Yoga, Breasts, and the Mind-Body Connection
Isn’t it funny that we tend to think of the soul and mind as separate from our body? Maybe we picture it bobbing along behind us, above us, or around us as we move through life. Maybe we picture it as existing in our brains or hearts, but not in our hands or hips. In fact, if you asked people on the street where their mind/spirit/soul/consciousness lives, few would say their feet, ears, and everything else in between. Most would posit that we have a physical form, and the soul, mind, or spirit is something apart from it.
But what if the spiritual is physical? What if the body is the mind? The more I practice yoga, the more I believe that to be the case. What we do to our body, we do to our soul. What happens to our spirit, happens to our body. If we feel shame, or have experienced trauma, it plants itself somewhere in our physical form. The same is true for positive feelings. If we feel good, or have an affection for a certain part of our body, that manifests itself physically. I believe our soul lives in every cell in our body; it permeates every fiber of our being.
Our fingers and toes, therefore, are no less "spiritual" than our hearts and heads.
Here is an example from own life...
I have felt immense shame and embarrassment about my chest for years. When I was 13, one day, or so it seemed, I woke up with gigantic breasts. They were big—like really big—especially for a petite child. All throughout adolescence, it was how people identified me. “Which one is Lisa?” “Oh, the girl with huge boobs,” was standard. Sometimes the attention I got was "positive", though it usually didn’t feel that way to me. More often it was negative. I can remember one specific instance at a water park being told to “cover up because it was a family environment” even though I was wearing a bathing suit like all the other teenage girls. I just appeared more promiscuous because of my figure. People made assumptions about me based on how I looked, even though I never meant to make a spectacle of myself. I rarely wore anything that drew attention to my breasts because I hated them so much, but they were so unusually large that people noticed them anyway. To me, they were what made me so terribly different than the other girls. I loathed them.
As I grew up, my dislike for them became less about fitting in to a crowd, and more about fitting into a bra. Target doesn’t carry a 32 I. Yes. I. As in after H and before J. They still drew attention, but I had numbed to it (in more ways than one, as I’ll discuss below). What I cared about at that point is how they affected my ability to live a more carefree life. I always had to consider them. I'm sure a lot of it was in my head, but I nevertheless felt they were a humongous burden that I desperately wanted to be free from. The self-loathing was still raging in full force.
All of this culminated in my decision to have breast reduction surgery in January of 2016. It went well. I’m pleased with the results and do not regret my decision in the slightest. I can buy swim suits at Target. I am no longer suffocated in shoulder stand. I regularly go braless, which I never in a million years was able to comfortably do before. Life is more carefree, just as I wanted. I thought I had finally solved my problem and all my chest-related issues were ancient history.
But, I was wrong.
There were still issues hiding in my chest.
For as long as I’ve been physically active, I have never felt strong in that area. I was an avid cardio-kickboxer in my early twenties and have been doing yoga for nearly ten years. I couldn’t punch for shit in kickboxing and in yoga have always struggled with lifts and arm balances—all movements that require a strong chest. I’ve always been unable to find the muscles in that area. I’ve had similar, though less intense, "blocks” in my mind-body connection before. My hips and pelvic floor specifically. But unlike my chest, those areas felt weak, not non-existent. It felt that way so much that I didn’t even know it was happening. My mind didn’t just numb the muscles, it numbed my association with those muscles. I didn’t know I couldn't feel them. The result was endless frustration, self-doubt, and a perpetuation of the cycle of shame and self-loathing.
That changed last week, but let me first back up to a conversation I had last month with my teacher. I spent two weeks with him and I got lots of one-on-one attention. He spent time sitting by my mat helping me in my exit transition from Eka Pada Sirsasana, which requires a lot of that upper core strength I didn’t know I couldn't feel. Finally he told me to try meditation of sorts, working to direct my mind’s eye to my serratus anterior. He doesn’t know much of my backstory, but in his wisdom he was surely picking up on my disassociation.
So I started doing that. Or trying to, anyway. I would picture those muscles in my mind while doing asanas that required their engagement. Then last week, while working on lolasana, I lifted my legs into my chest and felt lightening strike directly underneath my breasts. It was definitely serratus kicking on. I don’t mean to be dramatic, except that it was quite dramatic. I have never felt anything like it. They awoke from a lifelong slumber in a jolt of icy cold energy that radiated through my chest. It literally took my breath away. In that moment, my mind flooded with all the self-loathing and shame I had dealt with throughout my life in relation to my breasts. It hit me like a ton of bricks and became crystal clear: I hated my breasts so much that I simply decommissioned that area of my body. I loathed my chest with such depth that I couldn’t travel there, even in my subconscious. The feeling was so intense that it lingered for the next few days. Not in a sore muscle, lactic acid kind of way. I actually felt a residual, acute icy feeling in my breasts in the days following this incident.
I wish I could say that, like magic, I’m now strong as an ox and can effortlessly float back and through on my mat. That, however, is not the case. I haven’t even been able to recreate the lolasana I managed to stick during those strength drills. But there has been a shift. I am aware now. The breaker was flipped. Shaking off the trauma of hate will still take years of work, but the hardest part is over.
Yoga is such an incredible tool for teaching us about our own trauma. I don’t know that I ever would have dealt with this issue in its entirety without my practice demanding it. The reduction surgery was a band-aid solution. While I still don’t regret it and would even recommend it for those struggling with large breasts, I know now that it was only the beginning. The real work is going to come as I get to know these muscles during my practice. As I attempt to manipulate and condition them, I will be dealing directly and concretely with the physical manifestation of my self-loathing.
I can only wonder what else is waiting to be found. If there is a place you're feeling stuck in your practice, I encourage you to keep leaning into it. Perhaps try the mediation my teacher recommended to cultivate a more intimate awareness of the area. Also, if there is a part of your body that you've struggled to appreciate, take a look in your practice and see how that might be coming through. Look for postures that expose that area or demand that you engage with it. See what bubbles to the surface. Keep digging. Stay curious. You don’t know what you don’t know, and yoga is a powerful methodology for making those discoveries. It helps us navigate our issues in a concrete, tactical way. It is the ultimate tool for coming to know oneself, through and through.
Till next week,