Lynn Bass used to avoid every full-length mirror she encountered. "I hated my body," she says. "I was totally disassociated from it—I would only look at my head in the mirror."
Two years ago, Bass, a senior director at a direct-marketing company, started taking classes at OM, a yoga center in New York, and the self-criticism began to ebb. With a teacher who consistently focused on accepting the body's strengths and weaknesses, Bass came to be more at peace with how she looked. "I don't hate my body anymore," she says. "I wouldn't go so far as to say that I love my body, but I have a lot more respect for it."
Bass's difficult feelings are hardly unusual. According to a 1997 Psychology Today survey, 56 percent of women and 43 percent of men are dissatisfied with their overall appearance. And yogis certainly aren't immune to the complex web of cultural forces that contribute to this epidemic of self-loathing. After all, it's not easy to reconcile life in an image-conscious world with the yogic notion that the body is simply the vessel through which we navigate a spiritual path.
But yoga practice creates an opportunity for us to re-create our relationship with our body. While we may have come to the mat looking for a "yoga butt," when we get there, we're usually so focused on directing breath into our tight quads or feeling the alignment in our hips that we forget about our appearance. By enabling us to go inward—to focus on how we feel in a pose rather than how we look—yoga encourages us to let go of our desires for our body and criticisms of it, to enjoy its movements. Over time, this experiential relationship with our body may even enable us to forsake the mirror for our internal seer, to filter out social pressures and unrealistic expectations, and to accept ourselves as we are.
"Yoga is a great tool, because we get to practice being in relationship with our bodies," says Christina Sell, author of Yoga from the Inside Out: Making Peace with Your Body Through Yoga (Hohm, 2003). "We get to tune in to the fine details of how we bend and stretch, which starts the process of self-inquiry. The doorway is often the body and the breath, and then we begin to become aware of what we say to ourselves—to monitor the criticisms and the judgments."
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