Mental Health Awareness Week 13th – 19th May 2019

Mental Health Awareness Week for 2019 has the theme of Body Image – how we think and feel about our bodies.

Their website (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week) defines this as;

‘Body image’ is a term that can be used to describe how we think and feel about our bodies. Our thoughts and feelings about our bodies can impact us throughout our lives, affecting, more generally, the way we feel about ourselves and our mental health and wellbeing.

Body image concern itself is a relatively common thing to experience and is not in itself a mental health issue. However, it can be a contributing factor to mental health problems.

Whereas body satisfaction has been linked to better overall wellbeing and eating habits.

We live in a society that has become more and more fixated with the outwards image of the body. Social Media is awash with picture of people with what some people would view as the “perfect” body and lifestyle. Social Media has made so many people use their social media accounts as if they are celebrities and in doing so sharing edited highlights of their lives in an attempt to show the world that their life is perfect. Social Media is completely fixated with the external, both image wise and also in engaging with the external world, trying to obtain followers and get “likes”.

How does Yoga help us navigate our way through all of this?

As we have said many times in our yoga classes, Yoga is a work in not a work out. Yoga is about internalising our awareness via breath work, posture practice and relaxation / meditation. In doing so we realise that our true self is not our physical body, our true self is not the chatter of our minds. Our true self is deeper again and is the quiet place beyond the chatter of our mind, a place where we can find contentment, acceptance and calmness.

The Pancha Maya Kosha model detailed in the Upanishads sets out a model of the true self being encased in 5 wrappings that prevent us seeing through to the self. The outer most layer is the physical body and people can be stuck here and fixated with their physical ability and / or appearance. This philosophical model tells us that whilst we are stuck in the physical we will not progress to reveal the true self and the peace / calmness that comes with it. We are much more than our reflection in a mirror, an obsession with the reflection prevents us from seeing through the mirror to the deeper layers of ourselves.

Some factors that impact how you relate to your own body image are your family, peer group, pressure to look a certain way and social media. From a personal perspective, as someone who has worn glasses from an early age, I was quite self conscious of my glasses which is only natural. However, people said to me on a number of occasions, when I was in my teens, if I took my glasses off, “Oh you are handsome without your glasses on.” The inference that I made here is that I was obviously not handsome with my glasses on! This is something that certainly affected my confidence somewhat. However, with positive role models wearing glasses in music and the media as I grew older I embraced my glasses and enjoyed wearing them!

Scruffy mod circa 1997

Another personal experience growing up was that I loved sixties music and mod culture. I bought (and still own!) vintage scooters, a parka and desert boots. Once I had decided I was a mod then there was self inflicted pressure to conform to a certain style and look. However, I’ve always been a little on the scruffy side so it probably wasn’t the ideal thing to get into! When attending scooter rallies and mod nights I felt like I didn’t fit in because I was not quite so fastidious with how I looked. It is interesting to reflect how we strive to fit in when we are younger, trying to find the hobbies or groups that we can relate to and identify with. Body image is intrinsic to this idea of fitting in and how we portray ourselves to the outside world.

The health and fitness industry is probably one of the biggest purveyors of images of the “ideal” body, second only to the fashion industry. Magazines and social media are full of pictures of men and women with bodies that require an unhealthy addiction to the gym and the taking of ridiculous amounts of supplements. Pictures of people with six packs abs and veiny muscles don’t explain that the models are mostly in dehydrated states in order to look “optimal” for the photo shoots. The yoga world is the same, often using pictures of people with extreme hyper-flexibility or natural gymnasts as their pin-ups. This puts many people off yoga – how often we hear “I can’t do yoga I’m not flexible enough”! It also encourages some yoga practitioners to push themselves too far and to try to achieve ranges of motion that are far outside that which is normal and some would argue, healthy.

My own personal experience through Yoga has been to find a much happier relationship with my own personal body image. Yoga allows us to turn our attention inwards and to let go of our self-critic which drives negative body image. When we practice mindfully we obtain greater body awareness, listening to our own bodies, accepting all of our limitations and abilities in the same way. We can come to realise that the life force / essence of the self that it within you is the same as that which is within others. We learn that we are ok just as we are. With this acceptance we often find that we then make healthier decisions for ourselves and appreciate our bodies more, gaining a healthy relationship with your own body image.

Namaste – Paul