It’s been a year now since I started the yoga class that made me fall in love with yoga. I started thinking about that in bed this morning, as I was doing your typical just-woke-up stretches. Instead of simply doing whatever felt good, as I did for the first 31 years of my life, I found myself instinctively correcting my alignment and isolating specific muscles. In bed. 30 seconds after waking up. And I said to myself, “Self, you’ve come a long way with this yoga shit.”
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the most amazing, life-changing thing about yoga for me is that it’s allowed me to experience my body from the inside out. For someone who has no natural athletic skill and was conditioned, early and thoroughly, to fear the inevitable humiliation of physical activity, being tuned into what my muscles and joints are doing at any given time is a radical change. And a most fucking welcome one.
Like just about all girls in this culture, I was always taught that my body was primarily something for other people to experience externally, not something I actually inhabited. By the time I was 20, without even trying, I became an expert on which make-up colors suit fair skin and blue eyes, which styles show off fine, wavy hair to its best advantage, which cuts of clothing flatter an hourglass figure. I knew how many calories were in everything and how many pounds I’d have to lose to drop a dress size. But I was over 30 before I learned how to engage just my quadriceps–without the rest of my legs and my ass getting into the game–let alone how engaging just my quadriceps could affect what was happening with my feet. I was over 30 before I learned that deep, focused breathing cuts my anxiety in half. I was over 30 before I learned how fantastic it feels, mentally and physically, to put my muscles to good use on a regular basis.
Because no one ever taught me there was a point to any of that for someone like me. If you didn’t enjoy sports–and hoo boy, I didn’t–the only, only reason to exercise was to lose weight. Sure, plenty of people gave lip service to the idea of exercising “for your health,” but what that meant was “to lose weight.” Fat was bad and unhealthy. Exercise made it go away. That. Was. All.
So if I exercised and didn‘t lose weight, there was no goddamned point, obviously. I wasn’t getting any “healthier,” and I sure wasn’t getting any prettier, and it literally did not occur to me to consider how my body actually felt when I exercised. When I did it, there was only one thought in my mind: “If I keep this up for a really long time, I will be thin.”
And because the only goal was to be thin, I would inevitably overexert myself–if I fucking decimate my body every time, I’ll be thin a few weeks sooner!–which only reinforced the idea that exercise was a miserable, painful endeavor, a punishment for being fat. I’d dive into a pool and swim three lengths flat out, then want to die because I couldn’t breathe. I’d get on a bike and ride a mile the same way, with the same result. And then, of course, tell myself, “You are so disgustingly out of shape you can only swim three lengths/bike a mile! You pathetic piece of shit.” Treadmill, Stairmaster, aerobics class: ditto, ditto, ditto. I once spent an entire night vomiting and nursing the most colossally splitting headache I’d ever known after a tae kwon do class–I’d triggered a migraine but didn’t even recognize it as such, because I was that out of touch with my body. I just thought, you know, that’s what happens to lazy fatasses when they start an exercise program.
And inevitably, the morning after, my entire body would ache as though I’d been beaten. For quite some time. By several large men. So I’d give up on exercising. Not because it was hurting my body, of course, but because, like all fat people, I was lazy! Because I had no willpower! No persistence! Because, I gathered, I would have to be in shape to withstand a “normal” exercise routine, and that would clearly involve long, aching months of getting in shape… so, you know, fuck it.
Nobody ever told me that pouring on everything you’ve got in the first five minutes is not normal. Nobody ever told me to pay attention to what I was feeling in the moment, and stop doing anything that hurt. Nobody ever told me that I could exercise an hour a day for the rest of my life and not necessarily lose weight, but I might just want to do it anyway because it feels good–when you aren’t frantically straining yourself every time.
What they told me was, “Eat less and exercise more.” Less and less and less; more and more and more. Whatever it takes not to be fat. The only point, ever, was not to be fat, and the only point of not being fat–let’s face it–was so other people would look at me and think I was a good person, an attractive person. Health was irrelevant, no matter how often it was mentioned. I did fine on my annual physical, I wasn’t any sicker than anyone else (childhood–when I was thin–excepted)–and frankly, even if those things hadn’t been true, health would still have been irrelevant. I just wanted to be thin.
Everyone wanted me to be thin, as far as I could tell. But I wasn’t thin because I couldn’t stick to an exercise program that strained my muscles and shortened my breath and put me out of commission for at least 24 hours afterwards. That, I was led to believe, was how thin people lived. Because they were virtuous enough to withstand it, and I was not.
Nobody ever told me that isn’t how all thin people live. Nobody ever told me that thin people aren’t in pain all the goddamned time.
They just kept telling me to eat less and exercise more. And, with the exception of a few self-loathingly ascetic years in my early twenties, I just kept failing.
My first yoga class–when I was 25, I think–was literally my first experience ever of exercise that made me feel better when I finished than when I’d started. It was a “gentle” class, lots of old ladies and preggos, which I referred to as “yoga for wusses” over the several years I periodically dropped in on it. It was designed specifically not to hurt the tenderest, most out-of-shape student–yet it sure wasn’t nothing. I sweat. I gasped for breath more than once. I felt my muscles the next day–only this time, it was more like they were saying, “Hi, we’re here!” than “You evil bitch, what have you done to us?”
It felt good.
And it still took me more than five years to get serious about practicing regularly, to want that good feeling, because I was still so deeply convinced that exercise was a painful, demeaning endeavor with no point other than a sisyphean journey toward an imagined ideal body. I’d think about going to yoga and get anxious, start making excuses, start telling myself I’ll go tomorrow. When I did force myself to go, I enjoyed it, but the anticipation of going remained miserable. It was still exercise. Exercise was still the enemy.
It took over five fucking years to fully internalize that I liked it.
And it took meeting a yoga teacher who’s not built like a twig to fully internalize that liking it is the real point, not getting thin.
I don’t think that will ever stop making me sad.
Nor do I think the continued–maybe increasing–pressure on girls to see their bodies as objects for others’ consumption, instead of powerful machines they own and control, will ever stop making me sad.
But a year of sustained yoga practice makes me happy. Instinctively correcting my own alignment makes me happy. Feeling my legs shake as my muscles let go of an old, bad memory makes me happy. The thought of someday teaching other women to experience their bodies from the inside out makes me really, really happy.
All that’s not quite enough to stop making me sad about the other things, but it helps.