I will state for the record that this is one of the most vulnerable posts I have ever written. I am putting myself out to my friends, students, family in a way I have rarely done. So while and I welcome your comments, I also ask you to sit with this information before simply posting. Know that this is challenging to write and expose myself so openly and ask your consideration in how you respond… If that makes you wish not to read this post, please turn back now ;-)
Fat and Happy?
Like many people in American society, I was introduced to yoga as a practice of physical postures: asana, and breath practices: pranayama. For me, it was like the gymnastics I had practiced as a child, without the dreaded “meets” where we were judged and scored. It was a wonderful way to come into my body. For years, I practiced it this way without going much deeper into the philosophy. I practiced alone at home, or in classes, without ever being introduced to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It was not until I went to the Kriaplu Center for a 4-month work-study that I really began to understand the broader philosophy. Until then, I did not know, for example that the second yoga surta of Patanjali states the reason for practice: Yoga chitta vritti nirodaha. Yoga is intended to lessen the fluctuations of the mind-stuff…
It seems to be an accepted premise in our society that being thinner will make you happier. We are shown this not only through advertizing, which uses this to sell us on the latest diet or gadget to lose weight, but it is an all around, pervasive attitude. We congratulate people for losing weight, for “looking great,” “looking better” however it is couched. We love stories of people losing weight, losing fat, and becoming lean and “healthy” and we expect that they are in fact happier for it. Maybe, and maybe not.
My story does not show that. I am currently the heaviest I have been in my life. I recently married a wonderful man, am happy in my marriage, happy in my career, happy in what I have to share with the world and more contented with myself, more loving toward my whole-self than I have ever been.
It was not always this way. At the physical level, my body has been in constant flux for my adult life. I have gained and lost as much as 60 pounds at a time, over and over. The physical and emotional fluctuations have been like the ups and downs of a roller coaster ride. However, not in the way some might assume. For years, I struggled with bi-polar-like depression. Bouncing from elated to despondent, sometimes several times a day. At times, the elation would last for days or even weeks, followed by weeks or months of deep depression and almost unbearable anxiety. During these years, I regularly wished to be rid of the pain so greatly, that I considered ending my life. Gratefully, my close relationships with loving family and friends kept me always searching for another answer.
Often during my deepest depressions, I would lose weight, considerable weight. Sometimes loss of appetite, was the reason, but often it was a compulsive attempt to escape the nightmare of my mind. I would compulsively practice vigorous yoga, walk miles at a time, in a vein attempt to outrun the racing, frightening thoughts. Invariably during one of these times, I would run into a friend who would comment, “Wow, Joanna, You look great! Have you lost weight?” I would usually laugh a bit sarcastically and reply, “Yeah, it’s great: Depression, give us a week, we’ll take off the weight!” Maybe not the kindest response but filled with the sick humor that accompanied my darker moments.
During one summer, my depression became so bad that I was not sleeping. After tossing and turning in bed for a few hours, I would get up and take my yoga mat to the nearest park. I would practice a vigorous 90 plus minutes of yoga, meditation, then walk vigorously once or twice around the 3-mile perimeter of the nearby lake, attempting to outdistance the cloud of pain and doom that permeated my mind.
The result of my ritual was that I “looked” healthy and fit. People responded to my body and yoga practice with admiration. When I went to yoga classes, I was often praised for my “beautiful practice.” I felt afraid to tell them that while I had a cute, round butt, muscular arms, a belly you could bounce quarters off and a strong, lean, flexible body, I was in a deep inner hell. It seemed that people in my life were unable to see past the outer me to the painful interior realms.
I am not attempting to say that people with lean muscular bodies cannot be happy or that people with more fat are always happy. I am also not saying that doing yoga and meditating are not greatly beneficial practices. What I recognize is that my approach to these practices was compulsive, competitive and so focused on the exterior, on getting something, being something better, that I was increasing the fluctuations of my mind-stuff not lessening them
I had many happy “lean” times and sad and depressed “fat” times. But the reverse is also not true. Being lean and “fit” does not mean happiness and being fat does not necessitate feeling depressed or bad about one self. My body-shape does not determine the level of my happiness. I am not pretending that having extra fat on my frame does not come at some cost. I know that it puts me in more danger for some diseases and can shorten my life, but not as quickly as suicide.
My current practices of gentle and restorative yoga and JourneyDance, while they do not sculpt my frame, provide me with more contentment and feelings of overall self-confidence than I have ever experienced. My practice now is lessening the fluctuations of my mind-stuff. In that, I am succeeding with my practice of yoga, even with a round belly, thick thighs and cellulite.
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Joanna Carichner, Yoga Instructor,
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Internal Family Systems Inspired Coach
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