoga, I found renewal. Reconnecting mind and body made me feel like a pioneer. For me, doing yoga feeds my entire vessel: mind, body, and spirit. It instills a deep sense of calm in place of fear. It allows me to embrace vulnerability and everything in between. Before yoga, I let doctors dictate how I lived and felt in my body. Discovering yoga led to embracing all parts of myself. Once I truly accepted my body in present and past forms, my world opened.

    As an adaptive chair yoga teacher and mindfulness coach, I now teach others how to embrace their whole body and accept themselves in any form. Even though we’re all on different paths, my journey to yoga revealed self-acceptance, hope, and purpose. I’m grateful for life experience that uncovered this truth. Yoga taught me that being vulnerable is worth the risk. And the truth is, yoga is not for a select group or the able bodied few. Yoga is for everyone, no matter size, shape, or physical challenge.

    By Mary Higgs

    Mary Higgs, MA, is a respected writer, online educator, speaker, mindfulness coach, and disability advocate. Developing a passion for mindfulness and becoming an Adaptive and Accessible Yoga Teacher transformed Mary’s life in unexpected ways. She loves sharing her message that transformation comes from within. She has published pieces in Yoga International, Devata Active, Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and Mind Body Solutions All-Humanity Newsletter. As a RYT, OYI, and certified Yoga for All and Accessible Yoga Teacher, Mary teaches people to explore and trust their inner wisdom, so they can live more authentically. Visit her online at YogiAble.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 by Pixabay from Pexels

  • Making Peace with My Body Paved the Way for Personal Empowerment

    A quiet, slow and deeply powerful sense of freedom was made possible when I declared a truce with my body. That sense of equanimity nothing short of astounding. It was unfamiliar, exhilarating and I welcomed it with every fiber of my being.

    It didn’t happen overnight, though. It did, however, begin with the keen awareness that I was tired of feeling terrible and that my relentless battle with myself kept me from fully showing up to create larger cultural shifts for all marginalized groups. That awareness gave me the opportunity to make a new choice, the choice to be kind to my body by calling a cease fire.

    My mindfulness practices in the form of yoga and Vipassana meditation gave me the space to recognize that another way of being and feeling was possible. I’d felt dissatisfied at best, full blown shame at worst since I was a young girl. I’d waged war and been immersed in the dominant culture’s toxic beauty culture for so many years that it seemed normal and unremarkable.

    I felt overwhelmed as a young girl by the empire of images that dictated the worth and value of girls and women based on how well they met the dictates of the Eurocentric, racist, classist, ageist, ableist, heteronormative and sizeist beauty myth. It seemed impossible to measure up and daunting not to try. My body always felt too big, my voice felt too small. I felt constricted and trapped inside myself. It wasn’t until many years later in my first Women’s Studies class that I understood the connection. Patriarchy benefits from the silence and bodily control of women.

    Feminism expanded and freed my mind. It liberated me from my own internalized oppression, the ways in which I’d absorbed and incorporated the larger culture’s harmful messaging about my body into my sense of self. Feminism gave me the theories and the language to understand my experiences through the lens of patriarchy… as well as protest against it.

    Feminism also introduced the concepts of self-acceptance and self-love to me. In fact, it encouraged me to accept, embrace and learn to love myself as a revolutionary act. Feminism opened new mental doorways to freedom, but yoga freed my body.

    Yoga as a consistent practice complimented my feminist teachings and revelations. Yoga and meditation offered an embodied path to learn and practice how to be at peace with myself because it was something entirely new to me. Each time I united and moved mindfully with my breath, I was presented a new opportunity to be present. Each time I sat in silence and became still, I learned more about myself and how my body felt (and what it needed). This was revelatory!

    Each moment offered a fresh opportunity to practice forgiveness, kindness, acceptance and kindness. These moments weren’t offering more theories or heady ideas but new experiences that began to carve new habit patterns for myself, ones that allowed me to show up for myself more fully and compassionately.

    When I ended the war on my body, I was finally able to feel peace within myself. That peace radiated from the inside out and felt like a long and much-needed exhale. When I stopped fighting myself, I could exist without constraint or pressure. That stillness not only allowed me to listen to the needs of my body, it allowed me to excavate my authentic inner voice, give it the space to expand and unapologetically proclaim my truth.

    Personal empowerment is represented by inner strength, self – confidence, bodily autonomy, as well as having ownership and control over one’s self. Personal empowerment flows from the inside out, it can’t be defined and controlled externally. Ultimately, personal empowerment is marked by internal freedom and peace.

    It’s an oxymoron to be at peace with one’s self or fully empowered while simultaneously warring with one’s body. You can’t be fully empowered when there is an ongoing battle to control or “fix” the body, to punish the body and force it to submit to our will. You can’t be empowered when there is lingering shame, guilt or blame.

    When I made peace with my body, I opened the possibility of more…. being more, asking for more and expecting more. When I made peace with my body, I was presented with the opportunity to be fully empowered. I claimed myself for myself on my own terms.

    That’s the magic and the medicine. As we claim ourselves for ourselves, we re-imagine, re-think and re-create what’s possible, not just for us but for everyone. This is the (re)evolution, one that integrates and acknowledges our whole self and recognizes the connection between our individual and collective liberation.

    With each day, each moment, and each breath I continue to choose me. I choose peace. I choose to be fully empowered for myself and all those I support and serve.

    In the same way self-acceptance and peace didn’t happen overnight, the practice never ends.

    By Melanie C. 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), Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body (Llewellyn, 2018) and the co-editor of the new forthcoming anthology, Embodied Resilience through Yoga (Llwelleyn, 2020). She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and lives in Santa Monica, CA. www.melaniecklein.com @melmelklein @ybicoalition

    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

     

  • Mind Your Own Body, and I’ll Do the Same

    Why Commenting on People’s Bodies Needs to Stop. How often do you find yourself commenting on your friend’s appearance? Why is it that our go-to compliment is, “Wow – you look great” even before we connect over the changes or news in our lives? Why is it that we praise one another for losing weight, even if that weight loss was due to a traumatic event or a health crisis?

    Why do we feel the need to comment on each other’s bodies at all? As if it’s not enough to be bombarded by messages from the media reminding us of how we are supposed to look. Society has done a great job of conditioning us to size each other up.

    Former fitness guru and celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels was recently asked to comment on the body-positive movement, and how it relates to stars like Lizzo, who openly celebrate a body that has traditionally been deemed unhealthy. Unsurprisingly, Ms Michaels reached for the “health” argument in relation to Lizzo’s physical appearance. Without being a medical professional, or having any idea of what Lizzo’s health records have to say about her physical wellbeing, Ms Michaels told the public that Lizzo was a candidate for diabetes, and disease wasn’t to be celebrated.

    So why do we immediately comment on the size and shape of other people’s bodies – as if we can determine their experience of life-based on their jean size?

    Being in the public sphere has been challenging for me. I am an activist and I represent a movement that I am so deeply passionate about. The people that follow me, and those that I care most deeply about, rely on me to live out my values regarding health at every size. This is the message that I advocate for day in, and day out.

    As a result, my body is often the topic of conversation, and it makes me uncomfortable. I am a survivor of both sexual abuse and an eating disorder, and as a result, having my value accessed based on my looks is triggering. When my body is evaluated, dissected, and discussed, it feels like a fundamental invasion of my personal boundaries – and it’s scary.

    This has been especially confronting as I’ve undergone a dramatic weight loss due to illness. I’ve been public about my struggle with Graves disease, and what it’s meant for my relationship to my health and wellness practices. But, nothing really prepared me for the cognitive dissonance I experienced when the world kept telling me I looked great, even when I felt like I was dying.

    Since my formal diagnosis, recovery has been a slow process. As I navigate my health challenges, new and old triggers often combine. It is hard to own lifestyle changes as empowered choices when the world is so intensely focused on the physical changes.

    The gym used to be a place that fueled my eating disorder. In my youth, working out was a punishment. It was something I did to make up for the things I ate (or didn’t eat) and a socially acceptable way to execute self-hatred. My attachment to seeking outside approval was reinforced in this space, and I was scared that returning would re-open those past traumas.

    But in truth, I love to workout, and I’ve worked hard at making peace with my body. I sometimes lose sight of how far I’ve come, and how much more appreciation I have for the body I’ve been given – especially after fighting for my life in many ways. These days, the gym is no longer a place where I punish my body for what I ate or a place to look for external validation. It has become a place to celebrate feeling good in my body and a space where I can safely disrupt any narratives that say otherwise. I practice my activism by shutting down any fat or food shaming. Getting well has been a real struggle and a confronting space to be in, and I never want to take my health for granted again.

    Our fixation on accessing each other’s bodies is strange and it keeps us from focusing on what is really important. Happiness cannot be attained through the constant seeking of outside approval. Happiness cannot be achieved by people-pleasing, and no one’s body is anyone else’s business.

    Commenting on other people’s bodies is unnecessary, intrusive, and harmful. It reinforces gender stereotypes and it perpetuates unattainable standards of beauty. We need to find new ways to interact positively with one another, and we can start by giving each other compliments that celebrate our positive energy. We can connect to one another by sharing our thoughts and emotions, and how we make each other feel. We can talk about pop culture or god forbid even politics. Either way, it’s time to stop this hyper-focus on what we look like. Our external appearance is seldom an accurate mirror for our internal world. Mind your own body and health and I will do the same.

    By Dianne Bondy

    Dianne Bondy is a celebrated yoga teacher, social justice activist and leading voice of the Yoga For All movement. Her inclusive view of yoga asana and philosophy inspires and empowers thousands of followers around the world – regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability. Dianne contributes to Yoga International, Do You Yoga, and Elephant Journal. She is featured and profiled in International media outlets: The Guardian, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, People and more. She is a spokesperson for diversity in yoga and yoga for larger bodies, as seen in her work with Pennington’s, Gaiam, and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition. Her work is published in the books: Yoga and Body Image and Yes Yoga Has Curves. https://diannebondyyoga.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.

  • New Year, Same Me: Cheers to Radical Authenticity

    I am excited about the idea of existing in 2020. Mostly because as a kid, I used to imagine that cars would fly, that civilians would planet hop on a regular basis, and that telepathy would be our primary mode of communication.

    Those dreams are still in the pending folder for now, but there were lots of unexpected success that I never anticipated enriching my life in so many ways. I never imagined books that read themselves aloud to circumvent my dyslexia, a device in my pocket that allows me to video call my loved ones when we’re far apart and gives me access to the most recent information on any given topic. And this progress isn’t limited to technology; we’re making progress in destigmatizing mental health, our language is moving towards inclusivity, meditation is now commonplace and we work to share ideas. Our collective ideas for progress drive technology and solutions; not everything is perfect, but society as a whole is improving in ways that keep me hopeful.

    Early in my life, back when I could only daydream about what 2020 would bring, I was introduced to yoga and meditation, which helped me navigate my way into community, hope and, in so many ways, into myself. I spent many, many hours practicing on towels, in church basements, and to cassette tapes before I was lucky enough to win a partial scholarship for a yoga teacher training. Though I had done plenty of research on my own, it was in my teacher training in 2013 that I began working to fully embody the eight limbs of Yoga. Some of the practices came to me without much effort. Others remain a daily, effortful practice, full of reminders and lessons. For me, New Year’s is a season where my focus returns to my greatest efforts: Aprigaha (non-attachment), Santosha (contentment) and Ishwara Pranidhana (surrender to divinity). I find so much depth and beauty in these simple concepts that unfolds on a regular basis.

    And I’ll be honest; I keep myself rather insulated in a lot of ways. I’m not very present on social media, I don’t watch much television, and I don’t even listen to the radio often. My life is quite curated; from the music and news I find to the community I interact with, I do my best to respect and protect my time and energy. And I know that I’m lucky to be a bit insulated. My social circle is full of people well versed on body acceptance, on gratitude practices and on the beauty of humor. I have the great honor of supporting one another with love and sincerity when body frustrations arise, when devastating heartbreak strikes, and when life feels generally unsettling.

    But in the quiet, unscheduled time of the holidays, visiting friends and family, I found myself inundated with discussions and commercials asking about New Year’s resolutions or suggesting what 2020 should include. So my focus on the Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances) of Yoga feels highlighted for me at this time of year, when discussion of resolutions is abound.

    Certainly, the idea of resolutions is not foreign to me. I was raised in peak diet culture, had required assignments in elementary school of identifying resolutions and worked plenty of places that supported annual “weight loss challenges”. Personal growth and development is one of my core values and learning is one of my favorite spaces to invest time. But. I don’t set resolutions. I am proud of all that I have accomplished, and yet, I know that none of it defines me. My aims of personal growth and development are not to create a new version of myself. Instead, I would rather inspire the best version of my authentic self by dissolving all they ways I’ve come to believe it wasn’t exactly right, while simultaneously working to surrender to the perfection of now.

    My yoga and mindfulness practices have brought me stillness, love and appreciation where there was hurt and resentment, grief and sadness, joy and chaos. Not always readily either. I have meditated through tears plenty of days and only felt able to muster gratitude for showing up to my practice. And still, over time, I release, I grow, I accept. It’s a practice. I love and am captivated by technologies that support meditation and personal growth. But I realize there are no shortcuts. So I show up in my practices daily in my work to uncover the most authentic version of myself, working towards my highest purpose, for the good of all.

    Progress is not lost on me. I am proud because I know that behind every success, there were quite sacrifices, heavy lessons, healing and blossoming that had to transpire every step of the way. I am proud that I have built a community, a network of support established upon authenticity, care and concern. I am proud to be called upon to hold space for others in their most vulnerable times because I have built shared trust and respect within my circle. And in my best effort to practice non-attachment, I try not to cling to the outcome, I hold on to contentment for the way things are without them needing to remain any particular way.

    We don’t need permission, but sometimes we need a reminder. You are ok just as you are today. The version of yourself right now deserves the highest reverence and love. You are not defined by what you have accomplished and there are no goals that are a requirement for appreciating yourself today.

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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