Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

Category: Yoga

Three (really hard) things we all benefit from doing

What does it mean to be empowered?

Find your voice, shout it from the rooftops, and keep doing it until the people looking for you find you.That’s the question we began with this weekend, as we stood in our power, took up space, and connected with our tribe.

Each of those things defies the ability of mere words to communicate what is so much larger than a single thing or feeling or action.

To “stand in your power,” you must first recognize your power, feel that power, work through your issues and fears and insecurities, and embrace the gifts you offer this world in unique and necessary ways.

To “take up space,” you must first recognize and reject diet culture, which tells all of us — but especially women — that to be small, quiet, and deferential is morally superior to being large, fierce, and confident. Taking up space unapologetically is a radical political action. It cannot happen if you don’t find the courage to believe that you deserve to exist exactly as you do, without diminishment or reticence. Shunning diet culture opens the way to redirect abundantly your time, money, and energy into actions that serve to boost women (and men). It robs the world of energy, time, and resources that break spirits and kill vitality in the uniquely pernicious way of this disempowering culture. Less is not more. More is more.

And finally, to “connect with your tribe,” you must first do the work to know yourself on a deep level. A tribe that stands in its power and takes up space does not abide by hiding the self in shame. You can’t shrink in the back corner and just observe. Finding or being present in a tribe requires active engagement, true vulnerability, and warm presence. Tribes absorb the vibrations of each individual member and amplify them, creating an energy out of the whole that far, far surpasses the sum of its parts. To step into this echoing space of love requires us to shine light on the shame we feel… a process that, as Brene Brown tells us, extinguishes our shame, because shame cannot exist in the light. That release creates space for love to flow in, and it does, coursing from one person to the next, filling cups of spirit and love and light as it flows.

But when you do these things, when you stand in your power, take up space, and connect with your tribe, you are transformed.

I am transformed.

Not 48 hours ago, I walked into an unfamiliar space, knowing less than 10 percent of the people in that space. Today, I walked out of that same place, a place that, for two days, felt like the bravest space I’ve ever occupied, and my spirit felt as though it had linked both with each person there and the larger collective we formed together.

It took me 39 years to find the gorgeous, courageous women (and a few men) who would become the foundation of my tribe. As I continue to stand in my power, take up space, and do the work ahead, I know my tribe will grow, and grow, and then grow some more. To be a part of this empowered tribe means moving through the world never more than an extended hand away from support of the most soulful kind.

It took me a year to make the journey inward that created the space to find and embrace my tribe. It doesn’t happen quickly, and it certainly doesn’t happen without scaring the shit out of you as you hit those calcified layers of shame and self-doubt and fear. But as you sand-blast your way through those defensive layers, you’ll reach your inner light. It shines brightly within, and it will warm the spaces you take it.

Imagine a world where we are all in this tribe, shining our lights brightly and fiercely. What power! What love!

I don’t pretend that’s feasible. Yet, I do know that when you feel someone’s genuine light shine on you, it has the power to change you.

So this is my work. I have found my light. Being with my tribe stokes its flames and brightens its color.

The light in me truly honors the light in you, even if you haven’t found it yet. I know it’s in there, and I will devote my time on this Earth to doing what I can to help you shine your light on us all. We need you.

Namaste.

You be you

Be you. The world will adjust.Last weekend, I was with my — and I cannot stress this enough — absolutely AMAZING Cultivating Kindness group. These brave women show up each week to explore a yoga practice (many of them having never practiced at all, or never having done yoga in front of other people) and have a heartfelt conversation about what it’s like to be a woman in this world. We talk about the stuff that’s just hard: our bodies, our worries, our fears, our insecurities. It takes tremendous courage for these women to jump into a conversation considered taboo by society writ large, but they do it with grace, kindness, and love. It inspires me weekly. It is my happy place.

But this post isn’t about me; it’s about something one of them said last time we got together. We were talking about the short reading I’d sent them for the week, called “The Disease of Being Busy,” by the director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, Omid Safi. This essay first came into my bubble via a Facebook share by a friend, but it has stuck with me for a long time. He poses the essential question we should be asking people when we see them: “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?”

And one of the women in our group said that she feels like she’s forever busy, but that she rarely actually finishes anything. She says she’s really good at starting, but then something else needs done, then something else, then something else … and so she spends her days feeling ever-so-busy, but at the end of the day, she’s not sure what she accomplished. She expressed a desire to be better about this.

I was so moved by this confession, because what I heard was: “I’ve been doing this thing for my whole life, and I feel like I’m wrong.”

How often do we feel this way? I’d wager you feel this way, like, ALL the time. It’s as though we’ve absorbed this litany of rules about how we’re supposed to be, and when we don’t measure up, we internalize this as failure.

Obviously, this goes deep. And I mean, DEEP. We struggle against our biologically rooted desire to eat the damned cookie, because we’re not “supposed” to. We fight our desire to sleep longer, because we’ve gotta get that day started! We yearn for quiet, but when we get very quiet, we have no idea what to do with it because society values productivity, not quiet.

And so my message to this brave woman was something like: “You are successful. You have a wonderful daughter, a husband who loves you, and a job where you get to help people all day. What about your life tells you that you’re failing?”

The response? The quiet we all need, as the room contemplated whether it might be OK to just accept ourselves as we are, rather than fighting our very nature.

Obviously, we all want to strive to be the best version of ourselves. And if you feel like your inability to see a project through to completion on a regular basis is affecting the quality of your life, by all means strive.

But as I told my group, I spent about, oh, fifteen years agitating about the fact that I never started writing a paper until the Very Last Moment before it was due… in high school, undergrad, and through multiple graduate programs. And then, somewhere just a few years before I finally finished the blasted PhD, I had an epiphany:

My system works for me

Just because procrastination is often described as a plague or a battle to fight, it was clearly not impeding my academic performance or progress. So why was I so convinced I had to change?

What other things do I falsely believe are character flaws or personal failings that are actually working quite well for me?

This shift in thinking for me was profound, and I like to think that sharing this can make your life a little better, too. What if we stopped criticizing ourselves for being who we are, and instead directed all that energy towards doing the things that make our lives sparkle with the happy? Whoa, y’all. That could be a whole lot more happy.

So this is my challenge to you: What about your life or your fundamental nature do you wish you could change? Could it be that this aspect of your life is actually working quite well for you, thank you very much?

What would it mean to let that aspiration go?

What would it mean to accept yourself — nay, LOVE yourself — as you are, rather than as the thing society tells you that you should be?

 

Eating is not a moral activityPS: Not to get off on an entirely different rant here, but … for heaven’s sake, eat the cookie. Maybe not all the cookies (not that I will judge you even a teeny little bit if you do), but if you want to eat a cookie and you feel like eating a cookie, then eat the damned cookie. Forget what people say you’re supposed to do. Food fuels our body. Fuel is good. But food also brings us joy, and joy is GOOD. Food choices don’t make you a good person or a bad person. Food choices aren’t moral choices. It’s just food.

Life is short. Eat the damned cookie.

Books I read and loved in 2016

I was listening to Anna Guest-Jelley‘s podcast, Love, Curvy Yoga, this morning, and I heard her talk about her favorite books of 2016. And I thought — why haven’t I ever written such a list? It’s appalling, really. For someone whose first or second favorite hobby is buying books by the dozens (if you think that’s hyperbole, check in with my postal delivery professional), why haven’t I been doing best-of roundups for DECADES?!

So, without further fanfare, here are my favorite books that I read in 2016 (not necessarily ones that were published in 2016, it’s important to note). There is no rhyme or reason to the order — it’s too hard to choose just a few, much less rank them!

Incidentally, the links below go to Amazon.com with my affiliate ID. If you would like to support my writing and/or yoga teaching, much of which I do without much or any compensation, please use these links to show your support. Thanks!

Fiction
While much of the fiction I read is pretty terrible (I tend towards the 99-cent Kindle “women’s fiction” genre), a couple of the novels I read this year really stood out. Specifically:

  • Dietland, by Sarai Walker
    This book fictionalizes the growing movement of backlash against the diet culture. Plum finds herself on a bizarre mission to earn money for weight loss surgery, only … well. You’ll have to read this gem of a novel to see where she ends up.
  • In Twenty Years, by Allison Winn Scotch
    I absolutely love this woman’s novels, and this book was no exception. The characters and their adventures have stayed with me FAR longer than does the typical novel. It tells the story of a group of college friends who reunite somewhat unexpectedly twenty years after graduation. I strongly recommend this book.
  • Me After You, by Jojo Moyes
    I absolutely love this woman’s novels, too. They are always well-written and heartfelt, but in a way that lingers with you long after you finish reading. This sequel to her runaway bestseller Me Before You had me ugly-crying quickly and repeatedly. Nevertheless, it was WONDERFUL.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
    Alternating between the perspectives of a young French girl and a young German soldier during World War II, this book is eloquent and capitivating. I wish I could re-read it for the first time. It just captured my imagination in a way few novels do.

World Politics
This year, in an effort to become a competent instructor of world politics, I significantly expanded my knowledge of hot spots around the world… largely through reading narrative nonfiction accounts of these places. Here are my absolute favorites, books I think everyone should read:

Social Science
Y’know … the day job. I read a few books in 2016 that generally sharpened my thinking about politics and American government:

Yoga, Intuitive Eating, Being You, & Body Image/Acceptance
The biggest passion of my year has been this inward quest to understand, accept, and be present in my body. These books have resonated with me at a deep level:

  • Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting & Got a Life, by Kelsey Miller
    Holy moly, this book seriously changed my life! It was my first exposure to this thing called “intuitive eating,” and while it’s memoir (not manual), Kelsey’s refreshingly honest voice captivated me from the moment I began reading. And yet, I forced myself to spread this book out, because I found my mind so thoroughly exploded as I read that I needed breaks to process. I will never be the same person I was before I read this amazing book.
  • Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, by Linda Bacon
    This book also changed my life in extreme ways. It was so powerful and paradigm-altering that I bought nearly a dozen copies to give to women I knew would find its message similarly empowering. If you’ve ever struggled with thinking your body was the enemy, you simply MUST read this book.
  • Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, by Glennon Doyle Melton
    Every woman should read this book. It’s an incredibly honest accounting of what it’s like to be a woman in today’s world, beautiful and brutal (or brutiful) as it is. Glennon Doyle Melton is a force to be reckoned with, and I loved this book so much I went to see her speak live… my only life author event of the year.
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, by Brene Brown
    Everything Brene Brown writes, speaks, or does deserves our attention, but this is the book of hers I fully read in 2016. Her message of self-acceptance and the need to be vulnerable is one we can all benefit from hearing. I will reread this book many times before I fully appreciate its nuances and wisdom.
  • Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life, by Judith Hanson Lasater
    This book was the first required reading for my yoga teacher training program, but its lessons have far broader resonance. The message of Lasater’s book really grounds our yoga practice in the simple acts of everyday that keep us present in our lives. I think everyone can get something humbling and profound out of this little gem.

I love dogs… just not in my yoga practice

I'll show them downward dogWhen I first started yoga teacher training, I knew I was dreading the day we would talk about and work through downward facing dog. (If you’re not familiar with this common pose, check out this description.)

Our YTT teacher thoughtfully held off on introducing down dog until our second (of four) training modules. In fact, she said: “I want you to know it’s possible to do yoga without doing a down dog.” I wanted to cry with relief when she said that.

Because, you see, I LOATHE down dog.

When we finally did get to down dog in teacher training, I found myself in a real crisis of confidence. As I pressed my hands and feet into the mat, moving my hips back, feeling the stretch in my hamstrings and calves, the strength in my upper body, I broke down into tears. I didn’t stop crying for the rest of that day’s practice.

I can’t exactly trace the source of my anger and bitterness over this pose, but I know that I have long associated the down dog with “success” in yoga … as in, if you can’t do a down dog, and if you can’t hold it for several breaths, you’re not really doing yoga right. But, my body doesn’t like this pose. It screams at me. My focus leaves my body and turns to self-loathing. I feel inadequate. I feel like a poser. In other words, down dog is my yoga kryptonite.

So, after we learned a few modifications for down dog — such as doing it at a chair, at the wall, or opting instead for down puppy — I resolved not to do down dog as part of my regular yoga practice. Occasionally, I’ll move into the pose and see how it feels, but as soon as I start hearing the angry voices inside me scream out, I come out of the pose.

As a teacher, I don’t incorporate down dogs into my sequences. I feel like the people I’m most hoping to reach with my yoga teaching would feel similarly frustrated with this pose, and I don’t exactly feel like there’s a shortage on other yoga teachers who incorporate this pose into their classes regularly. Yesterday, for example, I went to a “gentle flow” class that included at least a dozen passes through down dog. I made it through two of them. Then I switched to down puppy or just hanging out in a different pose until the rest of the class shifted.

Before I went through yoga teacher training, I felt less-than when I made these adjustments for myself. Now that I’m a yoga teacher myself, I can recognize that I’m doing what’s often the hardest work of yoga: staying on my mat, not comparing my practice to those of others. I’m also putting confident energy into the room that normalizes rejection of a pose that doesn’t serve you or your body. I no longer feel shame; instead, I feel power.

As I find myself saying almost daily, yoga (to me) means presence. It means maintaining focus on the now, on the self, on the body’s needs and limits. Yoga is not, nor will it ever be, defined by a single pose or sequence.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I don’t mind down dog, but I really dislike _______” — I encourage you to give yourself permission not to do that pose. It’s your yoga practice, not mine. And if you’re one of my students who really, desperately adores down dog, do it! I won’t scowl at you. I just won’t do it with you! 🙂

One person at a time

I’m hardly unique in my desire to be known, to be seen, and to be remembered. I think so many of us in our teens, twenties, and maybe even into our thirties imagine these desires will best be realized if we achieve some measure of fame–if not People-magazine-cover fame, at least a level of recognition by those we see regularly, be that in our personal or professional lives.

My initial thoughts on how I would impact the world always flowed from my writing. If I could turn a phrase especially well, perhaps my writing would earn me recognition and the ability to impact the lives of others in positive ways. Maybe that would be in novels (my friend Edward continues to ask after my first book, long loosely titled Conversations with Myself), or maybe I’d write a particularly accessible explanation of how American government works (the aspiration of May/June 2016), or maybe I’d just blog myself to fame.

Earlier this week, I finally let go of these notions of achieving fame as a measure of my impact on the world.

I remember the moment it happened. I was teaching a yoga class to some coworkers, and one of them suggested I might come do a workshop in their division in the new year: “maybe as part of a self-care unit? Work-life balance? That sort of thing?”

And it clicked for me: My calling in this life isn’t to write the Great American Novel or the narrative version of my college class introducing people to the machinations of the American political system. I may still attempt to do those things, but they’re not where my strengths lie right now. Instead, I see so clearly that my immediate place in this world is to help the people who are around me right now, those who may not orbit in the same social network spheres as I do, who may not be aware that there is this fantastic, growing movement of women who are challenging the age-old norms about what women are and are not supposed to look like / act like / be like / feel like.

When I have even one single person come to a yoga class I’m teaching and leave feeling more in tune with her body, I have made a difference.

When I can show someone who’s been afraid of trying yoga for 40+ years that her body can, in fact, stretch in ways that feel nurturing and kind, I have made a difference.

When I welcome someone full of anxiety into a space that is warm, accepting, and supportive, I have made a difference.

Armed with this new mindset, I spent the balance of my week observing all the many ways I can make a difference on a daily basis. A kind remark, a warm smile, an invitation to be present … these are all gifts we give one another. They say, “I accept you. I welcome you. You are enough.”

Imagine the change we could see in this world if more people genuinely felt accepted, welcomed, and like they were enough.

For now, this is my mission: Spread the love, spread the kindness, spread the presence. The other stuff — the writing, etc. — it can come later. For now, this work is just too important. There are too many people in our bubbles who need it.

….

Hmm. After rereading this draft, it occurred to me that this post screams, “I’m so amazing! Tell me how awesome I am!” Haha. That’s not at all why I wrote this.

Rather, I think we each have the ability to make a huge impact on other people, one person at a time. I hope you will look for ways your presence and whole-heartedness can similar find those who need a message of love and kindness in this difficult time. If the very essence of being human is hoping to belong, to finding our tribe, to feeling accepted, we are living in an era that promotes the very opposite. We divide ourselves into groups and fight endless battles with those who identify differently. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to fight for what you believe in. Yet, when those battles obscure the humanity of our opponents, we have gone down a dark and dangerous path. We must recognize the humanity of all, to let them know that intelligent, kind, generous people can disagree and not hate one another.

Ultimately, this message of reaching out to others, one person at a time, is what animates everything I do in my life: My teaching, my yoga practice, my yoga teaching practice, and my relationships all center on how I can be present for others. When I stopped to think about what an incredible blessing it is to be that presence to those I love, I realized that no fame or fortune can replace the simple act of loving another.

Why yoga makes sense for a political scientist

For a lot of 2016, I’ve thought about how divergent my life’s two biggest current passions are — political science and yoga. American politics this year have been — dare I say it? — unusually nasty, and yoga is the very opposite. What is the common thread?

At first, my impulse was to think of yoga as the yin to the yang of my professional life. Political science involves studying how a whole lot of tough decisions get made about (as Harold Lasswell famously said) who gets what, when, and how. Understanding how those decisions get made is at the heart of what I explore intellectually and teach to my students. Inherently, then, political science contains a strong undercurrent of competition, of sorting out the winners and losers.

Yoga couldn’t be more different. Yoga challenges us to embrace now, just as it is. Meeting yourself where you are, as you are, is one of yoga’s greatest gifts. We set aside the striving for a few stolen moments of the yoga practice, and we tune into the quiet voice inside us that knows what we need. Yoga is about wholeness, about love, about presence. It is the very opposite of the practice of politics.

And yet, for me, these two things have increasingly come into harmony for me. It’ll take me a little bit to get you there, but bear with me.

Remarkably, the catalyst for this unexpected marriage of philosophy has come from my work this semester teaching World Politics offline for the first time. To be honest, I dreaded teaching this class: I’m not an international relations scholar, I don’t know much about IR theory (other than what I learned in my one required seminar in grad school), and I’m pretty ignorant about events happening in most of the world. That’s not because I don’t see the value in being informed; rather, it’s because when I have taken the time to learn about world events, I find myself somewhere between despairing and disappointed with the incredible persecution that happens out there in the world. I’ll gladly take the (relatively) petty differences of American politics over the genocide, war crimes, and intractable problems out there in the world.

As a political scientist, though, this avoidance of the tough questions couldn’t last forever, of course. When I was told I’d be teaching World Politics to actual, real students, my first impulse was to hope the class wouldn’t attract enough enrollment to run. We ended up with 12 students, which is a bit low, but the Powers That Be decided it was enough for us to run the class. Faced with 15 weeks of class time to fill, I had to come up with something to say or do with these inquisitive students.

It all started with a whim, really: What if we dove deeply into the Syrian conflict, trying to see the situation from the variety of perspectives involved, then see if we could brainstorm possible actions to move the conflict forward?

I bought an eBook on the history of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, and assigned my students to research one of the major perspectives. I devoured the book about Assad, told in narrative fashion by a scholar who had visited Assad many times. Staying just a couple of steps ahead of my students, I led us through a “simulation” of Syria. One of my students said, “Is this problem even fixable?” It was the right question. None of us could answer. But in the process, I came to see the humanity of each person or organization involved. Assad isn’t making humane choices, but it’s not that big of a leap to understand why he would fight back against his own people.

Next, we tackled North Korea. I think it’s human nature to be intrigued by North Korea. Reading two personal narratives of Americans who went to North Korea — one for vacation, one posing as a missionary English teacher — deeply affected me. My heart aches for those living in North Korea. They don’t have the benefit of the ignorance I’d been choosing for 39 years: They can’t find out what’s happening in the rest of the world, and if they try, they can be sentenced to life in a work camp or, worse yet, wind up dead. And yet, as we simulated the North Korea situation, my students and I came to understand why the various actors, including Kim Jong-un, behave as they do.

Today, I finished a moving book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called The Lemon Tree. I was profoundly affected by this story. The story (again, narrative nonfiction) weaves the story of two people — one Palestinian, one Israeli — connected by one house, behind which stood a lemon tree.

It was in finishing this book that I have come to understand how political science and yoga fit together: They each teach us about how to relate our own experience to the broader human experience. When you try to understand how and why others make the choices they do, you challenge yourself to find the common humanity. The Jewish woman in The Lemon Tree embodies this in a way most of us will never have the courage or conviction to do; Dalia understood that if we do not reach out to our enemy, to The Other, we will never stop fighting. We will never have peace.

This reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s incredibly important work on understanding the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives. Haidt challenges us in his TED Talk to step outside of the fight of good against evil at least occasionally. Instead, he says, we must learn to cultivate a certain moral humility and try to understand one another. When we stop engaging in the mindset of teams (e.g., Democrats and Republicans), we can approach the world with a more open mind and open heart.

And ultimately, isn’t that what yoga is all about? I think it is. Yoga encourages humility; it demands we accept the world as is. People new to yoga often feel invited to compare themselves to the others practicing in the class with them. Yoga invites us instead to turn our focus inward, to listen to our own wisdom.

How much better this world might be if we could invite that same acceptance and humility into our lives more broadly. When we seek out the humanity in others, rather than demonizing or comparing or engaging in Us against Them thinking, we find common ground. We can be present. We can love.

So there you go — my brand of political science is quickly becoming an extension of my yoga practice. It’s been heading in that direction for years, but it’s only thanks to my experiences struggling with my lack of knowledge in World Politics that I’ve really made the connection.

In August 1994, I was entering my senior year of high school after having spent the summer in France as an exchange student, then at a stay-away six-week summer camp for rising high school seniors called Governor’s School. That summer shifted the way I thought about myself and my future. I chose to apply to colleges thinking I’d major in French and international relations, then join the foreign service. It took me approximately 48 hours of homesickness at GW to realize that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of life. I never even took an IR class as an undergrad. I barely even took any political science classes at GW. I’m struck today, as I’ve been struck at many times in my life, how everything has once again come full circle: Twenty-two years later, I’ve fallen in love with a class about international relations and the lessons it has taught — and continues to teach — me.

Each of the books I linked above is a great read. If you find yourself curious about the most difficult problems facing our world, check one (or more!) out.

What I learned from yoga teacher training

BREAKING NEWS! Today was graduation day from Yoga Teacher Training. I’m now officially certified to teach yoga classes, after completing my RYT-200 program through Curvy Yoga in Nashville.

I’m feeling alllll of the feels today: excitement at teaching yoga (anyone want to come over for a quick practice, like, right now??); overwhelming love for the other eight newly minted yoga teachers and our two fearless leaders; gratitude for the body — my body — that supported me through this process; and, perhaps most acutely, tremendous sadness that the journey has come to a close.

I never said this out loud to the group of women assembled for the first time back in March, but when I walked into this training seven months ago, I crossed the threshold already sad that our training was going to end in mid-October. Walking into that training in March, I knew in my heart that I was about to find my tribe, to feel completely seen and accepted by a group of women for, quite literally, the first time in my life. I journaled about my incredible excitement to meet them before I left for our first training module. I knew we were destined to cultivate and grow something genuinely life-changing. And I was right: This experience has changed my life.

Going in, I expected this training would allow me to guide other women along the path towards body acceptance and self-care. I wanted to learn more about yoga and how to make various poses work in my body. I thought our focus would be on building strength, flexibility, and knowledge. In this respect, I was dead wrong.

Yoga teacher training instead turned out to be a journey within, a process of speaking my truth — first, to the tribe assembled at our four training modules; slowly, over the last seven months, to the world at large. It turns out, yoga poses are a teeny tiny portion of what it means to “do yoga.” I just … I seriously never understood this until I began this journey, and I don’t know that it fully hit me until just a few weeks ago.

I was on a coaching call for Feast (check it out here) a few days ago, and when it came time for my weekly check-in, I started by saying, “I am … great. I feel so good.” In those moments, the leader of Feast (the incomparably empathic Rachel Cole) said, “You are so full right now. I can hear it in your voice.” So true. So true.

Yoga teacher training, and all the work it has brought into my life — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — has filled my bucket to bursting. I think my heart has doubled in size. I know my awareness has.

So, yes. If you’re reading this, I’m ready to teach you yoga poses. But more than anything, I hope the light in me honors the light in you, always, regardless of whether or not we’re on yoga mats at the moment.

Namaste.

I’ve had enough judgment

Since I started training to be a Curvy Yoga teacher, I’ve been engaged in a long process (still in the early stages) of learning how to listen to, accept, respect, honor, and love my body. After 39 years of having not-so-accepting feelings towards this body, it has been hard. I still hear the (mostly imagined) judgment of so many other people, and me, whenever I see myself in a mirror, or in a picture, or even just my shadow. When I see myself, my first and LOUD inner dialogue goes something like this: “NOBODY LOVES YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO FAT.” I think this voice started yelling at me when I was a teen. It’s only been growing in ferocity in the decades since. Yeesh.

Holy crap, did I just admit that out loud?

Mind you, literally nobody I know has ever said this to me. And in that way, I’m so, so fortunate; most women who look like me have endured relentless, heartless teasing and mockery because of their size. The under-the-breath comments. The meanness of teenage girls. The cutthroat world of grown women. I’ve somehow avoided it all. Thank God I grew up in a world where hot-or-not web sites didn’t exist in my high school. I’m so grateful that I’ve only been exposed to nonverbal assaults on my appearance. And yet, if you wiretapped my inner chatter, you’d think I’d been one of the unlucky ones — the women whose size and appearance are the topic of an endless stream of verbalized criticisms.

The work is hard, and the work is ongoing. But I’m starting to get there; I’m starting to see tiny glimmers of progress after years and years of genuinely awful self-talk. I’m working to make peace with food, to make no apologies for eating what I crave, but only as much of it as I truly want, and only until I’m legitimately full.

My first AHA! moment came a few weeks ago, when as a homework assignment for my intuitive eating course (link below), I was asked to pick two foods I generally consider so “bad” they’re off-limits, then give myself permission to eat them whenever I wanted, as much as I wanted. Sounds great, right? The only requirement was that I then pay attention to how that felt.

So I headed to the grocery store, where I bought a box of Snickers ice cream bars. I ate one the first day (it was heaven, y’all… heaven). I ate a second the next day. And then? I almost forgot they were there. (As an aside: I realized after day two that a Snickers ice cream bar is actually lower in calories and more satisfying than the heaping cup of ice cream I often choose for dessert. Not that that was the point of the exercise — but it did make me stop and think: Why is THIS the food I’ve chosen to demonize?)

Next, I bought a box of Cookie Crisp — one of the few indulgent foods my parents refused to stock, because I’d eat the whole damn box at once — and poured myself a bowl. After I finished it, I sat, noticing how I felt. Shockingly, I felt awful. That Cookie Crisp wasn’t at all as tasty or satisfying as I remembered. Without a moment’s hesitation, I threw the rest out. Cookie Crisp and I are done.

Making peace with food is a good step forward, but making peace with my size is another matter. After hearing person after person — some of them, many of them in fact, medical personnel by training — tell me that being overweight is the single greatest risk factor for, well, everything, I’ve been inspired many, many times to channel the New Diet Energy and “change my lifestyle.” I’ve generally had good successes in these efforts. Once, I lost about 60 pounds and felt amazing. The world rushed to praise my incredible weight loss. “You look so amazing, Liz!” These messages, undoubtedly well-intentioned, only served to underscore the nasty voice lingering inside: If you’re not thin, you cannot be loved / respected / admired / accepted.

Then come the voices who claim only to want you to be healthy. You know what I’m talking about. The message goes something like: “I don’t care how you look. I just want you to be healthy.” Because, we assume, if you’re not skinny, you simply cannot be healthy. One of the most haunting conversations I’ve ever had was with a long-term boyfriend who told me he wasn’t sure we were going to last because he wanted to be with someone who was, ahem, “committed to being healthy.” Regardless of what he meant with his words, the message I extracted was the most alarming I’d ever received from a romantic partner: Shape up, or we’re through.

But here’s the thing: There isn’t that perfect correlation between size and health that you’d expect. It turns out, dieting is a terrible, terrible idea. If you need persuading, pick up Linda Bacon’s book (link below), wherein she will explain to you how diets actually do far, FAR more damage to your health than merely being overweight does. People who diet have worse long-term health outcomes. They screw up their metabolisms. They ultimately train their bodies to hold on to fat longer. Diets damage your health.

I’ve seen it in my own experiences. Each time I’ve lost weight, my body eventually packed it back on, taking me back to my long-standing weight, plus a few more pounds just in case I got another case of the crazy and decided to do it all over. The body likes homeostasis. It hates change. And your body (just like mine) will fight you tooth and nail if you try to change it in drastic ways. To punish you (and to ensure it doesn’t starve if another famine — er, “diet” — comes along), it will take you back to your set point … plus some insurance pounds.

So I’ve decided to trust my body’s wisdom. I’ve given myself permission to follow my food cravings… while respecting my hunger AND respecting my fullness. As a result, I no longer require myself to “earn” a trip to the Waffle House by first working out… and I no longer eat every single morsel of food on my plate at the Waffle House, because I know I can come back anytime. By giving myself permission to eat anything I want, I’m eating less and enjoying it more. Freedom! You taste so sweet.

And then … I went to the doctor.

I’ve been to two different doctors this month, my GP and a rheumatologist for complications related to psoriasis. Both have looked at me with such clear judgment in their eyes and said, basically, “I can treat ____, but you’re just a ticking time bomb. You’re going to get diabetes any day now, and your health will then nose dive.”

My GP said almost those exact words to me this morning. He said to me, straight faced, “You need to EAT LESS. (his emphasis) Get off the couch! Go for a walk. Never eat bread again. Ever.”

I almost laughed in his face… I say almost, because I was really just stunned at the gross assumptions he was making about me.

Then he said, “Stop thinking you’ve got to eat three meals a day! We’re the only animals that do that! One meal a day is enough for humans.”

The only thing I could think? “This man is a freaking lunatic.”

When I told my rheumatologist that my blood is hard to draw, he said, “The best way to fix that? Lift weights.” Notice how he assumed I don’t currently do so. (An incorrect assumption, by the way.) Again with the judgments.

The truth is, I’m healthy. My cholesterol is enviable; people who are smaller and more diet-obsessed wished they had my cholesterol profile. My blood pressure is normal. I exercise regularly. Apart from my psoriasis and the complications related to it, I have no major health issues. I do yoga. I work out with a trainer… lifting those weights Mr. Rheumatologist assumes I’ve never met. I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been. When I can, I go for a swim. I love the physical activity I choose to do. If you saw my health records with my weight redacted like a classified document, you’d call me a healthy woman. And I’m not just dreaming; that’s exactly what my ob/gyn calls me. Those exact words: A. Healthy. Woman. (To be honest, I wish my doctors would redact my weight. Maybe then they’d stop seeing me as a single number and start seeing me as a person.)

But because I’m overweight, most doctors assume I’m destined to get diabetes and die a premature death. I’m a ticking time bomb. Bread is the enemy. I need to get off the couch and eat just one meal per day.

Can you feel my eyes rolling? ‘Cause they are.

These assumptions fill me with rage. Truly, rage. They reduce me to a one-dimension (wide) person, one who people feel free to assume must engage in a whole host of bad behaviors and habits simply because of my size.

I know people make these assumptions, even though they’re rarely voiced outside a doctor’s office. And in anticipating these assumptions, I undoubtedly change my behavior to work around them.

For example: I’ve realized that one of the reasons I pretty much always have three or four (or five, or six…) jobs, working constantly and always saying “yes” to those who need my help? It’s because I’m fighting against the assumption that because I’m not tiny, I must also be lazy. That because I’m on the large side, I must have no self-control or presence of mind. I fill up every second of my life with work — albeit, rewarding, useful, challenging work — to “prove” to the world that I’m not lazy. And lest you think I’m implicating you in that judgment, the person who judges me most is the one who’s typing these words, right now.

It’s exhausting, carrying around all this judgment. It’s probably the least healthy thing about me, constantly judging everything I do against what I imagine others think I should do.

So I’ve had enough. I’m calling it quits. I’m standing up for myself. I declare war on the judgments, from within and from without, real and imagined. Doing so means finding the joy in life, including in food, movement, and — toughest of all — my body. It means listening to the wisdom of my physical being. Yoga is such a great path of cultivating that wisdom and respect. But, to be sure, yoga is just the open door. The work is hard, and in my experience the work requires a lot of help.

So, to help me navigate this quest, I’ve armed myself for battle with a number of great books and resources. Below are links to ones I recommend enthusiastically, for anyone who struggles with body image, acceptance, or food. And, let’s be honest: Who among us doesn’t?

Thanks for reading this. It’s been festering for a while, and I just needed to get it out of my head and into the world.

 

© 2018 Liz Norell

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑