As someone who's dealt with and continues to deal with disordered eating, most mainstream forms of exercise have come to be at odds with my mental and physical health. All the numbers and measurements of gym equipment, and fluorescent-lit rooms with mirrored walls are like an obstacle course for my self-confidence. Most of the time, quantifying anything in relation to my body — whether it's weight, mileage on a run, or intensity level on an elliptical — facilitates harmful thought patterns that have taken me years of introspective work to break.
My yoga practice began when I realized I could not keep running outside and going to the gym while maintaining my physical and mental health. I used to be big into running, but paired with an eating disorder, I damaged my bone density. Now, high-impact exercise leads to stress fractures in my legs and feet. And gyms are hazardous to my peace of mind. After years of struggling with all these factors, by 2015, during the spring of my freshman year, I stopped working out because I felt I had no good options.
A few months later, I felt incredibly lethargic in my body and needed a solution.
That's when a friend showed me “Yoga with Adriene,” a YouTube channel that changed my life. Adriene's videos walked me through the intricacies of basic yoga poses, and soon, I was able to follow along with her flow videos, all in the comfort of my own home. I did this all summer and into the fall of my sophomore year.
Adriene's videos were slow-paced and heavily focused on self-acceptance and personal well-being. She emphasizes adjusting poses according to one's own physical needs, not pushing yourself too hard and remembering it's a practice. You'll get where you want to be eventually. Adriene calls most poses by their sanskrit names, and she mentions elements of Hinduism in her videos — something about the third eye I don't quite understand, but about which I’ve been curious to learn more. She says "Namaste" at the end of every video, but I never said it along with her — again, I don’t really know what that word means outside of being a general greeting and a way to wish someone well. I know that much, but I don’t know why people say it when they’re finished doing yoga, specifically. Although I knew my yoga practice might be a form of cultural appropriation, I didn’t feel I was doing much harm because I did her videos alone in my house. It felt like I was the only person involved.
But after a while I found myself wanting more than Adriene's videos could offer me. I was pretty sure I was doing the poses correctly, but I wanted someone who knew more than me to tell me for sure. I decided to explore some free trial classes at different studios in Ann Arbor and encountered a whole new level of appropriation, a whole new kind of Americanized yoga compared to what Adriene taught.
Now, I’m very aware of my identity as a white affluent American suburban girl who now pays money to do Americanized yoga about three times per week. I know very little about the origins of yoga in the ancient Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, so I feel uneasy about the ways I may be appropriating a culture that isn’t mine — patching together pieces of it to benefit myself. But the stakes are high for me when it comes to physical exercise. Because of the way society has taught me to view my body, and because conventional forms of exercise have become hazardous to my health, I’ve turned to a practice I struggle with internally.
At the yoga studios I went to in Ann Arbor, I found a community of people with whom I shared some basic understandings about physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Most people I met seemed to value meditation, a relatively slow-paced approach to life, and a generally healthy lifestyle. However, the classes were too fast-paced for me and too many things we did were quantified by the instructors. I didn't have time in class to really feel my way into poses, and I hated counting breaths and straight up doing sit-ups in class. I did yoga to get away from the gym, but in some ways, I felt the yoga studios around here were the same thing — just with oil diffusers and better lighting.
To maintain my practice in a way that feels good for me — that is slower and incorporates less counting — I supplement my time in the studio with yoga I do on my own, in my apartment. And even though I get frustrated with my studio, when compared to running or going to the gym, going to class provides for me a respite from measurements and frees me from assessing my self-worth accordingly.
And it's not just about the eating disorder and body image stuff. Like a lot of students here, I'm really busy with schoolwork, extracurricular activities, my social life, and keeping in touch with my family back home. When everyday obligations build tension in me, I can smooth it out with yoga. Instead of running or going to the gym, where my anxieties are just replicated in the act of measuring my body and ramping up my heart rate, doing yoga is my foundation of inner peace.
I see the people, a lot of whom are students, in my yoga classes and I wonder if they feel the same. As students at the University, they likely have a lot of school work, maybe have a job, and are involved in at least one student org of some kind. Like so many undergrads on campus, they likely feel immense pressure to be "successful" in all of these endeavors. Maybe yoga, for them, too, is a way to find release, and I hope that they, too, feel just as uneasy about this Americanized version of what’s, for many people, a deeply religious, spiritual practice.
When I see people say "Namaste" at the end of class, bowing their heads "to the light that is in each of us," I don't know what any of them are thinking. I know that together all of us in the studio have just worked really hard to relax our bodies and ease our minds. The expressions on the faces that surround me show a kind of making peace with what has passed before class, and a kind of making peace with what's to lie ahead, outside the safe walls of the studio.
Still, I don't say "Namaste" at the end of class. It doesn’t feel quite right. And I don’t wear shirts that say things like “spiritual gangster,” a phrase that’s problematic on multiple levels. Can I say my yoga practice is justified because of the personal stakes at hand? I don't know. I also, unfortunately, don’t personally know a lot of people who practice yoga as a religious practice to know how my own practice may be affecting others negatively. While I’m in college with so many things going on, I don’t know how I’ll find a form of exercise that balances my mental health, physical health, and my personal standards of social responsibility. I guess for now my best option is to remain thoughtful about my habits, to keep questioning them, and to keep looking for better solutions.