I never understood that I had a responsibility to supervise my relationship with myself. I never considered it possible that my mind could become so feral, so contaminated, that it would begin to work against me each and everyday day, until I was so weakened, so submissive, that I became completely entrapped in the claws of its dictatorial regime.
Growing Up As Barbie
I entered my teenage years with a set of fairly distorted core beliefs, adopted from the influential voices of my childhood. My parents, the media, Walt Disney, all impressed on me the necessity, comfort and value of superficiality: “Keep your skin young, sing sweetly, be shiny!” “You’ll be well-rewarded and well-regarded!” “Your Ken will complete you.”
My perfectionism was my armour. My aesthetic was my weapon. If I felt perfect, I was indestructible. If I could get you to tell me I looked good and notice me, it validated me as a person.
It seemed that somewhere when I was growing up, some wires had become crossed. I was completely barren of the pure, authentic esteem and self-worth absolutely essential if I was to develop into an emotionally balanced, self-reliant young woman.
Don’t! Can’t! Shouldn’t!
My fixation with body image evolved into a fixation with food. Food became my voice when my lips were muted; an outward expression for my internal confusion and hurt. A clever little strategy which I felt perversely in control of. It gave me a purpose and a focus. Something I could micro-manage, because the big, wide world out there appeared too uncertain. Too unmanageable. So, when I was about thirteen, the mind began to talk.
At first, it was just little whispers. Self-doubting, judgemental whispers echoing those core beliefs from my childhood. Then came the unrealistic expectations and ideals breeding the self-obsession. Then fear. Plenty of fear: fear of mediocrity, fear of inferiority, fear of fat, fear of food, fear of people, fear of feelings…
My relationship with food reflected my relationship with myself: volatile, intolerant, abusive. I just continued taking the orders. “Don’t! Can’t! Shouldn’t!” That’s how my mind spoke to me. My mind chatter was a constant stream of improbable demands and negative self-criticism. I would never have been capable of spitting such vitriol at another human being, so why did I tolerate using such language with myself? I wince to remember my harshness.
Running From the Voices
Extraordinarily, during all the years I was under attack from myself, I never once contemplated that I couldn’t trust that voice in my head; that I could question its integrity.
I never considered that perhaps my mind had gone askew, that the way out was as simple as a re-education programme. Not a re-education in diet or the mathematics of weight management, but a re-education for my internal dialogue.
A decade passed like this, the caustic effect of my eating disorder completely depleted my life force, numbed me emotionally and stole my stillness. My mind was everywhere but here, because here hurt.
The very first time I attended a Yoga class, I was finally in a space that encouraged me to be calm. In that space, my mind chatter was deafening and it was only then, as I dipped my little toe into the vast Yogic ocean that my true, toxic state of my mind was revealed.
My food issues were a manifestation of my untamed mind, which was a symptom of the inner resources I had failed to develop as a child. But for the first time ever, through the simplicity of the relationship I found with my yoga mat, I began to question the negativity of my mindscape. This continued to happen every time I practised.
In Yoga I watched myself. In Yoga I heard myself. In Yoga I was with myself, and soon it stopped being so frightening.
You’re Not Alone
Chelsea Roff is the Founder and Director of Eat, Breathe, Thrive: a non profit organization, which helps individuals make full recoveries from eating disorders through Yoga. Her own, five year battle with anorexia nearly claimed her life and saw her weight drop to an unimaginable fifty-eight pounds.
Roff says, “Yoga taught me to relate to my body as an ally, rather than as an enemy, as a gateway to intimacy and connection with others and perhaps most importantly, help me cultivate the skills I needed to be with emotions I’d nearly killed myself trying to stave off.”
The twenty-three-year old so passionately believes in the healing power of Yoga for Eating Disorders that she has just campaigned for and successfully raised $51,000 to finance her initiative to offer Yoga to patients in Eating Disorder Treatment Centres across the United States. For free.
So for some of us, Yoga really is a vehicle to gaining a newfound respect for our bodies, an understanding of our capabilities, an acceptance of our limitations. It’s a fertile ground where the seeds of self-compassion can be sown and nourished. However, the West is in the midst of a Yogic economic boom and just like within any industry, rapid expansion gives way for exploitation and facilitates questionable interpretations to slip through quality control.
Navigating the Pitfalls
Glossy, corporate studios and high-end apparel brands are seductively selling an idealistic Yogi body type, which is being bought and made sacred by insecure, vulnerable individuals; particularly easily-influenced, young girls. Model practitioners on Instagram and YouTube with their micro-waistlines and minuscule bikinis, silhouetted upon tropical shores, sell a ‘perfect’ asana, by a ‘perfect’ body. Impressionable women, striving to emulate their viral Yoga starlets, can be attracted to hitting multiple, high-intensity classes a day and using the sessions to burn hard and fast calories.
Could these new industry ideals be perpetuating the negative voices in their minds? The kind of voices I once heard and believed?
I have been in Yoga classes where the atmosphere has felt similar to a high school changing room, rife with a competitiveness and a cattiness which is surely a million miles away from the true essence of Yoga. The type of environment which breeds and sustains eating disorders and fuels unhealthy attitudes to body image and self.
So where do you sit when you sit on your Yoga mat? Are you buying into a side of Yoga which will see your waistline and your self-esteem shrink? Or are you allowing your Yoga to take you on a restorative, inward spiritual journey which will enable the kind of healthy perspective and grounded attitude we are all going to need if we are to survive in this crazy, consumer world of superficiality and instant gratification?
Over To You
So here is one lasting bit of food for thought: Perhaps a responsibility lies with the entire Yoga community to ensure we retain the integrity of our individual practises. To use our time on the mat to explore and heal inwardly, instead of comparing our outward shine. And to count our self-acceptance, not our calories, so that Yoga can continue to be a safe place for those struggling with an eating disorder to come, connect and recover.
If we refuse to swallow the spiritually diluted, distorted concoction we have possibly come to know as Yoga in the West, and if we spit out any bitter vibration which comes our way and tries to corrupt our principles and mantras, then I have no doubt whatsoever that we can all Eat, Breathe, and Thrive in abundance.