This blog was originally published on Elephant Journal on 12.20.13. “Finding Relief in Yoga, Not in Milkshakes” is about one of the many important realizations I had in yoga classes, and how the practice has helped me connect the dots of past decisions and behaviors (and their consequences) and move past them to a healthy, peaceful and abundant life.
The room was crowded, humid, and I only had about an inch of visible floor space around my mat.
I felt uncomfortable and out of place, already sweating from the heat; the only overweight woman in the room. The chandelier lights hung gracefully from the ceiling, shining brightly, illuminating the room. I stared at the dark blue, rectangular space of the yoga mat before me and thought, “I don’t have enough room to move. I’m too big. I need more space.” Thoughts ran wild, “I can’t do this, there are too many people. I don’t belong here. I’m not wearing the right pants. I must look so stupid.”
I attempted to meditate as I closed my eyes, and focused on my breath. The nagging, self-loathing thoughts grew louder with each breath and the desire to open my eyes intensified. Irritated, I opened my eyes and sighed. Just then, the teacher entered the room. I had two choices: grab my mat and run out the door or stay, and practice. Too embarrassed to leave, I decided to stay.
Class began and I tried to ignore the negative dialog in my head, as I cut through the heavy air with each cue, feeling weighed down and sluggish. I was new to power yoga. New to feeling anything at all really. I was eighty pounds overweight and had spent a lifetime hiding what I was feeling with addictions and pharmaceutical medications.
Facing death made me realize my life was worth fighting for.
I had spent the precious, and agonizing, seven months prior ridding myself of the dozen medications I had been taking for depression, anxiety and a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder. I knew I had to shed the toxic weight I had gained, and including power yoga in my workout made sense. The more I moved, the more I sweat and my baggy clothes dragged me down. In the back of the room, struggling to keep up, I couldn’t help but watch the rest of the class move with ease.
I let a sigh out through my mouth as I came into downward facing dog and looked at my feet. Immediately, my negative mind began to run wild. As a wave of anger washed over me I thought, “How could you have done this to yourself? Why did you listen to those doctors? I’m so mad at you for getting this way, Cyndi.” I clenched my teeth and focused on my screaming shoulders.
“Inhale, right foot back,” the instructor said.
“Exhale, step right foot through, Warrior I.”
Pushing myself harder, I clumsily stepped my foot to the front of the mat and rose to Warrior I pose, fueled by rage. “I’m not going to let you give up, Cyndi. You’re not going to give up. You worked so hard to get off medication and fight for your life. You can’t stop now. You can do this.”
“Open, Warrior II,” the instructor called.
I opened up my arms and adjusted my feet, as sweat ran down my forehead into my eyes. I closed my eyes tightly, and listened to the sound of my breath and heart pounding; it felt as though my heart would explode. I took a deep breath in and felt my muscles shake.
“This is so much better than taking medication. Feel. Breathe. Feel. You’re not on medication. You can do this. I know you can do this,” I thought, as I found strength. “I’m so proud of you for not overeating today. You can lose the weight. You haven’t binged in weeks. You can do this. Breathe! Feel!” I continued to encourage myself as I sunk deeper. Cue after cue, I found good feeling thought after good feeling thought, silencing the negativity that ran wild before class.
Before I knew it, Vinyasa was over and we were in pigeon pose. I drew my right knee to my wrist, left heel to groin, lengthened my left leg back and centered my hips. The intensity in my right hip grew as I folded down onto my forearms. I closed my eyes and let out a deep breath. I folded deeper, rested my head on my forearms and journeyed directly into the intensity in my hip.
I slowed my breath and in that moment, had a craving for… a strawberry milkshake?!
As I rested in stillness and journeyed deep inside, I remembered that at one of my lowest points of depression, amidst thoughts of suicide and severe panic attacks, I would crave strawberry milkshakes. In the silence of the room and the stillness of the pose, I contemplated why?
I remembered times when I was sick as a child, and how I would always be treated with a milkshake, “to feel better.” I felt comforted by the milkshake, so naturally, as an adult, I associated milkshakes with emotions of happiness and feeling better, of feeling cared for and safe.
Suffering from severe depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, I constantly longed to feel better. For the twelve long years I was on them, medications only made me sicker, but I believed that milkshakes, much like smoking, drugs, alcohol, and shopping, would make everything better. I thought it would make my depression and anxiety dissolve.
The painful truth was those things only temporarily eased my suffering, and ultimately made things worse for me. Especially the milkshakes. Seven hundred and ten calories at a time worse, in addition to twenty grams of fat and one hundred grams of sugar (in the form of high fructose corn syrup), each time I had one.
Indulging in milkshake after milkshake, searching for relief, I inevitably gained more weight, felt worse about myself, and felt more depressed after I had one due to the spike in my blood sugar and the subsequent crash. I wondered why I kept doing this to myself and discovered in that moment, on my mat, that just like with my addictions, I was searching for happiness outside of myself.
I struggled with the intense sensation in my hip as I connected the dots of my past behaviors, while beads of sweat dripped onto the mat like raindrops falling. I slowly let out an exhale as a wave of compassion washed over me.
With my next breath, I realized that I needed to be more compassionate about my struggles and with myself.
My life was a collection of decisions that I had made, and if I had no compassion for that, I could easily get stuck in old, repetitive, negative thought patterns. Those patterns, destructive in nature, would lead me to more emotional overeating, weight gain, self-sabotage and would hinder my weight loss and health goals. My other addictions could return as well.
At that moment, I let go of wanting to reach the finish line by achieving my goal weight. I realized right then that true, unshakeable happiness and a sense of peace lies within, not without. I took the next moments to find joy in beginning. I used to think that if I was at my goal weight, life would be great and I could finally start living, but realized I was wrong. “Where was I rushing to?” I thought.
“Was I not living, right now, in pigeon pose? Am I not alive, feeling, breathing, fully present on my yoga mat? Do I have a chance to start over and survive right now?”
I let the stress about wanting to be somewhere else soften as I let out another deep breath. “I can be here,” I thought. “Negative thinking doesn’t serve me, compassion does. I have to take it one step at a time to get to the top of the mountain. I can only lose one pound at a time. I know I can.” I knew I had to appreciate every step of my weight loss journey, even the beginning. I didn’t put eighty pounds on overnight and I certainly couldn’t take it off in one power yoga class.
Slowly, I transitioned out of the pose and came out a different person. As I shook out my hips in down dog, I felt like I didn’t have to do it all at once. Compassion and ease filled my being as I began celebrating small victories: I had almost finished the class that I wanted to run out of.
Relieved, I laid in final relaxation, melting into the earth, remembering that I needed to feel. I needed to be responsible for myself and be held accountable for my actions. I needed to change my relationship to food, celebrate the small victories, and be kinder to myself.
I wanted to take it moment-by-moment, pound by pound. It was there, on my mat, that I healed, transformed and used my intuition to journey back to health.