Building Self-Respect Through Yoga

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yoga juliaBy: Julia S.

Project HEAL Social Media Intern

National Instagram Manager

I have a few confessions to make. The first: I am a perfectionist. The second: I don’t give up.

Confession number two creates the foundation for confession three: I am in recovery from an eating disorder.

I have struggled with anorexia nervosa for the past several years. I have also struggled with body dysmorphia. You can ask me which developed first, but I wouldn’t be able to give you a definite answer. That would mirror the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. My anorexia and body dysmorphia went hand in hand, like two peas in a pod. This dynamic duo contributed to years of depression; anxiety around food, weight, and my physical appearance; and fear of not being able to be “good enough” by my eating disorder’s standards.

My eating disorder helped me deal with life: my inability to control anything and everything; regulating my emotions; having social anxiety; and feeling like I could never reach [unrealistic] expectations. Having low self-esteem and poor body image were just more fuel to the fire.

Fast forward a few years after I was diagnosed, and I found myself sitting on a yoga mat waiting for class to begin. There were just a few of us- women, mostly-, and we were going to practice in a mirror-less room…with windows that welcomed the outside world to peer inside the studio. Nerve-wracking is an understatement. Not only were average Joes going to catch a glimpse of me: everyone in the entire class would be examining me, including the instructor. The thought was paralyzing; I already feared judgment about my appearance, and it was my first “real” yoga class, so of course I would make mistakes.

But for some reason, I stayed. And I’m glad that I did.

Yoga is as much a physical practice as it is a practice of the mind and soul. At the time, these areas of my life needed a transformation. I was struggling with finding my inner-strength, and always with my physical strength: I was fatigued with fighting my eating disorder, exhausted by just simply going about my day. I felt like I could never win the never-ending arguments in my mind: to eat or not eat; do I really look f-a-t, or is it just my perception in the mirror? I felt void of any spiritual connection to my faith, and a higher power.

I needed to find something that would renew me: something that would make me feel alive, something that would be drastically different from the routines and rituals I put myself through on a daily basis. I needed to feel a connection to myself again. I needed to separate from the identity of an anorexic young woman. I needed to find Julia.

Yoga was the answer. Yoga is, and continues to be, my saving grace.

When you practice yoga, you have to let go of what’s going on out there in the “real” world, and focus on the present moment: you, on your mat, linking breath and movement, flowing through the asana. You need to be conscious of each inhale and exhale. You need to be aware of engaging your body. You need to be aware of grounding the four corners of your bare feet firmly into the mat for mountain post, standing tall and proud, eyes close, hands open. You need to be aware of flexing and contracting your muscles, twisting your body, transitioning from posture to posture throughout the practice.

Yoga provided me with a mental escape. For the entire 75-minute practice, I was focused on the voice of the instructor rather than the voice in my head telling me that I was too f-a-t. I was focused on breathing in through my nose, and out through my mouth, creating the sound of the ocean. I became calm. I was aware of tension in my neck, back, knees, and legs, where bottled-up and repressed emotions lived, as I was too afraid to reveal to anyone how I was feeling.

The instructor would walk around the studio, making slight adjustments to the students’ bodies during the practice: helping someone twist deeper into a posture, or placing their hand gently on the small of a student’s back during child’s pose. But never, not once, did the instructor say, “Stop! You are doing it wrong, it’s this way,” or “Come on, is that all you have,” or, dare I say, “You are not strong enough. You are not good enough for yoga.”

Perfection was not the goal: being connected with your body was.

I found my calling. I found something that made me feel good about myself, something that made me feel confident and strong. I knew that if I were sick, I wouldn’t be able to practice. I needed to treat myself, and my body, with kindness and respect if I wanted to feel the benefit of the practice. I needed to accept where I was, let go of judgments, and let go of the fear of not being the “best” yogi, or having the “perfect” postures. I needed to be aware of the present moment, not dwell on the past or think about the future. I was in the here and now.

Even at times when I couldn’t physically practice yoga when I was in treatment, or if I was feeling a lapse in motivation, I could always practice the yoga philosophy: being in tune with my body; breathing in the positive and exhaling the negative; and finding my mind, body, and soul in balance with each other.

I am a firm believer that yoga changed me as a person, and that it was a transformative component to my recovery. I hope that others who are struggling with an eating disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, anxiety, depression, or any other challenge in their lives, find something that works for them, drawing them inwards, and helping them find their authentic self.

Namaste. 

Speaking out against Stigma

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stigmaBy: Danielle Michaud, Project HEAL Social Media Intern

I have suffered from anxiety, panic, and OCD since I was a young child, later developing anorexia nervosa and depression. I have received all levels of treatment, many times, over the past several years. As a college undergraduate, I majored in psychology and am currently studying clinical social work with hopes of later serving in the mental health field.  Needless to say, at least on a cerebral level, I have been no stranger to “joining the discussion” on mental illness, even encouraging others to seek help and to be vocal about sharing their stories. So why was I so silent?

My family and some of my friends knew about my struggles to an extent, but I increasingly went to lengths to prevent anyone else from finding out. On some level, I am sure that some people knew, partly because it always felt like the elephant in the room, and my worn physical appearance likely suggested something was amiss. (Although, as I write this, I must note a) looking “too thin” can be attributed to a large number of factors, and b) eating disorders, more often than not, are NOT obvious, just the way other illnesses go painfully unchecked, invisible). I had spent many years in heavy denial of my eating disorder. I knew somewhere, deep down, that yes, I had a problem, but it was not that severe – which is just another variation of the myth of not feeling validated as “sick enough.”

After a few stints in treatment, I still grappled with my belief in that misconception, but the realization had sunk in enough to which I had accepted that I indeed had an eating disorder. But over time, I grew increasingly secretive about the nature of my anorexia. I do think who one chooses to tell – and when – depends on his or her readiness; it is a personal decision. However, I had smothered my eating disorder in a cloak of silence, even failing to tell people that I was in the hospital during my last admission. In retrospect, I now recognize that having shared this information would have strengthened my support network and given people the chance to reach out to me.

Truthfully, I was deeply ashamed. Not only did I feel self-perceived inferiority for living with mental illness (a notion I applied to only myself), but I also experienced a sense of defeat from having been in treatment repeatedly. I did not necessarily feel that I was incapable of recovery, as impossible as life without an eating disorder often seemed. I was motivated to push forward in my journey despite the bumps in the road – but I enormously feared judgment from others for having been in and out of facilities so many times (“again?”). I had internalized the stigma so much that I put up a thick wall, separating me from many of the people I cared about. In doing so, I subconsciously reinforced my beliefs, which in turn created a vicious cycle of perpetuation.

Over the fall of the last year, my existing anxiety and depression snowballed, ostensibly tag-teaming each other as I spiraled down, paralyzed by terror and a permeating sense of hopelessness. The silver lining of this situation was that it finally led me to emerge from my shell and start talking. What did I have to lose? I am grateful that most people were much kinder and receptive than I would have ever anticipated. The bottom line is that I had absolutely nothing to feel ashamed of. Mental illnesses are just as real, serious, and potentially life-threatening as major physical diseases. Stigma still does exist, and people do not always understand the true depths of mental illness beyond “sadness” (i.e. depression) or “a diet gone too far” (i.e. eating disorder). However, there is hope. We can take action, continuing to chip away at this issue by raising awareness by speaking up.

Emerging from Isolation

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friendshipBy: Danielle Michaud, Project HEAL Social Media Intern 

Even though I had friends growing up, I never felt as if I really belonged anywhere. I could not admit it to myself for many years, but I always felt a sense of perceived inferiority, somehow different and therefore defective. I suppose my battle with low self-esteem began at an early age. It only worsened with time as I battled my eating disorder. Anorexia is truly a disorder rooted in tremendous self-hatred. For a while, I was able to maintain an active social life. But I began turning away social invitations time and time again. Not only did I have severe social anxiety, but really, I could not wrap my mind around how anyone would want to spend time with me. I didn’t even want to spend time with myself.

My friendships began to dissolve because I pushed people away. My mind twisted this reality – instead of attributing my seclusion to the truth that I was isolating, I instead believed that I was disliked and not worth someone else’s time. In periods in which I was functioning better, I was better able to face up to my fears. I would contact my friends and try to make amends. However, inevitably I would spiral back into paralyzing anxiety and depression and the cycle would repeat itself again, growing worse every time.

I began to withdraw completely, with the exception of going to work and putting on my game face for my coworkers and the people I assisted at my job. I was – and am – incredibly grateful for that interaction because I enjoyed being around people and allowing myself to get comfortable enough around them to engage in both serious and hilarious conversations. By nature, I am fairly extroverted and genuinely enjoy getting to know people and their stories. But my fears kept me trapped.

I firmly believe in the importance of friends and a support system in recovery and life in general. I am starting to emerge, allowing myself to be more open and vulnerable in reconnecting with people I care about. I feel fortunate that I have some truly wonderful and forgiving people in my life. I was blind to the idea that my disappearance even had any effect on them because I was so lost and deep into my descent into misery. I had effectively made myself alone, but life is not meant to be lived that way. I am reclaiming my relationships and livelihood as I begin to move forward.