Guest post by Christie Baumgartner

Christie Baumgartner (via Yyoga.ca)

I have spent the last five years living in the beautiful city of Vancouver, B.C. As a full-time yoga teacher, I am surrounded by health-conscious, open-minded people who have a regular yoga practice on a daily basis. Every day I see people making healthy food choices at Whole Foods, cycling to and from work, jogging, walking, and working out any way you can imagine. The picture seems perfect, yet every now and again I am reminded of the obsessions we all can have with our bodies.

I hear comments like, “What’s the best yoga to lose weight?”, “My inversions were a lot better when I was five pounds lighter,” “Will I be that skinny if I only practice yoga?” and the classic comments that surround staring at yourself in the mirror while you’re in a yoga pose.

It’s refreshing to see people live a healthy and conscious lifestyle, but when is it too much? Optimal health is about balance, and anything that is driven from obsession is out of balance.

As I am writing this, I am back in Ontario in the city I grew up in. A blue-collar, automotive town, known as Windsor. Here, there seems to be the opposite outlook on health. There are always exceptions, of course, but the general vibe here is that if walking somewhere requires more than five minutes of your time, then you drive. Every McDonalds has a line-up after 5:00pm, and the word ‘organic’ causes some eyebrow-shifting. So when it comes to health and body image, what is better… obsession or aversion?

Finding the balance between healthy habit and dangerous obsession

My familiarity with obsession dates back to a young age. Before I ever stepped into a yoga studio, I dedicated the majority of my time to dance. From the age of ten, I spent most of my evenings at the dance studio, and in high school, I even went before school began in the mornings. In my small town, the dance culture was supportive, as far as I knew. I had the privelage of training with two incredibly nurturing mentors who felt like family. It wasn’t until I left Windsor and stepped into the real world of competitive dance that I felt I was not good enough, small enough or fierce enough for anyone.

I will never forget the summer dance intensive I pursued following 12th grade. The head of the ballet program told a friend that if she wanted to be a dancer she would have to lose weight from “here to here” (pointing from her wrist to her elbow). At the time, we were able to laugh at the ridiculousness of that comment. We also overheard her yelling at the kitchen staff for serving us bread for sandwiches at lunch. “Do you think I want fat ballerinas?!” This summer was the beginning of the rude awakening that would carry on into my dance degree at Ryerson University.

“…because you are not at the most extreme level of illness as some of those around you, you can be in denial that it is even affecting you.”

During those four years, I saw it all. Everything from the quite obvious deterioration of the body that lead to dismissal from the program, to the more subtle signs of illness, like masking the issue by packing full lunches and doing the classic ‘food sharing’ with all 23 classmates. The saddest thing about being surrounded by body image awareness constantly is that because you are not at the most extreme level of illness as some of those around you, you can be in denial that it is even affecting you. I remember nights when I would come home after rehearsal and decide that I should probably just have vegetables for dinner that night. Or that I should hit the gym after two dance classes already that day, just because some of my other classmates were doing it and I didn’t want to feel “lazy.”

Struggling with identity

After a childhood of loving the art of dance, I think back to my later years as a dancer and it makes me sad. How did I become so bitter towards a means of expression that meant everything to me during my youth? I struggled after Ryerson with my identity. I had been a ‘dancer’ my entire life. My obsession with looking the part, acting the part and pushing myself to look good for everyone other than myself, caused me to forget my other gifts, and what really made me happy.

It wasn’t until I really found my yoga practice that I started to get it. I finally understood how all the fuss we create through the media and by pressuring each other to look good is simply a mask for what’s going on inside. And that’s where it started, from that actualization, the slow and continuing breakdown of my outer shell…getting to the core.

Compassion, compassion, compassion.

“You can’t love anybody without loving yourself first.” These are words to live by.

When I left Ryerson, I was not a loving person, although I thought I was. I moved to Vancouver, was dumped by my boyfriend, and found myself living with a roommate from hell that I found on Craigslist. The only person to blame was me. I was not conscious of who I was being in every moment because I was too busy trying to identify to someone who felt lost without her long-time title of “Christie the dancer.” It was an image I had created while committing suicide to Christie the friend, daughter, artist, comedian, communicator and listener.

The breakdown-breakthrough

It was from my breakdown-breakthrough process on my mat that I realized there was a multi-dimensional spirit underneath a shell with a decade of dance training. From this self-actualization, I felt the need to share this experience through teaching yoga and empowering other people to see their gifts, to create change by treating each other with love and compassion, and before any of this, to be compassionate with yourself. There was literally a lot of sweat and tears along the way, and it is still an ongoing process with every heartache and heartbreak.

When I see people struggling with body issues, I get it. There’s a part of me that goes right back to that 18 year old girl who feels guilty for liking sandwiches, who just wants her teacher to like her and think she’s worth something. Then another part of me says THANK &$#!ing GOD I know I am worth it, and can eat a sandwich today and feel good about it! I’m grateful that I feel strong and capable in a slightly larger, more muscular version of myself than the tiny dancer-esque body I so sacredly held onto five years ago. Grateful that I know I love myself with all my quirks and imperfections and that this breakthrough has provided me with an incredible group of friends and mentors who I can listen to and REALLY hear. And so thankful that I am able to wake up every morning and feel blessed for the community I am surrounded by daily that my yoga practice has lead me to.

How do we find middle-ground?

So back to the question at hand: obsession or aversion? How do we find middle-ground? When it comes to eating, and most other things really, I think it is fair to say ‘everything in moderation’. When it comes to how we digest things — literally and figuratively — our energy and attitude determine how things will ‘go down.’

If you eat an ice cream cone and you feel guilty with every bite, you are going to put your body through more stress than it’s worth in the process. But if you really love ice cream and you enjoy the experience of eating it in moderation, I don’t think it will kill you. I think the same thing applies to any sort of physical activity. If you go to a yoga class and punish yourself afterwards because you couldn’t do as many backbends as you could last week, then you are stressing your mental state and losing the entire benefit of the practice. It all comes back to that word: compassion.

“You will never be more beautiful, radiant or loved than you are right now.”

You can’t expect anything good to happen overnight. Every shift or choice to move forward starts with self-awareness. Small steps. Make time and space to do things that make you feel really good. Even if that means eating an ice cream cone (as long as you don’t feel guilty). Stay aware of your surroundings. Are you choosing to be with people who empower you, or who easily judge?

You will never be more beautiful, radiant or loved than you are right now. Practice loving yourself and notice what you will start to attract. You can create anything… it’s true!

Last summer I was walking over the Burrard Bridge talking on the phone with my dad and he gave me some advice that I think of often when I doubt myself:

“Be careful what you wish before, because if you focus your energy on it enough, it will come true.”