Yoga and Self-Ac­cep­tance

Yoga teacher Sara Clark shares her jour­ney from self-con­scious­ness to coura­geous­ness, plus an asana prac­tice paired with mantra to help you feel con­fi­dent in your own skin.

Yoga Journal - - CONTENTS - By Sara Clark

Step into your power with this in­spir­ing story of trans­for­ma­tion. Plus, an asana prac­tice for feel­ing fierce.

I RE­MEM­BER THE FIRST TIME I be­came self­con­scious about my body. I couldn’t have been older than seven. I was wear­ing my fa­vorite flo­ral one-piece bathing suit, and my friend’s lit­tle brother told me that I had big legs. Those words felt like a punch to the gut. I was sud­denly aware of my body in a way that I hadn’t been be­fore. From that mo­ment on, my body be­came some­thing oth­ers could ac­cept or re­ject with­out my con­sent. That com­ment planted a seed of shame that would even­tu­ally grow and lead me on a long jour­ney from self-de­struc­tion and dys­mor­phic think­ing to self-dis­cov­ery and spir­i­tual re­newal.

At the age of nine, I tran­si­tioned from be­ing home­schooled in a di­verse sub­urb of Syra­cuse, New York, to the pub­lic school sys­tem in Bel Air, Mary­land— a pre­dom­i­nantly white com­mu­nity. I was not only aware of my “big” legs, but also my hair tex­ture, my far from Euro­pean-shaped nose, and my darker skin color.

I be­gan com­par­ing my­self to the “pop­u­lar” girls, who wore pony­tails that swayed from side to side as they walked the halls. In an at­tempt to “fit in,” every few months I would sit for hours in a sa­lon while a hair­dresser trans­formed my hair into hun­dreds of long, tiny braids, called mi­cro­mi­nis, in hopes of mim­ick­ing long, flow­ing hair.

My im­age con­scious­ness wasn’t helped by the fact that my lov­ing par­ents, who grew up in the South dur­ing the civil rights era, were in­cred­i­bly con­ser­va­tive. To pro­tect me from what they viewed as a world that over­sex­u­al­ized black women’s bod­ies, they made sure there were no short shorts in my wardrobe. In­stead of cel­e­brat­ing my long limbs, I hid them, grow­ing more and more ashamed of my fig­ure.

Neg­a­tive self-talk be­gan to fill my head. Dur­ing my se­nior year, I went to the prom with a white friend. Af­ter that, his friends stopped talk­ing to him for choos­ing a “brown girl” as his date.

“In a so­ci­ety that prof­its from your self-doubt, lik­ing your­self is a re­bel­lious act.” CARO­LINE CALDWELL

I in­ter­nal­ized the hate un­til I de­spised every square inch of who I was. Ac­cord­ing to the Mayo Clinic, the symp­toms of dys­mor­phia in­clude hav­ing per­fec­tion­ist ten­den­cies; con­stantly com­par­ing your ap­pear­ance with oth­ers; hav­ing a strong be­lief that you have a de­fect in your ap­pear­ance that makes you ugly or de­formed; avoid­ing cer­tain so­cial sit­u­a­tions be­cause of it (which for me meant wear­ing a bathing suit or shorts in pub­lic); and be­ing so pre­oc­cu­pied with your ap­pear­ance that it causes ma­jor dis­tress or prob­lems in your so­cial life, work, school, or other ar­eas of func­tion­ing while al­ways seek­ing re­as­sur­ance about your ap­pear­ance. I un­know­ingly could have checked off all those boxes.

It had been a dream of my grand­mother’s that I’d have a “black ex­pe­ri­ence,” and so for un­der­grad I at­tended a pre­dom­i­nantly black, pres­ti­gious, pri­vate col­lege in Vir­ginia. It was heal­ing in some ways, but iso­lat­ing in oth­ers.

It was a re­lief not to stick out like a sore thumb. I even traded my long braids for my nat­u­ral hair—which I wore as an afro and then dread­locks that grew down my back—per­haps, an act of re­bel­lion af­ter years of con­form­ity.

While I still hadn’t made it into the “pop­u­lar” clique, I did gain a tiny bit of self-con­fi­dence. My fresh­man year, I ended up at the same fra­ter­nity party as the hand­some se­nior I’d had a huge crush on. He’d never paid any at­ten­tion to me un­til then. I was flat­tered.

Try­ing hard to fit in, I con­sumed a lot of al­co­hol for the first time. What started off as a fun night with my girl­friends ended with a dev­as­tat­ing sex­ual as­sault.

I was left feel­ing even more in­se­cure about both my body and my self-worth, and I turned to the gym as an es­cape. I’d work out ob­ses­sively for hours. My soul knew I needed help. At the time, I felt iso­lated and con­flicted. I had al­ways be­lieved that black women didn’t have this prob­lem; that curves were cel­e­brated, not de­spised. And yet, skinny equaled happy in my mind.

Dur­ing the sum­mer break af­ter fresh­man year, there was no gym where I could sweat out my emo­tions. I needed an­other way to feel in con­trol. I be­gan binge­ing and purg­ing ev­ery­thing I ate— a dif­fer­ent way to cope with the lack of con­trol I’d ex­pe­ri­enced through­out my ado­les­cence. But a small voice within begged me to stop, and I fi­nally con­fided to my dad that I needed help.

The next day, I saw an eat­ing dis­or­der spe­cial­ist. Soon af­ter, I was hos­pi­tal­ized and be­gan a rig­or­ous treat­ment process. My breath be­came my an­chor as I slowly be­gan my re­cov­ery. When I would think about purg­ing af­ter a meal, I’d use my breath to calm my thoughts.

I had taken a yoga class with my older sis­ter in high school. What a gift that 90 min­utes had been; a break from my own self-crit­i­cism. I hadn’t prac­ticed yoga since then, but when I re­turned to col­lege my sopho­more year, I took a yoga mat and DVD with me. I be­gan prac­tic­ing in my dorm room. For once, I was more in­ter­ested in cel­e­brat­ing what my body was ca­pa­ble of than what it looked like. Yoga wasn’t pop­u­lar then, but I stuck to my prac­tice through­out col­lege, and I took it with me to New York City af­ter I grad­u­ated.

In New York, I started at­tend­ing hot yoga classes and found con­fi­dence in wear­ing just a sports bra and leg­gings; I was even oc­ca­sion­ally bold enough to wear shorts. While I wasn’t fully free from my neg­a­tive think­ing, I fi­nally felt strong in my body. I could look at my­self in the mir­ror and greet my re­flec­tion with a smile.

As I deep­ened my prac­tices of vinyasa, mind­ful­ness, and med­i­ta­tion, I reached a place where I could be the ob­server of my thoughts, not a ser­vant to them. The power of mantra has been pro­found, and I now re­write my neg­a­tive “bro­ken records” as pos­i­tive af­fir­ma­tions. I still bat­tle with self­crit­i­cism; how­ever, I now have the tools to rec­og­nize and shift my thoughts with self-com­pas­sion.

OUR PRO Teacher and model Sara Clark is a vinyasa and mind­ful­ness teacher in New York City. She is a fac­ulty mem­ber at the Kri­palu Cen­ter for Yoga & Health, and the cre­ator of a se­ries of on­line yoga and med­i­ta­tion classes for Yo­ga­Glo. Learn more at sar­aclarkyoga.com.

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