In our journey towards knowing ourselves we gently, or not so gently, peel away the layers of self illusions to discover our true selves. We learn about our beliefs, the stories we’ve been fed by others, often stories about ourselves that we’ve chosen to believe. Belief and truth are not always the same. What is the truth we tell ourselves about ourselves? What do we believe about ourselves?
Just over decade ago, in August 2007, I wrote an article for National Public Radio’s show This I Believe. I was in the beginning of my yoga training/teaching, and I was learning how to move my body in new ways. My wonderful yoga mentor had helped me to discover new and inventive ways to support my foreshortened left arm. I was learning about my body and my beliefs. I intended to teach yoga to people like myself, people who didn’t live in a perfect body, who weren’t accepted in typical studios. My attitude was “I am not my body.” That was my belief and my defense against years of striving to prove myself equal to able bodied peers. When NPR chose to publish my essay I was just starting to teach yoga. I didn’t understand then that I didn’t love my body or myself. I believed what I wrote, then.
From NPR’s This I Believe:
I believe I am not my body.
Every day, we see images of perfect bodies we can never have, and we become convinced our bodies are who we are. Passing through puberty, into adulthood and now into middle age, I’ve wasted a lot of time lamenting the size of my hips, the gray in my hair, and the lines in my face. Finally, as I approach my 50s, I believe my parents were right all along: I am not my body.
I was born in 1959, at the tail end of the baby boom. Unfortunately I arrived without all my body parts fully intact. My left arm is a short stub with a small hand and three fingers, reminiscent of a thalidomide defect. To my good fortune, I had superb parents. They were fighters who struck “I can’t” from my vocabulary, and replaced it with “I will find a way.” They believed the development of the mind, heart and soul determine who you are and who you will become. My body was not to be used as an excuse; instead it was a catalyst.
My body was not neglected, though. It endured surgery; it was dragged to physical therapy, then to swimming, and finally to yoga. But it was not the focus of my life. I was taught to respect my body, but to remember that it was only a vehicle that carried the important things: my brain and soul. Moreover, I was taught that bodies come in all shapes, colors and sizes, and that everyone was struggling in some way with their physical inadequacies. Infomercials have convinced me this must be true, although through adolescence I found it difficult to believe the cheerleading squad had any self-doubts.
In my alternately formed body, I have learned lessons about patience, determination, frustration and success. This body can’t play the piano or climb rock walls, but it taught all the neighborhood kids to eat with their feet, a skill it learned in the children’s hospital. Eventually it learned to tie shoes, crossed a stage to pick up a college diploma, backpacked through Europe and changed my baby’s diapers.
Some people think I am my body and treat me with prejudice or pity. Some are just curious. It took years, but I have learned to ignore the stares and just smile back. My body has taught me to respect my fellow humans — even the thin, able-bodied, beautiful ones.
I am my words, my ideas and my actions. I am filled with love, humor, ambition and intelligence. This I believe: I am your fellow human being and, like you, I am so much more than a body.
As I moved through my fifties, I continued my yoga training, embraced yin yoga, studied many forms of healing and meditation, opened a yoga studio, and raised my kids. In other words, I continued on my journey towards self discovery. I’d taken one Nia class and didn’t think it was for me. Then through a convoluted series of disruptions by the Universe, I found myself agreeing to take Nia classes from teacher I’d hired to teach Nia at my yoga studio. When she relocated to the west coast, my classmates elected me to take my White Belt training so that I could teach Nia. To say this was out of my comfort zone is an understatement.
I usually danced with my eyes closed, I avoided looking at myself in the mirror and if forced, I didn’t look at my arm. I’d never taken dance as a child because at my first attempt at ballet at age four, the other girls wouldn’t dance with me because my arm was ugly. The instructor thought it best I didn’t return. I stopped dancing in public after that.
I was terrified to step into the Nia teacher role, but my classmates insisted I’d be wonderful and were extremely supportive. They believed in me. So off to White Belt I went. What a transformational experience! I learned so much about myself, and of course about Nia. Who knew Nia was a spiritual practice? I thought it was about dance. At the end of my White Belt, here is the TRUTH I could finally tell myself about myself; although I respected my body, I didn’t love myself. As I write that, it shakes me to the core. I was ashamed I felt this way. After years of yoga, therapy, healing work, I had not released those ugly beliefs I still held about myself. I didn’t know how to love myself and my arm was ugly, just as those girls had told me decades ago. What I had learned in White belt helped me to see my beliefs about myself weren’t true, but they were deeply held.
I still believe I’m not my body, my spirit resides in this biological unit and I am so much more than my biology. And most assuredly, I am my body, every cell speaks to me, influences me, teaches me about being more authentic. We are dependent upon one another, spirit and body, along with those playmates mind and emotions. This journey hasn’t been fast or easy, but I’ve kept on dancing. Nia has taught me to be inside my body with love, attention and awareness, one belt at a time, and one class at a time, one step at a time. Nia taught me not only to love my body, but to love myself.
By the end of White Belt I learned to dance with my eyes open. I could look at my students. I could see their joy of movement and sense my own. Blue Belt taught me to look in the mirror and talk with love to my left arm, and watch myself move. I installed mirrors in my yoga studio. Brown Belt taught me to forgive myself for not loving myself. I apologized to my right arm for making it work so hard and to my left arm for not seeing it’s beauty. I added jewelry to my left wrist and thumb. Green Belt taught me to share what I had learned with confidence and joy. Move It taught me my body could do more than I thought. By embodying the glorious power of Nia over the last seven years I’ve learned the dance of joy. I can honestly smile into the mirror at myself and at my students.
My sixtieth birthday is a month away. A decade of self discovery led me to complete my Black Belt training just a week ago. My goal was to strip off that last layer of self doubt and criticism that I wasn’t enough. Honestly I’m not sure I have the words as yet to fully convey how I feel and to share the depth of what I learned. First, let me share that my classmates were amazing, supportive and filled with so much love that I felt completely safe to be among them diving into the river of uncertainty. To say that Debbie Rosas is a remarkable teacher who walks her walk is an understatement. That I was sharing the space with my previous belt teachers, Winalee and Caroline certainly helped. I am grateful.
Here is what I learned about myself. I am stronger than I knew. Loving yourself is a choice. When you love yourself suddenly everything is transformed. I am a black belt. I did it. I plunged into the river and let go. When I chose love over fear, my spirit, resting inside this body, experienced real joy. When I am the dance, present, aware, grounded, and intentional, there is no separation between spirit and body. It just all is. I can move my body with complete love, connected to the music, to the space, and to my classmates.
Debbie Rosas’ first question to us at Black Belt was, “Is there anybody here who doesn’t love their body?” Full disclosure, I raised my hand. Now, post Black belt, in the truth I tell myself about myself, I can say I love my body and myself. I finally let go of those last fears, shame and judgments that made me feel less. I plunged my body into the river of uncertainty and discovered at I am so much more than I ever imagined and my body is just fine as she is in this moment. I am grateful beyond measure to all my teachers and students who share my journey. I am grateful for this wondrous journey. I am excited to share our Nia dance with joy and love.
The Finnish word for October is lokakuu. Earlier this fall, I decided to declare October LOVEMYBODY-lokakuu, as the two L:s went so beautifully together. Via social media, I announced that I was looking for stories about relating to one’s body – stories about bodyshame, and bodylove, and everything in between. I was lucky enough to get a few responses, which I now, to crown this long month, have the pleasure and honour to share. Thank you to the contributors! A few more remain.
PS. Should you be inspired to share your story, please do – through me, or via your own channels. Good bodytalk is precious, and healing.