Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Answers to Questions Regarding Yoga and Body Image

As I was saying yesterday, "Anonymous" posed some interesting questions that I would like to try to answer, regarding yoga and body image.

Like Anonymous, I agree that yoga is a body positive excersise that teaches us to appreciate whatever body it is that we have, big or small, old or young. I would take it a step further and say that yoga can even teach us to appreaciate a body that has failed us in some way or another, through injury or illness.

But that is not to say that if our body fails us by getting injured or ill, that we should simply accept it and do nothing about it. If one tears their knee cartilage, should they accept that? Or should they have surgery to repair it and hopefully go on with whatever it was they were doing before? Likewise, if our body becomes ill, we aren't going to accept that without a fight, and sometimes the fight leads to disfigurement. Sometimes that disfigurement can be accepted, but sometimes it need not be.

In my case, when diagnosed with breast cancer, I began a battle against my body. "Cut them off!" was my first battle cry, as coldly as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, screaming at her henchmen to "cut off their heads!" Then it was "blast that mother-f-cker with all the chemo you've got." Then radiation burned it all to the ground. And if that wasn't enough, I went to war with the hormones in my body, removing my ovaries, eliminating the source of estrogen, which had been feeding my tumors. I was left physically scarred, which was pretty much unavoidable, and emotionally scarred, which was pretty much unavoidable too...except there was something I could do to help myself feel better....and that was yoga. I discovered yoga as a daily practice (as opposed to an occasional stretch) because nothing that I had done to stay fit before the breast cancer felt right anymore. I was desperate for something that would allow me to move my body that wouldn't leave me feeling MORE angry and MORE stressed out (unlike, say, running, or kick-boxing, which left me feeling agitated).

I went to a Bikram yoga class on the suggestion of my sister-in-law and yoga-accomplice, Jill. At Bikram there were mirrors, which was often terribly painful for me. It forced me to confront my hairless head, to have to look at my bloated body and to sit still with myself for 90 minutes. But what happened during those 90 minutes of "moving meditation" was that I began to regard my body as something other than a mortal enemy, something that had betrayed me and mocked me in the mirror. I began to regard my body as amazingly functional. I began to gravitate toward the postures that I found the most difficult because those presented me with the chance to focus on my body as a working machine, a tool for focus.

But that can't be the entire picture, right?...because I did have plastic surgery, which would seem to indicate some basic lack of acceptance of my body as it is. The thing is, it may not be so clear-cut as all that. At the time of my double-mastectomy, I was encouraged to have reconstructive surgery - my very first plastic surgery. I was told that studies indicated that women who had reconstructive surgery tend to do better mentally AND physically than women who don't. That made sense to me, and in any even, I never for one second considered having my breasts removed without replacing them with new ones.

But once you go down that first step toward remaking yourself physically, you start to realize that you are on a slippery slope. Reconstruction is not a one-shot deal. In many cases it involves a tummy-tuck, for example, as a source of new breast tissue. In my case, my tummy did not have enough fat to create even one breast, let alone two, so I opted for tear-drop-shaped saline implants (silicone was not an option back then - three years ago this month) that would be gradually inflated with saline over a period of months. What that meant was repeat trips to Dr. Ascherman to add more saline, and then when I grew unhappy with having these large fake breasts, to remove saline. And it meant scar revision, to eliminate excess flaps of skin at the scarline. And a couple of other surgeries that I am not entirely comfortable describing here right now. But trust me, my plastic surgeon became a near constant companion in the years following my breast cancer diagnosis, whether I wanted him to or not.

And then the slippery slope began to call out to me. My treatments for breast cancer had left me with excess fat around my middle. Why shouldn't my "reconstruction" address that as well? How was this any different from getting surgery for torn cartilage, I thought to myself.

It was an easy choice to opt for liposuction, and that is what I did. The only problem was that my treatments for breast cancer had also left me in menopause, which meant that the collagen in my skin was deteriorating on a rapid basis, leading to a lack of elasticity in my skin and a general trend toward sagging - especially in places that had been stretched out in the past (like my abdomen, from two pregnancies). So, a year after my liposuction, my belly was fairly skinny. But the skin hung away from the muscles like the folds of an accordian. And I felt like I had the body of a 90-year old woman instead of the body of a thirty-something woman.

Why should I have to deal with that? I know that I could have "accepted" it. I know that yoga helped me to live with it as long as I did. But when I knew that there were options - options that I ironically could have taken at the outset (tummy tuck) had I been in WORSE physical shape than I was when I was diagnosed - I realized that making that next step - having the excess skin removed, having my ripped-apart stomach muscles repaired - it simply wasn't the huge step that one who was not in my shoes might have felt that it was.

Anonymous posed the question "Why did you give into societal pressures that force women to think they have to have the bodies of 20 yearold fashion models?" My answer is that I wasn't giving into societal pressures at all. I was simply trying to get back to where I was before I was diagnosed with cancer. It is one thing to accept an aging body. It is another thing to ask myself to accept that ILLNESS has caused my belly to age prematurely and that I have to live with it when really, I didn't have to live with it at all!

Anonymous also pointed out that "Most women are naturally curvy anyway and dont have flat stomachs." Agreed. In my case, menopause had taken AWAY my natural curves - padding out the areas around my waist and wittling down my hips. My surgery gave me back a more curvy appearance, like a woman of my own age.

Anonymous asked:"Why would you subject yourself to such a painful surgery that u really didnt need?" Because it isn't painful to me - it is NOTHING compared to the other stuff I have been through, physically and emotionally. So, the question actually presumes a fact that isn't true - it wasn't really a painful surgery at all, relatively speaking. It was just par for the course in getting back to where I was before I got diagnosed with a disgusting disease. Just like getting cartilage repaired is par for the course in coming back to running or skiing, etc.

Anonymous also said "Personally it just seems so contrary to what i thought yoga is supposed to be about. I just don't get it. It would be upsetting to me to have a yoga teacher that would go under the knife to change something that i thought can be changed with a steady yoga practice, or am i just fooling myself? (Is this a common yoga teacher practice?Also aren't you worried about the post op problems one can have from having such a procedure?) If i was your student i personally would feel kind of duped.."

The thing amount of steady yoga practice could have repaired my damaged stomach muscles or brought collagen back to my skin to eliminate sagging around my middle. A steady yoga practice like mine only served to highlight the problems. The more fit my muscles got, the more saggy my skin appeared. I realize that there are students of mine who might be upset by my willingness to undergo plastic surgery. But those students are probably the same students who would tend to be upset about my having had breast cancer and not come to my classes as a result. The two are inextricably intertwined. I know in my heart that there are students who are uncomfortable with what I represent - a young woman who was fit and healthy and still got a dreadful disease. I know that there are students who are SUPER-comfortable with me for exactly the same reason. I can't please everyone. But I can be honest and hope that I can reach someone, from exactly the vantage point of who I am and what I believe.

I hope I answered your questions....



Susan said...

I think you are amazing.

vivage said...

chitta-vritti-nirodha; the cessation of mental fluctuations seems to be the underlying question by Anon. Punctuated by Anon's disappointment of a yoga teacher having fluxations.

I'd assert that if one were to lose their 2 front teeth due to an accident one would have great fluxations of the mind. The question is would Anon cosmetically improve their looks by cosmetic dentistry?

We don't need our 2 two front teeth, sure it's easier to eat some foods but in terms of absolute need? Nah, we can get along without them.

Would yoga improve the situation? Asana practice - no. Meditation practices? Yes, that might help accept the changes although how many people do we know who'd truly be able to meditate the fluxations of being toothless in a western society?

The facets of the improvement are similar, but the acceptance of the improvement are not. Statistically speaking I'd say Anon wouldn't give a second thought to someone who improved their looks by cosmetic dentistry. No disappointment over a perceived yoga leader taking this path to lessen the fluxations of the mind.

These comments are not meant to justify our reasons for cosmetic surgury but to ask why the judgement of the different ways we choose to lessen the fluxations are deemed measurements of a person.

Anonymous said...

I believe in cosmetic surgery as long as we know that it will never change what we look like on the inside. We are still the same person we were before we change our looks - it won't change your life, who you are, what your future will be, where you came from, what people think of us, etc. (you get the point).

Jill (sister-in-law)

jennasuz said...

Beautifully put, Lauren. Bravo. While I'm on the "no plastic surgery please" side, it's only for myself "as-is", and my viewpoint would certainly change in an instant if I were in any of the situations you have faced so bravely. I'm sorry you had to justify and defend yourself against another's judgements.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lauren,

Thanks for clarifying your position.
Please ( and this includes everyone) understand though that I was not at all criticizing your choice. Your breast reconstrunction surgery was totally understandable to me, i would have probably done the same thing if presented with the same situation myself. The tummy tuck mystified me a little because in a previous posts you spoke of wanting to lose a few pounds so that you could have an easier time trying to do some of the binding poses in ashtanga. I thought that perhaps you were going through with the dreadful surgery for that reason, among some others.

In response to others:
Please don't be mean spirited.I'm in no way judging Lauren. I was not saying all cosmetic/plastic surgery is bad.But i belive it should have purpose, outside of of the media induced vanity maze that we are all trapped in.So many women these days are going under the knife to change things they don't need to's a huuuuuuuuuuuuge industry..... Because Lauren never completely explained her reasons for the tummy tuck, from what i read, but chose to talk about it on a public forum i just felt a little miffed at the obvious paradoxes that were presented.And so I asked the questions i asked in the most honest, non hurtful way i could think of.

Yoga teachers are not perfect and neither am i.


Anonymous said...

I think your criticism was well taken, and I am Lauren's mom. I still am convinced that she did not need the tummy tuck, and (sorry Lauren) but that it was done for the wrong reasons. I hope this is the end of plastic surgery, Lauren. You have always been beautiful. Nobody's perfect. And personal appearance should be way down on the list of what is really important in life.

Finally, one thing that's important is not moving to Kansas even though it was home to Dorothy. (inside joke, sorry).

Anonymous said...

i did not know wether to laugh or to cry when, in an episode of dr. 90210 (or whatever) the two topics were: anal bleaching and labia reduction, (speaking of plastic surgery) lauren, you do what you have to do, none of our business, but
i do realize that those doctors sure come up with all kinds of procedures, to make us women feel ugly the way we are.

yoga chickie said...

I read all the comments, and I reread my own post, and one thing I feel I need to say is that it would be disengenous for me to act as if a tummy tuck is simply one more step down a long slippery slope of "reconstructing" myself after breast cancer. To me, that feels sort of like I am wielding the cancer card a bit too freely.

I guess I would have to say that the whole road to self-improvement is a continuum - a broad spectrum of things we can do to ourselves and observances we can make in order to feel better about ourselves. So, on one end, we have healthy living: eating healthy foods, observing our hunger signals, staying clean and well-groomed, exercising regularly. On the other end, we have The Swan and Dr. 90210 and Extreme Makeover - where women feel they might need to reduce the size of their labia in order to look like a 16 year old virgin and men feel that they might need to resort to penile enlargement (if such a thing actually exists).

Somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum is a more gray area - where cosmetic dentistry may make it easier to make friends and get jobs, where the Zone Diet might make it easier to stay healthy but also might make it easier to win roles in Hollywood and win the admiration of those who feel that women should look like barbie-dolls, where Botox might take years off of one's frown lines...and maybe with good reason....or maybe not so much.

It seems easy to say that breast reconstruction falls within the "no-brainer" category, where we don't need to think about the implications because, well, we just don't. It seems easy to say that wearing a wig when you lose your hair to chemo or alopecia also is a "no-brainer". It seems easy to say that practicing Ashtanga six days a week and maintaining a fairly ascetic diet is a relative "no-brainer". But somehow, a tummy tuck does seem to veer into territory that makes us ask questions like, "what societal pressures are we succumbing to when we feel the need to have a youthfully taut tummy?"

I don't know where the line stands between "no-brainer" reconstrution and "pure vanity" alteration. I think these are excellent questions, and they probably cannot be answered except in the context of the individual who is having the reconstruction/alteration in question.


Anonymous said...

I had two big babies and they made my belly sag. I am gaining on 40 and am getting thick around the waist. I am losing my "feminine " curves. I do vinyasa 3-4 days a week and I could do it 6 days a week and it wouldn't do the trick on my momma pooch. I refuse to give in to the pressure that is in the media and at the yoga studio. So many young twenty somethings in tiny outfits. Yeah I was just like them, and they will be just like me if they get the chance to have all my life experiences. I will never be twenty something again and I am glad of that.
If I have the body of a woman my age so be it. I have the maturity and wisdom that goes along with that body.
Getting older with grace and dignity is the key. Not getting older with surgery and excuses.
I wish you luck and wellness.

yoga chickie said...

Some life experiences are beautiful and the marks they leave on our bodies are beautiful because they remind us of our beautiful experiences. Other life experiences suck. The scars they leave behind suck because they remind us of the sucky experiences that put them there.

I hope you see the difference....

And know that I cheer you for wearing your life experiences proudly...


Anonymous said...

Great comments.
I can understand you not wanting to have reminders of that stuff--totally totally understandable, but just in the future if u decide to get anything else done, remember your scars and body contours however distorted they might seem to you are a fine example of the warrior spirit that has gotten you this far. You are a survivor, a shining example of the power of ones will to live and fight the neccessary battles that may come with age.

please never forget to celebrate that about yourself.

yoga chickie said...

It's funny...I was thinking that too, even as I was writing that last comment - that the scars and body contours are kind of like a full-body purple heart medal. Don't know how I feel about that



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About Me

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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