Practice Like Nobody's Watching: How to Reconcile Feeling Self-Conscious With Exercising
Taking a first dip in any movement class feels daunting for many of us, partly because we might have been shamed in the past for the way we moved or expressed ourselves. We might have been taught to calm down when we bounced around, to stay quiet when we wanted to sing at the top of our lungs, or to tone it down when our favorite song came on the radio.
As adults, we then arrive on yoga mats with the expectation that we need to perform the sequence of postures instructed in a specific, certain way, that we need to do all the poses at the exact speed and precision at which they are taught, and that if we make a mistake, the teacher and the other students will glare at us for our blasphemous misalignment. Forget about trying that difficult handstand in front of everyone or even on your Zoom camera, because you can already hear the teacher’s bell ringing and the crowd cheering: Shame, shame, shame, shame!
Drama aside, if this description fits with worries you may have about your body or the way you move, here are some tips to overcome them, and above all, to cultivate pleasure and self-acceptance in whichever exercise routine you will choose to undertake:
GIVE YOURSELF TIME AND ATTENTION
During an exercise sequence, is your attention mainly focused on the teacher’s pleasure or yours? Are you attuned with the pain in your left hamstring or with touching your toes at all costs? Do you push yourself in plank position or do you relish in a longer than usual savasana? As a self-conscious person, you might feel like you need more achievement in order to feel okay about yourself, and let yourself rest. For example, set aside time for a yoga practice without a teacher telling you what to do. See what kind of movement your body craves, regardless of what’s considered proper exercise. The work of loving to move is the work of listening to yourself, and that requires a different kind, yet very real kind of discipline from the one we are accustomed to.
TAME THE EITHER/OR THINKING MINDSET
If our upbringing was infused with shame, we might have grown up with the idea that we could only belong to two categories, one being “less than human” or another “more than human”. In other words, we believe that we can only be either failures walking on two feet or perfect beings who turn into gold everything they touch. When I was a young girl, I used to watch in complete awe, the incredible physical feats of ballerinas, figure skaters and, later in life, experienced Ashtanga yoga practitioners. As I saw them move with such grace and ease, I thought that anything less than this expertise simply sucked. As a dancer, and then as a yoga practitioner, I needed to reach that level or else, I would consider myself to be mediocre. This belief created such internal pressure that I would coerce my body in postures that it was not ready to go in yet, simply for the sake of excellence and nothing else. That’s how I injured myself and prevented myself from coming closer to my already unattainable goal.
If you also tend to perceive your movement rituals in terms of extremes with beliefs such as I’m never going to be able to do crow pose, or I always suck at meditating or dancing. Start by rephrasing those internal sentences with gentler words like “maybe”, “sometimes” or “often”. You can also think in percentages. For example, “5% of the time, I can’t get into a headstand, but most of the time I’m able too”.
This shift in mindset is not about delusion and making you think you do not have to improve. It is about noting and accepting where you are right now and being okay with it. Reframe your mistakes as your greatest teachers. From this self-acceptance stems the biggest improvements and physical epiphanies.
… AND THE “SHOULDS”
“I should go to the gym more often”, “I must practice more challenging styles of yoga”, “I ought to do the hardest variation of this pose”. Does this sound like your internal dialogue ? What if you changed it up a bit, and gave yourself invitations, instead of orders? Hurting your body into submission to your iron will might create the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve. Without mental flexibility, your body cannot become more flexible. You also cannot feel free to flow and move through your intuitive impulses if the thoughts you cultivate on your body are rigid. Try the simpler variation from time to time. Skip one workout during the week when you feel exhausted. Try that weird move while dancing home alone, then with a close friend, then in public. Sit with the anxiety it might spur. And see what happens.
OBSERVE YOUR GUIDE
After some inner work and if all else fails, look outward to your teachers. Are they letting you explore the different ways you can move your body in a kind and benevolent way? Are they into self-inquiry or on the contrary, ordering you, even bullying you into moving a certain way? They may be shaming their students with the misplaced hope to “motivate” them. If that is the case, then it’s time to switch studios or gyms, and find more inclusive, less intrusive guides.
Do you feel sometimes self-conscious in a movement class? Do you wish your body was different or that it had different capacities? When/where do you feel the most safe and comfortable when practicing?
Photo Credit: Ben Meir Ohayon
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