As the years go on, my sense of confidence continues to grow, and a new sense of ease has spilled over into how I walk, stand, and sit. My relationship to my body has transformed from adversarial to loving—and I owe a lot of this change to yoga.
According to Tomi-Ann Roberts, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Colorado College who specializes in the topic, body image is defined as "the extent to which your physical self-concept plays a role in your self-esteem." Research by Roberts and others has shown that body image is the top predictor of self-esteem—if you feel good about your physical self, you're likely to have a strong sense of self-worth. Anyone who has left yoga class feeling happy and limber knows experientially that yoga can help a person feel good about his or her physical self. But how does it create this effect?
For one thing, the body simply feels better after physical exercise. Research has shown that people who exercise moderately have a more positive body image, and many of us know from experience that simply getting on the mat and moving around makes us feel good. Muscles stretch, and tight areas loosen up. After a vinyasa class, we might even get a natural high from endorphins. With a regular yoga practice, we not only notice physical changes (greater strength, increased stamina and mobility), we also begin to feel more connected to our body.
After practicing regularly for some time, many people develop a new appreciation for the body. Some find that the pounds drop off, the skin glows, and the eyes become luminous. Others enjoy a subtler transformation: They notice that their every move is imbued with greater power and grace. Often, the simple increase in physical awareness—feeling, as you walk down the street, the muscles you worked the day before—results in an ongoing positive feeling. "I have found that as my practice deepens and my body becomes healthier and stronger, my comfort level and confidence in myself increases," Nashville yoga teacher Katryna M. Wright says. This is a common sentiment among yogis.
Yoga also fosters a more intimate relationship with the body by teaching us how it functions. Experiencing how external rotation lengthens the spine or where the sacrum and ilium come together enhances our appreciation for our body. "I feel more in control of my body, because I have a better understanding of it and the way all the different parts work together," Bass says, describing a realization that came to her after a challenging Ado Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) preparation.
Making Peace with Your Body
Over time, our practice grows. One day, we miraculously hold ourselves up in Sirsasana (Headstand) or balance in Bakasana (Crane Pose). We notice our hips opening more profoundly in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Somehow, we make it through just one more vinyasa when we thought we couldn’t possibly do it. These milestones may seem small, but they serve up heaping portions of confidence.