The Incredible Shrinking Yogi:
Part One: Gentle with the Bunny
In mid February this year, I stepped on the scale I keep in my bathroom. While this wasn't a new thing, it was an important moment. My scale told me that I had, over the course of four years, lost 100 pounds. I stood there, stock still, and just felt my feelings. First, my eyes stung wth tears, then I laughed and finally, I stepped off the scale and went about my day, as the kids say, a little shook. As I went about my business, the image of the digital readout came into mind. I wanted to celebrate with my closest friends and family. This was a hard fought achievement after all, and they helped and supported me tremendously throughout. So I called my mom and sent texts to my husband and best friend.
As I had my beloved Yoga basics class to teach that same evening, I waffled a bit at sharing the news with my students. I have struggled with ambivalence over whole pursuit of weight loss. I wanted (and still do) my students to love their bodies as is. Period. And here I was modeling the notion that somehow I wasn't good enough or accepting of my own body. That I had bent towards society's will and now should be celebrated. It's just such a tricky thing. Plus, there is the hubris of it all. Remember Oprah and that wagon of fat? Ugh.
But, I shared it with them and they were wonderful, of course. What I hadn't expected, but totally should have was the question. Had yoga helped me lose the weight? As I was about to start class and was caught off guard, I glibly answered in the affirmative. Yes. Indeed it had. It was an automatic: yes. In the intervening weeks and now months, I have asked myself, "yes. But how?" Here is part one of the fuller answer I wished I had given my student that night.
The first way yoga has helped me is Ahimsa. Pronounced ahhheemsah. It is the ancient concept of nonviolence. It is a foundational idea in Hindu and Buddhist practices. The Jain Buddhists take it so far as to sweep in front of their very steps in the world to save any ants or other tiny critters that might die underfoot. It is why so many yogis are vegetarian and hug trees. It is one of the keys to my long term success in gaining back my health and sustaining my healthy weight loss. It wasn't always so.
When my student asked me if yoga helped me lose the weight, I said yes. But not from sweaty power classes or punishing hot yoga (no shade to devotees here, you do you) but from the simple idea of nonviolence, gentleness if you will, towards my self. My whole life I have been willing to endlessly sweep the metaphorical ants away and tread lightly so as not to hurt others. I have given away my whole heart to all of my students in my various teaching pursuits. I have been vegan, (for about 20 minutes in the 90's, but still) and am still a passionate seeker of justice and peace in the world. But, sadly, I never fully turned all of that bleeding heart full of compassion inwards. My thighs were too big to deserve love. My body a constant reminder of the original sin of my appetite and repeated failure. The cycle of yo-yo dieting and self recrimination started early for me and lasted as a lit motif throughout my teens and adulthood. It appeared and reappeared through every milestone, through every up and every down. I was either on a restrictive diet and grueling exercise plan or gearing up for one, because I was just not good enough. I was on this, pardon the pun, treadmill while getting my yoga teaching certificate nearly 12 years ago. The light of yoga wasn't strong enough to break through my clouds of shame and self hatred. Not yet.
Then I broke my foot. Really. Almost every dang bone. I was flat on my back, comfort eating pie for most of the healing time. So what had once been a smaller issue of extra body fat became a much bigger one. I gained a lot of weight. I was already on the heavier side for my height, so with the extra calories and zero movement, the extra weight piled on.
Being helpless broke me down. Instead of helping others, I was forced to let others help me. In nearly every basic facet of life; food, shelter, even bathing. I was a weak kitten depending on others' kindness. It was SO uncomfortable. Not just the physical pain, but the pain of being needy. Literally needy. It brought up a weird self loathing that I was forced to confront. In the weeks and months of being laid up after multiple surgeries, I had a lot of time to think. I couldn't escape myself by channeling my energy into my yoga students. I couldn't distract myself from myself at all. TV and pie only went so far. I resisted help and solicitude so much that a very good friend basically yell at me, "Let me help you!". So I did. I had to. I relented.
Then, slowly at first, something changed. I was absolutely forced to practice ahimsa. In order to heal my bones, and by extension, my heart, I had to be gentle with myself. For some reason the phrase "be gentle with the bunny" would come to mind constantly. For the first time in my life, I was the sweet little bunny in need of care. I was as worthy as any friend of nurturance and attention. I was deserving of kindness and gentleness and at the very least, nonviolence. Ahimsa. I came to recognize my relationship to food and even more deeply, my body, a fundamentally abusive one. As I lay there with my toes in line with my nose, I felt a deep softening of understanding. A feeling of love and gratitude for my poor broken body. I have always sided with the underdog. How much more under of a dog could I have been at that moment? So the love started in earnest. Importantly, it started differently from all the other swings and dips of the yo yo I was accustomed to. It started with ahimsa as the goal. Not the weight. Not even the healing of the bones. Just a surrender to self kindness as the start and hopefully the end.
Needless to say the odyssey of choosing a path and sticking to the path was long and at times arduous. Old habits die hard. But I will always come back to ahimsa when confronted with a choice. Which direction is kindest to me? Which option is "gentle with the bunny"? The asana, or physical practice of yoga, came back to me much later and was welcomed as a dear old friend. I literally wept on my mat the first time I dug it out after a move and after the doctor gave me the clearance to practice. Going through the familiar poses felt new somehow. While I still had quite a lot of extra body fat to contend with, it just felt so damn good to breathe and stretch and move my bones in the old and beautiful poses. I was so lucky to be back on the mat. Be back in my battered body and be back with my old friend that had been patiently waiting for me to make that correct and gentle choice. Yes. Ahimsa.
Mary is a RYT that gardens, walks dogs and lifts weights.
Her Wednesday 6pm Basics class at Harris Community Center is totally epic.