As with many other women, from a young age I was plagued by doubts and worries about my body.
Self consciousness began at school where kids took the Mickey out of my jumble sale clothes and wrinkly hands. Before long I didn’t need the critique of others because I became so good damning myself – hairy legs, too fat, too thin, freaky feet blah, blah, blah, blah.
It is a depressingly familiar tale – and for so many women it spirals into life long battle with self loathing or self harm. Luckily I got into yoga.
I have a memory of rolling around in a yoga class, back in the 1990s. I was so thoroughly absorbed by the contortion that when I glimpsed my feet overhead it was a shock. They loomed before me in such a weird unexpected angle, I didn’t even recognise they were mine.
The really interesting thing about the experience, is there was none of the usual criticism in it. My hooves appeared in a unique new light – unclouded by judgement, beyond good and evil.
And in that moment I was suffused with compassion for my feet. I’m not claiming they would inspire a Quentin Tarantino fetish – but they were my feet and they mattered.
More than 20 years on, the memory shines as a break through in my consciousness. I believe it is the crux of what is great about yoga.
When I am deeply absorbed in the sensations of the body, my thinking, criticising, analytical brain goes offline – and I am released into a rich and enjoyable experience.
Yoga scholar and clinical psychologist Richard Miller explainsYoga shuts down the thinking brain by developing our powers of Introception which is the ability to feel the subtleties of the body.
The mind is programmed to think about the body as having a boundary – to which we attach reductive judgements, says Miller.
“When we close our eyes and feel the body, the sense of a boundary begins to dissolve. As we pay closer attention to the body sense, it begins to expand as a radiant field, vibratory, pulsing, shimmering….”
Introception is one of the essential principles of yoga, according to ancient texts. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali call it Svadhyaya or self study. Many believe this ability to feel is more important than form. “The main teaching is to get out of striving towards a particular form and use the forms to awaken sensation in the body,” says Miller.
Yoga is sometimes mistaken as the pursuit of physical vanity. But grasping for an ideal shape, the perfect downward dog or back bend is discouraged in the Yoga Sutras.
I won’t pretend that yoga is a miracle cure for self criticism. I still lapse into doubt. But these days mean spirited inner voices have less of a grip on me than they used to. And I always find refuge in yoga. And the more I practice, the more peace permeates other parts of life.