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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Britney Griner Considered for NBA Draft, aka My Childhood Dreams May Come True

ImageMark Cuban announced that he will consider women’s college basketball superstar, Britney Griner, for the 2013 NBA draft on the Mavricks. Griner plays for Baylor, where she’s lead them to two-consecutive national championships,broken crazy records, and generally torn up the court. Based on her tweet, she’s game for joining the Mavricks.

As a tall young woman, I played basketball from elementary school through high school. As an young woman with limited athletic skills, I played poorly. (I once tried to rescue a ball from going out of bounds, and wound up smacking it off my own forehead. Yeah.) Regardless, it’s a game I love. I still remember the enthusiasm of young tea & strumpets, when the WNBA was founded. It blew my mind to consider that a woman could play professional sports.

That experience had a profound effect on me. Athletics has not been my life-long passion, but the importance of role models with whom you can identify should not be understated. In 1995, before the WNBA was founded, when I looked at the world of sports, I could always only look on from the outside. It was a world that belonged to men, and the only way I would be allowed on court was at half-time, wearing a sparkly bra and waving pom-poms. But in 1996, like little boys around the country, I had the chance to day dream of playing professional sports. When I looked into the future I saw open doors and possibility. How much damage is done to our young girls when they size up the world and see so many closed doors? Just imagine the astronomical shift for young girls everywhere–athletes or not–to see a woman suited up for an NBA team?

I’m beyond excited at the possibility. I’ll be following along, but in the meantime, I highly recommend this article, on ESPN of all places, about the gender-related BS that Griner has faced, and if drafted to the Mavrick’s will certainly continue to face:

“We disparage female athletes so we don’t have to make room for them,” says Nicole LaVoi, a professor at the University of Minnesota and the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports. “People can’t just say, ‘Wow, Brittney Griner is a great athlete.’ We need to have a caveat: ‘She plays like a guy, she looks like a guy, she must be a guy.’ These qualifiers marginalize what Brittney has done and serve to keep the current pecking order in place, whereby men’s sports are more valued, more culturally relevant — the norm.”

I have no doubt that the jerks would come out of the woodwork if Griner were to play in the NBA. Rarely does a rookie wow everyone; the learning curve is steep. I’m afraid that in the media and among certain fans the allowance for Griner’s to learn to excel at this level would be short at best, but I’m still excited. I’m excited for the much needed conversations about gender and sports that this will prompt, and most of all I’m excited for all the little girls who’ll learn about a newly opened door.