Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
I couldn’t see much in the darkness, but I could smell the tanning oil that covered the toned bodies of women who were nervously clustered together in lines waiting to take the stage. As I stood there in my group, my number pinned to my bikini, I looked down at my body, which I had beat into peak physical condition, and I still didn’t like what I saw. I’m sure I looked confident in my own skin, but what I really wanted to do was to crawl out of it.
I know there are countless women who feel self-conscious about a little squish on their belly or thighs—wondering what new workout or crash diet to try—constantly worrying about making “healthy” decisions around food and exercise. For a long time, I was no different. I was insecure and constantly pursuing the “perfect” body. It was a race that I was never going to win. I was inundated by negative messages in a culture where validation, praise, and value relied on placing in competition. I couldn’t get out of the get-up-and-grind mentality. This chiseled body that kept garnering praise became an addiction.
That is exactly why—despite the three first-place fitness titles I had earned that year—I was left waging a secret war against myself and my body. In that moment in the darkness backstage, my soul was sending out an SOS. I knew something was wrong.
I left that competition and tried to go back to my life as the head strength and conditioning coach at a Denver public high school. I vowed to let go of superficial goals, obsessive negative self-talk, counting calories, incessant workouts, and all-consuming anxiety about what I looked like on stage. This spaciousness in my thoughts was a welcome breath of fresh air, but it also felt strange and empty. Without competition, I craved focus, so I threw myself into fostering strength in others, helping students to rid themselves of pain and reach their physical goals.
My students had restricted movement from ailments such as torn ACLs and back problems. I grew fascinated by how the body moves and how rigidity causes all sorts of problems. Health wasn’t just about strength. I was discovering another piece of the puzzle: Flexibility—both physically and mentally—was critical. Bulldozing my way through competitions on shear strength and willpower like I had been was killing me because I didn’t have the flexibility of mind to take days off and let my body recover.
I could see that my clients’ mindsets were determining their recoveries. Some of them were stubborn, stuck on one way of doing things, forcing the same approach over and over again with few results. I saw them like a mirror, exposing my own flaws. Rigidity wasn’t working, for them or for me. We need strength to overcome our challenges, but also flexibility to pivot when things aren’t working the way we want them to.
Fueled by a desire to learn more about increasing flexibility, I walked into a power yoga teacher training having never taken a yoga class. Halfway through class, covered in sweat, I was falling on my face attempting Bakasana. My inner strength coach had been beaten into submission by how much I had underestimated the whole “yoga thing,” and something unexpected happened: I found myself deeply in love with asana practice.
I’d huff and puff my way through vinyasa classes, where each pose got me closer to answering the aching question: How do I stop fighting with my body? I had long approached my fitness routine as a tool to punish myself into a better body—one that mirrored the standardized images I saw in the media. Through yoga, this armor slowly started to come off. Each time I attempted to slow down and soften into a pose, using my strength to support my body rather than demand a result from it, I could feel myself deeply listening to what was going to heal instead of hurt me. I began to witness the compassion and kindness toward myself that I had been missing for years.
Yes, the intelligent placement of my bones and muscles in space supported my strength. But this magical organization of my walking meat sack got me in tune with so much more than any fad diet ever had. Instead of regarding my body as an obstacle in the way of a shiny new trophy, through yoga I realized that this awareness in my body meant that I was the trophy.
I no longer saw my shoulders as something that needed more shaping, but a beloved elevator to lift me higher in Handstands and inspire courage and confidence. Now, I absolutely won’t deny that yoga and strength training have toned my backside. But what I flex (no pun intended) regularly with my yoga tools is not a physical muscle, but an internal one. The skills of softening, deep listening, and presence were dormant and weak before I found yoga. These mind muscles allow me to see the shapes my body makes without focusing on what it looks like externally. I can now focus on what it feels like from the inside of the pose.
I’ve become more in tune with a source of joy and wholeness that doesn’t come from a judge or a medal. It comes from deep within. Real confidence comes from an internal knowing that we are worthy, beautiful, and whole—no matter what shape we take.
Read more in this series on professional athletes and yoga: Why DJ Townsel Left The Football Field for a Yoga Studio.
About the author
Clare Cui is a Denver-based yoga teacher with more than 12 years of experience in strength training. Her passion is supporting career women and business leaders to create the strength in their bodies and minds to show up confidently in their own skin. Find her at theyogathlete.com and @clare_cui on Instagram.