Having grown up in the worlds of competitive dance and pageantry, I’ve definitely struggled with my fair share of body image issues…
Whether it was crash dieting, over-exercising or simply never being satisfied with how skinny, or “not skinny,” I thought I was, one thing was for sure — I was unhealthy, both physically and mentally.
That is, until somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon yoga. The transformation in my mind and body didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s taken many years to get to the place I am today, but I can say I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been before, and I attribute much of that to what I’ve learned on my yoga mat.
You see, when I finally immersed myself in the world of yoga, and discovered what this ancient practice is all about, my focus gradually shifted from my scale weight to my self-worth. I learned that my worth is not dictated by my weight, and that happiness and confidence are an inside job, which no number on the scale, no matter how small, will ever bring me. But, most importantly, I learned how to love myself and honor my body, not for what it looks like, but for all it can do.
And I know I’m not the only one to have this epiphany. More and more studies are showing that there is indeed a correlation between yoga and positive body image, especially among young women and teens. Not only does yoga relieve stress and anxiety, which helps keep hormones in balance, but it’s also been noted to boost confidence and promote overall health and well-being.
“Yoga allows us to start to slow down the self-critic, and start to observe that these voices in our heads isn’t necessarily the reality,” said Vyda Bielkus, co-founder of Health Yoga Life studio in Boston, in an article on the Huffington Post. “To slow down and get into the body and say, ‘OK, when these thoughts are coming up, there’s something actually behind the thoughts that we’re observing’ — that connects us more to our true self versus the dialogue that may be running us.”
Bielkus notes that beginning a yoga program during high school years can help transform a young woman’s mindset by teaching her to listen to her inner voice. “Whether it’s peer pressure from your girlfriends or pressure you put on yourself, yoga can help you to find comfort and resilience by looking within and finding your own path,” she says.
Yoga also offers young women a healthy, like-minded community to practice and share their passions with. According to a 2012 study that linked peer competition to poor self-image, having “body-negative” friends can take an even greater toll on your body image and self-esteem than the media. Being in a “body-positive” environment, such as a yoga studio, is a great way to build friendships and not focus on competition or physical appearance.
“Yoga allows teens to plug into a community of people who might be a healthier alternative to what’s available to them,” says Bielkus. “It’s also less competitive than an athletic sport, because at yoga we de-emphasize competition and we’re talking about self-acceptance.”
Another way yoga helps heal body image issues and promote positive self-esteem, regardless of age, is through teaching students to let go of the idea of “perfection.”
“Women have so many expectations of themselves,” Bielkus says. “We’re constantly bombarded with unreal expectations that everything should be perfect — I should look perfect and I should be accomplishing it all with ease. I think yoga allows us to take a break from all of the chaos… and start to say, ‘I have a need to be good to myself and slow down, and as I’m able to show up for myself, I’m more able to show up for others.'”
The ability to silence the mind and focus attention inward, on the breath and body, helps us let go of the negative self-talk and idea of perfection and appreciate all the good things our bodies do for us instead. While we may initially start a yoga practice for the physical benefits, that’s not the reason we stay. It’s the mental benefits — increased inner awareness, stillness and peace — that yoga brings to our lives, which boost our confidence, heal our souls and keep us coming back to our mats for more.