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I truly believe that yoga and meditation won’t just change your body (in fact they might not change it at all).
What they will change is your relationship with your body and your perception of yourself and others—leading you to an easier and less stressful experience of life.
I was always anxious as a child. I had that feeling of guilt in the pit of my stomach gnawing away at me, often leading me to make myself sick. I also avoided speaking to other people through fear of conflict.
As I got older, I learned how to mask that. I was great at pretending to be outgoing, and I had lots of friends. I spent most of my time out with those friends so I could be distracted from my anxiety. I found a love of theater and the stage, finding freedom in using someone else’s voice.
In general, I was always pushing things down rather than dealing with them. Anxiety wasn’t something that I had ever heard of.
At about 22, though, there was no more pushing it down.
I’d gotten really overweight through comfort eating and a generally unhealthy lifestyle, and it bothered me.
So, I started managing that constant anxiety through diet and exercise instead, and what started out as a good thing soon took over my life. I became infertile and I hadn’t had a period in two years, but was in extreme denial about the reasons why.
My days were spent thinking about calories—consumption and burning. Every day, I aimed to burn off everything I consumed and more. I would endure periods of starving myself only to end up bingeing and then feeling wracked with despair and guilt. I would feel terrified if a friend asked me out for food, and even if I accidentally swallowed toothpaste. I weighed myself numerous times a day, each time berating or praising myself at the result.
On the outside, I seemed healthy. I was great at fooling friends and family, and since that all-important BMI never dropped under 18, I was able to keep my doctor in the dark, too.
But inside, I was in constant turmoil and fear.
I was gripped by the intensity of every thought and decision, and I was living in my own private hell inside my head.
After two years, I was referred for testing and further investigation and found myself at the office of a reproductive endocrinologist. Looking back with hindsight, he totally had my number.
I remember him looking at me dead in the eye and saying, “You need to eat, and you need to go to yoga.”
I have to tell you that the absolute last thing I wanted to do was yoga. There was no Instagram or “yoga-lebrities” in 2005. To me, yoga was for overweight middle-aged people and hippies.
I remember that first class so clearly, lying there wondering what on earth the point of this was. I felt so angry—angry that I couldn’t get pregnant, angry that I was there, angry that I probably hadn’t burnt a single calorie in that whole hour, really angry that I was being told to relax, in silence, in a room full of other people while listening to every hateful thing my mind had to say.
My mind never switched off, it never bloody shut up.
But for some reason, just the idea that I didn’t have to act on my thoughts or impulses intrigued me.
I tried as hard as I could to soften that negative voice, to let those thoughts go, and it was really hard…nearly impossible. And I went back to the next class, and the next, and then I started trying to practice it at home too. I read books and learnt about meditation and acceptance.
In a funny way, it felt like coming home—to my body, the place I had hated for so long.
Yoga in itself wasn’t without its challenges: the sometimes rigorous, pushing aspect of some Ashtanga style modalities, the six day a week, two-hour practice, and the fetishisation of healthy food and “clean” eating awakened my control and anxiety issues.
I don’t believe that you ever really recover from eating issues, but you learn to live with them and recognise them for what they are. I started to change my approach to my practice to protect my own mental health.
By this point, I had also managed to start a family. I was pregnant with my first child with help from fertility specialists and clomiphene. The rest came naturally as I started to recover. As my family grew, the strain of dealing with pregnancy, babies, and then toddlers was hard too.
I struggled to fit practice in. I was tired, exhausted, and had little time to practice at all.
But realizing that I didn’t need a teacher, constant classes, and studios, I started to put what I had learnt into my own home practice. I also started to experiment with other somatic movement modalities and incorporated them into my own approach to yoga.
I also began volunteering at a local charity, teaching seated exercise classes for those over 60 years old. I loved it so much that the thought of sharing yoga also seemed to be a possibility. So, after completing my teacher training, I now regularly teach chair yoga—yoga and functional exercise for the over 60s—and I love my work.
The clients I teach give me a gratefulness for my own body that I’ve had never had. Working with those facing personal struggles with their health and mobility make you thankful for what you have.
I truly believe that the first yoga class I’d attended started a cascade of change in my life, leading me to the place I am now—a relatively happy and content mother of four children, without an eating disorder, and having a pretty decent relationship with my body. It’s there, and it works, and I appreciate that. You don’t have to be in love with your body, but you do have to accept it and treat it well.
If you struggle with anxiety, it’s easy to try to “kill it” by abusing yourself—with eating disorders masquerading as “healthy eating,” alcohol and drug abuse, or chaotic relationships, which are all ways to silence that inner voice.
I don’t claim that any of this was easy, and I still have bad days, bad weeks, and beyond, but nowhere near what it was in the past.
If I have any advice, it’s this:
Don’t set yourself unachievable targets and play games with yourself. Anxiety is a crazy beast that can turn anything into a negative, so be kind to yourself and just do what you can.
I probably practice about 20 minutes a day. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I find that easier than planning to practice for hours at a time or pushing for crazy poses that leave my body aching.
I continue to try to be a good person, a good mother, and a good friend, and without yoga, I dread to think how that would pan out. So if you’re struggling, know that you’re not alone.
I invite you to listen, to move your body without judgement, and notice how it feels. Shut your eyes and stretch, shake all over, move, dance, and live in the body you have. And then sit and breathe and experience the benefits for yourself
Yoga is the union of the mind and the body, and I don’t believe that you can truly work on one without the other. So if you’re struggling with any of these issues, seek out a doctor, counselor, or someone you can talk to and get back in touch with your body through movement practices that work to feel and to heal, not to punish and harm and push.
One of my students came up to me at the end of class last week and said, “It’s funny…when I come here, it just feels like coming back home, back home to myself. Does that make sense?”
And it really did.
And there’s no better feeling than that—to be comfortable and at home in your own skin.