A story about self-acceptance in a time when "wellness" is sometimes anything but healthy...
Witten by Nina Butler
I am a yoga instructor and I run an online yoga startup. I do yoga a lot. Yoga and the ‘healthy lifestyle and eating’ associated with it was at one stage - over a decade ago now - a saviour and refuge for me. It continues to dominate my life in ways that I feel are at times problematic and confining. I have to work at striking a balance in my approach to ‘healthy living’. I want to share my story with you.
A tipping point in my life was when I started schooling at an all girls boarding school, far from home. It was a mere week before school started that my grandmother died at home in her bed on a Saturdayafternoon. We - my two older brothers, mum and dad - were all present. I was traumatised. I grew up with my grandmother, she had always lived with us, and we were fiercely close. In hindsight, I should not have been sent to boarding school then. I was not ready to suddenly be thrust into a new environment away from my support structure, but at the time my parents sided with the priority of schooling and a return to ‘normality’ in our lives. In actuality, It ushered in a phase for me that was everything but familiar and stable. I soon developed insomnia, which manifested as a result of spells of what I can only understand now as mini anxiety attacks. They often developed from sleeplessness into migraines, one of which was so bad that it left me with lock-jaw for two weeks.
Around this time I was becoming self-critical and increasingly aware of my physical appearance. I battled to find stable friendships and I naively thought that if I became ‘thinner and prettier’ I would attract more interest, from boys and girls alike. I realise now that I was probably craving emotional attachment and support, and was desperately trying to exert some kind of order and control over my life. Ironically, I fed this hunger with starvation. I began micro-managing my eating habits and cutting down severely on quantity. If I managed to skip meals altogether, I praised myself. I coupled this with a rigid routine of competitive road running, tennis and netball. Of course, this combination of limited nutrition and over-exercising only exasperated my migraine and insomnia problems.
The weight fell off me, and my body goals shifted. A flat stomach was not good enough once I got it, I needed muscle definition, then thinner arms, then more toned thighs, then no ‘back fat’ when wearing tight bras or tops - and so the list extended to increasingly minute, unrealistic and unhealthy aspirations. I became less and less interested in my studies, something I once thrived at. I bunked classes and isolated myself.
By the first term of the next year, the boarding house matron noticed my extreme weight loss. I was put under ‘watch’. I had to eat three times a day in front of a councillor in the dinning hall. If I skipped a meal, I would be punished with detention. So I shifted from anorexia to bulimia and my iron-fisted self-discipline transmuted into a shameful and exhausting cycle of binging and purging. I disgusted myself. I can vividly remember smelling my own stomach bile on the cuffs of my school shirts. It was a permanent stench of self-loathing.
I reached a breaking point by the end of two years at boarding school; I returned home. Although my health improved, the bulimia simmered beneath the surface, surging and subsiding with my emotions. It became a vicious cycle of need and repulsion and I was increasingly uncertain of myself. The more I berated myself and strived for unattainable physical perfection, the less time I spent pursuing other passions and talents. I stopped believing in my self-worth and I stopped striving to test my skills and carve a meaningful path for myself in life. To make matters more complex, I was sexually assaulted at this time. For many years afterwards, I could not bring myself to tell anyone, least of all my parents. The word ‘rape’ terrified me and yet I was conversely able to accept to myself that I was ‘worthless enough’ to be raped and mistreated. I searched for self-love through the eyes of others. By my late teens I was raped a second time by a different man, just two years after the first incident.
Throughout this tumultuous time I kept up a rigorous running routine. My body gave in when I was about 18 - I developed shin splints and stress fractures in my ankles from overuse, not to mention the other hormonal and immune imbalances (I still deal with, over a decade later). It was at this time that I signed up for a Bikram yoga class. I instantly became hooked. It was a massive physical challenge, I lost more weight, I got toned, it made me exhausted to the point of dulling all emotional turmoil - all the things I wanted. I also got to stare at myself in a mirror during classes, feeding my obsession with my body’s imperfections and moments of beauty.
Importantly, the plunge into yoga reminded me of my childhood years during which I joined my mother for her regular Hatha yoga sessions. It sparked the beginning of a strong and renewed bond between us. I ploughed all my energy into a healthy vegetarian ‘yogi lifestyle’ and I explored more styles of yoga. I built inner fortitude. I was drawn to start mediation which in turn gave me daily doses of the courage and mindfulness needed to beat the cycle of bulimia. I started to put words to the trauma of sexual assault and believe, little by little, that I deserved to be loved.
So this would be the point that one may think I say, ‘and the rest is history - I now have a healthy balanced life and yoga was the answer.’ Surely a yoga instructor and yoga business owner would advocate that? The reality is far more complex.
Yes, yoga was a catalyst for me to change life-course and begin the process of healing and self-acceptance. But yoga has simultaneously been a way in which I could fuel the fire of my obsession with bodily perfection, self-loathing, extreme exercise and rigid control. Yoga can heal, and it does heal, but the culture of ‘yogini lifestyle’ around yoga practice and studios can also do the opposite. It can be a diversion, a neat replacement for a ‘conventional’ eating disorder under the guise of ‘healthy living and veganism’. The ‘yogini lifestyle’ promoted through social media is outrageously preoccupied with a narrow ideal of beauty and it is downright materialistic - we are being sold an empty, limited, sexist and racially exclusive ideal of ourselves. And it’s just so tantalising at times, it’s so easy to buy into it.
The truth of my yoga story is that I falter. I have to constantly check myself, and bring myself back to an awareness of what brings me sustainable happiness and a flourishing life. This is something to do with my inner world, its hard to describe, but rest assured its not about being super slim and doing advanced poses.
I still have weak days where I let my body imperfections take up way to much of my mind space and emotional energy. Or, I have times when I feel I must be nailing some posture to prove I am really ‘succeeding’ in my yoga journey. On strong days I know that neither of these two preoccupations have anything to do with the authenticity of yoga. More than anything what I struggle with is the way a ‘yogini ideal’ becomes a lazy and narrow imagination I have for myself. This has undoubtably limited me, it means that, at worst, I do not strive for solid, important and worthwhile things. I spend mental energy and hopes and dreams on wanting to be a perfect yogi. If I could change anything over my yoga journey it would be that. On strong days I strive for and plan for a future in which I am an independent, intelligent, strong, healthy, grounded, earthy warrior woman, who spreads the message of nurturing intuitive yoga. On weak days I wish for ephemeral, floaty handstands, green juices, crop tops and a empty hours to keep up the floaty handstand action. Those are the days that I limit myself and my future.
So this is where I am at - drinking up and spreading all the goodness yoga can offer, whilst remaining weary of yoga culture. I want to express clearly that an idealised yoga lifestyle does not make you happy or healthy; only you can find answers to the important questions. Yoga is a context and enabler; it started the journey for me, it also holds me back at times. I can tell you with a degree of strength and experience, that the ‘alternative health’ and ‘yoga’ and ‘vegan’ industry teeters between good advice, good lifestyle practice, and outrageous charlatanism. I hope that all of us who are invested in this field with integrity, for business and personal reasons alike, can work together to build more meaningful, inclusive and helpful messages and ideals to share with our compatriots - and most importantly, our daughters.