By KEVIN NORRIS AND PAULA ATKINSON
For as long as I have known Paula Atkinson, she has lived and breathed the epitome of good health and body awareness. And as a very talented yoga instructor, she has been an inspiration to me since we first met. Here Atkinson shares her story of transformation and personal growth through a storm of body image issues.
My mother now declares she could see the switch in my consciousness around age 10. I had always been a swimmer and a diver. I had always been a girly-girl, reaching for the frilliest of dresses and wearing makeup to kindergarten. I had always been in the front row at tap dance class, climbing trees, making up dance routines in my bedroom to Janet Jackson’s “Control” album in its entirety.
Then suddenly, at age 10 I began wearing baggy T-shirts and an oversized jean jacket that I wore until it disintegrated. At age 10 I quit all water activities because I didn’t want to be seen in a bathing suit. At age 10, body shame had gotten hold of me. I was done with fancy dresses and dance classes. I was done swimming and I was done being a blithe little girl. I at once became an uncomfortable and embarrassed young person, constantly aware of the fact that I should be ashamed of myself. My body was now my enemy.
I found my only escape in food. The anxiety and humiliation I felt about my body needed soothing, so I ate. I overate. The shame of overeating made me eat. The shame I felt about my increasingly larger body made me eat. By age 16 I weighed 300 pounds and hated myself for being fat, pathetic and different. From the moment I awoke until I closed my eyes at night, I thought about nothing but my disgusting body and how I might get the kids at school to like me despite my glaring inferiority. I’d do anything to make them forget I was fat.
In 1997 I entered intensive treatment for bulimia, compulsive exercise and severe anorexia. I weighed roughly 80 pounds and could not walk up the stairs of the treatment center in less than 20 minutes. My body had eaten my muscles for fuel. The circles under my eyes were black and blue like bruises. My skin was grayish green and from my face it hung like wet laundry.
My fingers extended out from palms bony and wicked like a nightmare. My hair had almost completely fallen out, I kept it pulled back from the angled boniness of my face to hide bald spots. My mouth was so dry due to my dehydration that I had gaping sores at the corners of my pasty gray lips. I just ached.
Throughout my struggles with my body and food and exercise my mother practiced and then taught yoga in the quiet suburban California town where I was raised. Toward the end of treatment I began my own yoga practice. In order for an eating disorder to take hold, the sufferer must cut all communication with her body. From binging to vomiting to starving, I became more of just a busy, deluded, obsessive mind. I divorced my mind from my body very young.
What I discovered in yoga classes was mental stillness and actual compassion for my body. I relearned how to listen to its signals and act accordingly. What was revealed to me after a yoga class was a desire to stop hating my body. I saw that I’d blamed my body for everything that was wrong in my life and I wanted to stop.
And most impressive, the more I practiced the more often I was able to witness a sensation of enjoying being in my body. At first these experiences were fleeting and only during practice. But as I sought out various teachers, investigated different styles and eventually commenced my own teacher training, these magical moments began seeping into my everyday life.
For a gal like me, who had thought of her body as her betrayer and something that deserved only punishment, to have found a confirmed technique by which I might trust, care for, and enjoy my body is nothing short of a miracle. Yoga helps me love my body. It relieves me of the obsession of its size, focuses my attention on how it feels. Practicing and teaching yoga for a decade now, I am still regularly amazed that I can be freed from the oppression of neurotic thinking about my appearance. I can be present and at peace. I can know and trust that my body is not an adversary for me to control, but an extremely loyal partner that has gracefully forgiven me for a painful past.
As our culture manifests more body obsession, as our world witnesses more disordered eating in various ages, races, cultures, I find myself increasingly inspired to spread the magic. Now, I recognize that there are yoga styles that contribute to the problem. I’ve been in those classes and I’ve seen the sick people who are there to penalize themselves with exercise. But I trust that if yoga is practiced and instructed as it was intended: with compassion for oneself and one’s body, with openness and respect for an ancient art that is meant to bring about awakening, anyone can experience a miracle. Anyone can stop hating and fighting one’s body. Anyone.
Atkinson teaches yoga at Results Gym and Mint Fitness and can be reached through Kevin Norris.