Last month, while practicing with Ana Forrest in Chicago for the first time in about four years, a lot of things felt really good. My shoulders felt healthy, strong and open. My previously injured hamstrings were completely healed and at the same time, quite flexible. As I embraced the intensity of the infamous (and seemingly endless) Forrest abs, stretched a straight leg up to the sky in Bridge One Leg Up, and quietly floated up against the wall for minute-long inversions, I indulged in exceedingly non-yogic and egotistical comparisons between my own practice in contrast to others in the room.
But when it came to binds, that confidence ran smack into a wall. I have always been able to bind in pavritta parsvakatasana (revolving side angle) but this time I couldn’t. Not even close. My stomach and breasts were in the way, and the truth of the matter is that I’ve gained quite a bit of weight since my yoga practice began. I felt huge. I felt sloppy. I started to feel undeserving of being in that room, of being perceived of having a strong practice. I felt like a faker and a hypocrite; who am I to teach yoga when I can’t do this stupid pose that I used to do all the time?
Then I did what Ana always tells us to do but what I must have never done in the past. I shifted. I consciously stepped out of self-mutilation, started to breathe, put myself into a modification of the pose, and allowed myself to feel. And in spite of feeling my abdomen crushed against my thigh and my breasts forced up into my chin, I felt good. No, great. I felt happy. I felt alive. And most importantly, I was not in pain.
You may have heard yogis say that injuries are our best teachers. Even though I feel like strangling those who tell me this when all I want is a little bit of sympathy, it really is true. I think back to my bound side angle when I was at a much lower weight and remember how agonizing it was. Both both of my hamstrings were injured and overstretched, my entire low back was destabilized from forcing the bind, and if I had binged and purged the night before (which I usually had), breathing felt like I was wreathed in barbed wire. This certainly didn’t make for a calming, introspective yoga practice. I endured the pose instead of feeling it. I counted the breaths until it was over and took a perverse pleasure in the pain. I believed that if I could muscle through this and other obstacles in my practice, I could bring these skills to my life.
Oh, was I wrong! Hardening to go deeper into a pose is like pushing a door marked “pull.” The harder you go, the more resistance you meet, and the end result is nothing but frustration and failure. When you back off enough to gather soe perspective and do what you can rather than what you think you must, you give yourself the space to move forward. It’s not weakness to back off. It’s wisdom.
I took time to heal from my physical and emotional injuries. I started lifting heavy weights to strengthen the muscles I had overstretched and injured in my competitive yoga practice. I stopped juicing, cleansing, and tried to eat like a normal person rather than a yogini, which made me less bulimic and helped me past my irrational fears of gluten and meat. Over time, I moved past the worst of my eating disorder and now, when I overeat, it doesn’t turn into a binge and I don’t throw up my food afterward. But life is full of tradeoffs, and in exchange for physical health and sanity, I added a good chunk of weight and body mass to my frame. I look more like a stocky gymnast than a willowy yoga teacher.
I wish I could say that this doesn’t bother me, but that would be a lie. I liked being thin and I liked doing hard poses. But at that time in my life, I was broken, both physically and emotionally. Perhaps I was just a fraction of what I could have been and my recovery made me complete. However I look at it, the balance always tips to the present rather than to the past. I didn’t want to go back into that yoga space that I had been in and do the pose if it meant picking up all the additional baggage that went along with it. So instead of screaming in frustration or breaking down into tears, I grabbed my left hip with my right hand and my right hip with my left hand, creating my own personal bind that accommodated those eight years of living, pain, injury, healing, and emotional growth, and breathed as though I was in the full pose.
I tell my students: “If you are breathing as though you are in the pose, then you are in the pose.” And that practice was the happiest practice I had in ages. I didn’t mess it up by spiraling back into this place where not being thin meant that I couldn’t be happy or even simply experience the pose. Instead of feeling loathing for my body, I simply felt the breath move through it and drank in the sensation of BEING–being alive. I was so fortunate to have the health, fitness, resources, and knowledge to be in that room on that day. I had worked hard to evolve and I learned from the pose instead of getting pissy and bailing.
That was one of the purest yoga experiences I’ve had. It taught me more about myself as a teacher and as a human being than any other moment I’ve had on my mat. It turned a moment of potential self-sabotage into a moment of clarity and happiness in which I realized that no matter where I was, what I was doing, or what I looked like, I WAS ENOUGH.
I would love to be thin again. I would love to be able to slide into my binds easily, without a strap, without writhing and jerking around. But I’d also love to have long straight blonde hair and look like a twenty year old supermodel, and that’s just not going to happen. Why make my happiness contingent on something I am not? Why not just find another route to that happiness NOW? I already have the pose within my body and I can do it in a way that honors my body and not my competitive ego. My body is a living history of my life. The additional weight is merely a scar from the eating disorder (yes, bulimia will make you gain weight in the long run) and the process of healing. Just as the burns on my arms remind me that I was a pastry chef, my body is a reflection of where I’ve been, not who I am.
Maybe one day, I’ll be able to revisit revolving side angle with my right and left hands clasped together, Maybe not. But that’s not really relevant to my proficiency as a yoga teacher or practitioner. It does not make me a better person or more enlightened. And I won’t be counting the days until I’m there again. Instead, I’ll be the one in the room with the goofy smile on her face, holding onto her hips, and looking completely content to be exactly where she is right now.