BY DOROTHY FOLTZ-GRAY, originally posted here in Yoga Journal
When she was only seven, Ashley Miller cried because she didn’t have a flat stomach like her older neighbor. “I was always aware of my weight and self-conscious about my body,” says Miller, now a plus-size 26-year-old who is Yoga Journal’s marketing manager. “I remember hearing that a Barbie doll was a size 6, and I told my mom when I grew up I’d be a size 6, too.” Instead, by the time she entered college after years of dieting and overexercising, Miller had become a compulsive overeater. “My weight yo-yoed up and down 30 pounds, and my self-esteem was on that roller coaster, too,” she says.
One day, on the recommendation of a classmate, Miller decided to give yoga a try. “I was so nervous that I wouldn’t fit in or be able to do the poses, and that the other students would have tiny, perfect bodies,” she says. “But when I walked in, I saw a whole range of people”—big and small, young and old, fit and not so fit.
After three months of practicing three times a week, Miller noticed she felt stronger and more at ease in her body. But more important, the critic in her head began to quiet down. In class, when she started telling herself, “My body’s too big to hold this Revolved Triangle,” or “I can’t do this,” her teacher would remind her to focus on the pose, to breathe.
What Miller experienced was the beginning of a longer process: acceptance of her body as it was in that moment. She’s among millions of Americans—most of them women—who struggle each day with feelings of shame and inadequacy about their physical selves. In fact, studies have shown that the majority of American women don’t like what they see in the mirror, according to Linda Smolak, a psychology professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and an expert on eating disorders. “For many women, their body is mainly defined as an object to be looked at and judged,” Smolak says. “How do they get this message? Through peer teasing, sexual harassment, comments from parents, and of course the media. Women are constantly pushed toward an unattainable ideal.”
Taking up exercise can help, but not just any physical activity will do. Although some studies suggest that female athletes feel better about their bodies than nonathletes, others report that athletes in disciplines that emphasize thinness, like gymnastics or figure skating, are more likely to have eating disorders.
Yoga, however, sets itself apart—as a study published in 2005 shows. Jennifer Daubenmier, formerly a research psychologist at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, and now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, had noticed the mixed data about the effect of athletics on body image. So Daubenmier, who’s also a yoga practitioner, decided to focus her doctoral thesis on whether yoga can help women feel better about their bodies.
She questioned 139 women of all ages (the median age was 37), who were divided into three groups: one practicing yoga, one doing aerobics, and one doing neither. Those involved with yoga not only felt better about their bodies than the other two groups but also had a better sense of what their physical selves were experiencing from moment to moment (for instance, they knew when they were starting to feel tired or sick, sometimes a difficulty for people with body-image problems). Daubenmier also found that the longer the women had practiced yoga, the higher their body esteem.
Yoga makes a difference because of its emphasis on self-acceptance, something that’s largely missing for those of us who dislike our bodies. The program in our heads—I’m not pretty enough, thin enough, tall enough—builds in volume over years until it’s practically the only radio station playing. Odd as it seems, the vessel that keeps us alive, that nourishes us, begins to get nothing but our scorn in return.
Read more here on Yoga Journal