Yogi Assignment: Keep Practicing until You Love your Body
I woke up this morning to a message in my in-box that I receive quite often. It was a student who said that she was only 5 feet tall and asked for a series of yoga poses that would make her grow taller. On any given day I get a message from someone somewhere in the world that seeks to change the shape of their body through the yoga practice. Some people write to me and ask for yoga poses to make their bodies thinner, others want to have muscular thighs, others still want to look younger. I also often get messages from people looking to heal debilitating conditions such as chronic physical pain, mental health issues like anxiety or depression, or regain balance in the body. While every message from a sincere heart seeking the practice of yoga to heal touches me deeply, the messages from people who want to change the size or shape of their body that affect me in a different way. I am filled with both compassion and rage. Compassion because I feel their pain as my own. And rage because I am angry at the persistent society structure that teaches people that they aren’t enough.
Yoga, or at least hatha yoga, is a physical discipline with a spiritual intention. I want everyone to get a taste of the power of the traditional method of yoga because I believe it has the power to change the world. It may sound like naive idealism to think that, but in my experience yoga really is a revolution. World change starts within the hearts of each and every individual. And yoga, in my experience, is one of the most powerful and effective methods of true personal transformation available today. If every person on this planet practiced yoga and applied the teachings of this ancient spiritual tradition to their lives, there is no doubt in my mind that the world would be a better place. Just think what would happen if all our world (or even just American) leaders had to practice one hour of yoga and meditation every morning before engaging with the difficult decisions they face every day—it would certainly be an improvement from the current state of affairs in the world (and in the U.S.)!
Before I launch my U.S. Presidential campaign for 2020 (kidding), let me get back to the point. I spent the majority of my life feeling inadequate physically. As those of you who have met me in person quickly surmise, I am not a tall person. Throughout all my high school years I held vigil for a late growth spurt that never arrived. I turned to stilettos and platform heels to give myself the height I thought I needed. So many hours of my life have been wasted looking in the mirror wishing for an extra few inches here or there. People told me when I was younger that I would always have to watch my weight because of my small size. They told me that if I ever gained any weight it would have nowhere to go except out since I wasn’t blessed with long legs. The message was clear— you’re small, and you’re at risk of being fat. Fat phobia is a real thing and it is expressed in discrimination towards bigger bodies and the programming of young minds to reject any size other than super skinny. Read this article for more about fat phobia (https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/everything-you-know-about-obesity-is-wrong/).
Growing up surrounded with images of tall, blonde, thin, white models on magazines, runways and billboards sent a clear message— my body was not just allowed into that elite club of beauty guarded by mainstream society.
As a child I sat with a schism. My parents told me how beautiful I was, but there was no image reflected back to me in anything in popular culture that would confirm their words. Many of you have seen my Mom on my Instagram lately in my stories as we have been traveling through Europe together. What you might not have seen is that when my Mom and I are together people more easily group us as two small Asian women. For example, a young boy drove his bicycle by us and started singing “Ching-Chong-Ching-Chong” in a half-witted attempt to imitate Chinese music. People ask us if we are Chinese and sometimes lean in and speak very slowly to us. Someone even walked by and pulled at their eyes to imitate the slanted Asian eyes. All that is nothing compared to the racism my Mom experienced as a Japanese-American in post WWII U.S. She was called all sorts of racist slurs and once, as a young child, was punched in the face by a nice white American boy so hard that all her teeth fell out. Every time there was an altercation at school where my mother was targeted the principle called my Japanese grandfather and somehow implicated my Mom in the assaults. That is just the tip of the iceberg for what she experienced. It makes having a young boy intone Chinese music while pulling at his eye-lids seem innocuous. But it isn’t.
Anytime there is popularization of a singular image of an ideal then society perpetuates a homogeneity that is itself both exclusionary and discriminatory. Holding only one image of beauty, success or happiness up for the world to see and aspire to is by default a rejection of other-ness. Once these ideas become so entrenched that small children spit them out casually while riding their bikes, the thoughts have solidified into systemic and deeply entrenched forms within the collective psyche. So when I read messages from people all over the world who reject their bodies because of their size, shape, or color, it brings up my own wounds. I want to reach through the internet and hug them. I want to promise that yoga will heal their hearts so that when look in the mirror they will one day love the image that is reflected back. I cannot bring myself to promise that yoga is good for weight loss, growing taller, getting thinner thighs, or changing any other of the body’s natural features. I just can’t do it. And yet, the reality is that long term yoga practice does in fact bring about some physical changes. It’s part of the transformation that happens when you devote your life to sincere spiritual practice. Big things, like your repetitive subconscious thoughts and your daily habit patterns, change. And the body usually responds by changing as well.
So, what do I say when people write to me and ask about yoga for changing their size or shape? Well, here’s my response below and it is this week’s Yogi Assignment for you too.
The promise of yoga is inner peace. If you begin the sincere practice of yoga today and devote all your heart and all your soul to yoga, there is no doubt that you will experience massive life transformation. While the by-products of the practice will undoubtedly make an impact on your physical body, the real gift of the practice is love. One day, perhaps many years down the road, you will look in the mirror and see the Divine light that is who you really are shining back at you and you will love yourself fully, completely and totally. At that moment, you will have completed your initiation and you will be a full-fledged yoga revolutionary. Until then, my dear student, keep practicing.