On Yoga, Resistance and Letting Go

Content Note: Eating disorders, racism, harassment, objectification 

I don’t want to write this post. I have been turning the words over in my mind for two months, I have been holding these message deep in my body. I Sharing my struggles with anorexia, sharing my anger and frustration at social oppressions and whatever else I feel a pull to write about has helped me explore my own thoughts and reduce the self-imposed isolation that my eating disorder brings. I am writing a workshop on yoga and decolonial healing for a conference by and for women of colour, I’m also facilitating this workshop in a week at another event, so I should probably finish it, but before I can do that, I need to need to write these words.

 

I started casually practicing yoga midway through my undergrad, mostly through home practice and the occasional free class. As someone living with chronic pain, yoga was the go-to suggestion of health practitioners, and as annoying as that is, it has been a great coping mechanism for me. Yoga hasn’t taken away my chronic pain, but offers arguably more significant healing.

 

I was trying to remember a time where my body felt like it was consistently mine. Sure, I have had moments: making the decision to move out east, and 1,421km away from toxic relationships, the first time I went more than a month without purging or restricting, breaking up with a long-term love. My body has been exoticfied, objectified, controlled, shamed for being, but when has it been mine? My experiences are unique to me, but in no way unusual. Countless women will tell you how their first experience of a man objectifying and harassing them was when they were around 11 or 12. Thousands of people, of all genders, struggle with eating disorders, and pretty much every person of colour has felt othered and often exotified.

 

I recently realized how tired I am of explaining the colonial histories and diasporas that allow for my existence. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me in those moments. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me when men stand too close on the bus or a professional meeting ends when a hand on my lower back. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me because we live in a world that has consistently confirms this.

 

Since I was 13 years old, I have attempted to take control of my body back by destroying it, by trying to become invisible enough to fend off unwanted words and touch, to erase myself into whiteness. My eating disorder became a safe haven. My mother wanted me to eat pasta during the same time I was being told my anger was unwarranted (and unattractive), refusing dinner became my resistance. I destroyed myself as a form of misguided resistance. Women refusing to eat dates back centuries and is often connected religious sacrifice – the woman who is free from needs and wants is the most holy. My resistance was just what our patriarchal and white supremacist society demands of women. I detach from my body as a mode of survival. I stopped having desires because my desires to be heard were too much ™ I am still figuring out how to accept that being too much ™ is exactly what I should be.

 

Almost a decade after my eating disorder began, I started doing yoga. However, it wasn’t until my roommate invited me to try hot yoga with her that I truly began to connect with yoga, my inner self and finally my body. I lay on my mat after my first class feeling sweaty and giddy. I survived an hour long class in a hot room surrounded by strangers while wearing half the amount of clothes I normally do. I was thrilled, I was proud. I felt a little high. I joined the studio the next day and began a journey towards my body.

 

Eventually, as my body got stronger, I could move through asanas with ease and have fun trying (and falling out of) new poses. I lie on my mat before class and wait as the anxieties of my day slip away. I take a few cleansing breaths and take back my body and mind. I am not thinking of the dissatisfaction with my body (ok,sometimes I still am, but that’s why I’m doing all of this), I’m not thinking of body as the exoctic other, or as on inconvience,I am not thinking of my career or debt or anything but keeping my breath and settling into my body – as a whole, as mine.

 

Some of my teachers read a quote or tell a story at the end of the class, as their words float through the now quiet room, I lay on my mat and let them wash over me. I chose to come to my mat, I made choices in my body that felt right, I let myself breathe, and began to connect my body and mind. I have found the concept of decolonization confusing; I understand it on a political level, but when I would hear activists talk about decolonizing the self, I felt lost. It wasn’t until I surrendered myself to my practice that I began to understand. As I write this workshop, I realize that my work to decolonize my self will be ongoing, because the act of colonization is ongoing.
We speak of colonization, racism, and even sexism as things of the past. We’re colourblind now. The Canadian government pretends that their colonization of Indigenous peoples has ended. Women have jobs or something so we don’t need feminism. We speak of our body and mind in similarly disconnected terms. We were asked to write a letter to our body as part of my treatment program, I was viscerally uncomfortable for many reasons, but when I moved from “You” (my body) and “I” (my mind) to “We” (body/mind/soul), I felt as if I could breathe again, the lump in my throat grew smaller and I began to write. This is what we do when we practice yoga, this is what happens when we listen to the wisdom of our ancestors. This is where the healing begins.

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Faith and Illness

I consider myself a spiritual person; I have always believed in a higher power and was raised in and around religion. My mother was Irish-Catholic and my father was raised Hindu, and my extended family still participates in Hindu rituals. Since, I was a child I felt a strong spiritual connection to something, whether you call that something “God” or “Brahma” or “Mother Earth”, I knew there was more than just me.

Like most people, I have struggled with my faith – defining and reconciling it with what I see in myself and in the world around me. The first time I remember struggling with my belief in a higher power was when I overheard my parents talking about the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s. I caught glimpses on TV of bombings and injured or dead people. I remember being distinctly aware that this was in opposition to everything I had heard about “God”. God was supposed to protect us. This is what I had heard at school, in church and at prayers (practitioners of Hinduism hold prayers a few times a year and for special occasions). I wondered why God would let so many people die. I was a child, so the thought went quickly out of my head.

My next crisis of faith came when I was in my early teens. I was suffering through Anorexia, my family went from middle-class and comfortable to quite poor. I wouldn’t say I stopped believing in God, but I was very angry and wanted nothing to do with any higher power. Through my teen years, I was too focused on my eating disorder to really question what was happening with my body and mind spiritually.

I looked for spiritual connection through the Catholic Church and attended services on campus. This was a great comfort in my first two years of university; the priest was kind and the congregation offered the support I needed at the time. I could not reconcile my political and social beliefs with the Church, particularly under the conservative leadership of Pope Benedict. I stopped attending church, but learned a lot about my own spiritual beliefs and needs.

The next spiritual challenge I faced, and still struggle with today, was dealing with chronic illness and still being spiritual. Again, I began to question what kind of God allows this, or does God (or any higher power) have any say in what happens to us? I have not believed in an omnipotent God in many years, not since I was a child. I still angry though. I think I am a pretty decent person, I haven’t done anything so horrible to “deserve” illness. And since I was still born human and privileged, I probably didn’t do anything in my past lives either.

Every few months or weeks, I get very ill. I know when it’s happening and try to deal with it best I can, but my illness interferes with every part of my life. My illness challenges my faith, particularly when I am experiencing severe symptoms. Just yesterday, I was lying in bed and wondering why this is happening to me? I don’t have an answer, and as of now, no one else does either. I have stopped thinking that God is punishing me or that God can even control this.

I believe in something. Some kind of higher power. I don’t believe that this higher power has control over our lives or chooses how we live or die. I do think things happen for a reason. Living with chronic illness has taught me a lot about myself and my faith. I have found that I am stronger than I thought I was and a big part of that strength comes from faith. I have met amazing people because of my illness. Every time I am in treatment or the hospital, I meet someone or learn something that helps me. I hate being there, but I am learning to find the good in being ill.

I still get angry over all the time I have lost and how shitty I feel most days, I struggle with reconciling hardship with my faith. Faith is not about things running smoothly all the time or about something/someone else being in charge of your life. It is about finding that strength in yourself, in those around you and in whatever higher power you believe in.

I am trying to find a balance in my spirituality and in my health. I often feel a disconnection between body and soul. My soul wants to do so much and my body does not always cooperate. There are many things in life I cannot control and this is what I struggle with the most and it also where I find having faith to be the most helpful. If you know me, you know I like to be in control, I like things a certain way and I hate when I can’t achieve that. It is in these moments, I find my faith to be saving grace. It is in the moments where I at my lowest physically and mentally, that I rely on my faith. In my first year at Acadia, someone I knew told me they were shocked that I believed in God/a higher power since I seemed so logical. I cannot prove there is any higher power beside my own feeling that there is. But that is not the point of faith. Faith is personal and is not based on logic. It may not be logical to believe in a higher power, but it is part of what keeps me alive, what keeps me fighting for recovery and looking for treatment options.

I was in the hospital one time and as usually was younger than everything there by about 50 years. An older woman was encouraging me not to give up and she mentioned she would be praying for me. I gathered from our conversation that she was Christian and while I do not consider myself Christian, I appreciated that she would be praying to her incarnation of a higher power for me. I told her I would pray for her too. My prayer does not involve clasped hands or kneeling in pews. Sometimes, my spirituality comes out of a walk through the woods or during yoga practice.

I struggle with being ill and keeping my faith, but I know there is a reason for all of this, even if I can’t see it now.

Media, Mental Illness and Race

In recent years, the media has focused more on mental illness. That should be a good thing right? Not always. In the past few years, we have been hearing about mental illness in relation to violent acts. Cases like Elliot Rodgers, the 2012 Aurora shooting, and Sandy Hook have drawn mass media attention and many pointed to the perpetrators supposed mental illness as a reason as to why these men committed mass murder. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators but because stories like this, many people think that mental illness equals violence tendencies.

There were different motives in each case, however they all have something in common: young, middle or upper class white men committed the murders. Each time a white man commits mass murder, the media points to mental illness as the cause. This excuses the behaviour of murders and vilifies those with mental illness. Compare this media attention to that of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or John Crawford (a young man murdered in a Wal-mart because he was holding a BB gun, which was sold in store); when these men where brutally murder while unarmed, there was very little sympathy for them in the media. Martin was branded a thug and Crawford seemed to be blamed for simply picking up an item on the shelf. Let’s say these men were armed, let’s say they shot first – how would the media react? Would they defend these young men, say they were mentally ill, not in control of their actions? I highly doubt it.

There is another aspect of this; the media portrays mental illness as something that only affects white, middle class people. When I was younger, I thought I couldn’t have an eating disorder because I wasn’t tall, blonde and rich. I saw girls with EDs portrayed in the media in a very certain light. Honest and diverse portrayal of mental illness in the media is really important. While the media does discriminate, mental illness does not discriminate.

One in Four will be affected by mental illness. Take a look around; at least one person you know is currently dealing with mental illness. It could be depression, an eating disorder, PTSD, Bipolar, anxiety, etc. Mental illness can manifest in many ways; it does not matter what socioeconomic class you are, what your race is, religion, sex, mental illness can affect you or someone you.

Mental illness is not a white, middle/upper class issue. Mental illness is also not an excuse. I will admit I was an awful person at times when I was deep in my ED. I was mean, rude and a liar. My illness was a reason, but not an excuse. I am in charge of my own recovery. There are things we cannot control when we are mentally ill, especially when we are not getting treatment, but once we are aware of our illness and getting the help we need, we must take responsibility for our actions.

*1 in 4 source: http://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/

Are Eating Disorders a Feminist Issue?

 

 

I decided to ask around online if people agreed that Eating Disorders (EDs) were a feminist issue, I received some really great answers, which I will discuss later on, but mostly I got negative feedback, personally insulting me. People responded by saying that I didn’t understand eating disorders (despite me explaining that I have had various EDs for the past 12 years), that “men don’t give women eating disorders” and that I am stupid for even asking. The common denominator in these responses was that because I mentioned feminism, I must be unintelligent and a man-hater.  Basically, I found most people didn’t understand eating disorders or feminism.

 

Through my recover journey, I have found that people – medical professionals included – often do not take EDs seriously. I was struggling with Bulimic tendencies a few years ago and it was taking a toll on my health. I was describing some ways I had been feeling and discussing my abysmal blood work with my then family doctor when she said that I “wasn’t one of those dumb, vain girls with eating disorders.” I was dumbfounded and didn’t even consider seeking help for another year. There is a stereotype of people with EDs that is false and dangerous; many people think that the only people who are suffering are young, white, women with certain personalities. In reality, eating disorders do not discriminate. I know people of all ages, races, genders and socio-economic classes that suffer from eating disorders.

 

The comment made doctor made about women with eating disorders being vain and dumb is sexist and incredibly untrue. First off she was assuming that EDs are about looks and that there is choice in getting this illness and that EDs are a problem only for women. The women and men I know that are suffering or having recovered from EDs are some of the most intelligent, kind and compassionate people I know. They are not vain or stupid.

 

Over 24 million men and women in America have eating disorders. Most suffers are women, with 5-15% of sufferers being men. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest rate of mortality in all mental illness. Bulimia and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) have incredibly high rates as well. Yet, we still see pro-anorexia shirts being sold at Hudson’s Bay Company and weight-loss ads everywhere we go. Women are constantly told to look a certain way; that we shouldn’t be hungry, that being on a diet is normal and anything about a size 4 is fat, or that there is something wrong with having fat. Women are expected to starve; from the time I was a child I remember hearing conversations about growing teenage boys and how much they should eat, but it seemed like every woman I knew was on a diet. Why must be always shrink away?

 

Men are affected by patriarchal standards as well. They are told that being weak is not manly; that they have to be ripped or work out six days a week or no one will love them. I have known men who have engaged in disordered behaviour on the advice of coaches or their fathers.

Women are the main target of body criticism and outdated standards, however it affects our entire culture. We are teaching children that their looks are more important than their character and that a number can define them as a person.

 

Mental health is stigmatized throughout society and part of that is influenced by patriarchy. Equality of treatment and access to services is vital in the fight against eating disorders. Many women, myself included, have been told that it is “normal” to hate our bodies, to starve ourselves, to exercise to the point of danger. These are not normal behaviours. The idea that it is normal for women to hate themselves is disgusting! We must challenge the idea of low self-esteem and disordered behaviour is the norm for women and girls. When we create a environment for positive body image and healthy eating, we can better fight the root causes of the messages we see in society.  

*Statistics from NEDIC

Surviving Diet Season

 

Each year we are bombarded advertisements, articles, and conversations about dieting and achieving the “perfect” body. There is no such thing the perfect body – all bodies are perfect in the way that they are our own, our bodies are special and in no need of perfecting.

 

Whether it is a magazine telling us we can get a abs in 10 minutes or the one food that will change our lives or that these 99 tips will help us achieve some kind of perfection, it is saying: you are not good enough. We are not defined by our weight, shape or perceived imperfections. It can be difficult to hold on to confidence when everywhere we look we are told we are less than.

 

Each year I struggle with not having a perfect “bikini body” but this is the first year that I will not give in to those thoughts. I may not love my body, but I do not have to destroy it.

 

Embracing your body does not mean always being completely positive about yourself; some days you are going to wake and feel like shit. On these days instead of focusing on your flaws and acting on your negative thoughts, look in the mirror and say, “I am worthy, I am beautiful and unique.”

 

Diets will not make you happy, neither will losing weight or changing your body in an unhealthy manner. Trust me on this. I wish I had spent more summers frolicking on the beach rather than staying home counting calories and forcing myself to try all those fad workouts.

 

This summer, forget about achieving perfection and enjoy life. Treat your body with kindness, it’s the only one you have.

What is therapy like?

 

Many people are scared to start therapy, they imagine lying on a couch telling some old man in tweed about their deepest, darkest secrets. But it’s really not like that, not anymore. Finding the right therapist is extremely important; you’re building a relationship with that person so you need a good connection.

 

I have had various positive and negative experiences with therapists, psychologists and counselors. My first experience was not a positive one and I wasn’t aware enough that I could just go to another therapist. You have to interview the therapist – remember it’s your health and your money; you have to feel comfortable with the therapist.

 

The first session is pretty simple; you’re not going to delve right into your issues. They will probably get you to fill out some paper work and ask questions about why you are there, how you’re feeling lately, etc.

 

A few summers ago, I saw a counselor who I still really like even though she couldn’t treat me. We will call her Ruth, she is a trained counselor and works for a community clinic (so it was covered under MSI). Our first session began with her getting some history and we had a chat about my concerns. I sat in a comfortable chair and it was very relaxing. Each session we spoke a bit more and worked slowly through things. Although, her expertise didn’t include eating disorders, I still had a good experience. Sometimes, you will find that your therapist/counselor can’t treat you anymore and that doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you or they don’t like you, they are just looking out for your best interests.

 

My next experience was very different, I went to a residential treatment centre that specializes in eating disorders so the counselors there had a good back ground in what I was going through. I spoke with them over the phone and did an intake interview first so by the time I got there, we had established a framework already. My first session was a little uncomfortable, I was still unconvinced that I needed treatment, but tried to be present. I remember fidgeting in my chair and being very uncomfortable about being open about my feelings. Although I didn’t say at the house very long, I continued seeing the staff there and continued treatment for over a year. I can honestly say that I would not be alive without them.

 

Therapy is different for everyone. I have mostly done Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and a bit of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), I have found both beneficial. CBT is probably the most common and ACT is very helpful for treatment of depression and related disorders. CBT works on changing your behaviour and therefore changing your negative/disordered thoughts into more positive, productive ones. ACT is basically what it sounds like – accept your personal situation and commit to change. It works with mindfulness and values (what’s important to you) and action. Stephen Hayes’ popular book “Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life” is based on ACT. I haven’t read it but I’ve done some of the worksheets from it and it’s been helpful.

 

Therapy is scary because change is scary, but it is immensely rewarding. I have gotten to know myself so much in the past two years and while I still have a lot of work to do, I know have solid building blocks to live a healthy and free life. You don’t have to have a diagnosed disorder to go to therapy, even if you are feeling stressed about school or relationships or are dealing with body image or low self-esteem, therapy can be very helpful. An impartial third party who is looking out for you and your health is an amazing resource to have. There are many options for finding a counselor or therapist – you can talk to your family doctor, campus centre, or look at the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia Website (http://www.apns.ca) for more information.

 

There is always hope for recovery, and you don’t have to hit rock bottom to get help.

Eating Disorder Awareness

Eating disorder awareness is something that is very near and dear to my heart. I first developed a pattern of restrictive eating when I was around 11 years old. I had never heard of eating disorders, I first remember reading a story in a magazine when I was around 13 about a teenage girl who struggled with anorexia. I thought, “I could never do that”, little did I know I was suffering at the time.

All I saw was sensationalized pieces in the media – low weights, calories, size zero – I didn’t see those signs in myself, no one else did either. Eating Disorders come in all shapes and sizes, just like sufferers. One thing that is true across all EDs is that they are extremely dangerous. I didn’t know this when I first starting cutting out food groups and counting each calorie eaten and burned. Dieting seemed normal; I saw ads on tv, heard adult talking about it and read articles in magazines and newspapers. I started out dieting here and there and it got stronger and stronger. I heard of anorexia but I thought it only affected college age girls, I wasn’t even a teenager yet. I learned through years of my own research and the last year and a half of treatment and recovery that eating disorders do not discriminate. EDs affect men, women, children, people of all races and sexualities, classes and cultures, it doesn’t matter who you are though – you deserve to seek help.

I often think how different my life would be if someone had spoke to me about eating disorders, honestly and told me all the dangers. It may have made no real difference, but it could have saved me – and my loved ones – a decade of pain and sadness. I want to dedicate my life to raising awareness about Eating Disorders – we all know someone who suffers and we all have the ability to help.

Education is the most powerful tool. Knowing what to say and what not to say can save a life. Silence kills, so let’s raise our voices up and fight.