When yoga gets complicated: How to appreciate the mental aspects of yoga

A little over a year ago, I was on the phone with my best friend. I remember telling her, “Ok, so don’t hate me, but I think I want to start doing yoga. Like, real yoga. For real.” She had a good laugh and then was like, “Wait. You’re serious?”

What’s so funny or unbelievable about wanting to do yoga? Well, for most people, absolutely nothing. It was funny to us though because up until that point we both had a strong mutual dislike for yoga. I’ve found this to be true of many people who’ve been through a great deal of eating disorder-related treatment, as yoga is often incorporated. I’m not just talking about the fancy residential centers; I’ve been to inpatient EDUs and even general psych wards that incorporate “yoga.” NYPSI, 2008– a unit comprised of patients with eating disorders, depression, and pill addiction are led in weekly sessions of “yoga” which consist of a bunch of dirty makeshift mats spread out on the tiled dining room floor (yes, we yoga-ed where we ate). Because ED patients were usually on restricted exercise there was very little movement involved, so it usually ended up being 90% meditation with maybe a tree pose and one downward dog thrown in to spice things up. It was often led by some random psych-tech and very rarely by an actual licensed yoga instructor. Is it any wonder why people exposed to this kind of “yoga” would develop an aversion to it?

This isn’t to say that all of the therapeutic yoga I experienced was horrible. For example, the place I was at in 2012 actually had a really awesome (licensed!) instructor teach legitimate yoga to patients once we were medically stable. It was experiences like this that led me to wonder if maybe I really could/would enjoy “real” non-treatment yoga one day.

So, in May of 2015, I took a leap of faith and signed up for my local yoga studio’s newcomer special that allowed you to take three weeks of unlimited classes for just $30. By my second or third class, I was hooked and I signed up for a membership as soon as my 3-week trial was up. I loved almost everything about it. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I maintained a lot of my gymnastics days flexibility. I loved that it was 60, 75, or 90 minutes at a time where I could temporarily escape from my everyday worries and stressors. I loved that the body image aspect I was so worried about (more on this later) wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. People really seemed to be focused on their own practice. And finally, I really loved the social aspect. Even though it was several months before I got comfortable enough to casually talk to the people I regularly saw there, just the experience of being in a space with 10-20 other people was surprisingly really… nice. I sometimes think I’m an extrovert stuck in an introvert’s mind/body; I do love people and can feel energized by them when I allow myself. In time I started being more friendly and open with people. I quickly became “good enough” to attend the advanced classes. Yoga life was good.

I’ll admit, my major motivation initially was physical. I suck at most regular exercise, so I thought yoga could be my thing. I made myself go to at least one class a day, often more. I gravitated to the most physically intense and advanced classes. More often than not my thoughts during savasana were along the lines of “I wonder how many calories I just burned?” Super deep and spiritual, I know. When yoga was a purely physical thing for me, I was convinced I had to be super compulsive about it. If yoga wasn’t going to help me achieve/keep the body I wanted, there was no point. Yoga twice a day everyday or not at all.

Gradually, however, I started noticing the more mental and emotional benefits. I noticed I just felt generally better after yoga, in every way. I went to sleep in a good mood and woke up excited for the day ahead, which was not typical for me. I started being easier on myself if I had to skip a class due to a scheduling conflict because after all, beating myself up for only going to yoga 5x/week instead of 7 was kind of silly. When my one-year yoga anniversary (yoga-versary?) came up in May, I was feeling pretty good about my yoga journey over the past year. I had managed to embrace the more spiritual side of yoga without becoming a hippie pot-smoking flower child (no offense to hippie pot-smoking flower children; that just isn’t me).

Then, a couple weeks ago something happened that kind of threw me for a loop. After class one night I was chatting with a fellow yogi. I mentioned that it was recently my one-year anniversary of being at the studio, and how crazy but cool it was that I had come to be such a fan of yoga. And then, out of nowhere, she started telling me how she had noticed a remarkable transformation in my body (yes, my body) over the past year. This came completely unprovoked; I didn’t give this woman any indication that I wanted her to give me a detailed analysis of the changes she noticed in my body (my body!) over the past year. It was so completely bizarre and uncomfortable. I just stood there with a blank stare on my face until she finally stopped talking long enough for me to kind of awkwardly laugh and tell her I had to be getting home.

I remember driving home that night thinking, “What seriously just happened??” As for the specific comments, it took me a long enough time to figure out what she was even trying to say. I think she was trying to pay me a compliment, but not unsurprisingly nothing about it felt good to me. I had recently worked hard to convince myself that even though I may be X lbs higher than I was at this time last year (thank you daily weight records), it’s not the end of the world, and it’s even okay because I’m generally happier and in a better place. I should also note that this wasn’t the first time this woman had made comments about my body, although this time was definitely the strangest, as she actually made reference to changes she’s noticed in specific body parts. What…the… actual… f*ck?

This woman is not aware of my history with EDs. That said, I truly think comments like this would make anyone uncomfortable, even people with no ED history whatsoever. I was telling this story to a close friend today, and she passionately validated for me that this woman’s comments were completely inappropriate.

One of my major hesitations to joining a yoga studio was the fact that it would mean major “exposure” for my body. In general I really hate the thought of anyone looking at or even noticing my body. This used to be so bad that I would avoid leaving the house entirely on bad body image days. As such, willingly choosing to put myself out there via group yoga was a pretty huge deal for me. Whenever I started to feel weird and anxious about my body being “on display” I’d tell myself that no one was looking at or examining my body; everyone was too focused on their own practice. Listening to this woman give such a detailed assessment of my body negated this completely.

I think this woman is a perfect example of someone who does yoga purely for physical reasons. This is absolutely fine; I respect that everyone does yoga for their own reasons. That said, I’ll admit that being around people like her make it harder for me to embrace the other more mental/spiritual aspects of yoga, as it brings the entire focus back to the physical.

I don’t intend to let this woman spoil my love for yoga, although it’s definitely been a mindf*ck of a couple weeks as I try to make sense of and put to rest these comments. I’m grateful for the very candid conversation I was able to have with a friend today who was able to offer much needed perspective and insight into this and related body concerns. Thank you, friend, your input today meant more than you know.

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