Nineteen Voices: Comparison and... Why Yoga?

A prelude

Hi! New to Nineteen Voices? Go here (https://www.shaktiyogaathens.com/blog/nineteen-voices-1) and read.

See you back here soon. - Em


Nineteen Voices: Comparison and… Why Yoga?

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About two years into my yoga practice, I hit a major block. Up until that point, I’d learned a lot and had “progressed” rapidly in my practice. I had figured out some of the “cool stuff” (inversions, arm balances, crazy contortion-y backbends) and felt on top. Like a real yogi.

*Side note, if you didn’t pick up on my lil sarcasm: practicing yoga has nothing to do with what you can and cannot do.

Basically, I was practicing for hours a day and pushing my body farther than it wanted to go. Two things happened:

1) I pulled an intercostal muscle (a muscle that binds your ribs together) in a backbend and was out of commission for two months with pain & muscle spasms, and

2) I started to (this feels embarrassing and frustrating to say, but I value honesty) get stronger in a way I thought was undesirable to men. Emphasis on “thought.”

*Another side note: Culture dictates beauty standards, not bodies.

Anyways, I developed muscles in my arms and back for the first time. My legs grew strong and supportive. But all I could think was, “Damn. I need to do less yoga. I don’t like they way this is making me look.”

Two months passed, and my rib recovered. But I stopped regularly doing yoga. For about six months. Because I didn’t like the way it made me look. I stopped doing yoga, a practice that literally gave me back my sense of autonomy, peace, happiness, and present-moment-awareness, because I was getting stronger and that made my eating disorder voice shout, “You look big and you won’t be desirable if you look big.” (Which is a load of bullshit... but I digress.) So basically, my mind compared my now-body to my then-body and said, “You are no longer good enough.”

All of that is to say, I moved to Athens, came to Shakti, and had no other choice but to start practicing again. Why? Because Shakti forced me to drop the story the second I walked in the door. It forced me to show up, a lot, and be exactly who I am. And when I became a part of the community, I realized: We don’t let people get away with self-hate. Shakti’s community is tight and compassionate and strong, and we grow curious and ask questions about whatever mask you’ve put on or wall you’ve built up.

So hell ya, I got strong. My arms and legs got muscular and grew. But my capacity to see others, drop the story about myself (and about them), grew, too. My capacity for gratitude expanded. My capacity for comparison shrunk.

I showed up at Shakti as a guarded & hesitant person full of comparison.

I got stronger in a few different ways. These women did, too.

~

“This is how my body is keeping my alive. It’s not working against me so that I won’t look appealing, it’s just how my body is made, and that’s where my energy is coming from.”

-- Nicole Patel

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Before Nicole moved to Atlanta, she was one of Shakti’s regular students. (Hey, Nicole! We miss you! Come back!) When I reached out to students and teachers about this blog series, Nicole agreed to share with me anonymously. But a few weeks later, Nicole reached out and decided that she wanted her name connected to her words. Here’s what she said: “I thought anonymity would allow me to speak more freely. No one would know. But I kept thinking about it, and I thought back to when my body image issues started. What if there’s a young girl that’s somehow in my followers that’s going through this [article] and needs the same support and encouragement? If my answers are out there, then why not channel it in a way to help someone?

I admire that about Nicole. And I know that sharing these posts has created a wave of change and influence within my sphere. I can only imagine who she could reach within her personal community.

For Nicole, body image started with comparison. “In the beginning, it wasn’t as harmful, because there were similar girls my age cutting calories and working out every day... This is how I keep myself looking ‘good.’” Those thoughts found their roots at a young age. Nicole’s first body image memory is from the end of middle school. “I joined the cheerleading squad, all my friends had amazing metabolisms, and I knew my body looked different than theirs. In my head, there was so much of this perfect body that I saw, and I needed to look like that. I would work out everyday. I would eat, but I would make sure it was something I could burn. I would look up weight loss pills online. I never ordered them--my parents would kill me--but my mind was wondering if there was a way for this to happen.”

What stuck out to me was that fear of her parents being mad (and I imagine, fear of hurting them, too) prevented Nicole from acting on the weight loss pills. Nicole confirmed, saying that she’s an only child and is really close with her parents, though they don’t talk about body image or weight concerns.

“It ties into my culture. I don’t want to blame them, because they grew up in India, that’s all that surrounded them. I do tell them everything else that’s going on in my life, but this one thing I never talked to them about. I just know how they are: ‘You should just eat healthier, and you shouldn’t work out every day, but you should still run.’” She felt like her parents wouldn’t understand how toxic dieting and over-exercise felt. “It wouldn’t appear big to them.”

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Even though she didn’t share with her parents, Nicole found ways to cope during that time. “I didn’t want to talk to my friends, either, because they were so consumed by body image. Journaling helped, I didn’t have to hold back in any way.” I imagine many of us have similar tactics. Private ways to deal with the awful thoughts swirling. Hearing this, too, makes me so proud of Nicole for sharing with me and the community.

When she left for college, weight loss messaging grew thicker. “In college, the only thing you ever hear about is the Freshman 15. Yes, you’re going to put on weight. You’re transitioning to a new life, there are dining halls with delicious food! If you gain a little weight, that’s okay! Your body is getting you through a big part of your life.” Agreed. “Sophomore year, I got a stomach infection. I lost 13-14lbs from it and couldn’t really eat for 2 weeks. After that, I started getting comments: ‘You’ve lost so much weight, you look great!’ And I’m like really? Was it good for me to be that sick? I would hear people make comments on my body and how I looked. After that, the [toxic thoughts] were the worst it ever was. Running back then was to lose weight.”

Nicole described how she would run three miles every day, and she couldn’t continue because she developed knee pain and shin splints. Around this time, she came to Shakti for the first time. “I learned to love my body more, and those thoughts died down when I came to Shakti.” I love hearing this. Sometimes I feel like my experience walking through the studio doors was just a fluke. Like some magic pixie dust was sprinkled over me that put me on a path to healing. Not pixie dust, just intentional, hard work towards building authentic community.

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On top of her yoga practice, learning about how the body works quieted those thoughts. Nicole has an incredible perspective about ancestry and cultural tie-ins with nutrition. “I started researching my culture and my genes. I feel like everyone has a different way their ancestors ate. They ate what they ate to survive and not to manipulate their body in any way. And that was solely what I was focusing on. I was trying to find where that got lost. For India, the diet is mostly made of grain, rice, things you can grow, where in America you have everything you could think of. In India, because of religion, they’re typically vegetarian. The hip and stomach region was more developed because of rice, vegetables, and grains. And those have always been my concern areas. When I started researching, I realized, maybe my body is like that because my ancestors were just trying to survive. This is how my body is keeping me alive. It’s not working against me so that I won’t look appealing, it’s just how my body is made, and that’s where my energy is coming from.”

Nicole continues on this topic: “When Indian girls talk about their body because of an Indian diet, you’re pretty much saying that a part of your culture should change. Love your body instead of downing your culture.” Another piece I’d never thought about.

I asked Nicole what the next step is for her body image journey. “Little things. Not being so annoyed with the problem areas around my stomach, my arms. Not thinking of them as problem areas. The first thing would be not to think about it. A big step would be looking at myself in the mirror and not thinking anything badly. That’s the last thing for me to be comfortable with my body.”

I agree with Nicole.

Sometimes, progress isn’t looking or thinking a completely different way. It’s just thinking negative thoughts less. It’s comparing less, even if the negative self-talk keeps happening each time you look in a mirror. Because one day, maybe those small steps take you somewhere phenomenal.

~

“No one looks at a man and makes assumptions about how capable they are. Someone needs to rewrite the narrative.” -- Carli Gish

Carli is studying to become a lawyer, and Carli is relentless. I remember that word, relentless, from when the teachers were asked about our intentions for the new year. Carli’s word: Relentless. I wish I would’ve asked her in the interview what she thought about that intention now, because it stuck with me. But if you’ve ever been to one of Carli’s classes, you’ll know… she doesn’t hold back! So I asked Carli about body image, and she responded with every bit of surety and strength I’ve come to associate her with.

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Have you ever judged your body? “In a world full of cameras and mirrors, it’s impossible not to. And almost sad to think about...because why? Who does that benefit? It just makes me feel horrible. Who wins? Someone who has a “better” body? It makes me mad. It makes me feel horrible about myself. And now I’m a victim of a mirror.” Like I said, she didn’t hold back. Carli continues, “Does what my body looks like make me a better or worse lawyer?” (It doesn’t.) “No one looks at a man and makes assumptions about how capable they are. Someone needs to rewrite the narrative.” I have a feeling Carli will be that person. From our interview, it certainly sounds like she’s rewriting her own story.

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That story starts in college. “What am I supposed to look like and what am I supposed to do? Throughout college I was always pretty conscious of [my body]. I have a twin sister who, I think, suffers from severe body image issues, and I think it haunts her. Everyone’s telling me she looks so great. She has six pack abs, defined muscles. And when your twin looks like that, and all anyone ever tells you is how great your sister looks... it became tough for me. I know she doesn’t enjoy the control of her life. So I’m seeing her suffer, but I’m seeing everyone comment on IG: So hot, flame emoji… That’s the point where I’m at now.”

Comparison planted itself at the heart of Carli’s body image issues. Not only her own thoughts digging the roots deeper, but opinions from others, too. I felt some of that between my sister and I, but I couldn’t image that sort of criticism or praise towards a twin. A mirror image of me.

I asked Carli how it felt to talk about those feelings. “I feel good about acknowledging what it is. And I don’t want to look like that, it’s not for me.” I asked Carli about the story/thoughts/vocabulary built up around that comparison. “When I’m eating a meal, I think Taylor probably wouldn’t eat that. If I decide to take a day off from working out, I’ll sit there and beat myself up. ‘That’s why she looks like that and I don’t.’ When I do and don’t do things… it goes to a direct comparison. I love my sister more than anything, but when I left college, I was so excited to be my own person. I was never just ME. But I’m still undergoing comparison, even if people don’t know her, it hasn’t changed for me.” From my point of view, it sounded like other people’s opinions and comments changed the way Carli experienced her relationship with her sister. She ended that question by saying, “I want to do something and think, ‘I want my sister here. She would love this.’”

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It seems to boil down to feelings of not-enough-ness. And for Carli, she wants those thoughts to drop away so that she can enjoy the relationship she was with Taylor. It’s hard, though, when those thoughts have been so deeply ingrained.

Despite the comparisons, Carli has developed more comfort in her skin. “My body works, I can do what I want. It’s been a long time to get to this point, but I’m finally at a point where I’m content.” And for Carli, being a part of the community at Shakti has been a safe space to explore body image. “The moments I’ve felt most comfortable in my body are when I’m teaching. Students aren’t looking at what I’m wearing or what I look like. They’re focused on what’s inside the body instead of what the physical looks like.

They’re not judging my ability to be a yoga teacher based on the way I look in yoga pants. That’s the beauty of yoga. They’re there for them and there for me because they enjoy me as a person and what I can bring to a class.”  

Finding success and happiness, not only in teaching yoga, but in her career, has offered Carli healing. “My aspirations give me meaning. Once I started to finally realize that was what mattered--that I had great, healthy relationships, great friends--I realized that I’m so much more than what I think my body should look like. Positives in life about things that truly matter and affect other people helped me get out of my own head and stop looking in the mirror. At the number on the scale, the nutrition facts label on the back of a package.”

We recently screened the Embrace film at Shakti, and the main takeaway message was just that:

Invite in a recalibration of my values → fill up my internal space with beauty. Leave no room for negative self talk. In Carli’s words, “That’s quite a force to reckon with.”

~

“Take up space. Feel good and feel big. I deserve this. I deserve this.”

-- Kat Gibson

Kat is one of my most fearless students. I teach a class at Shakti called Triple P, and basically we do all the “cool” postures I talked about in the beginning of this post. I make my students fall on their faces a lot. It’s a time to mess around and get curious about how their bodies can move. It’s a humbling 75 minutes (lol). Kat nails the poses a lot; Kat falls a lot. And each time, she smiles and gives a little shrug.

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That doesn’t mean, though, that Kat doesn’t think about her body just as much as everyone else. Kat says, “I'm not always happy with myself. I try hard to hide that fact. And so actually talking to somebody about how I'm not happy with myself is hard, but I think it's important to realize that we all do this. And it's really stupid and we should stop.” I get that from Kat. She’s confident, focused, present. I often times feel like a confident person = no self-hate. So I asked Kat what she felt unhappy about. “My stomach. Because all throughout high school, beginning of college I had washboard abs. Then all of a sudden I realized I wasn't like that anymore. It made me really self conscious, because you see everywhere that the vision of beauty is a flat stomach, and if you don't have a flat stomach, you know your gross.”

Preach. If you haven’t been following the entire blog series (I recommend you do that, first off), I’ve talked previously about the unrealistic expectations and cultural standards imposed on women’s bodies. I’ve raged a lot about that in previous posts. I’ll rage a little here, too: Our culture does not portray a diverse array of women’s bodies in popular media. Our culture over sexualizes women. Our culture pushes the large = bad, small = good agenda. Instead, I push: Bodies = bodies & leave them alone.

And bodies can do amazing things!

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Kat came to grad school and started to do yoga at home. The first time she came to Shakti: “Carli taught it, and I almost died.” (YES. THAT CARLI ^. Lol told you. Relentless.) “At the end of it, I was sitting there. And I’m like, ‘I can't do this. I can't do this all the time.’ And then immediately I had the thought of, ‘But... if I do this all the time, it won't be this hard anymore. And it's not.’” I find it hilarious and awesome that however many months later, their stories intertwine.

And even though I preach that Shakti doesn’t let you get compare-y, we can’t jump into your mind and force you not to compare yourself. Comparison and feeling self-conscious was a big issue for Kat when she first started. “Looking around and seeing people with their shirts off... I was like, ‘Man, I wish I looked like that.’ I can’t take my shirt off because I don't look like that and I don't want them to look at me and be like, ‘Ooh, gross. She needs to put her shirt back on.’” I hope no woman ever feels that way in our space. I hope no woman ever thinks that about another woman. But again. No mind-changing powers, here.

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And now, Kat takes her shirt off in class. Hey reader: Try yoga in a sports bra some time. It’s terrifying and fun and could make you feel free. (And it’s one less sweat-drenched article of clothing to wash = practical.) Kat’s first experience: “It was a live hip hop flow class. It was so fun and it was so hot and Ruby was kicking my ass and I was like, ‘Screw it! This shirt is coming off.’ It was a lot cooler! There wasn't like that thought of, ‘Oh my God, now everyone's looking at me.’ In the moment, I was like ‘Wow. That made a difference in my body.’”

But there are still moments, as I imagine there are with most women who are on this journey, when Kat feels like she needs to look a certain way. Similarly to me, she thinks a lot of this is rooted in the patriarchy. “Women are like, ‘Um. Hello. We are real people.’ We can do things. We’re smart (most of the time smarter than you), and I think that the patriarchy has a problem with that. So they make us feel bad about ourselves and our bodies. They think, maybe we will second guess everything else, too. My imposter syndrome is out of this world. It's so dumb because most men don't feel this way.”

That’s interesting to me, the “second guessing” part. If we second guess our body (our home), of course we’ll second guess everything that comes out of it. Our words, our actions, our dreams, our thoughts...

What if that dropped away? “It would give me time to focus on something else. Like how strong I'm getting, which is way cooler. Or being more calm, more at peace. That would be more sustaining and better for my mental health, that's for sure.” I followed up with, Would you still do yoga if it didn’t change the way your body looked? “Yes. Because of the way it makes me feel. That sense of accomplishment, peace and joy at the end of it, it just feels good when you're done. It feels good to work your body and be in the moment because you're working too hard to think about anything else.”

Kat thinks we should all talk about body image more. Not only within the studio space, but with each other. Family members, friends.

“I think it’s a habit to sweep it under the rug. Like, ‘Oh, well, nobody else thinks this about themselves, so I should just keep it to myself.’ When the reality is, we all think these things. Maybe if we actually talked to each other about it, maybe we can start to change.”

~

“Sometimes you have to step back and say, I cannot internalize all of this. Continue to feel like you're a piece of everything.”

-- Erin Morris

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Erin is also one of my fabulous students, someone who I’m constantly amazed by. Some context: For me, yoga can feel like a bogged down mess sometimes. Like I’m showing up because I have to, but I can’t get my body to move in a way that feels connected to how I feel. I imagine this happens to Erin, too, but from my perspective, she always moves with a degree of grace that suggests she’s tapped in. All the time. I was curious to hear what she thought about her body and where her story started.

I felt a lot of judgment as a young person, and I had a really hard time not letting that get to me. I’ve also dealt with depression and anxiety, and as I now know I have Hashimoto's, which is very commonly misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder. Because when your thyroid is not being regulated, it can shoot you into the same symptoms that you see in bipolar disorder. And so I've been on medication for mood disorders, depression, and anxiety. And so I think even though I was feeling that judgment, I think it was intensified because of my actual diagnosis that I deal with and wasn't being treated for.”

Before talking with Erin, Hashimoto’s was something I learned about in class, but I’d never conceptualized how deeply the disease could affect someone’s life. Not to mention the degree of stigma that comes with mood disorders. (Also, for those of you who don’t know, Hashimoto’s is a disease where your immune system attacks your thyroid, which is a gland that plays a bunch of roles in your body.)

But Erin’s story really starts before the diagnosis. In middle school, actually. “There was a shift in middle school. I'm was very outgoing and into theater and very into sports, and did a little bit of everything. And then, you get in middle school, and people start looking at you and how you are portraying yourself.” Erin went on to explain that girls basically categorized her as a “bitch” because of all the things she celebrated about herself. This caused Erin to withdraw and pull away from who she really was. “So it just perpetuated what I guess what they were saying. I wasn't myself for a really long time. I didn't feel like it was my choice to do that. It was put on me.” Erin added that she’s always been a thin kid, and that played a role, too, in how girls talked about her. Girls made up rumors about her, saying that she had anorexia, bulimia, etc. etc. I asked Erin if she thought she was bullied, and she said yes. “But it made me reject those certain people and then find other people that I maybe wouldn't have been friends with otherwise. So I can't say that it was all bad.”

Erin got older, headed off to college, and was living with Hashimoto’s undiagnosed. She described what it felt like before receiving proper treatment: “That was an interesting couple of years. So I had major manic episodes, and in those moments, I have no appetite, I can't sleep. I didn't go to class. Or I would go two weeks where I would eat nonstop, and then I would sleep all day long for the next two weeks. I couldn't physically move during those times.” Plus, depressive episodes.

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Through it all, Erin found a bright side. “I just feel really lucky to have a partner. Because I have two kids, and so to think about those moments… I don't want that for them, and I want them to have a supportive partner. I was lucky to have that from a very young age.”

Erin actually received the diagnosis when she and her husband had troubles conceiving. They went to a fertility specialist who took Erin’s blood, who then sent her to an endocrinologist. “The doctor pretty much said, ‘I can't believe you're even walking in here. Your numbers are so insane. I cannot believe you are functioning.’”

Overall, Erin’s body didn’t change much with the diagnosis and regulating of her thyroid hormones. “I’ve always been pretty muscular. I've never liked being muscular until now, because I look at myself as having the body of a 13 year old boy. There are moments where, like getting married, where women are supposed to look beautiful and feminine and all this... and I never felt that.

Erin continues, “I don't feel it as much anymore. I think yoga has done a lot for that, to just embrace that muscles are good. That means you're alive. That means your body is supporting you and loving you. It was really taxing for a long time to feel that way, because you want to be pretty, or wear halter tops! But that was just... just mortifying.” I feel like every woman has that piece of clothing that feels “off limits” or “unflattering.” Mine was crop tops.

It was interesting, because up until this point in the interview, Erin had shared a lot with me. I felt honored that she’d opened up so much of her past. But she’d come in with a few worries, understandably so. “I'm a super emotional person, really quick to cry, and I was nervous to do that in front of you. Every time I see you, is it going to be this cathartic? It changes your perception of the people, not necessarily that you would think anything. But it would change the vibe.” I get that. My understanding of the women I interviewed, all of them students and/or coworkers, has changed. The energy, vibe, and understanding between us has changed. It’s changed for the better, and I wouldn’t go back.

For example, I follow Erin on Instagram, and she has the cutest kids. Just knowing her, I can guarantee she’s an awesome mom. After talking with Erin more about motherhood, I know she’s an awesome mom. And like with any kick ass mama, she’s scared about how she’s affecting her kids. “You always get back to those feelings of inadequacy. I'm supposed to be eating a ton and building up this milk supply and nourishing my child, and I physically can't bring myself to eat. That was really hard and really scary for a couple of weeks. I had no problem with milk production, thankfully, but it was a constant worry.”

Some of Erin’s own fears around bullying and body shaming transferred to her daughter. “Valley is very petite. She's never had any real desire to sit down and eat, even when she was drinking milk from a bottle. She just didn't need as much, and that has unfortunately made me put a lot of pressure on her to eat. She's four years old, and I still feed her myself, just so I know she's getting calories and I know she's eating. Because I don't want her to feel how I felt.” Erin didn’t want kids to ridicule or bully Valley the same way they ridiculed Erin for her size. Absolutely. “To see it rear its head again, and come back around with her, especially a girl, is really hard. I can only imagine that I will continue to feel that way. That's a hard thing to reconcile with myself because I don't know how much of it is coming from my experience, versus me just being a mom and wanting her to be satisfied and healthy.”

I learned a lot from talking with Erin about her perspective, especially what it’s like to be a mom. I guess I had always seen my parents as these people who aren’t really people; Aka. my parents don’t have their own traumas and ways of processing that passed on to me. Erin’s story humanized my parents and offered them more grace than I can honestly say I give them. And I’m grateful for that.

I ended the conversation with Erin by talking about what Shakti can do to create a more supportive, clear, and authentic community. More below.

~

Healing and Moving Forward

With this topic, comparison, I think about what Shakti can do to create a more inclusive space. A space where we create a new normal for communication, self-love, and acceptance. I ended most of the conversations I had with these 18 women with one question: How can Shakti do better? How can I, as part of the staff, do better?

This is the fifth blog post out of six. The final blog post will revolve around that question: How can Shakti do better to create a space that limits comparison and opens our students up to curiosity about others? Curiosity about their practice? A few thoughts here.

I showed up at Shakti as a guarded & hesitant person full of comparison.

I grew stronger in a few different ways:

  1. I learned to talk to people. My students, the staff. I learned that people wanted to talk to me. That my little rectangle mat didn’t isolate me. Not really.

  2. I learned to be gentle with myself. Sometimes, that meant trying a hard or new pose. Most times, child’s pose.

  3. I learned to be honest. To give up the mask over and over and over and over…

  4. I learned that the work doesn’t fucking stop...

  5. ...And that’s okay

For me, comparison dug its roots deep into my insecurities. Finding community ripped the legs out from under my shitty self-talk. But in the deepest moments of my depression, reaching out felt horribly scary and impossible.

So before the next post, before my list of Here’s-how-we-can-all-do-better-for-each-other...

Reach out to someone you don’t know in the studio space.

You could be the person that changes their life.

Ruby Chandler