Monday, June 30, 2014

Your body is good enough! Changing the "why" behind your workout.

It's almost July. Officially summer. Inevitably by this point, we've all heard and read the phrase "bikini body" more times than our poor little subconscious minds can withstand without falling prey to the alarmist tone. "OH MY GOD! Only six days left 'til summer!!! Get your bikini body OR ELSE!!," a magazine ad for the Insanity Workout, an infomercial for weight loss pills, and even perhaps your personal trainer keeps screaming at you. Even if you don't plan on wearing a bikini or stepping foot near a body of water anytime soon, these messages are targeting you too and their message is LOUD and clear:
"Health" my ass...should be called "Get Skinny
or Else" Magazine

Your body is NOT good enough. It needs to be longer. Leaner.  Tanner. Smaller waist! Bigger breasts! Less hair! More toned! And you know what else? The media ain't changing anytime soon. Why would it? These ads are effective. The verbiage is tested and proven. By dangling the "bikini body" carrot in front of insecure (mostly) women, they shame us and TERRIFY us into buying more products, popping the latest green-tea-infused chemical laden supplement that will "burn fat while we sleep," and to signing up for more classes that leave us feeling exhausted, sore, achey and generally miserable. They sometimes verge on masochistic punishment. But hey, we burned 1000 calories in an hour. Bikini body here we come! Yay...right?

I'm not going to tell you to quit the gym, fire your trainer, and turn your weight room into a meditation sanctuary (although...). A lot of people really enjoy a good cardio burn or a strength training session that leaves their muscles nicely fatigued and their mind clear. I'm all for that.

NOW!!!!! Before it's too late!!
What needs to change is the WHY. Why are you working out the way you do, and what messages are you sending your body as you do it? Back when I was a cardio-obsessed gym junkie I'll tell you why I WASN'T working out: It wasn't to feel "healthy." It wasn't to promote longevity and the functionality of my bodily systems. It wasn't to ease my stress (usually). It wasn't to show my body how much I loved and appreciated it. It was punishment. It was to change my body. To change it as much as I possibly could as fast as I could because it simply wasn't good enough. Not long, lean, tanned or toned enough to ever be considered a "bikini body."

The exercises I chose to do were often recommended by "Health" and "Fitness" magazines that trained me how to "target" my "problem areas." Are you getting the idea? Load your weapon and POW! Pick the target: pudgy belly, thick thighs, large ass, jiggly arms. They are all problems that make YOU not good enough. Zero in on them. Make sure they know how bad they are, what a problem they are for you. Target them. Like a mean girl in the cafeteria. Stare at them so they feel as bad about themselves as they make you look in your bikini. Need some additional troops to support you in this violent war against your body? Well you're in luck! The media and even some fitness instructors would LOVE to join you on the battlefield. They're selling all kinds of powerful ammunition for you to destroy your problem areas and your self-esteem all in one shot. They might even help you get into that bikini, if you dare even wear one at this point.

This is where yoga classes (and unfortunately I have to qualify this statement by saying MOST yoga classes) differ from other types of physical exercise. Asanas are designed to help your body parts work together. Teachers stress alignment points not because they want your body to look a certain way in a pose, but because when joints are aligned the body FEELS good.  When your bones are neatly stacked, it's like something "clicks" and you feel simultaneously weightless and grounded: like a well-built structure resting effortlessly on its sturdy foundation. When your muscles are strong and flexible, you can move with ease. When your breath is slow and deep, your nervous system relaxes and your mind becomes more calm.

Asanas were not designed to target that big ass of yours the way the moves in other workout regimes were. This makes Utkatasana fundamentally different than squats, even if their effects are similar. And although chatarungas will help your shoulders, triceps and lats become more toned, they certainly aren't part of a yoga series to make your back look better in a halter top. I am very aware that my daily yoga practice is what keeps my body in good physical shape, but I don't feel like I'm going to battle against my figure when I hit the mat. Not the way I used to when I'd sign up for "Body Sculpt," "Fat Blaster," and other classes whose titles were enough to make me feel like I was signing up for a fat girls version of an AA Meeting. "Hi guys. I'm Amanda, and my ass no longer fits into my bikini bottom. But I've been carb free for 12 whole days now!!"

Yoga asana - even at its most rigorous - celebrates the body's strengths and abilities. It allows us to integrate all the parts of our body (even the flabby ones!) and begin to appreciate them deeply. By watching ourselves progress over time, we start to see how amazingly successful our bodies can be if we only provide the right environment and encouragement.

I spent the first 24 years of my life feeling deeply unsatisfied with my body, constantly looking for a new way to change and fix it because it just wasn't good enough. My particular self-loathing was acute and violent. It almost got the best of me until I found yoga. Through my yoga practice, I started to recognize all the things my body was capable of. I started to send breath and positive intentions to my muscles as I moved through the practice, rather than focusing on how they would look in that bikini that was collecting dust in my top drawer. I was working just as hard and sweating just as much, but the "why" behind the workout had dramatically shifted. My body felt good when it was in motion on the mat. More full of life. Previously my workouts always drained me. And with good reason! I was using my workouts as a form of self-loathing and punishment. And strangely, I was nowhere closer to that mythical "bikini body" as a kick-boxing, running, weight lifting, spinning, jump-roping, calorie counting 20 year old than I am as a #yogaeverydamnday 30 year old. It's almost like my body is bowing to me in gratitude and saying "namaste".
Strong. Powerful. Balanced. Easeful.
Not skinny. Not giving an F!

Of course self-judgement still rears its ugly little head, even in the yoga studio. I wish I could say that it didn't but I'd be lying if I said there weren't times that I judged my own figure against the yogini beside me wearing nothing but a size 2 lululemon bra and booty shorts. It happens. Often. But then the practice begins. And I begin to move inward. I focus on my breath. The practitioner next to me becomes nothing but the sound of inhales and exhales, moving in unison with mine. I step forward into a Warrior Pose feeling powerful, I press back to a Downward Dog feeling free. I roll forward into a plan pose feeling graceful. I lower down to chatarunga and exhale my breath fully feeling my entire body integrated and strong. And as I lay in savasana I feel content. With my effort, with my body, and with myself. The girl next to me and I become one and the same. Two bodies lying there breathing. Finally, I feel enough.

I hope deeply with my entire heart that I can encourage more people to love and appreciate their bodies through the yoga practice. This is one of the primary intentions behind my decision to become a yoga teacher. I want other women (yes specifically women) to give up the war! If YOU are battling against your own body, I invite you to stop. Put down your weapons and call a cease fire. Support your body and let it support you. I promise you are good enough. More than that. You are perfect.