Breath, the Body, and Our War on Ourselves

yoga breathing

I don’t remember exactly when I first started to hate my body. Do any of us? I remember standing, looking naked in the bathroom mirror during middle school, and deciding which parts of myself I wanted to keep, which parts I would trade in. My straight nose and hazel eyes were okay. My pimply chin and my breasts, red with new stretch marks, were awful. I knew I was supposed to hate my body, and how could I not, considering how rapidly it had changed. I had been a puppy-like girl with comically overlarge feet, tall and clumsy–a clumsiness that came from long limbs and a near-complete lack of self-awareness for my own body. What sweet heaven. Suddenly I had breasts and zits and hair in all sorts of confusing places. In puberty our bodies become alien to us, and sadly I think that for most women they remain forever foreign–dark and dangerous places that have us trapped.

Employing some twisted logic, I think I was, even then, trying to give myself an alternative narrative. My body was betraying me, and I hated it for that, but I on some level I knew my body needed to remain home. So I found some safe places. My eyes, the birthmark on my right ankle shaped like Ireland, my height. I might not be beautiful, I was telling myself, but these individual parts were okay. And there was comfort in that, even as I was carving myself up and marking whole body parts for “discard.”

I also don’t remember when I first stated hating my belly, but in this war on my body she has become mortal enemy #1. I remember analyzing the girls in my high school, and longing for their tiny waists. I remember noticing, with sadness and jealousy, that a friend’s belly carried her weight in front, rather than to the sides like mine. She didn’t have “love handles;” she could hide it better. It gave me a perverse sense of pleasure when, years later, I gained enough weight that I started noticing it in the front, too. And years after that, when I was skipping meals in the dining hall, I remember laying in bed and resting my fingers in the space between my belly and my sharp hip bones, thinking how good it felt, and wondering how good it would feel to be just a little bit smaller.

Every outfit I have chosen, every day for over 15 years, has been assessed first and foremost for how well it masks my belly. My sense of fashion–this very personal sense of self in our capitalist world–has always always been shaped by trying to hide this “problem area.” I’ve read many a style guide for “apple shaped” bodies, cheered the return of slightly-higher rise jeans, and when I stand before the mirror, now fully dressed, my eyes have a laser focus on my stomach, to assess how it looks, always within the range of not-that-bad to catastrophic.

Sadly, I don’t think this story is unique. I tell you all this to share with you a recent realization on my part, from a beautiful weekend retreat at Kripalu Center, out in the Berkshires. But first, try something for me. Wherever you are reading this, take a deep breath. Breath deep and, with your breath, fill up your belly. Pay attention, for a moment to what it feels like to breath into your belly, and then pay attention to what it feels like as you soften and release the air. What sensations did you experience? How do you feel?

I hope your experience is different from mine, because I’ll tell you what I experience–nothing. It’s like someone gave me a shot of Novocain first. I have been practicing yoga and meditation, off and on, for years, and “Breath deep into your belly” is the equivalent of a layup; it’s a tool to warm you up, loosen you up, and get you centered. If you’re rattled or distracted, it’s a simple drill that can help you get your groove back. But, to stick with my basketball metaphor, for me it’s a Harlem Globetrotter-esque dribble-between-the-knees-and-shoot-from-halfcourt move. Focus on breathing into my throat? Breath deep to fill up my chest and lungs? There is a tangible sensation to all of these ways of being and breathing for me. But to breath deep into my belly, I can experience only as a void.

How can we wage decades long wars against our bodies, and not carry that hatred and anger and sadness in our bodies themselves? I can’t even look at myself without fear and derision for my stomach; how could I honestly feel what is happening here, what I’m feeling there. I’ve pushed my belly, emotionally, as far away as we can push anything that is physically attached to us, and, again, I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve ignored it and hated it like some kind of poor orphan child living under my stairs. And during years of on-again, off-again yoga practice, when “breath deep into your belly” was an empty experience for me, I assumed that I wasn’t concentrating the right way, that I was just breathing wrong. Again, the narrative I told myself was try harder, be better.

I don’t know how to fix this, exactly; I’m still living with the enemy, working towards seeing it (myself) as neutral, normal even. Good, even. How radical would that be? A voice in my head whispers, if you make it (your belly, yourself) small enough, you will like your belly, yourself. But I know that’s bullshit; I want to reject that narrative. The survival technique I came up with at 13, to carve myself up into good and bad (where at least there is still some good), isn’t working anymore. The new project is to like my whole self. Even writing that feel strange–simultaneously like an inspirational poster in a guidance counselor’s office, maybe with cats, and also like a lie. Maybe some meditations where I breath into my belly, sending love and kindness that way will help. Certainly more yoga, which helped me see the tangible effects of the cruel narratives I’ve been telling myself all these years. And, I suppose, openness–to myself, to the world, to breathing.

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