By Nicole Schnackenberg
What you seek is seeking you – Rumi
Each of us have shadows, the parts of ourselves we hide away from the rest of the world. The more of our true nature, our true Self, we relinquish to these shadows the more a false self can come to the fore.
As times ticks inexorably on, with weeks turning to months and months to years, we may come to lose touch with our true Selves almost entirely. We may forget what we are passionate about, what we love to do and be. We may forget who we authentically are. This ‘forgetting’ of the true Self is perhaps nowhere quite so obvious as in food and body image struggle. In battles like eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder, a person commonly comes to tangle their identity up with their physical appearance, believing that the appearance of their body is their identity. As the anorexic starves their body, or the person with body dysmorphic disorder spends yet another hour in front of the mirror, the true Self is pushed further and further into the shadows. People struggling with food and body image issues often describe the sense that they are losing touch with their personality and their desires. They no longer know what moves and delights them. They no longer know who they are.
People with these issues often completely cut themselves off from their emotions. They can become painfully disconnected from their bodies, ignoring the lived sensations of emotions, hunger signals and other inwardly felt sensations such as tiredness or malaise. In short, people with food and body image issues typically have poor interoceptive awareness, which describes the sense we have of our bodies from the inside. Yoga and meditation can be so beneficial for people with these issues because they can both provide a lived sense of the body and also an experiencing of the Self beyond the physical appearance.
Yoga postures (asana) are the practice of yoking and binding the movement to the breath, but the wider practice of the eight limbs of yoga is to bring unity to the body, mind and spirit. Through mindful movement, connected to the breath, yoga asana can bring us back into a lived sense of our bodies, thus putting us back in touch with the Self beyond this body, our true Self.
A particularly useful meditative practice for food and body image struggles is Self-Enquiry, as developed by Ramana Maharshi. In this meditation, full attention is brought to the inner awareness of ‘I’, within which awareness the sense of a separate ‘I’ dissolves. Through my personal practice of Self-Enquiry, I came to a deep experience of having a mind but not being the mind, and having a body but not being the body. I dropped into a lucid experience of being the awareness behind my body and mind, which enabled me to stop identifying with the physical appearance of my body; since this body was not me anyway!
Experiencing the dissolution of ‘I’ in this way enabled me to begin again to love and take care of my body after years of anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder. I now view my body purely as a tool for awareness to experience itself. I have further fostered this awareness and connection to my body through yoga, which has also helped me to twist, stretch and breathe through past traumas and release the anguished memories and emotions stored within the tissues of my body for so many years.
Food and body image issues are on the increase in Western society with untold numbers of us believing that we must be thin and beautiful, or muscular and handsome, in order to be loved. The truth of the matter, of course, is that we are love and that we are worthy and wonderful, just as we are. Yoga and meditation can be two beautiful avenues for realising that.
Nicole Schnackenberg is a psychotherapist and therapeutic yoga practitioner. She currently divides her time between her doctoral studies in child psychology at the Tavistock Centre, her role as a therapeutic yoga practitioner at Special Yoga Foundation, and her position as a trustee of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation. She has authored a book on transpersonal modes of healing for appearance-focused identity struggles and co-facilitates the UK’s first ‘Eat Breathe Thrive’ yoga programme for food and body image issues in Putney, London.
Nicole’s book False Bodies, True Selves: Moving Beyond Appearance-Focused Identity Struggles and Returning to the True Self is available for purchase via Amazon and Karnac.