Eyes blur. Tension is unbearable. Breath is out of control. Pain, pleasure, agony, and release.
No, I am not having sex. I am trying to accomplish the camel pose of bikram yoga.
Health is the obsession of our time: the next diet and exercise trend always claiming to be better than the last. In the eighties spandex-clad individuals crowded in front of their TVs and clenched their buttocks in unison to the sounds of synth-pop (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deKHYCsjseg). A decade ago, there was the cardio craze, which had thousands of middle-aged men take to cycling, swimming and long distance running – all intent on completing a new triathlon each weekend. Lately, there have popped up a number of refurbished industrial buildings where people stand in stripped-down rooms, lift enormous tractor tires and wield sledgehammers in order to buff up.
Female weightlifters and skinny men in lycra are breaking gender norms, but body dimorphic disorder (BDD) has never been more prevalent as it is today. According to a 2015 report by Beat (https://www.b-eat.co.uk/assets/000/000/302/The_costs_of_eating_disorders_Final_original.pdf?1424694814) there are 725 000 people suffering from eating disorders in the UK, which is a 7% yearly increase since 2009. This is not just a physical and psychological burden for the patient, but it also takes an immense emotional toll on the carers and has a severe financial impact on the NHS and UK’s economy. Not to mention that it is the one mental health issue today most common to end in fatality.
That is why I wish to address a different change in the health community: the turn towards mindfulness. Recent studies in cognitive behavioural therapy have shown that mindfulness can be effective when treating anorexia, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, as well as depression, stress and anxiety. Bikram yoga is just one example of how to exercise mindfulness. The 90-minute class consists of 26 different poses and two breathing exercises, which take place in a room heated to 40 degrees. The aim is to work every single part of the human body to achieve optimum health and function.
Don’t get me wrong. I was definitely a sceptic too. Standing in a hot room, dripping of sweat and attempting to breathe slowly did not seem like my type of exercise. In fact, it did not seem like exercise at all. I was used to running far and fast, lifting heavy weights and swinging kettle bells in quick succession. I wanted to burn fat, build muscle and tone my body to perfection. I did not see the value of relaxation and meditation.
Time devoted for relaxation has become another stress factor for students today. It is not enough to achieve straight-As. You need to have a part-time job to pay the bills. You need to do an unpaid internship to forward your career. You need to apply for postgraduate study with the aching knowledge that you are slowly losing control of your future. Simultaneously, you need to prove that you have a social life (don’t even get me started on Tinder…) and party with your friends, while maintaining a healthy diet and visiting the gym regularly to feel good about your exterior.
Bikram yoga is certainly not exempt from the stress and the weight-losing obsession that stalks gyms today. Like in any female locker room, you will find women in yoga studios that pinch their love handles, stare at the mirror and sigh at their static kilos of pudginess – ‘Who’s the (fattest) of them all?’. There seems to be an awkward silence in the yoga community about people with body dysmorphia. The yoga ideal that adorns magazine covers, Instagram accounts and Youtube videos holds the promise of a skinny but anorexic body. Healthy eating that accompany yoga narratives, such as juice cleanses, gluten-free vegan diets and fruity smoothies, all propagate a certain life style that may disguise a person’s eating disorders. In their May 2015 issue, Yoga Magazine even featured an ancient yoga technique called Vyaghra kriyā (vomiting in order to cleanse your body), which becomes another way of rationalising bulimic practice.
Bikram yoga might not be for everyone. And the first five classes were not exactly my cup of tea. With sweat running in every crease of your being, the fat bulging in awkward places and constantly falling down during balance poses, it is difficult to accept and celebrate your body. I came out feeling depressed about my ‘extra kilos’ and exhausted from the heat. I began to despise the loud and happy chatter of the thin, flexible women proudly sporting their tight bras and mini shorts. Everything just seemed too perfect.
The yoga community needs to start admitting their responsibility in inspiring unhealthy food habits and obsessive exercise. Yet not all hope is lost. My yoga centre features flyers from Glasgow Centre for Eating Disorder, which encourages yogis in need to seek help (http://www.glasgow-eating-disorders.co.uk/). The classes focus on clearing the mind from stress. Newcomers are warmly applauded for just staying in the room throughout the class. On the Internet, there are new and encouraging narratives from yogis of all sizes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX9FSZJu448 and https://www.instagram.com/biggalyoga/?hl=en).
So perhaps it is not your body that needs to change, but the way you think about your body. From a young age, girls are complimented for being pretty and boys are complimented for being cool. It is no wonder that girls learn to measure their self-worth from their looks and not from their smarts. Next time, instead of telling your friends they look skinny and beautiful, tell them they look happy and confident. Instead of staring at the number on the scale, think about how well you accomplished a certain yoga pose. Congratulate yourself on the progress you make, not on losing kilos or sculpting your body, but on mastering a certain pose or controlling your breath.
As the feeling of yoga mastery slowly came to me, I started to notice new things in my class. Surrounding me were people of all ages, all sizes, both genders and different origins. Some were beginners, some were experts, but everyone was struggling with their own personal issues. The instructors were smiling and positive, not because they seek perfection, but because they enjoy the feeling of community: the feeling of everyone working together. I began to accept that I would turn into a human waterfall. I started to enjoy having 90 uninterrupted makeup-free minutes for myself. Afterwards, when the sweating subsides, I can rest in the afterglow of knowing when to let go.
By Sofia Lindén