Yoga & Body Image: Insight from a Yoga Expert
In May, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary NurrieStearns, a licensed clinical social worker, yoga teacher and co-author of Yoga for Anxiety: Meditations and Practices for Calming Body and Mind, for an article on self-help strategies for anxiety on Psych Central. Today I wanted to share with you some of the tidbits that didn’t make it into the piece, which may be very helpful.
According to Mary, in addition to the health and anxiety-calming benefits, “Yoga connects us. When we connect, we feel more real. Yoga calms and quiets us. We feel good. And I think when we feel good in our body, it’s somehow a reflection of our basic goodness. We’re meant to connect to that.”
While I only do yoga once a week (and haven’t been practicing for long), I can absolutely see how it helps connect us to our bodies and to ourselves in general. Yoga forces you to slow down, but in a good way. I also think that there’s much anxiety, tension (and perhaps anger) beneath a negative body image, and yoga somehow helps to soothe that.
According to Mary, another benefit of yoga is that, “as we sit quietly with our breath, we learn to witness and watch our thoughts, such as ‘Oh that’s a worry thought,’ or ‘oh that’s the old story of unworthiness.’ As soon as we begin to witness these negative thoughts, we’re not so ensnared by them; that which we can witness, we can begin to create a little space. We begin to create internal room.” While we might think our thoughts are the ultimate truth, by witnessing them, we realize that we’re more than our thoughts.
“In class, when I’m teaching simple balance poses or standing poses of any kind, or if we get into comparing our poses to someone else…and we start to have mind-talk about it, it’s a great time to witness,” she says. “Lets just look at the thought. Let’s say we’re judging ourselves; just notice the thought, and ‘wink at it,’ and say ‘I see you.’ An put your attention back to the breath.”
Mary adds that, “We acknowledge the thought, we allow it and we let it go.” She calls winking at thoughts “playful kindness.” This way you don’t get further upset with yourself for the negative thoughts. I personally love this.
Practicing Yoga at Home
Mary also talked about a wonderful – and simple – way to ease into yoga and start your day, especially if you’re a newbie to the practice:
- Sit down on a yoga mat with your favorite beverage (like green tea), and avoid any distractions (like TV, a newspaper or music).
- Take deep, slow breaths. Mary says, “When we focus on our breathing, we form a special friendship with the breath. It’s with us as long as we live. And it’s such a connection with our inner life to our outer life. It’s connecting and gives us life. So to become aware of the breath is like learning to take refuge and receive support in something that’s always present.” She adds that “I always have breath with me whenever I go.”
- Say a mantra or read a few lines of something inspirational. You might read a few lines from a favorite poem or a sacred text. According to Mary, since it’s “the nature of our minds to think, why not fill it with nurturing and sacred thoughts?” She says that taking time out for ourselves means treating ourselves with reverence.
- Commit to doing one pose. She says, “you can’t resist doing another pose…your body will naturally want to do a few poses.”
A Loving Pose
When we’re upset, what usually comforts and soothes us is a loving touch and kind words, according to Mary. She teaches her clients the following pose: “Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, and put one hand on your heart, and one hand on your belly. Pat lovingly and then simply move awareness into the breathing.” You can also say a mantra while you do this. Mary’s mantra is, “Stay here my dear, stay here my dear.”
One woman with an eating disorder used “My son loves me” to comfort her. Mary says, “Words have a powerful effect; that’s why mantra is the protector of the mind.” For this woman, “my son loves me,” not only comforted her and but also “took her out of the self-critical mind,” says Mary.
Finding a Yoga Teacher
Mary recommends taking a yoga class to learn proper alignment, breathing and the poses. Also if the class is particularly good, she says that you can learn philosophy, too. If possible, Mary says to get a recommendation.
Then, she explains, “Get a sense of what the yoga teacher is like for you. Can they articulate the benefits? Do they teach in a way that you feel safe in your body? If you take the class with them, do you feel better at the end of the class? If you’ve taken a class or two, talk with the teacher about their training and the effects that yoga has on them.”
By the way, I’m really grateful to Mary for speaking with me for so long, and for providing such great insight into yoga, its practice and its benefits!
Today’s favorite post. “Can-Do’s: Stop Comparing” at Voice In Recovery.
Do you practice yoga? What’s your favorite way to practice yoga: at home, a DVD, in a class? Has it helped you improve your body image or reduce your anxiety?
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). Yoga & Body Image: Insight from a Yoga Expert. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 26, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2010/08/yoga-body-image-insight-from-a-yoga-expert/