The Freedom in Taking Up Space

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By Hannah Trowell, guest contributor

I have been struggling with taking up space since high school. Growing up in ballet, I always thought that my stomach should appear flat and engaged at all times. Having scoliosis and a booty, I was always told at the barre that I needed to tuck under, which made my muscles overdeveloped on one side and underdeveloped on the other (cue the chronic pain). Basically, I was instructed to be one perfect line without curves, devaluing my natural curvature. This hobby, plus the fact of being a woman in this world, has left me with a very misconstrued sense of what my body is supposed to look and feel like.

Over the past couple of years I have done most things you can think of: calorie counting, working out too much, drinking water when I’m hungry, trying to wake up late so it eliminates one meal, and CONSTANTLY thinking about food. When will the next meal be and how little I can eat and still be satiated? I know if I don’t eat then I will feel bloated, so what do I eat to make me feel just right? I continued this cycle of constantly worrying about what I put into my body 24/7. My brain was always pumping ideas of food and how consumption of food could make or break society’s “perfect body.”

I dabbled in (and stayed in) toxic relationships where I thought sex appeal and sexual interactions were what gave me value. I subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, thought I had to appear a certain way to please a man and be “worth” staying with. I contribute a large part of body dysmorphia to unhealthy relationships with men and society’s pressure on women to please men. I constantly have to remind myself in romantic relationships that I do not owe anyone anything and that my body is mine. Yet another way my sense of ownership of my body was stripped from me. Sadly, this is probably extremely relatable to most of you.

Now onto the yoga part of my story. Many of my toxic thoughts about food began while I was doing yoga. I started yoga because of a freak dance injury that left me unable to walk well for 2 months. I completely lost my outlet of movement and in turn, myself. I became very depressed after this injury and despised movement and dance.

Once the injury became better and better, I was offered an internship at a hometown yoga studio. The classes were mostly power flows, however, it was the first time I was introduced to movement not intended for others’ amusement, but for myself. I began to feel heat build throughout my body and my breath start to sync up with movement. This was the time that I started to take ownership of my body. No man or social constructs could tell me what to do with my body. Yoga was a huge stepping stone in my journey of self-love. Yet, I still couldn’t break from the cycle of constantly trying to get back to 17-year-old Hannah weight.

I spent last summer in NYC taking many dance classes, going to acting class, going to power yoga, and SoulCycle. Sometimes all in one day. I ended up in the ER. My throat was closed off most of the summer and I had to force myself to eat. I was in excruciating pain for about 2 weeks and of course, the doctors just said it was gastritis and I went on a PPI. I knew the whole time the constant anxiety and inability to consume food without guilt was likely the cause of my body attacking me. Once I came back to Florida and visited a nutritionist, I was able to eat normally again (kind of).

Gradually, I became more involved with school and fell out of touch with the asana of yoga. It was impossible to ignore the overpowering, toxic thoughts that I had towards my body. I re-introduced myself to yoga in gentle ways. I started journaling (my version of mindfulness), I started stretching and breathing for maybe 5 minutes a day, and I started cooking. I was trained in trauma-informed yoga and learned how common trauma is and how to speak to people kindly. The language I learned to use in these classes has assisted my growth in how I speak to myself. I remind myself that if I believe others should take modifications, listen to their body, and accept where they are in the present moment, so should I.

Additionally, I have to give props to my current partner for encouraging me to eat any and all food. Honestly, I eat a hell of a lot of food now. But it’s food that mainly comes from mine and loved ones hands. I don’t limit what I cook. I don’t make purposefully low calorie meals. I use a LOT of veggies. I used a LOT of olive oil and balsamic. I highly recommend establishing a healthy relationship with food by cooking and seeing how lovely food can taste.

The constant conversation between women for eating “bad” food or almost eating it, is so anxiety inducing. After eating a food deemed unhealthy there is almost a sense of obligation to “confess your sins” to a friend in hopes for validation that they “did it too.” The mantra in Body Mindful Yoga, by Jennifer Kreatsoulas and Robert Butera, teaches that all food is neutral. We should not label food as “good” or “bad,” there is just food that makes you feel pleasant and food that might make you feel icky.

Using the term “clean eating” implies that other foods are dirty and require guilt after eating. I strive to make these conversations transparent and call them out when they lean towards harmful interactions. It should be stated that there is a difference between allergies and choosing a fad diet. People ALWAYS have opinions about food. What to eat, what not to eat. It’s trendy to talk about what you’re not eating. But it’s destroying your mental health. If we want to form communities based on similarities and ways to relate to others, let’s find something positive to discuss and work towards.

Working towards one body ideal is absolutely impossible. We were built differently, we have different anatomy, some of us can put our legs behind our head, some cannot, but it’s SO beautiful. Watching how people’s shapes look different just based on their unique body is breathtaking. I LOVE reminding myself that we are all just exploring our bodies.

I did not even feel like I should be writing for a blog about eating disorders because I have never gone to an extreme to lose weight, but I want to normalize how real and miserable it is to constantly be obsessing over what is entering your body and working out to exhaustion. There is such difficulty in finding joy in one’s body, especially with social media. However, immense power floods the body in those brief moments you have where you take up all the space possible and you feel peace with who you are in the moment.

It is a daily battle to choose better mental health and less body pain. I love my breath. I love my body. I love when those two come together and bring peace in my soul. For me, hating my body disconnects the body and the breath. The held breath causes my vagus nerve to go crazy and the chronic stress promotes chronic pain, something I have dealt with on and off for years. I have been SO scared of my breath for so long for fear of not having a “picture perfect body,” but I can say with certainty that peace of mind is better than my idea of societal approval. It is more important to listen to your body than your brain. Intuitive and mindful listening are key.

I encourage you to openly discuss with your friends and family if a conversation about food, dieting, calorie-burning, etc. arises that makes you uncomfortable. Don’t live in silent anxiety, thinking it’s annoying to bring up your feelings on the topic of food. Most of us are thinking the same thing. Free yourself. You are not the enemy, don’t go to war with yourself. Take a trauma-informed yoga class, or at least restorative. Slow your pace. Know that it’s a process. Acknowledge that you may always think about food, but you can always strive to choose self-love over self-hate.

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Hannah Trowell is a recent graduate of Florida State University with a degree in Theatre. She holds her 200-Hour Teacher Training with Yoga Den. She is certified by Exhale to Inhale, a trauma-informed program in NYC. Her most recent training has been in Dancing Mindfulness, a trauma-informed dance practice that allows students to connect with their body rather than detach. Hannah hopes to fill her students with the power and ability to take up space with their breath and their bodies and to let their breath inform their practice. She offers suggestions as to how the sequencing can look, yet allows the student to decide what their body, mind, and soul need to be nourished that day. She is now residing in Atlanta, GA and is heading to Greece soon to attend an AcroYoga Teacher Training. She loves hiking, performing, learning, cooking with too much balsamic vinegar, and changing her life plans every two weeks. Follow her at ht_yogi on Instagram and hannahtrowellyoga.com.