Can Yoga Help Fix My Brain?

Many moons ago, one of my best friends and I attempted to take a Yoga class together. We were both 24 at the time, and we were both pretty hyperactive. Neither of us was able to gather up the focus needed to really get into it. We would goof off through the whole class, and then we’d both infallibly fall asleep during the closing meditation. Both of us decided after our 10 sessions that we were not the Yoga types. My friend and I both remain fairly high-energy, but have mellowed out quite a bit in our “old age.” Both of us have grown in our ability to focus. She practices T’ai Chi. I have tried that (my husband loves it, and has been in touch on and off with a master since he was 16), but it really wasn’t my cup of tea (that pun was intended – if you know how much tea is drank in conjunction with T’ai Chi!).

In recent years I have been feeling a pull again towards yoga. I’ve had little tastes of it when I’ve been in belly dance classes (my attempts to learn belly dance keep getting thwarted – first by my grad school class schedule, and then by breaking my ankle). It seemed like maybe I might like it now that I’m more of a grown-up. Two things sealed the deal on trying it again: 1. David has been doing it as part of his coursework for school, and has been encouraging me to take it up as something we could practice together, 2. Another dear friend of mine mentioned to me, while I was in the middle of a meltdown, that yoga has played a key role in helping her to love her body. She said that she loves it because it helps her to be more “in” her body, and builds the mind-body connection.

My mind-body connection is broken. Well, maybe not broken in the sense that it doesn’t exist, but it is sick in a way that has to be hurting my attempts to get healthier. I have mentioned a couple of times on this blog that I have been through treatment for eating disorders. Part of what causes eating disorders is body dysmorphia. This means that when you look in the mirror, you don’t see what is really there. You see yourself as being distorted somehow – too fat, too ugly, etc. Here’s the description from MayoClinic.com:

Body dysmorphic disorder is a type of chronic mental illness in which you can’t stop thinking about a flaw with your appearance — a flaw either that is minor or that you imagine. But to you, your appearance seems so shameful and distressing that you don’t want to be seen by anyone. Body dysmorphic disorder has sometimes been called “imagined ugliness.”

For info on causes, go here.

As stated above, body dysmorphic is a chronic disorder. The behaviors surrounding it can be cured, but the disorder itself is ongoing (though it can go into remission!). Therefore, one needs to learn good self-care and coping mechanisms. Some doctors want to try to treat this with meds. I disagree with that approach, particularly because there aren’t any medications that are approved for specifically treating this disorder. What you’re actually treating is the related depression, anxiety, etc. I’m not necessarily depressed or anxious in a clinical sense, so I think that behavioral therapy is the way to go. Obviously I learned how to stop starvation and purge behaviors. I’m still working on the binge part; but that is getting progressively better. Otherwise, I am doing a pretty good job on the physically self-destructive behaviors front.

The more internal symptoms are the hard part. Especially since I actually am on the heavier side at the moment. Here is a list of symptoms, hand-picked from MayoClinic.com, that I struggle with:

  • Preoccupation with your physical appearance
  • Strong belief that you have an abnormality or defect in your appearance that makes you ugly
  • Frequently examining yourself in the mirror or, conversely, avoiding mirrors altogether (I avoid)
  • Believing that others take special notice of your appearance in a negative way
  • Feeling extremely self-conscious
  • Refusing to appear in pictures (I don’t mind this if I am not overweight. If I am, I will still do it, but it makes me feel miserable)
  • Comparing your appearance with that of others (the funny part about this is that though I am very hard on myself, most other people look lovely to me. Therefore, inside my brain, almost everyone is better looking than I am)
  • Avoiding social situations (only when I’m heavy. If I am, I will try to avoid situations where we are going “out,” or where there are a lot of people I don’t know).
  • Wearing excessive makeup or clothing to camouflage perceived flaws (I have relaxed on this front. I will now go some places without makeup on, but for a long time, even though I don’t wear a lot of makeup, I wouldn’t leave the house without the minimal amount I do wear).

These symptoms all appear as minor behaviors that other people may or may not notice.  The bigger part is inside my head. I know rationally that all of these things are extremely self-centered and/or untrue. However, the whole reason that it is a disorder is because it is irrational. These symptoms, at certain times, will keep me from doing things that I love to do.

When my friend mentioned yoga to me as a form of body-love, I was crying because I didn’t want to go out dancing. I didn’t want to go because I was embarrassed of my body. Usually I can hide the real reason that I don’t want to go, but she had kept pressing me about it until I had to be honest. I LOVE to dance. But at the moment it is hard for me to do it. Obviously I am getting more and more comfortable with being honest about what’s going on in my head. I attribute this to being less and less lazy about self-care.  Meditation  helps a lot to re-program my thinking-keeps out the automatic negative thoughts (ANTS). Exercise helps a lot with endorphins and just getting rid of energy that I might use against myself. Massage helps dissolve issues with being seen.

On Monday night I finally started a yoga class. I have practiced it every day this week, and I already know that I love it. I am looking into doing another weekly class. It is so good; it is so good because it is something that I feel good doing right now. Not when I am thinner or in better shape. I don’t feel self conscious or judged in the studio, which I think must have something to do with the spiritual aspect of yoga. I don’t think when I’m doing it, I just feel. It is the first thing that I have done that feels like it is addressing all of my broken pieces at once.

Anyhow, if you are a person that has body image issues, and aren’t already doing yoga, I highly recommend starting!

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2 responses to “Can Yoga Help Fix My Brain?

  1. I was going to comment “That’s exactly how I feel about Yoga!”…Then I read more, and think, maybe, you were already talking about me.

    We must be on the same wavelength right now, because I’m on week 4 of daily yoga in the morning. Now I crave it.

    For me, the more I do it, the more I find it a methaphor for my life. For example, it occured to me the other day that Yoga is the only place I’m patient. I will rejoice after 6 months of working on a strech and eaking out an extra quarter of inch. But everywhere else in life I expect to be perfect and accomplished immeadately. Losing weigh, I get discouraged if I lose only lose 2lbs in a week and give up, at work, if I don’t get results immeadatly I lose interest and want a new project.

    I have this morning yoga DVD, which has 5 different 20 minute videos on it, and I constintly hear Rodney Lee saying “Don’t force yourself, forward bends are about patience.”

    Anyway, if you continue to like it, I would LOVE to go on Yoga retreat some weekend.

    • Yep, I was referring to you, when I had my mini-meltdown in the DR. I’ve since wondered whether or not I actually made myself sick that night – psychological meltdown leading to physical meltdown. Too bad I ended up being sick for a week from it; just to get out of one night of dancing!

      I am the same way when it comes to patience – way too into instant gratification when it comes to most things!

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