Yoga Saved My Life: Yes, the Cliches Are True
How yoga helped an awkward teenage girl overcome chronic pain and body-image issues and transform into an empowered, healthy woman.
When I first found yoga, I was a mess. As an eighteen-year-old high school graduate, it was the last the summer I would be living with my mom before heading away for college. I seemed to have it together from the outside: I’d finished high school with flying colors and had received a full-ride scholarship for college, which would be starting in the fall.
On the inside, I was miserable. A big part of this stemmed from the fact that I hated my body; the way it looked, felt, and never seemed to cooperate with me. I had always been taller than most of the boys in my class. All of my girlfriends were shorter than me, and I felt as though I stood out like a sore thumb. In a semi-conscious effort to disappear, I’d adopted the chronic habit of slouching.
My poor posture also reflected another uncomfortable reality for girls coming of age: grown men had begun to look at my chest. This realization made me feel guilty and dirty, as though I had done something wrong by having a female body. I was torn between a desire to feel attractive and a fear of unwanted stares and comments. Under the weight of this dilemma, my shoulders chronically slumped forward, as if to protect not only my breasts but the tender heart beating beneath them.
Meanwhile, the only exercise I’d done was forced upon me by the torture chamber known as high school gym class. Though I had tried to play sports in middle school, I was too sensitive to last in that competitive realm. Even my gym teacher seemed to think me a failure, as the physical tests we took were never things I could do well.
What appeared to be a fun class for most people was, for me, only an arena to embarrass myself. I was typically chosen last for teams, and there was a cadre of “mean girls” who would giggle openly about me. They once said that I looked like an ostrich when I ran, since I had long, skinny legs but lacked the tiny waist to match them. It is amazing how one comment can become a thorn in your side, sticking with you for years.
Looking back, I see what my problem was. In a world that often values women exclusively for their appearance, I had believed the lie that I was no more than my body. Because of my height, I’d been told that I should play sports. When that didn’t suit me, it seemed that my body had no real use, and therefore, I had no use. This belief system fueled many unhealthy habits, such as eating fast food, drinking soft drinks, and smoking cigarettes.
It seemed like my body would always feel terrible like it was just a clumsy meat suit that only got in the way. I sought out substances that would make me feel good in the moment, without regard to my long-term health.
When people began to tell me that I should be a model (largely because of my height and slim build), it seemed as though I’d rediscovered a use for myself. Yet, I was so concerned with slimming my “ostrich” waistline that I also adopted some unhealthy eating habits that teetered dangerously close to becoming disorders.
With the idea of getting into shape to pursue modeling, I began to exercise on my own for the first time. I would get up early in the morning to run, take a long walk during my lunch break, and work out with dumbbells in the evening. In an ironic twist of fate for the girl who hated gym class, I was becoming downright fanatical about fitness.
It was during this time that I happened upon a certain VHS tape in my mom’s collection: Simply Yoga by Yolanda Pettinato. By this point, my body was sore from all of the working out I’d been doing, so I thought I would give yoga a try as an alternate form of exercise.
As it turned out, this video ended up being the perfect introduction to yoga for me. Because I carried so much body image insecurity, I’m not sure I would have felt at ease going to an actual yoga class at first. Simply Yoga was gentle, easy to follow along with, and downright comforting. Yolanda’s soothing voice brought me out of my head and planted my awareness firmly into my body.
Rather than a vigorous workout, this session included resting poses in between the more active exercises. My only other reference being gym class, it was not at all how I had learned to work out. Like many people, I had adopted the “no pain, no gain” mantra. I viewed exercise as a struggle and my body as a stubborn beast to be beaten into submission.
Moving into Child’s Pose for the first time, I felt the first stirrings of a release of long-held tension in my neck and shoulders. The sensation was marvelous — it was like I had been holding my hand on a hot stove for years and had finally taken it off. The cool balm of relief flowed through my body, easing the strain I had come to think of as normal.
The video ended with a nice, long Corpse Pose. At first, the name of the pose felt a little morbid and strange to me. But as I eased into it, I felt able to let go in a way that I never had before. The act of complete surrender held such comfort for me; it was like being cradled by the Earth itself, floating in a timeless space where there was no striving, no judgment, no worry. No feelings of inadequacy or insecurity. “Just nothing,” as Yolanda Pettinato’s sweet voice chimes during the pose. I was so relaxed that I began to sense the subtle energies within my body. I could feel the effects of the good work I’d just done, and also the places that still held tension. At that moment, I knew that my journey with yoga had only just begun.
The Lessons Continue
In hindsight, it’s funny to me that I discovered yoga under such…well, shallow circumstances. I wanted to look good, plain and simple, and tried yoga as part of an exercise routine. Yet on a deeper level, I was really looking for acceptance and my place in the world. Striving to become a model was, for me, a misguided effort at finding my self-worth. Luckily, after yoga came into my life, things began to change.
I went off to college that fall and enrolled in a Hatha yoga class offered at my school. This became the highlight of my week, gathering together with a group of about forty students to learn the basics of yoga. I discovered many more postures that made my body feel fluid and light. The more I practiced, the better I felt.
What surprised me was the discovery that many of the young women in my yoga class also carried serious body image issues. Our kind yoga teacher had gentle ways of pointing out how our beliefs about ourselves manifested in our bodies. She addressed the issue of slouching, and how it often reflected an underlying sense of shame about our breasts as well as the unconscious desire to shelter our hearts. She taught us to stand tall and proud and to move forward through life with our hearts leading the way.
Another poignant lesson came when she asked the class to stand with our feet hip-width apart. She looked around the room, paused, smiled sweetly, and said, “Ladies, your hips are not that wide.” Everybody looked around the room and saw their own negative body image reflected in each other’s eyes. It was a beautiful moment of healing for the group. Our teacher, who was only a few years older than her students, told us regularly that she saw the beauty in each and every one of us. This served as a powerful catalyst for healing and transformation in my life. The thorn in my side was finally working its way out.
For the first time ever, I began to value my body for its own sake. As I became stronger and more flexible, I marveled at what my body could do, rather than focusing on each imperfection. My focus shifted more toward how I felt, instead of how I looked. I started to objectively notice when I felt insecure and how that affected my body. In those moments, I would consciously throw back my shoulders and open my heart to the world once again.
Gradually, these practices of self-awareness and compassion became more permanent. Meanwhile, my more destructive habits fell away, one by one. Once I had found a way to feel good that was also good for me, I no longer needed to smoke cigarettes or drink soda. As I became more tuned into my body, I began to associate eating junk food with feeling bad. As a result, these things became less appealing to me over time, so that I didn’t even want them anymore.
Since discovering yoga, I have experimented with many different styles, teachers, and techniques. I’ve practiced alongside hundreds of people, and also developed an active solo practice. As a writer, I’ve interviewed yoga people from all over the world and from different walks of life. I have experienced myriad teachers, from the big names to the lesser-known, local folks who are just as inspired and inspiring.
When I look back at my yoga journey, I marvel at the gradual 180-degree turn that my life took. At age eighteen, I was so wrapped up in our culture’s insistence that women’s bodies are commodities that my entire being revolved around this concept. I constantly felt judged based on my appearance, and I too bought into this reality.
Yoga is what helped me move through this illusion to see my body for what it really is: a divine vessel, a sacred temple that houses my spirit for the duration of my time on Earth. I can’t say that I never judge myself based on appearance now — but more often, I love my body. I love what it can do, what it can feel, what it knows.
After beginning a yoga practice, many people — like myself — find that they automatically start to make healthier lifestyle choices. These choices feel less like a struggle of willpower and more like the simple desire to be more loving to yourself. Yoga also improves our gut-level instincts so that we intuitively recognize how our movements affect our feelings. We begin to notice how standing up straight increases confidence, while smiling makes us feel buoyant and joyful. These are valuable tools that improve our quality of life — not to mention our posture.
From years of witnessing and experiencing the yoga world, one thing has become apparent to me: yoga changes lives. It doesn’t matter so much how you find yoga. You may start practicing, as I did, for all the wrong reasons. But sooner or later, the true essence of yoga will permeate your being. With practice, it fosters a deeper mind-body connection. By developing mindfulness in yoga, we cultivate a deeper awareness as we move through the rest of our lives.
When I say that yoga saved my life, I don’t mean that I avoided being hit by a car by suddenly flipping into a handstand (although, how cool would that be?). If it weren’t for yoga, I would probably still be alive now — although, with the direction that my negative belief system was taking me, I can’t be absolutely sure of that.
I am sure about this, though:
Yoga saved me from a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
It eased chronic pain in my body and heart, opening me up to a deeper level of connection with the world around me. It taught me to love my body, to value myself, and to put my heart first. In this way, yoga saved my life.