When old stories resurface

My best friend is a psychotherapist. She says the pandemic is a catalyzer. All of our old issues are ferreted out. Even if they haven’t surfaced in years and we thought we were over them, here they are breaking through the wall again.

I’ve had negative body image issues since I entered puberty. But paradoxically, two pregnancies and having children put my obsession with being slim into perspective. I thought I had learned to be comfortable in my own skin and accept myself as I am.

A couple of months ago, I suddenly found myself on a slippery slope. Old narratives of negative body image reemerged. My thoughts kept going in circles. Over and over I was retracing my nutritional steps: What had I been eating the past couple of months? How had I gained weight? How come these pants felt so tight? Had I been exercising less? Should I do a water fast?

Photo credit: Paola Chaaya

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. Social and physical isolation and the uncertainty of when we’ll go back to normal, have left many of us feeling powerless and vulnerable.

When faced with incertitude, the human impulse is to regain control. For some, that’s controlling the one thing that they can, like their weight. For me too, it’s obsessing over being willowy and fitting into my jeans. After six years of recovery, here I was again, panicking over a few extra pounds and unable to snap out of it.

Getting out of my head

After weeks of thinking the same self-abasing thoughts, I finally came to. I remembered that I’m not powerless. I have been researching and writing about yoga tools that can help recovering addicts for years. I knew that they were effective in interrupting my downward spiral, even if technically negative body image and eating disorders don’t count as addictions. (The 2013 edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5 classifies Anorexia Nervosa under the Feeding and Eating Disorders).

I made a deal with myself: Whenever a negative thought about my body would cross my mind, I would silently recite a short Kundalini mantra. Just one round, wherever I was. Mantra literally means to sever (“tra”) the mind (“manas”) — to cut through the train of thought.

After only one day of reciting the mantra — one whispered round takes only seven seconds — I felt that I was gaining purchase on the slippery ground. After a couple of days I drew a sigh of relief, my thoughts were no longer revolving around how to lose weight quickly. After two months I still recite the mantra for a few minutes, first thing in the morning. On bad days, I try to catch myself and redirect my thoughts to the mantra.

I had allowed myself to be lulled into a sense of security. I may never be completely free of my negative body image. But luckily, I won’t have to go without my trusted helpers either.

Five simple tools

It doesn’t have to be a mantra if that’s not your thing. But if this global pandemic is getting to you and you feel at the mercy of an old narrative, here are five tools that I find helpful. Most of them take only a few minutes and make a big difference.

Image for post
Photo credit: Matias Titan
  • Swaying with the wind of change: stand in Mountain Pose, feet hip-distance apart, arms relaxed at your sides. Place your hands on your lower abdomen, one over the other. Close your eyes and sway forward onto the balls of the feet without lifting your heels. Sway backward onto the heels, without lifting your toes. Do this a few times, before you spread the weight evenly on the front and back of the foot. Find your center again.
    Open your eyes and remember that the wind won’t knock you down.
  • Personal mantra: Choose a personal mantra, ideally something in reply to your negative thoughts: “I’m strong and resilient”, “the universe has my back” or “I have what it takes to get through this.” Make sure you don’t use any negatives in your mantra, such as “I’m not alone,” or “I won’t judge myself.” Replace that with “I’m fully supported” or “I’m perfectly lovable the way I am.”
    Whenever a negative thought crosses your mind, recite the mantra silently or out loud. Write the mantra on your bathroom mirror or on your fridge to remind yourself.
  • Breathe through it: Ideally while lying down, but this also works from a seated or standing position, place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart space. Deepen your breath so that you feel the expansion under your hands when you inhale. Sense the sinking of your breastbone and belly as you exhale. If it feels safe, close your eyes. Five conscious breaths can calm down overwrought nervous system.
  • Let it out: Inhale fully. As you exhale, stick out your tongue, look up towards your forehead and hiss or roar like a feral animal. Do this three to five times as an outlet for pent-up energy.
  • The universe has your back: Lie down on your back, hands on the belly or arms relaxed by your sides. Feel the ground beneath you. Let the earth carry you, you don’t have to do it alone. Relax into the support, you can’t fall down from here. Stay here and breathe for at least five, better eight to ten minutes. See what happens.

It’s better to do one thing consistently, than trying to do everything and give up after a week. Repetition is the key if you want to create new pathways for your thoughts. Plus, a new positive habit will override the old destructive one. If you stick to one ritual, no matter how small, you will see tangible changes in your life, sometimes sooner than you think.

If you want to know more about yoga tools for recovering addicts feel free to get in touch with me.