Chapter Twenty-One: Will Yoga Fix Me?
My relationship with yoga has been a lot of things throughout the 16 years that I’ve been practicing on and off. Complicated. Unhealthy. Obsessive. Desperate. Healing. Freeing. I started practicing yoga in college for two reasons: classes were free and I had started passing out at the gym. Not because of some mystifying medical condition. Because I wasn’t eating very much, if at all.
The freedom and anonymity of college life allowed me to commit to anorexia and exercise bulimia in a way I’d never been able to before. No family meals, no late night binges at friends houses, and no restaurant trips with family and friends meant that I could eat as little as I wanted without anyone really noticing. So, I was eating less than I ever had.
It honestly didn’t occur to me that this would impact my workouts. I’d dragged myself through treadmill runs and strength workouts on an empty stomach plenty of times before. But I had no experience with chronic starvation before college. In high school, I was always forced to eat at some point, to keep appearances up of course. So, even though I was in a major caloric deficit most of the time, my body could still endure the exercise I demanded it perform.
That stopped being the case when I stopped eating for days at a time. Or carefully counted the number of saltines I ate, making sure to never eat a crumb more.
The first time I passed out at the gym I was on a weight machine, thankfully completely supported. It was a quick blackout. A few seconds later I came to, took some deep breaths, cleaned my machine and left, puzzled. The next time, I was on an exercise bike. Again, a quick fade to black, an abrupt return to consciousness, and a hurried departure from the gym.
I tried to convince myself that it was no big deal, that I didn’t need to eat more or workout less. But one thought plagued me: what if that happened while I was on the elliptical? Or worse, the treadmill.
I knew I needed to do something to stop the blackouts from happening, but I was unwilling to eat more or miss a workout. So, I set out to find a “low impact” workout I could do on my lowest calorie days.
Yoga seemed like a perfect option. It was basically stretching, right? And if I passed out, I’d already be on the floor, right? I worried that the calorie burn from yoga would be insufficient to maintain my weight loss goals, but I knew I needed to try something different. So, I signed up for my first yoga class.
To me, yoga was solely a workout. It was a means to an end — a way to maintain my lowest calorie days and not miss a workout. I was not seeking out yoga as a spiritual practice.
To be honest, I’m not even sure I knew that yoga was a spiritual practice. I certainly didn’t know that I’d be expected to meditate at the beginning and end of class. I almost didn’t come back after my first class because the meditation was so unbearable. I did everything I could to prevent being alone with my mind. As I sat there during the opening meditation and lay there during savasana, my mind moved so fast I could barely keep up. And the cruel whispers came back so clear that I wanted to jump up and run. It took everything in me to stay still during these torturous meditations. I really only did so because I was scared what people would think if I got up and left.
The only reason I kept coming back to yoga was that it fulfilled the need I’d identified. I didn’t pass out during yoga. I could safely move my body when I was completely empty. I didn’t have to adjust my intake or miss a workout.
Eventually, I got interventioned by my college roommates. I agreed to go to the campus health center and get treatment for my anorexia. Unfortunately, I’d been playing the “manipulate your therapist” game for years. I followed the food plan like I was supposed to. I kept the food diary like I was supposed to, with some creative bookkeeping of course. I gave an Oscar level performance about the insight I gained. And I “graduated” therapy. I continued to eat because my roommates were watching, but I also continued to count calories, exercise obsessively, and weigh myself daily.
Since I was actually eating, passing out at the gym wasn’t a concern anymore. So, I headed back to my beloved cardio and weight machines, abandoning yoga almost completely. I went back every once in a while, because I really did like the movements and the poses. But yoga wasn’t a regular part of my life anymore. It’s purpose in my life had been removed.
Over the next decade, I returned to yoga every so often, when I felt like it was going to solve a problem I was having. I took a six week Intro to Ashtanga course in my early twenties when my life was particularly chaotic. I thought a daily yoga practice would bring some order to the chaos. I bought monthly studio memberships every time my drinking and drugging got out of control and I wanted to turn my life around. The healing power of yoga had seeped into my addicted, obsessive brain somehow, and I was convinced that yoga would fix my broken brain and spirit. Unfortunately, I didn’t yet understand that the healing power of yoga is unlocked through engaging with it as a spiritual practice, not a movement practice.
So, I showed up for yoga classes periodically, chasing the better life yoga seemed to promise without any intention of doing anything other than asana and the small bits of pranayama included in class. I always stopped going when I felt like yoga wasn’t fulfilling its promise.
I had no idea that the real reason yoga wasn’t working for me was that I wasn’t actually practicing yoga.