"I understand that you have many, many years of experience learning about and treating other people's bodies. But I have 37 years of experience living in this one, and that will be respected." —Me, to a doctor who just interrupted me in the middle of asking a question by saying: “But you're not a doctor.”
We get sick, we go to the doctor. We want to eat “right,” we go to a dietician. We want to get “fit,” we go to a personal trainer or yoga teacher. These are the “experts” who can tell us what we need to do “right” to be our best selves.
But what about going to ourselves, and checking in with ourselves? How would our “best” be different if we viewed ourselves as the experts of ourselves?
Unfortunately, many aspects of our society encourage us to dissociate from our bodies rather than think of ourselves as experts on them. While our society obsesses over our physical appearance, generally speaking, we're not taught to trust our physical experience. In fact, we're actively told not to trust our own bodies. And we're certainly not taught how to listen to our bodies (so it's pretty useless when we first hear that instruction to do so in our yoga classes). Instead, we’re told to push through pain to run faster, to ignore hunger to lose weight, or to embrace people to not seem rude.
Unfortunately, many aspects of our society encourage us to dissociate from our bodies rather than think of ourselves as experts on them.
When we're disconnected from our bodies, it makes life so much harder. As a fat person living with chronic illness, fatigue, and pain, I've had countless doctors' visits over the years. I've tried every diet. And all I got was sicker and fatter.
It wasn't until I found yoga that things changed. I don't mean that yoga cured me, but it did begin to heal my relationship with myself and with my body. It allowed me to connect with my body in a way I didn't even know was possible. It taught me to listen to my body and trust what I heard.
Once I started listening to my body, things changed dramatically. I found doctors and other practitioners who worked with me as partners in my treatment, not as dictators over my body. My relationship with food and my weight also shifted.
Because activity trackers were becoming all the rage and because I like data, I got one of them and started tracking my every move and every bite. But I quickly learned how far outside of the experts’ recommendations I was. Without yoga, I would have thought I was failing and that I needed to do whatever was required—and subject my body to whatever abuse was necessary—to do what the experts were telling me. However, because of my burgeoning yoga practice, I was starting to feel better and grow stronger without pushing myself past my limits or abusing my body. I didn’t know it yet, but I was starting to learn how to listen to my body and trust my physical experience. I was eating significantly more than the recommended caloric intake, but intuitively I knew that this was what my body needed. It was the first time in my life I felt strong while my body changed.
After a lifetime of trying to push physical pain away and ignore even the most basic sensations, like hunger and fullness, I had no idea what my body was trying to tell me. But I learned that when I experienced sensations and feelings in my body, if I listened to them, I could do what those feelings were telling me my body needed. And I learned that if I did what my body asked, I felt a lot better.
Our bodies are our homes, our way of experiencing the world. If we can't trust that basic relationship, there's no way we can trust any other relationship. If we can't trust our own feelings, we can't take care of ourselves. When I wasn’t even listening to my body’s advice on eating and exercising, I certainly didn't trust it when it tried to tell me my boundaries were being violated or I was being disrespected.
As I learned to trust and listen to my body, I began to respect my own value and require that same respect from others. When I would practice yoga, it was the only time I felt in control of my life. It was the only time I felt like I had a say in how I worked with my body. While most of my teachers didn't know what exactly to do with a fat, sick body, they actively encouraged me to listen to it, to be kind to it, and to connect to it. They made it okay to slow down and to be still. They made it clear that, in the end, it didn't matter if they didn't know what to do with my body; even if they could make suggestions, I still had to figure out what my body needed—and I was the only one who could determine that.
And I did. I fell in love with restorative yoga, with the stillness, the breathing, the turning inward. I had no choice but to hear my body. As I remained in a shape for long periods of time, and as gravity melted me over the props, my body made sure I couldn't ignore it. I began to notice when my muscles were relaxed or tense and when my mind was racing. I had to make the choice to remain still, shift my shape, or deepen my breath. And, in the quiet and stillness that filled the room, only I could make that decision. There was no external “expert” to tell me what to do, no one else’s needs to consider. It was in that stillness that I learned what it meant to listen to my body. And it was in the quiet that I found my power.
I didn't understand what was happening at first. A strange, new sense of empowerment followed me off the mat into my busy, noisy life. I started to expect that my opinion about what happened to my body was just as important as any “expert” opinion, if not the most important expert opinion. I stopped doing things I was supposed to do and started doing things I needed to do. One of my teachers commented that they could see a big change in my physical practice—that I was getting stronger. It was the first time in my life that anyone had complimented the physical ability of my body instead of commenting on its size or appearance.
I learned that “no” is a complete sentence, that just because someone expected something of me, I didn’t have to do it, and that my health had to come first even if I felt like I wasn’t being polite. I also learned how to establish and enforce boundaries. And while I still struggle with the idea that a lack of perfection doesn’t make me any less worthy of love and respect, I’ve become a lot kinder to myself when I inevitably fail to be perfect.
The transition to listening and trusting hasn't always been easy or pleasant. It's not only changed my relationship with myself but also with everyone else in my life. Not everyone in my life has been thrilled with my newfound ability to say “no” without explanation or with how I now prioritize activities in my life. But I've ended up happier, healthier, and with a more complete life.
Yoga not only taught me how to listen to my body but also to insist that others listen to my body as well.