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Yoga, Body Image and Social Media

Recently Stacey Solomon put up this Instagram post. Now I’ve never been a massive Stacey fan, absolutely nothing against her she has just never really been in anything I watch (i.e any series I can binge watch on netflix or Dr Foster) so this isn’t some massive fan girl crush ranting. But now after this post and seeing how she is using her platform I want to be her best mate so we can go for a drink and I can tell her how wonderful she is for putting it out there!

In my opinion the pressure society places on women and girls to look “just right” is unbelievable. When a national paper reduces one of the biggest political decisions of our generation to who had better legs you know we have a problem.

Dishearteningly it seems that Yoga is not immune to this. When I first started practicing yoga and would talk about it to anyone that would listen I had an uncomfortable conversation with a man who had been advised by his doctor to try yoga to help with a bad back. The story was, that on his first lesson he got there and the yoga teacher was a plus sized lady (not quite the words he used but I don’t want to repeat his crude description) because of this he was going to leave before the class started as he felt that she wouldn’t be able to teach him anything. However as he couldn’t leave without drawing attention to himself he had to stay for the class. Looking at me incredulously he said “despite her being so big she could get into some good poses” and despite my yogi zen I wanted to smack him in the face. Here is a man who has gone to yoga on the advice of a doctor for a bad back and he is judging his teachers ability purely on her size. Is this what yoga has been reduced to, that to be taken seriously we need to be a certain size or look a certain way?

This got me thinking about how new students feel about yoga and walking into a yoga studio for the first time, as I have been asked quite a lot about whether people should come to lessons as they are worried they are going to embarrass themselves in a group class setting. My answer is always the same, please come! Some classes such as Vinyasa you will break a sweat and are more physically demanding others such as Hatha are more gentle, but whichever class you come to there are always modifications and options to take a rest and no-one, not me, not any other student will judge you for taking a rest if you need or want to. Yoga is not a boot camp where you are penalised for taking a break or have to run extra laps if you fall behind. Yoga is your own practice and the teacher at the front is just there to simply guide you and make sure your safe.

I have recently had the privilege to step in and cover the teaching on a beginners yoga course, and I have a wonderful 90 minutes with my lovely ladies each week. When I am planning these classes I break it down into sections, with an introduction to the philosophy of yoga, pranayama (breathing techniques), asana (physical practice) and a guided meditation. For me all of these elements are as equally important as each other and teaching an introduction to yoga is about introducing a student to all the elements that yoga has to offer so they can discover what resonates with them and they can develop that interest further. It is not just about focusing on a purely physical practice and promising that yoga will get you in the best shape of your life.

Who am I to even say that they need to get into a better shape or be a certain size that is a deeply personal decision and attitude. As a yoga teacher you cannot make any judgement as to why a student is in your class. It might be to lose weight, to tone up or it might not be and to be honest it’s not my business unless a student wanted to have a conversation about their specific needs.

Now for all my love of Instagram and social media it’s not a giant leap to think that they exacerbate the problem of self image and self worth and again yoga seems to not be immune to this. If you search the yoga hashtag in Instagram the images are overwhelmingly of young women with near perfect bodies twisted into gymnast poses and sometimes not even in a pose, just showing off the latest yoga pants.

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Yes they can be inspiring and yes they have a place and maybe a picture of someone laying down meditating isn’t going to get thousands of likes. However it seems to have lead to a very distorted view of what yoga is about. Adverts like this DailyOm one, make me feel sad as it is really not what yoga is about and I worry that it puts people off going to a class and finding the joy of yoga. I myself have been guilty of this, posting pictures of poses that are entirely staged and not part of my normal practice but have been put together just for the ‘gram. Spending ages choosing between near identical pictures (i.e. which one makes me look skinnier) and applying the perfect filter. Lately though I have tried to be more honest about what I post, showing poses even if basic, that do form part of my own personal practice. Also showing progress pictures of where I am working on poses and not everything is 100% perfect. As if I feel that what is portrayed on Instagram is not a true reflection of what yoga means to me then I need to be honest with what I post too.

In one of the classes on the beginners course I introduce Ahimsa, the concept of non-violence and how yoga philosophy teaches this, one of the interpretations is non-violence towards yourself in your actions as well as thoughts. It is not yoga when you are pushing yourself into a pose that your body simply can’t do at that moment risking injury and beating yourself up afterwards for not being able to achieve it. Where is the feel good factor in that? This goes for me as a teacher as well as the students I have the privilege of having in my class.

The physical practice of yoga is a mixture of flexibility and strength both of which can be developed with time. Each individual will have a different journey with this, I have met hyper-flexible people who can turn there limbs into incredible shapes but don’t have the strength needed for other poses and run the risk of injury as they cannot feel when they are pushing their body too far. Other students have been super strong but can struggle with back bends as having a six-pack can hinder back flexibility. No two journeys are the same and comparing yourself to someone on the mat next to you or somebody that you see on Instagram is not going to help with that journey. There are some really inspiring accounts on there which have great tutorials and anything that helps spread the yoga joy is good in my eyes, I just feel that we all need to be more honest with what that journey and message is.

One final thought is to remember that the Ashtanga sequence which the majority of vinyasa classes will be based upon was historically developed in a remote Indian cave over seven years and then past onto active young boys in Mysore. So if you don’t feel the need to be a twelve year old Indian boy to practice yoga, then don’t feel pressure to be a size 6 yoga pant wearing gymnast either 🙂

Rachel xx

Me, Anxiety and Yoga

I distinctly remember my first panic attack, I worked in a local café at weekends whilst in high school, I would have been 15 at the time and I was walking through the shopping centre when it hit me. Time seemed to standstill yet speed up at the same time and suddenly I had a crushing sense of panic taking over my body and an overwhelming urge to escape. I ran through the centre to the bus stop and sat at the back of the bus and simply cried all the way home. People looked over; my mind state had them pointing/staring/laughing, I now don’t believe this to be true instead a symptom of the anxiety but at the time it was something I felt keenly. The theme of feeling laughed at has featured heavily in my anxiety/panic attacks.

As I simply couldn’t explain what was the matter at the time and still to this day don’t know what triggered that first panic attack, it was all put down to me being an overly dramatic teenager (I have an A in GCSE drama don’t you know) and life went on. However the paralysing sense of panic is unfortunately something I would become accustomed to.

Over the next 15 years anxiety would sweep in and out of my life. There were periods of time where I struggled to be able to leave the house or sometimes even get out of bed  and days were lost in a haze of anxiety and sense of hopelessness. Panic attacks could be so severe I would feel like my throat was closing up, I would think I was genuinely having a heart attack and was going to die. As a migraine sufferer a severe migraine usually followed a panic attack, providing me with a ready-made excuse to hide behind whenever I wanted to leave somewhere or as a reason for sometimes simply not turning up. This hiding from the problem and not being honest with people caused me further anxiety and guilt, leaving me feeling like a terrible human being to the people I loved and a fraud in my career.

Relationships were ruined by my inability to express why sometimes inexplicitly I felt so sad or staggering anger at myself to not just be able to snap out of it as the few people I told early on had said to me to do. In the end I just hid everything behind my migraine excuse as I felt that it made me sound less crazy than the feelings I was having

There were also times where I could go for weeks or months without an attack and this should have made me happy. Instead I felt like I was always waiting, when would it strike again? When I was on a night out with the girls, trying to enjoy a nice dinner out or maybe when I was preparing for a big meeting at work? What special event did it have the power to ruin for me or had it all been in my head to begin with and there was nothing wrong with me? Was I was just overly dramatic and hormonal, not actually suffering from anxiety because if I did then I should feel like it all the time? These overwhelming, conflicting feelings lead me to feeling just not quite right or good enough a great deal of the time.

Over the years I did reach out for professional help a few times, I was prescribed medication which reduced me to not being able to feel anything which seemed an even worse alternative to the anxiety itself and I tried counselling. Personally I struggled with counselling as I felt they were always seeking an underlying cause, a reason for my “illness” and it left me feeling a massive fraud when I could not provide them some catastrophic event that had caused me to have this anxiety. I thought that was it; there was never any way that I was going to be able to get this completely under control.

Then I did two things. Firstly I got a rescue cat, I had read that it was good for anxiety/depression sufferers to own a pet as it gave them something to focus on other than their feelings of anxiousness. So enter Bob aka “Fat Cat” a big fat tom cat that nobody wanted and was highly likely to be put down due to illness, it was this sense of being unwanted that somehow resonated with me. (I adopted Frank a couple of years later, another rescue cat who was dumped by the side of the road and is partially sighted aka “Not So Fat Cat”) we very quickly became attached and he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He got me up in the morning with his meows for food – anyone with a cat knows they expect to be waited on! Being an indoor cat he was always at home and I loved the feeling of eternal company with no judgement.

The second thing I did was I went to yoga, as per my previous blog I had initially started yoga to avoid going running it was nothing to do with controlling my anxiety, I just wanted to get fit and hopefully a bit skinnier. At the time I wasn’t even aware of the links between a steady yoga practice and improved mental health, it was the physical practice that I loved.

However it very quickly became apparent that yoga was offering me more than just a work out, there is a sense of grounding in yoga, a focus on the breath to get you in and out of poses. It was these unexpected elements of the practice that helped clear my mind and find a sense of calmness that I hadn’t felt before. Then it started to carry over into my day to day life too. I found I was sleeping better and has so much more energy this made me feel much more equipped to deal with the stresses that everyday life throws at you.

Yoga also helped me separate out when something had annoyed me or upset me away from my anxiety, as I often felt that feelings of anger or hurt were brushed aside as being part of the anxiety and therefore in my imagination and not actually a real problem when I expressed them. Being able to separate the two allowed me to find my voice, which helped me make sense of my feelings so I knew what made me truly happy and what didn’t.

Yoga has given me a safe place to go when I’m not feeling 100%. Beginners are often worried about going to a class as they are concerned they won’t be good enough. When I’m not teaching I still often go straight to the back of the class rather than be front row and center, but once you are there and the class gets started I find you become focused on yourself and your relationship with the mat. You switch off to what is around you so it doesn’t really matter where you are in the room it just matters that you are there.

On my yoga teacher training course the lead teacher would shout out “no window shopping” if we were looking at someone in a more advanced pose during a practice rather than focusing on ourselves and the breath. This is something that I now hold onto in my yoga practice and in my life off the mat as there is no greater thief of joy or your own piece of mind than comparing yourself to others.

I rarely suffer from a full blown panic attack now and if I do, I know what to do to get it under control and not let it completely take over and this has been the greatest gift that yoga has given me.

Rachel xx

Further reading on the benefits of yoga for anxiety

https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/how-yoga-calms-anxiety-holistically

Bob aka “Fat Cat”

bob

Frank aka “Not so Fat Cat”

frank

How I found Yoga

It was a sign and no before you stop reading not that kind of sign. There was no calling from god, the universe or Lord Shiva himself. Instead it was an actual chalkboard sign “one session can burn more calories than a 5k run”.

At that moment I was trying to not to fall out of a taxi on a night out (pre-drinks had got a little out of hand) and there it was, across the road from the bar, a shiny new yoga studio looking all swanky and to be honest a little intimidating.

During that point of my life I was attempting running as a way to keep fit and I had just about managed to improve my fitness from a “couldn’t run from a zombie apocalypse” kind of girl to being able to run (jog/maybe a fast walk) 5-6k in a semi-decent time. And I hated each and every single bloody moment of it.

Every last step of each run was torture. I would picture celebrities with bodies I idolised to encourage myself enough just to be able to get around my route. Yes I did see improvements in my fitness and yep my jeans were a little looser but it did absolutely nothing for my self-esteem.

Torturing myself with something I hated two to three times a week to be able to fit into a certain size of jeans or live up to the unrealistic prescribed standards set by today’s media was never going to be good for the soul.

So by giving me a valid excuse to ditch the running the sign spoke to me and I wanted to go inside right there and then (wine clearly increases your self-confidence) and the next day despite the hangover (potentially still slightly drunk, it was a really good night) I found myself back at the same spot walking into my first yoga class.

Now there are two times when yoga is not fun, the first is when you are full. Always practice on an empty stomach and the second, well the second is when you are hungover.

Adding in that this was hot yoga, entering a room that was heated to 42 degrees when you are still sweating out last night’s alcohol does not make for a nice experience. As I folded forward for the third time I felt the nausea rising up inside me and I had to spend the rest of the lesson in child’s pose feeling sorry for myself trying to decide what to buy from Mcdonalds on the way home.

As I left the studio with sweat still dripping down my face (in my hungover state it hadn’t occurred to me to bring my  shower stuff) I felt deflated, maybe I just wasn’t cut out for any type of exercise.

Then a couple days later I had a word with myself (I really hate running) and I went back to the studio and tried again.

Leaving there for a second time with sweat still dripping down my face (I hadn’t bought my shower stuff again – maybe I’m just forgetful) I felt elated.

I had worked out for a full hour and loved it. Yes there were things I couldn’t do, times when muscles I didn’t even know I had were shaking but I LOVED IT. I had never really experienced enjoying working out so it was a whole new thing for me and it felt good.

Over the next few years I would look back on seeing that sign as a turning point for me, I practice yoga everyday, have the absolute privilege of teaching yoga for a living and I even drink a bit less!

So if you are reading this, still debating whether or not to take that step to your first yoga class please go, even if you spend the entirety in child’s pose it might just be worth it……..

Rachel xx