What’s the connection between yoga and body image? Ask any regular yoga practitioner what their favorite pose is, and they’ll probably respond with corpse pose, the final resting posture of most yoga classes that brings the bliss of a quiet mind and a well-worked body. In corpse pose, or savasana in Sanskrit, the goal of yoga is realized: your thoughts are still as you become fully present and appreciative of your body. You have suddenly released what isn’t useful to you and realize that in this moment, you have everything you need. And this just so happens to be the exact recipe for a healthy body image.
Negative body image is often a result of feeling disconnected to your physical self. The mind begins to spin, comparing your thighs to the billboard model’s, tallying up the calories in your lunch or finding something to nitpick in the mirror instead of being grateful for what is. When you become fully present, those cyclical thoughts slow down and, without warning, you release the thoughts and habits that don’t serve you.
The practice of yoga–the postures, meditation and breathwork–strengthens the connection between your mind and your body, bringing awareness to the present and allowing you to notice physical sensations, your breath, and how your view your body. And from the act of noticing, you can begin to heal. Here are a few ways the practice of yoga can help nourish a healthy, happy body image:
Yoga encourages questions and curiosity. Are you breathing deeply and fully? Are you finding the balance between effort and ease in each pose? How can you soften in a difficult pose and be a little kinder to yourself? These are all questions you ask as you practice, and asking them as you move throughout your day can lead to significant breakthroughs with improving your body image. Why are you eating right now? Is it because you’re truly hungry or because you’re bored? What kind of physical movement is your body craving in this moment? How can you be more loving to yourself as you try on jeans in fluorescent lighting? Keep these questions open-ended and be gentle, like you’re talking to the 4 year-old version of yourself.
When was the last time you tried kicking up into a handstand? Can you balance your knees on the backs of your upper arms? Yes, these are actual yoga poses! Poses like these switch up your perspective and are just plain fun to practice. When you begin to adopt an attitude of playfulness in situations that can be stressful or an opportunity to beat yourself up (like balancing on your hands), it’s easier to lighten up your attitude with your body image.
Being playful invites joy: the joy of new experiences, the joy using your body in ways that feel good, and the joy of delighting in all the things you love about your body, instead of focusing on what you think you need to change.
Banish negative body image talk with mindfulness
Yoga isn’t only about the physical poses, it’s also about breath work and meditation. A great meditation is to take a few minutes to simply notice your thoughts. With your eyes closed, imagine yourself sitting by a stream watching your thoughts go by. It’s easy to get caught up in a conversation you had earlier today, or what you plan to do later this week. Just notice when you begin to follow a thought, then gently bring yourself back, letting the thought float downstream.
This is called cultivating witness consciousness. Practicing this type of mindfulness is great in catching yourself in negative self-talk. Just notice when you begin criticizing yourself in a mirror, comparing yourself to someone else, or obsessing about what to eat. Then take a deep breath, let that negative self-talk go, then go about your day.
Mindfulness is key in breaking bad habits of negative body image thoughts and self-talk. Slowly, you’ll be able to catch yourself before those negative thoughts even form.
Loving the Journey
We all have different bodies built for different things, and yoga has poses for all body types and abilities. While you may nail full splits easily, downward-facing dog could be agonizingly challenging. The goal of yoga isn’t to be perfect at every pose; the goal is to just notice and be aware. You begin to appreciate the way your particular body works, and that it will be at a different place tomorrow and next week and next month.
The real fun is noticing how your practice evolves over time. You begin to get stronger, more flexible, and certain poses may become a little more accessible. The same things begin to happen with the relationship with your body. Your body image is stronger and healthier, your spirits are higher and that warm, fuzzy feeling of self-love becomes easier to conjure.
Your yoga practice, just like cultivating a healthy body image, is a journey without a destination. You will always have days that are easier and more compassionate than others, but you are working toward feeling whole, happy and supported, regardless of external factors.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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