Denver Clark – CIAYT, ERYT-500, LMT #89197
Yoga has so much more depth than most of us (even those who teach) can even begin to comprehend. In a world full of filters and impossible standards of beauty, hearing that self-love is as easy as “getting a pedicure and deciding to love yourself” can leave us feeling frustrated and depressed. So, I decided to share a little bit about how yoga has shaken me out of the trap of self-loathing and into a place of self-awareness and compassion. Some days I still struggle to reach even a moment of self-acceptance, let alone self-love. But the magic of Yoga has been the true catalyst for me.
I was raised in front of a mirror. My mother was a dance teacher at Steps on Broadway and traveled all over the country as a master jazz teacher. My stepfather was my ballet instructor. My mom opened a dance school when I was just a year old, and some of my earliest memories are of bouncing my walker into the mirrors of the studio while she taught. I used to spend hours making faces at myself as a child and was even caught lip syncing the songs from the musical “Miss Saigon” in the bathtub, while watching myself in the mirror when my parents listened to new music to use for their dance company concerts. I grew up with a love for music and performance and decided at a very early age, that I was content to become a starving artist in New York City if it meant I could be on Broadway and inspire others from the stage.
I was born to be a naturally larger bodied person. I learned to channel my anxiety into hiding food and eating it excessively to help myself feel calmer. The problem was, I was never thin enough to be up front dancing or singing or acting. I didn’t “look right for the part” and this became my internal narrative – not just on stage but in every moment of life. I punished myself as a teenager by hiding in my room and excessively picking at my face – even covering it with scrubbing bubbles bathroom cleaner once in an attempt to wash away the things I didn’t like. I obsessively stared at myself in mirrors, pinching and pulling on my flesh and fantasizing about cutting off my extra girth with scissors. My mind had taken the corrections from my dance teachers, my own parents and twisted them into corrections for myself. My mind had heard “wrong for the part” as just “wrong.” I decided I was the problem, and I did not love myself.
Even when I was admitted to a prestigious BFA program for Musical Theatre, I found ways to internalize this “not good enough” monologue and managed to sabotage my experience, eventually removing myself from the program and dropping out of college entirely. I made every choice in my life based on the idea that I deserved the bare minimum, from who I chose to date to the way I communicated with others to the activities I engaged in and the meals I ate.
In my 20’s I found myself working in a fast-food drive-through and looking for a way to re-connect with my body after losing my college dance classes which led me into the upstairs room of a chiropractor’s office in Rural Georgia where I met – Yoga.
My first experience in a yoga class was simple and to this day I’ll never be able to tell you if the teacher was a “good one” or not. What I can remember is that for the first time in my entire life, I was moving with my body in harmony. I was connected to my deepest self. I was completely at peace and there wasn’t a mirror in sight. I cried during savasana.
This began my journey into Yoga. Starting with my 200-hour training and navigating the new yoga and dance studio I inherited during the program, I was frantically trying to learn enough to be worthy of my student’s trust. Born with “imposter syndrome,” my desire to know all the answers led me to my 300-hour certification and eventually to become both a massage and yoga therapist. Along the way I learned a myriad of helpful information about anatomy, physiology and how to be a compassionate listener and strong communicator. But the most important lessons came once I started practicing yoga experientially.
I learned about the energetic subtle body and the theory of how our thoughts and emotions manifest in physical pain. I started noticing that when I felt sad and unworthy, my body changed composition – literally padding itself to protect me from my negative thoughts and the outside world. I would experience physical pain in my joints and even gain weight just by thinking negatively about myself. As a yoga therapist (and someone actively in therapy for body image and disordered eating) there is a proven connection of our physical body to our subtle body. We are what we think. So now, at 35 I am actively working to re-direct my negative thought patterns to compassionate ones. By showing myself love mentally and emotionally, I have begun to feel more worthy, and I treat myself better. I get out of bed to practice or meditate, and I spend the time nourishing my body and enjoying what I eat instead of punishing myself with food.
My yoga journey has brought me to the alter of Ayurveda. This 3,000-year-old system of medicine coming from India introduced me to the study of the Doshas and how everything in the universe is made up of a combination of the 5 elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether). I’ve learned to accept that I was brought into this world with a lot of fire and instead of allowing this energy to consume me with anger and self-destructiveness, I’ve decided to treat it as my superpower. I’m actively trying to reshape my narrative as a “Type A, anxiety ridden, short, fused person” into “a passionate, transformative and hardworking induvial” and self-awareness helps me see the moments when I’m beginning to tip out of balance. The practices I’ve learned – mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, postures and eating in accordance with my energies – have shown me how to bring myself back when life throws me a curveball instead of taking to my bed for days on end or acting out of self-loathing, mistreating my body and binge eating. I find I recover from stress much more quickly now and can acknowledge my missteps and apologize when that fire comes out sideways instead of hiding behind self-defensiveness. This has completely changed my relationships and my parenting.
Philosophically, the Yoga Sutras have shown me that all of us have fears and aversions. We call these the Kleshas. That our monkey mind and our ego will constantly be grasping, and our job is to stay the course and keep doing the work of spiritual growth. To get back up even when we trip and fall into old habits.
The most important thing yoga has taught me is that healing is not linear and self-compassion is the end to suffering.
Do I remember this every day? Of course not! Honestly, the best way for me to live my yoga has been to teach it. Not on a yoga mat in a “yoga class” but by sharing with others the gems that I’ve discovered. I have these conversations with my daughter, with my husband, with my friends over lunch and I find I’m beginning to live my yoga. After all, it’s yoga “practice,” not yoga “perfect.
My friend and teacher Donna shared a beautiful quote in class just this morning from Brene Brown: “True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.”
Self-awareness is the gift of yoga. This leads to self-acceptance and for me, is the doorway to the long and winding journey of self-love.
For further contemplation:
- In subtle body studies, the concept of the 5 koshas teaches us that we have increasingly subtle layers of existence. Our physical layer sends messages to our energetic layer and creates changes in the physiology of our body. This creates a shift in our mental layer. Also, our thoughts change our physiology and nervous system in the energy body and create measured physical changes. We can in fact, make ourselves sick.
- In Ayurveda we learn about the 3 doshas, Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (water and earth). All things in the universe are made up of a different combination of these elements. Therefore, to stay in balance, it’s important to recognize your constitution and apply the opposite energies in your food and activities to keep from falling into an excess of one element over the other.
- The 5 Kleshas or “causes of suffering” are ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear of death. All people fall victim to these sensations and yoga teaches us to ride the wave instead of allowing these feelings to rule our lives and our decisions.