I just turned 31. I’ve been teaching yoga for almost six years now and I’ve had an eating disorder for 18. When I first started to practice yoga, a huge motivation for the sweaty power vinyasa style I fell hard for was the potential calorie burn. I’m not ashamed to admit this because I think that drive helps me see and understand a lot of my yoga peers and students better.
I thought maybe yoga would be the thing that transformed my body into whatever it was that I imagined would bring me peace - thinner, glowier, more lithe.
I’ve always wanted to be just a little taller and just a little thinner. If you graphed the desires I had for my body it would look like those infinitely closer convergent lines that will never meet. No matter how hard I tried or how long I persisted in the effort, I would never arrive at that goal of thin enough. Many people with body image issues will get this - that “enough” that we seek is a tricky target. You can set a goal and land it, but before you even revel in your accomplishment (or catch your breath), some inner bullshit starts up with the next milestone you ought to be pursuing. It’s the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow. You can literally run yourself into the ground chasing after the illusion.
Ironically, when I started practicing yoga I remember feeling highly judgmental of some of my skinnier teachers. I suspected they had eating disorders themselves - or at least “food issues” and I thought it rather presumptuous of anyone who might be even close to sick in the same way I was to be teaching yoga - a philosophy that preached awareness, acceptance and love above all. I remember wondering if they felt hypocritical; if it occurred to some of these teachers that the platform they had to teach from was rich with the potential for mixed messages - acceptance, but mostly of thinness, love, but only for the conventionally beautiful things. One of the important realizations I had was that a teacher’s weight or shape (or gender, for that matter) didn’t seem to influence my desire to take her or his class. At all. I cared only about the skillfulness in teaching. I cared about how the classes met my needs.
Jump ahead a few years to the beginning of my teaching experience. I’m still practicing. I’m still bulimic with restricting tendencies (although I have made huge progress in recovery - I no longer require multiple treatment sessions a week and I haven’t needed a hospital stay in years). As a teacher, I am stricken with guilt constantly for what I feel is dishonesty on my part. I cringe inside whenever a yoga student comments about my weight and how healthy I must be. (You can only know this kind of guilt through experience. I suppose it would be like stealing an inheritance you never earned and having folks comment about your financial savvy, thinking you’d been scrimping away for your retirement since your teens. You feel almost dirty with the deceit.)
As much guilt as I have for my eating disorder, I may feel even more guilty that I’m unable to get my body to conform - to be that skinny, spiritual, glowing being. Occasionally I’ve purged right before teaching a class. The thought of peeling spandex onto a bloated belly is still usually too much for me to wrestle with. I love sweatpants and baggy tanks for this reason.
The paradox of teaching is that it somehow takes the focus off me. It gets my mind off myself for an hour or so. I forget that I hate my body.
Watching the bodies in class, I remember what it is like to respect a range of motion or the sensation of a stretch through my spine. I remember the ease that comes with just a few deep breaths. Or the peace that I’m allowed after freeing some of the stuck energy (Anxiety! Tension! Stress!) and surrendering to a moment of stillness and rest in savasana.
I hear myself ask students to let go of the self critical narration and just take a deep breath with whatever is there. I hear myself ask for less judgement, and more compassion. For less fighting and more feeling. For less of the ridiculous expectations or agendas and more respect for how it is now. I remember that someone said that those who can’t do, teach. And I realize that teaching is my highest form of learning. Slowly, these asks become things that I embrace.
My practice these days is all about acceptance on the mat, but also - importantly - off the mat. I feel myself loosening the binds of body-hatred and control. Sometimes my tummy feels soft and full and I can touch it without disgust. I feel myself letting go of the insane food rules and eating behaviors that originated outside of me - nonsense diet plans and rigid calorie counting or meal timing - and shifting slowly to trust in my own knowing - what, when, and how much to eat. There is so much freedom in this shift. I feel more peaceful and more powerful as I shift the focus of trust more and more internal to me.
It has taken me time to begin to reconcile teaching yoga as a deeply flawed human. I have so much respect for yoga and for the difficult asks of this path (non-harm, honesty, moderation, discipline, practice, concentration, etc) that I often feel unworthy to be teaching. But my dearest, most inspiring teachers are flawed humans themselves - I’m sure they’d be the first to admit it.
So, who am I to decide that I can’t offer anything good without first being perfect?
What a ridiculous thought. The turning of the mind is a tricky beast - I could have easily been led on another impossible quest: Instead of body perfection, teacher perfection. And if I’ve learned anything from yoga - practice and teaching - it is this gem from the Yoga Sutras: “When the turning of the mind is overcome/Then the seer resides in her true nature, which is perfect, whole and complete.” There is no quest for perfection that we can earn or achieve. Rather the perfection we seek is a function of removing the false layers of judgement and comparison and illusion from the right here and now.
About Kailey Hull
Kailey is a yoga instructor at Zuda Yoga and Radiant Yoga in Folsom, CA. You can reach out to her on Facebook here.