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Full body portrait of Niya Bajaj, your holistic yoga therapist, a light skinned South Asian woman with long dark hair tied in a bun. She is in kneeling and arching her back to touch her heels with her fingertips as she drops her head back and looks behind her (camel pose or Ustrasana). She is wearing a black tank top and purple yoga pants.

From Surviving to Thriving: How yoga therapy and narrative medicine restored my relationship with body, breath and mind – and why I help others do the same

body image body movement chronic pain eating disorder health help holistic yoga therapy inclusive recovery inclusive therapy intersectionality toronto yoga therapy yoga toronto Aug 01, 2022

I don’t fit.

 Whether I was trying to squeeze into a sample size pair of designer jeans, pose for a group photo with my cohort of yoga teachers, or sit comfortably in my own skin, I didn’t know what fitting in felt like. I was the fat kid on the playground because of a stress-triggered chronic pain that made playing sports virtually impossible. I had been the new kid in high school from a different country and culture. There was no escape from the feeling of not fitting.

To be able to make it through my day-to-day experience of not being thin, white, or blonde enough, I developed patterns of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. They were my subtle ways to cope with not fitting in and the silent exclusion. Being excluded causes emotional, mental, and physical pain because the need to belong is hardwired into our DNA. Neuroimaging studies go so far as to indicate the similarities between the pain experiences, which support our understanding of the impact of exclusion.

To survive that pain, I learned to ignore what my body, breath, and mind were telling me. Ignoring the quiet and then louder indications of damage being done to my physical and psychological self meant I could focus on my academic work. It made it possible for me to attend the best schools in the country, win awards, and hold leadership positions. Silencing those signals meant I could be goal-driven, high achieving, willing to work 20-hour days on caffeine and painkillers and give it all for success. It meant I could accelerate my career growth. My only limit was my body, and I told myself it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to eat or rest. I was not going to be held back by the parts of me that didn’t fit, that weren’t enough.

This became part of the story I told about myself and shaped my reality. Over time, I ended up feeling disconnected from myself and my purpose – and it made me sick – literally. But I wasn’t clear on how telling this story impacted me or how buying into it deepened my experience of disconnection.

I know I’m not alone in this experience. At one time or another, many of us will struggle with pain, discomfort, and a sense of disconnection. It’s what living in this world does. It can be exhausting. Feeling fatigue, pain and burnout is challenging.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the drive to achieve goals and by the drive to be enough while letting the things that maintain well-being fall by the wayside. I forgot my capacity to listen deeply. When I did occasionally tune in to what I was experiencing, I didn’t have the words to share how I was feeling.

This disconnection, which helped me survive in the short term, had harmful negative effects. It kept me in a dysregulated fight/flight state as my baseline for being. For a long time, it prevented me from thriving.

Fortunately, the principles of yoga have been part of my life long before disordered eating and body dysmorphia. As a child, I remember students sitting at my grandfather’s feet as he lectured about the Bhagavad Gita. I watched my family live out the values outlined in the yamas and niyamas without thinking much about it.

When I decided I wanted to develop a consistent yoga asana practice, my tendency for perfection and drive to achieve drove me to hot, body-focused Ashtanga classes until a shoulder injury forced me to stop and really consider the sustainability of what I was doing.

Perhaps because the eight limbs of yoga were so integrated into everyday life, I didn’t really understand the potential of yoga as a true vinyasa – or a systematically guided progression through practice towards healing broken connections between the body, mind, and self – until I deliberately studied it.

In an effort to better understand the complete practice of yoga and to learn to modify practice so I wouldn’t continue to harm myself, I signed up for yoga teacher training, where I very clearly didn’t fit since I was older, fatter, and the only person of Indian ancestry.

In an effort to be of better service to my students and to shift away from a “one-size-fits-all” corporate approach to yoga, I trained to be a yoga therapist. This additional study gives me the skills to apply all eight limbs of yoga in a way that provides therapeutic benefits for my students.

It was in this training that I returned to the philosophy that grounds yoga. Listening to my teachers talk about connection, which is the basis of yoga, reminded me of what I had learned as a child and forgotten. Learning about ayurvedic daily routines added clarity to what I had observed two generations of my family do every day, albeit without the Sanskrit names. Reading the Bhagvad Gita as an adult gave me a new lens on my grandfather’s teachings.

Sitting with this wealth of knowledge as an adult has helped me come home to myself in a way I didn’t think was possible. It has started to clear my vision of what I look like, and who I am in a way that allows for change and growth. While I still have a way to go, since that training, my personal practice remains an essential way of checking in with myself regularly so I can adapt my approaches to stay rooted in generational wisdom, while growing more into the connected self I can be.

My personal therapeutic yoga and narrative medicine practices help me manage my pain and maintain my mental well-being so I can achieve my goals and thrive. It’s made me want to help high achievers heal chronic pain, fatigue, and disconnection, so they have the energy and focus they need to realize their dreams.

My training has given me the skills to collaborate with my students to create a personalized practice that helps restore their relationship with themselves in a positive, balanced, sustainable way. After practice, they are more empowered, energized, and much more connected to themselves.

After our time together, they often say, “Hey! I forgot I could feel this way. I’m so happy I can return to doing what I love. Thank you for reminding me that I have what I need to look after myself. I am invested in holding onto this, no matter what.”

There’s this beautiful moment that happens when someone finally finds the words to share their experience and feels heard and that they’re not alone, but with a community that says, ” I hear you, I feel you, I get you,” and for that to land in a way where they feel really respected and understood.

I’m grateful to my teachers for supporting me in my journey to move from a place of surviving to one of thriving, and look forward to sharing what I have learned with my students so they can do the same.

NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

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