My life before Yoga was pretty normal. Without being able to experience what everyone else’s childhood and teen years were like, I can assume I dealt with about the average amount of adolescent problems. I was bullied for most of Elementary school, but still had a small group of friends that gave me a place to be myself, be creative, and be silly.
Middle school was when my first boyfriend broke up with me by yelling it across the class room, and when a rumour broke out that I was a lesbian the following year, I had to make up a boyfriend from a different school (I wasn’t a lesbian, and looking back, the idea of people thinking I was gay being so embarrassing to me that I needed to lie about a boyfriend is really heart-breaking. The fact that making a rumour about someone being gay, was effective social sabotage is also heart breaking – I only hope the younger generations are better than the kids my age). But through all that, I graduated happy and excited for highschool, and with a Science Award.
In Highschool my first “love” passed away a mere two months after we broke up, but I still had no problem falling for someone else and extremely prematurely getting engaged at the age of 17 (No, I did not get married). I lost best friends to stupid arguments, but made room in my life to make real connections with other people down the road.
Everyone had childhoods like mine, the details changed person to person but it was all very similar being from a middle-class neighbourhood. When I think about how my childhood could have been, if I didn’t have all the advantages of not worrying about money, or worrying about walking alone down my street in the dark, or simply the advantages coming along with having white skin, the life I did have growing up was a fairy-tale compared to tens of thousands of children around the world. But the idea of “you don’t have it as bad as others do”, can sometimes do more harm than good, as it can lead to suppressing how you really feel, forcing you to hide your insecurities in fear of being seen as spoiled, or a cry-baby, and this can even lead to mental health problems.
Despite having a privileged life, I hated myself. I almost jumped off a building when I was 15, luckily a friend was there to scoop me off the edge and spin me around and around until I was dizzy and laughing – he never knew my intentions, so thank god for coincidences. I fell into a mentally abusive and tormenting relationship and held on because I thought it was what I deserved. The bullying that happened to me as a child buried itself in my head and lead to my shyness, my desire to please, my fear of rejection and most of all the hatred I had for my body.
When a child should still have plenty of their baby fat, I was wishing I could be skinny like Christina Aguilera. I was never obese, but I hated that my thighs touched, that my shoulders were broad, my breasts were small, that my hip bones didn’t continue perfectly into a round, fit ass with one beautiful curve like an hourglass when looking at myself in the mirror. I hated the small pouch I had on my stomach, that no amount of starving myself or exercising would ever fully erase. I hated my skin, the constant bumps and black heads and the fact that picking at them would only make it worse – but I couldn’t stand to have acne so having scars was somehow better. What I hated most of all was how I learned my whole life to love myself for who I was, to not be superficial and to not compare myself to anyone else, and yet I was consumed with how I looked.
When I felt rejected, or socially anxious, it would lead to me either picking my skin or eating – which would lead to more hatred of my body. I always had a physical job, and embraced the masculine energy around my work in live events. Strutting around proudly in my steel toe boots and hard-hat, I still wished people would see me as an elegant, feminine wildflower. Like anyone with social anxiety or most mental health problems – it was the paradoxes that drove me crazy. Even when I was anorexic and looked at my ribs through my shirt in the mirror, I still saw broad shoulders and a pouch that curved the perfect straight line that I wanted to be there from sternum to pelvis – and saw “Fat”. When I made-out with every guy that showed me interest when I first started college, I still thought “Undesirable”. When at every graduation from elementary school to high school, I left with an award under my arm, I still believed “Stupid”.
I wish I could say I’m cured from the terrible thoughts that stewed in my mind growing up, but I’m not. I still think I look fat, I still have terrible skin that I insist on picking at, I still get into debates with people that in the end make me feel uneducated, and despite having the most understanding, accepting, patient and beautiful partner that makes me feel more loved than I have ever felt – I find myself asking why on earth he even wants someone like me.
This is where Yoga comes in. Yoga is not a perfect, clean fix – but it has helped greatly. I practice Ashtanga, so when I step on my mat, I don’t have to think about what to do – physically, although I have a very challenging practice, I go into auto-pilot – one posture follows the last until I’m done. But with my mind free of worrying about what I’m physically doing on my mat, it has free reign to worry about everything else. From that first sun salutation I start to tell myself “Oh, you don’t have to do all five Sun Salutation B’s” or “You know, it’s fine if you skip Vinyasa’s between sides”. As I’m approaching postures I have trouble with, my mind races again with thoughts like, “Just skip that one today” or even worse, “You’re not going to get it, why bother?”. Most postures remind me of my limited hip or shoulder flexibility and Vinyasa’s remind me of my weak core and make me feel like I’ll never be able to properly lift and kick my feet back into my Chaturanga’s.
I realize after reading that last paragraph it can sound like Yoga actually exacerbates mental health problems – as Yoga is a hugely mental practice. But after all the fighting my mind does, no matter how hard it tries to poke at my insecurities, I finish my practice. Savasana always comes, and when I sit up on my mat when it’s all over – the joy that fills my heart is like none other. Yes, there is satisfaction in connecting deeper with particular postures, but the act of simply starting, and finishing a practice is a huge win in the war against the mind. Since Yoga is so much more than just the physical postures, it only makes sense that when practicing the postures, more than just physical challenges arise.
I feel that my Yoga practice has helped me a lot since most of my anxieties stem from physical insecurity. When I practice, I feel more at peace with my body because, despite not looking perfect, I am always surprised and proud of the things my body can do. As I become more and more comfortable in my skin, I feel less afraid of rejection, because I have come to realize that those who reject me, are people I don’t need in my life anyways. As I surround myself with only those who love and accept me, I am able to come out of my shell and feel less shy or socially anxious.
When I was young, I assumed there was a point in life when everything just levels out and life becomes “easy”. But as I’ve grown, it’s become abundantly clear that there is no tipping point into the calm waters of a peaceful, stress free life. Life, as a whole, is a huge challenge – but that doesn’t mean every waking moment is a burden. Yoga is a great tool for showing yourself that the problems that you face in life are beatable. My Yoga practice is just two hours out of my day, but it is a reflection of how perseverance creates joy and satisfaction within. It proves to me every time I step off my mat, that I was able to do something that I was trying so hard to convince myself beforehand, that I couldn’t. Yoga has helped me realize that the twisted, cruel parts of our minds, that tell us all the terrible things about ourselves we are scared to and yet believe are true, is just a bunch of lies. That despite feeling your lowest, it is completely possible to get things done and feel amazing about it afterwards.
I have, of course, had struggles where the mind has won. Where I lay in bed thinking “It’s time to practice” but in the end, I don’t get out of bed until I no longer have time to. The days I don’t step on my mat, I feel it. I beat myself up about it because I can remember the last time I did, and how powerful and beautiful it made me feel. It gets me upset when I let my mind win those mornings because I have experienced the benefits of Yoga, yet that day, I let the twisted, dark part of myself drag me back down.
There is no solid fix for people struggling with their Mental Health. It’s a terrifying truth, because the mind has more power than I think anyone will ever understand. But what I have found in Yoga, is that even on the days where I lose the fight with my mind, I can still feel what it was like the days I won – and that helps keep me motivated to try again tomorrow.