Breathe In, Begin. Breathe Out, Again.
By Allyson Pesta, Guest Contributor
I run. I run faster. I run longer. I lift. I lift heavier. I lift harder. I jump. I jump higher. I jump intensely. I go. I go. I go. Rest is not for the strong. Rest is for the weak. I must do more. I am not enough. I am not fast enough. I try to run faster. I am not toned enough. I lift longer. I cannot jump high enough. I try to jump higher. I am not thin enough. I meticulously count every morsel before it enters my mouth. Too much – the food in my belly. Not enough – me just as I am.
Keep doing more, you aren’t thin enough yet. Keep doing more, you aren’t disciplined enough yet. Compare yourself to every person that passes and if they are “fitter” or “thinner” than you, then you are not doing enough. You must be more. You must be the best - the replay of thoughts over and over.
These thoughts, on replay, consumed my mind every day. There was no room for other thoughts, no time to have conversations with friends, no time to challenge my brain with things I once loved, like writing and singing and playing volleyball. I did not understand what love was anymore. I only knew how to exist as a skeleton consumed by thoughts that I was not enough and to punish my body for not being enough.
I thought that if I could control the physical aspects of my life down to a science, then I would be fulfilled. So I meticulously tracked every workout; I tracked every raspberry that touched my lips, every sweet potato I bit into, every rice protein “pancake” that entered my body. I had no control over what was occurring around me, yet if I could gain a sense of control over my body then I would be happy- then I would find joy. At least that’s what I believed - the lies my eating disorder told me.
I was controlled by the grip of my eating disorder starting at the age of 16. While nuances and factors of my eating disorder had certainly developed throughout adolescence, I did not start to develop more severe behaviors until I was 16. The first time I was hospitalized, with a dangerously low heart rate and a blood sugar level, was when I was 17, a soon to be senior in high school. Most seniors were dreaming of what colleges they would get into, all of the incredible “lasts” they would have with their best friends, the pranks they would pull, the final tastes of high school freedom. But for me there was no freedom. Instead, there were four white walls of a hospital room where I lay for 8 days. My body - depleted of nutrients, my brain - foregone of functioning neuro-pathways and my heart - shrunken physically and emotionally.
There are many details of my story that I have began to unpack overtime, attempting to understand all of the complexities that perpetuated my eating disorder. Those details are too much to share on this one post, yet I hope that I convey that an eating disorder is so much more than a mental illness where one “doesn’t want to eat,” or “works out too much.” It is more than just control or wanting to look a certain way. It is more than skin and bones and being “sick enough.” It is a state where your mind is consumed by something else, something that is so hard to control, consumed by thoughts from a deceitful place of unworthiness disguised as discipline and strength.
So how does yoga come into play in all of this?
After my first hospital stay the only form of movement I was allowed to engage in was yoga. I was so resistant to this idea. My mind began another train of thoughts: Yoga is not exercise. Yoga is for old people and those who are lazy. I won’t even sweat during yoga, so it is not even worth it. Yoga is stupid. Why would I do exercise where I am not pushing my body? How can I eat if I am only doing yoga? Yet after three months of no movement, as I attempted to re-feed my body, I figured that some movement was better than nothing.
The first yoga class I walked into was on a Sunday morning – an all levels yoga vinyasa flow taught by a lovely instructor, Jackie Quinn. I borrowed an extra mat that my mom had lying around the house and she came with me as I reluctantly agreed to go. The first moment in class, Jackie told us to breathe. I instantly thought this lady was crazy. Breathe? I know how to breathe. Why is she telling me how to breathe? And then we started moving our bodies in weird ways. I was so focused on whether my belly was flat enough in the yoga pants or how my thighs newly touched or if my body was as fit as others in the room. I don’t remember much else about the class, except that the resistance I started the class with had not left when the class ended. Instead it was more intense. I walked out of the class, swearing I would never do yoga again. “It’s just not for me,” I told my mom, frustrated.
Yet somehow the next week I went back. I don’t remember exactly why I went back, but I did. And the next week I went back and I continued to go back, again and again, throughout the weeks. I continued to move my body in this new, strange way. I felt parts of me engage, physically and emotionally, that I had never engaged before. I started to breathe more in this new way; a way that seemed to soothe my heightened senses and provide moments of peace and silence in my over-stimulated mind. I did not realize these benefits at the time and for the first year or so of my yoga practice, I mostly continued to go because of the physical benefits. I felt challenged in new ways that I hadn’t felt challenged in running or lifting and it helped my body feel stronger when I did run or lift. But over time the physical benefits began to shift. I did not crave to go to my mat only to feel sweat drip down my face, but instead to feel my heart light up in ways that still seemed foreign to me.
For so long I only knew exercise and movement to be a form of punishment. Practically for my entire life, running and lifting and jumping were ways to change my body because it was not good enough as it was. Conditioning was a form of punishment done in sports I played, like volleyball, when we weren’t playing well enough or when we messed up. I did not understand how exercise could be a form of self-care and self-love. I still did not even know what those two phrases, “self-care” and “self-love” meant for me. Yet when I continued to come back to my mat, small shifts continued to happen. I noticed that the constant replay of eating disorder thoughts began shifting slightly- they weren’t as loud, they weren’t as frequent. Instead, thoughts of messages I heard in class began to interrupt the thoughts that I was never doing enough. I began to gain small glimpses of what “self-love” could possibly look like.
This process of understanding self-acceptance, self-love and gaining the tools that my practice has given me was not overnight, nor was it linear. I went back to the hospital in May of my senior year and took a semester off of school during my freshman year of college. However, each time I took a few steps back, I was still further ahead then I was before. Because these times I had my breath. I had my practice.
And practice. That’s all that this life really is. Each and every day we are practicing - practicing self-love. Practicing self-care. Practicing listening authentically and honestly to ourselves and others. Practicing understanding - understanding our body cues, our needs that day. Practicing non-judgment. Practicing resiliency. Choosing each day and each moment to practice life in a way that is self-serving.
My own practice has empowered me to become a certified yoga teacher and share this gift with others. I am fortunate to say that I have been in a place of recovery for almost four years now and I owe so much of my recovery to the empowering people who support me, inspire me and love me just as I am. I owe so much to my therapists, counselors and doctors who pushed me to places I did not think I could go. I owe so much to my teachers - professionally, personally, on and off the mat - who help me to see life from so many eyes. And most importantly, I owe much of my recovery to my breath - my breath that I learned to cultivate during that first Sunday class and I continue to return to day in and day out- sustaining me, empowering me, reminding me that I am enough - I am whole - just as I am. I deserve self-love and acceptance. And that I always have the power to begin again.
Allyson Pesta is a 23-year old friend, daughter, partner, teacher, learner and mover. She is the founder of allyraeyoga and seeks to use mindfulness, yoga and meditation to empower others on a journey of self-love and self-acceptance. Her passion is working with adolescents to develop resiliency tools and healthy coping mechanisms in order to prevent and address mental health issues in key developmental life stages. She lives her life through these three phrases: Rooted in wonder. Empowered by love. Resilient through breath. She craves connection and would love to connect with any and all individuals through her website allyraeyoga.com or on instagram @allyraeyoga.