Every New Year, many of us embark on self-improvement plans and challenges. Some resolves and intentions we may stick with for the longer term, but mostly, the standards we can set ourselves at the beginning of January are so high and unattainable, that we often fail miserably and revert back to normal habits pretty quickly – only with an upsized blob of guilt combined with full-fat thoughts of failure.
Weight loss and obsessive calorie counting are such a massive part of life these days – particularly post an indulgent Christmas – that it’s not unreasonable to describe this stuff as a New Normal. This is especially true for women, many of whom have suffered (more or less) a lifetime of moderate – or even serious – dysmorphia. With the onslaught of advertising on most Social Media platforms, this stuff is in our face constantly. There seems to be an ever-growing, captive online audience prepared to click and spend their money on yet another diet fad, exercise regime, weight-loss challenge or indeed any program, weird potion or concoction that promises a perfect form (just like the Goddess in the image). If you will just sign up now. Please.
Disappointingly, in the last few years, there have been more and more yoga websites using the same (pardon the pun) mantra. Disappointing because, while it may be true that those who practise yoga regularly tend to end up trimmer, weight loss or body perfection/ability has absolutely nothing to do with what yoga actually is or is related to. All that stuff is really just a useful side effect of commitment to the practice.
Although it does have a small exercise component, yoga is a system for health and wellbeing on an integrated level, so it has nothing particularly to do with being flexible either (although not many of us feel great about things when our body and mind are rigid and stuck). What yoga does represent is a massive, ancient lifestyle philosophy that offers incredible wisdom and tools to manifest self-awareness, healing and to experience the idea of universal connection.
Although you would be forgiven for not knowing this – particularly since the invention of Instagram – yoga is more akin to Buddhism than Pilates. It has absolutely nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with understanding/ knowing and accepting the self. So, using weight loss and body-shaming to attract people to a yoga website for financial gain is just not cricket. Or even yoga. It’s upsetting to see influential international yogis and websites capitalising on the fragility of our human ego, the very thing which yoga in its actual form, seeks to negate. Yoga teachers, like teachers of anything, should aim to inspire a sense of curiosity and a desire to discover more. Students of yoga should be encouraged to inquire more deeply into their true nature; to seek contentment; to embrace their current experience and resolve to do the best they can while cherishing their uniqueness in a loving way. It’s really only when we inquire within that positive transformation takes place and better habits evolve.
Instead, once again, the message to get bums on seats here seems to be one of inciting insecurity and low self-esteem; “YOU are not good enough and could be better”.
Sure, it may sound complex and even counter-intuitive. I know we live in a competitive, materialistic, beauty and youth-obsessed world and are lead to believe we must always be hungry for something more than we already have – especially (and for plenty of reasons that often have nothing to do with health) on a physical level. If you think about it, as grown ups, these are the values we are passing on to our already very anxious, and often (disturbingly so) depressed, children. Values that seem to involve making excuses and/or giving up unless we show the progress we imagined straight away. Even though many of us desire change, we find it difficult to commit to doing things differently; to make small changes that are easier to stick with. To show up and do it anyway – without attachment to ideas of success or failure.
Instead, we may find ourselves obsessing constantly about how to be/look/seem better than (we believe others believe) we are because Right Now (apparently) We Are Not As We Should Be. What is an intensive 10-day weight-loss/physical challenge (for example) other than something that suggests we must forget Right Now and focus instead on some imaginary, Perfect-Us future? When we embark on these things, we only ever think about the end. But that’s 10 days away. What if we only had nine to live? And we will never stick with the regime once it finishes because long term, it’s rarely practical. At the end though, we believe we will be a better person than we are now. For a short time anyway we can post about our success and hope someone else notices and validates this for us.
The point to be made here is that in the long term, commitment to yoga will help us to let go of this all-or-nothing mentality, this idea that other people are always thinking about us, and bring about a more balanced approach. If we can practise without attachment to ideals or goals, it becomes something that enables us to exist more in the moment. When we get caught up with ambition, we are essentially creating a fictional story set somewhere in an imaginary future; a future that never really actualises since goal posts for the competitive have a terrible habit of moving. And this isn’t about not having goals or plans or being lazy and unfocussed, it’s simply about allowing the day-to-day stuff – the “working towards” bit – to be the focus. The day-to-day, momentary stuff is the bit we miss out on when we constantly have our minds somewhere else.
I don’t know about you, but once upon a time an amazing version of me played the awesome lead in lots of these romantic mind movies. In my head things played out perfectly, but reality meant I often felt let down. In my late teens and 20s I became very uncomfortable in my own skin because things rarely ended up the way I had imagined. Expectation is never based on reality though because it involves predicting outcomes. Predicting the future isn’t actually possible of course so there is bound to be disappointment when things don’t go our way. This can quickly manifest into feelings of emptiness and discontent, but we may not be able to work out how we got there. Essentially though, it’s because we are too busy trying to get somewhere else or be someone else and so have lost the ability to be present.
Sure, some people are born with a near perfect physique or tons of energy or end up incredibly wealthy and/or successful, but the majority of us pretty much just get what we get. This means we must see advertising and marketing for what it is and the majority of our thoughts for what they are (blah blah mostly). Instead of ambition, our focus could be on more important and useful things such as gratitude, contentment and those other biggies – personality and affability.
When we spend time on our yoga mat or in quiet contemplation, we become very much more in tune with our physical body and our emotional self. We see stuff we didn’t see before; we might even begin to understand how we have been conditioned by our environment. We might get to a point where we can (try at least to) witness our thoughts and feelings rather than constantly allowing our emotions to hijack our rationale. When it comes to working towards better habits, with time, we might become aware of what it is that triggers our particular behaviours or reactions (samskaras). It could take years or even lifetimes (it is a process after all), but the idea of ambition, and where it comes from could be laid bare. It’s possible that one day desire might seem less relevant; a sensation to be observed, honoured but then ignored. It’s just a thought after all.
So After All That, Why Do Yogis Tend Towards Trimness?
Without attachment, here’s how yoga assists weight management, as a side effect of regular practise. Although we tend to be calorie obsessed, actually, unless we are athletes, the majority of us don’t burn as many calories as we think we do when we exercise aerobically for a normal amount of time. Plus, chances are, if we are participating in intense aerobic exercise, we will tend to over breathe /mouth breathe (unless we are an athlete in peak physical form; watch footage, for example, of Thorpey swimming and see how few breaths he takes per 50 metre lap). Over-breathing or hyper-ventilation usually makes us feel hungrier because it alkalises the blood. Generally speaking, this means that after intense exercise, normally fit people will crave high protein or stodgy, acidic food. This is the body’s way of trying to get the blood back to a Ph neutral.
Therefore, it can be a vicious cycle or catch 22. We feel we must do very intense exercise, whether it suits our body type or not, in order to burn lots of calories so we can lose weight. Post which though, we may end up eating a lot more than we normally would…. And so it begins again. On the other hand, although some forms of physical yoga can be intense and challenging, the focus is on relaxation. This means that, with regular practise, the breath naturally begins to slow. Slower breath leads to a rest and digest (rather than fight or flight) response and blood becomes slightly more acidic (which leads to a calmer state). Consequently, we find our appetite lessens and often, we rarely feel the urge to refuel with stodge. What happens is, the slight increase in blood acidity means we tend towards lighter, more alkaline food options* – again, to balance the Ph. Flexibility, strength and coordination also tend to improve when our diet is lighter and mainly plant based as opposed to big meals consisting of mainly meat served with lots of carbs. This will also work the other way round. For example, a person who understands nutrition and decides to become a vegetarian or vegan will discover they tend to breathe more efficiently, become stronger and more flexible, suffer less joint pain and muscle stiffness and will quickly begin to feel lighter and more mobile.
*It is possible to over-breathe during yoga practise too so if you feel very hungry when you finish, this could be why.
Introduce Small Changes Slowly for Long Term Success…
While I am not suggesting anyone should radically alter their diet or exercise program over night, it could be that it’s worth digging a little deeper and changing the mind about some things. For example, how about exercising just for the feel good factor and letting go of the whole calorie burning thing? When we relax and let go, feel content with who we are and accept what is, we have more confidence. When we have more confidence, we are likely to smile more, connect more easily with others, have more energy and will naturally be drawn towards engaging in more activity without it feeling like an effort or a challenge.
Now that’s a vicious cycle I’d rather be caught up in.