by Kimber Simpkins
It’s thanks to my yoga practice that I landed in the lap of the Health at Every Size® (HAES) movement and philosophy. Who would have guessed that learning how to do cat-cow on all fours would prepare me to readily embrace the three points of the HAES pledge: Respect, Compassionate Self-Care, and Critical Awareness. Here’s how yoga prepared the soil for the HAES paradigm to grow:
Respect: After many years of showing up on my mat as both a student and a teacher, I’ve witnessed people of all shapes and sizes doing amazing things with their bodies. I’ve witnessed some of those things in my own body, too. Yoga has taught me to never look at someone’s body size and think I know what they can or can’t do… and to apply this wisdom to my own body as well.
For years I believed that the reason I couldn’t jump up with my legs together into handstand was because my hips were too big–of course this was a story I told myself about why I couldn’t do lots of things, from wearing a swimsuit to dancing. Then one afternoon I attended a handstand workshop where on the neighboring mat was a woman who was much larger than me. When we went to the wall to practice handstand, I was sure I’d be able to give her a commiserating smile as we both struggled to get our hips up over our shoulders. Instead, out of the corner of my eye I watched her gracefully and easily jump up into handstand with her legs together–hips lined up over her shoulders, arms strong and steady. Her hips didn’t stop her. Nothing was stopping her; she was doing it. I was ashamed to realize that I had made a wrong assumption about both of us… that I could prejudge what she (or I) could do based on body size. There were many reasons why I couldn’t jump into handstand that day (tiredness, maybe? or perhaps a self-defeating attitude?) but they had nothing to do with my pant size. And by internalizing this lesson for myself, since then I’ve helped many students overcome their own beliefs that their body size is what keeps them from doing any particular pose.
Compassionate Self-Care: “Be patient with yourself,” “Listen to your body. What does it want you to know?” and “You deserve love,” are just a few of the messages I’ve heard from my yoga teachers over the years. I can tell you–however hokey they might sound on paper or in your head–when you hear them as you move from a shaky-armed downward dog into resting your forehead to the floor in child’s pose, those phrases brush past the inner skeptic and straight into your heart. One of the biggest barriers to compassionate self-care is not believing that we deserve to be treated well, that we are worth slowing down for, and that we are entitled to our own loving attention. If we treat our yoga practice as self-care and our bodies experience it as enjoyable movement, hearing the message that we deserve to treat ourselves well reinforces the positive efforts we’re making by showing up in the yoga studio. Even if we mostly come for the nap pose at the end, savasana.
Plus, by slowing down, paying attention, and listening inside, we become more aware of our interoceptive internal sensations like stretching, breathing, heart rate, fatigue, and our hunger and fullness. I’ve found that being able to intentionally listen to and slow down my breathing while moving through a sun salutation and being able to pay attention to my body’s need to back off or move more deeply into a lunge, has helped me notice and separate out aspects of my hunger I was never sensitive to before. How hungry am I? What am I hungry for? How soon do I need to get something to eat? Yoga has also helped me tune into the fact that food is fuel for my twists and forward folds as well as for my life. Looking at my fingers spread wide on my mat, I know that this body deserves to receive all the food, movement, and love it needs.
Critical awareness: “Trust your body.” “Listen to your body.” My yoga teachers repeated these reminders long before I had any idea of what they meant. I knew they weren’t saying that my toes would one day start telling me stories about their long day. But I wasn’t sure how “listening” worked when it didn’t involve my ears and spoken language. Gradually I learned that listening also meant slowing down, sensing and feeling inside my body, noticing what it needs, what it enjoys, and what it avoids.
I learned that “pain” included a lot of sensations, some indicating healthy discomfort, and others serving as alarms to help me avoid injury. I learned that even though a trusted instructor told me a pose was “safe,” I had to listen to my body first. And if my body was saying, “Not today, and maybe never,” I needed to honor that inner voice above all the outer voices clamoring for my attention.
Along with pointing me in the direction of inner listening, my yoga teachers also gave me a generous dose of Buddhist stories and quotes. One of my favorites is that Buddha often reminded his students not to believe what he said about transforming suffering through mindfulness, but to try it out for themselves, emphasizing lived experience over doctrine. I found this reminder helpful when I decided to get rid of all my diet books and stop trusting fad diet experts about what food should and shouldn’t be on my plate, and instead place my body’s experience front and center in figuring out what, how much, and when to eat.
And once I’d appointed my body the expert witness of what was good for me, I found a vigorous skepticism stepped up to meet information that contradicted my body’s wisdom and that proposed undermining and disrespecting the body’s inherent sovereignty to be what it wants to be rather than what the world says it should be.
Good teachers, compassionate messages, and the honoring of the body as a source of tremendous wisdom primed me to hear the HAES philosophy and recognize its value and vitality. For clients and patients who are slowly warming up to the fundamental ideas of HAES, yoga may be a helpful support to their growing understanding what it means to listen and respond to the body’s messages.
Of course, if you’ve ever been to yoga class yourself, you know that results may vary (where have we heard that before?). Next post I’ll talk about some of the ways in which yoga still has a long ways to go to fully welcome a HAES approach.
Sixteen years ago Kimber Simpkins gave up being a lawyer and dove into the intensive study of yoga, with barely a glance back. Since then, yoga has brought more joy and delight to her life every day. A long-time Bay Area resident, she lives with the love of her life, son, dog, and cat in Oakland. Her new memoir, FULL, tells the story of how she recovered from anorexia and eased the emotional pain of her hunger through yoga and Buddhism. Visit Kimber at KimberYoga.com or follow her on Twitter @kimbersyoga.