5 Ways You Can Use Your Yoga Practice to Improve Your Body Image
All of us struggle to some degree with body image issues. Here are 5 ways yoga can help you feel more confident about the skin you're in.
By Jennifer Kreatsoulas
Out of the blue, my 6-year-old daughter recently asked me what I like most about my body. Knowing my answer held tremendous power to influence her relationship with her own body in the future, I purposefully paused before answering.
“My arms,” I told her, “because they allow me to hug and hold you and your little sister.”
I admired her playful spirit and innocence on the topic of appreciating one’s body—a refreshingly stark contrast to the seemingly steady stream of social messages that reinforce all the ways our bodies are not good enough. What a gift to witness my child’s curiosity, and how empowering for me to share a body-affirming sentiment after many years of hard work healing an eating disorder and poor body image. Yoga was the key to transforming my relationship with my body. The poses, connection to breath, and ancient philosophies have fostered personal empowerment and lasting body-affirming experiences.
Sadly, the torment I once felt about my body is all too common. According to the 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report, which interviewed 5,165 girls aged 10 to 17 across 14 countries, low body esteem is associated with isolation from social activities and pressure to strive to meet beauty and appearance ideals. This is just one study out of many now being conducted on the effects of negative body image on physical, mental, and emotional health in both boys and girls, men and women.
Based on what I see and hear daily in the yoga classes I teach and as a yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image, all of us struggle to some degree with feeling at ease in our skin. The perceptions of our external appearance often get tangled up with unrealistic social expectations and ideals, causing a range of “heavy” feelings, such as discontent, embarrassment, insecurity, worry, shame, and an obsession with controlling weight, food, and exercise. Over time, as these feelings pick up steam, unhealthy beliefs about self-worth can take root.
Yoga, with its tenets of peace, self-compassion, and acceptance, is a path to softening and even transforming such harsh beliefs. Through the path of yoga, we practice harmony within and strengthen our relationship with our body.
So how can we call on our yoga practice to help us feel more confident in and about our bodies? Based on my own experience and work with my students and clients, here are 5 specific ways yoga can help improve your body image:
Unlike other forms of activity, yoga does not ask us to perform, win, strive, or prove ourselves. Rather, the poses are personal experiences to cultivate harmony. Each time we meet the challenge of new poses, persevere through discomfort, or respect muscular and emotional sensations, we express appreciation toward our bodies. We also show ourselves we have it in us to be with our bodies.
As you inhabit different shapes and forms in your practice, pay close attention to all the ways your body surprises you—meaning how it helps you balance, twist, sideband, backbend, and forward fold. Notice the parts of your body that make these magnificent movements happen and offer appreciation to these parts of yourself. By purposefully taking a few minutes on your mat to practice appreciation, you can build new awareness of the power of your body—and as a result, watch your body image improve.
It’s so easy to focus on what’s “wrong” with our bodies, right? So often we fixate on what our bodies can’t do. This negativity hardens our once playful and curious selves. Yoga poses can help us shed that hardened layer we carry; it’s a safe space where we can “play.” No external factors, such as grades, pay, or promotion, hinge on whether we can balance on one leg. The only limiting factor is when we focus on limitations instead of possibilities.
The next time you’re on your mat, tune into your inner dialogue. Notice self-talk that makes you doubt your body. How can you shift to language that embraces a curious spirit? How can you approach yoga poses from a playful mindset versus one of perfection or ideals? Get curious about what’s possible if you approach a pose with appreciation for your body. Doing this is a gateway to a kinder relationship with your body.
When we’re on our yoga mats, we notice instead of criticize; we watch with compassion versus disdain. Observing is a practice of being neutral toward all the moment holds. And learning this skill is key to creating an affirming relationship with our bodies, because without breaking the cycle of self-judgment, it will be difficult to improve your body image.
Want to play with this concept? Carve out time to practice a yoga pose you really enjoy. As you breathe in the pose, simply notice what you sense and feel. For example, notice the parts of your body touching the floor, how you are breathing, the sounds around you, the muscular sensations you feel, and thoughts running through your head. Simply notice all that comes up without judging yourself or wishing something were different. Notice your body and let any judgment that does surface flow away. Practice doing this every time you’re on your mat. As you become a true observer, you’ll likely notice a larger capacity to appreciate your body’s capabilities and unique attributes, rather than homing in on what you’d like to change.
When we are caught in negative thinking about our bodies, we are not present. Instead, we are trapped in the past or future, comparing ourselves to how we looked last year or how we want to look next month. Feelings of guilt and shame often show up, causing us to lose connection with the present moment and making it even harder to feel confident in our bodies. Through breathing practices and yoga poses, we learn to practice presence, which is an essential tool in helping us calm spinning thinking about body image and other anxieties.
Your breath is a pure anchor in the present moment. So, take some time to sit quietly and observe your breath for a few minutes. Notice where you feel your inhale and exhale. When you’re practicing, get curious about how your breathing affects your balance or twists, for example. Watch how breathing with the intention of becoming present changes your self-talk or experience of your body in the moment. When you call on your breath to help you practice presence, you learn to turn to your body to help soothe your mind—a truly healing paradigm shift, especially if you are in the habit of turning away from your body.
Over time, yoga helps us clear out mental clutter that may have been suppressing wisdom and insights about why we struggle with body image or what factors influence how we experience our physical bodies. Such wisdom can get buried under the weight of shame and guilt and other feelings or self-sabotaging behaviors. The more we can incorporate the virtues of presence, curiosity, and appreciation into our yoga practice and life, the more space there is for wisdom to make itself known.
By receiving our inner wisdom and observing (not judging) its messages and lessons about our past experiences and habitual reactions and behaviors, we are given an opportunity to both validate why body image issues exist and identify—or at least begin to consider—what might help us move away from body despair toward body affirming experiences, both on and off the mat.
Trust me, I deeply understand how hard this work is. I also can sincerely attest to what’s possible when we apply these ideas to our yoga practice. Shower yourself with compassion and patience during this time, as you work toward a more harmonious relationship with your body. Repetition, consistency, and time are essential to lasting healing. Continue to show up for yourself in these big and empowering ways. It’s worth it, I promise.
Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, C-IAYT, E-RYT-500, is a yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. She is coauthor of the forthcoming book, Body Mindful Yoga: Create a Powerful and Affirming Relationship With Your Body (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). In addition to her private yoga therapy practice, Jennifer leads yoga therapy groups at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia and yoga workshops and retreats on eating disorder recovery and body image. Jennifer also trains yoga professionals how to nurture positive body image in students and private clients at the YogaLife Institute. She is the cofounder of 11 Elements: A Body Compassion Project, and a partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. Jennifer writes and speaks about her personal and professional experiences on the topics of yoga, body image, motherhood, and eating disorder recovery. Connect with Jennifer: www.ChimeYogaTherapy.com.