by Bethany Ball
By my late twenties, I’d been unhappy with my body for a while. I had put on and dropped the same twenty pounds over and over again. Thin, I felt glamorous, but was in fact starving. My ideal weight was not one I could maintain. And heavy was something I was always fighting against. I needed to find a new journey to health and wellbeing.
For years I’d gone to the gym and it made me feel energized and strong. But it made my body bulky. My already naturally broad shoulders resembled those of a line backer. They’d bulked up after years of competitive swimming. My thighs were too heavy to fit in the narrow boot cut jeans, fashionable at the time. Boyfriends described me kindly as “athletic,” when I’d dreamed all my life of being lithe.
Working out made me feel powerful, but that feeling of power morphed into a feeling of being overly caffeinated. I would walk out of Crunch gym, after my regular work out, feeling twitchy and sometimes irritable. I used to call my work out my “Prozac” but, in fact, it didn’t relax me. I no longer felt powerful, I felt combative. Going to the gym made me hungry, sometimes ravenous. In college it was not unusual for me to whip up a batch of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, eat them all, and then march over to the gym for a couple of hours. I would push my heart rate up to 110 percent, measuring it with two fingers on my wrist. I was “exerlimic” – binge eating and then exercising to the point of exhaustion.
Seeking advice, I emailed an old friend. I considered him a good source of basic wisdom, and he knew my body pretty well. I had been a photography model for him a couple of years before when I’d lived in Santa Fe, after college. Also, he wasn’t the type of guy who would brush off a very genuine comment like, “I hate my body and I don’t know what to do, since going to the gym isn’t working for me anymore.” He responded, “Why are you going to the gym all the time, anyway? Do you want to beat someone up?” He suggested I start doing yoga. “Some of the most beautiful people I know inside and out do yoga. You ought to give it a try.”
I’d seen the yoga classes, deep in the bowels of the Lafayette Street Crunch gym, but they looked complicated. I wondered if I would feel like I was on stage. It seemed far easier to hide behind an enormous exercise machine or Stairmaster. To my eyes, all the women had perfect bodies and all the men looked like those bitchy guys who could tear you down with one look. It was not for me. Definitely not for me. Still, I had to admit, the women looked light as feathers and flexible as long lines of fabric. I was determined to give it a try. I only hoped they wouldn’t make me chant.
I put off taking my friend’s advice, but every day my gym bag grew heavier. Every morning I lugged my gym clothes, tennis shoes, shampoos – about ten pounds worth of equipment – around New York City. Often times in heels. Every afternoon I climbed the long stairs off Lafayette Street and begin my workout. I almost never missed a day.
Finally, I decided to give yoga a try. After observing the classes from the bench outside, I decided on Kundalini. It had the least actual postures. In fact, most of the postures were done sitting cross legged on the floor and involved things like raising one’s arms up and down a few hundred times. How hard could that be? After years of swimming and weight lifting, I certainly had the arms for it.
After an “Om” we were told to raise our arms at shoulder height and then flap them up and down breathing in and out, “So ha! So ha! So HA!” It was hard, painful even. But in the midst of all that chanting that I’d so dreaded, the breathing and the monotony of raising one’s arms up and down, something else appeared. It was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time
By the time we lay down on our mats for shivasana, I was calm. I looked around at everyone in the room, without judging them. They were just folks, after all, and not so different from me. The teacher came around to each of us and smeared a little lavender oil on the backs of our necks. Tiny rivulets that no one noticed flowed out of my eyes and pooled into my ears. I stood up from the mat and flicked them away.
Later, sitting on the subway, I felt the strangling corset of posture that had held me upright through those first years in New York City begin to loosen. I let my stomach relax; it pouched comfortably over my trousers. My shoulders lowered an inch or two. Tears came again, but they were so joyful, so pleasurable in their release, that I hardly noticed them. And in the crowded subway car, no one else noticed either.
I told myself I would do yoga until I either lost weight or got big as a house. I knew it would be the latter, that yoga couldn’t be any kind of work out. I was surprised, some weeks later, to find I didn’t gain weight, nor did I become sylph-like. Something else happened. I caught my reflection in the gym mirror and was happy with what I saw. I was okay: not a piece of meat to be pulled, stretched and beaten into submission. Rather, an okay looking girl. Not stunning, no great beauty, not model thin. But okay. That was good enough. It thrilled me that yoga was a practice I could do anywhere. All that is needed is one’s bare feet. The mat is actually optional.
I gradually became this woman I never imagined I could be. I moved away from Kundalini to more rigorous yoga: astanga, vinyasa, Power Yoga. Later, I began a more gentle yoga practice. I found a teacher and studied with him. Something in me transformed. I felt, at times, like a child who sits in her own world in the midst of busy grownups. I never got back on the Stairmaster or whipped up and devoured batches of cinnamon rolls. I had struck a balance with my body and the self that inhabits it. A balance I could keep.
Bethany Ball lives in Nyack, New York between the Hook and the Hudson. She is working on an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and can be found at barefoot-golightly.blogspot.com.