The Practice of Yoga
**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
By Liz Rognes, a former Emily Program client in recovery. She is a teacher, writer, and musician who lives in Spokane, WA.
A few years ago, I dropped in to a yoga class in my neighborhood. I had not been to this class before, and I did not know the teacher, but the class was on a sliding scale fee and I was a graduate student, and I knew I loved the way that yoga can help me feel present in my body while also calming my mind. So I showed up right on time, unrolled my mat alongside the other yogis, and settled in to a comfortable child’s pose, waiting for the teacher to arrive and for class to start. The moments before a class are my favorite; I can sink into a gentle stretch and let my body and mind begin to let go of the tension of the day.
The teacher appeared suddenly, marching in through the doorway, her stomping feet a shock in the dim, quiet room. She jolted us all into action. She shouted a greeting to the room, which was full of women, and then announced that the focus of the day, ladies, was on “firming the flab” of our bellies. The way she emphasized the word bellies clearly indicated that we were supposed to already have a negative relationship with this part of our bodies. She touched her own belly as she said it, making a denigrating claim about her own body, reinforcing the message that as women, we are expected to be critical of our abdomens. I could tell right away that this was not the kind of class I wanted to attend.
I love practicing yoga—I love the way that gentle stretches and poses can make me feel present in my body, the way that the repetition of sun salutations can calm the racing anxiety in my mind, and the way that I can fully rest and relax on my mat at the end of a practice. I love the idea of yoga as “practice.” It’s not perfection; it’s always evolving and growing and changing. For me, sometimes yoga is about resting, sometimes it’s about building strength, sometimes it’s about stretching the muscles I rarely think about, but it’s always also about easing my anxiety and learning to listen to my body and connecting with my mind and spirit. It’s about being exactly where I am in my body, which varies from day to day, from hour to hour.
As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, I’ve learned that it’s important for me to choose yoga classes wisely. I want my relationship to yoga (and any other form of physical activity) to be healthy. I’ve been to classes that have been triggering for me for various reasons—classes where the walls are lined with mirrors, or where the teacher says shaming things or admonishes the form of someone in the room. In recovery, I’ve discovered that sometimes I have to make choices about which classes I attend, for my own health and sanity. What’s triggering for me might not be triggering for someone else in recovery, and part of figuring out which classes to attend is learning what I value about yoga.
Yoga has been an important part of my recovery. When I do attend classes, I choose classes in rooms without mirrors, with teachers who say empowering and positive things, in rooms where different types of bodies are represented, where I feel like I can truly relax, where I don’t sense an air of competition, where I don’t feel judged or shamed. I didn’t return to that class with the teacher who asked the class to focus on our “flab.” Eventually, I found a small studio with a teacher who smiles and takes deep breaths and who talks about being with our bodies where they are, doing the poses where we are at, and who emphasizes the importance of rest and quiet.
Now, as a mother of a toddler, it’s hard to find time to attend yoga classes. But my son loves it when I get out the yoga mat, and sometimes we do a few poses together at home. He climbs on me or crawls underneath my legs or pulls my ponytail and giggles. He plays peek-a-boo with me. He knocks me out of alignment and distracts me. These practices are brief and funny and I am easily diverted. My body has changed since pregnancy and childbirth; some poses feel different. Some are more difficult for me. But I still love the way that yoga is one method of slowing down and feeling connected to my body, this wonderful and imperfect place, exactly where it is.