“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” ~The Bhagavad Gita
Growing up, I couldn’t have been further from my ‘self.’ Early childhood experiences taught me to focus all of my energy externally. To put everyone around me first and to be insatiably attentive to their needs. This kind of thinking instills you with an incredibly low sense of self-worth, disconnects you from your own feelings and desires, and ultimately leaves your happiness pinned to other people.
When you have low self-worth, you mostly want to contract away from the world like a turtle. Hiding in your protective shell becomes a way of life because you fear that by revealing who you truly are people will leave, reject, or mock you.
A common response from those around me was “Don’t worry! Just be yourself!” When you have low self-worth, “being yourself” isn’t just something that worries you, it’s not something that simply makes you feel uncomfortable. It is quite literally something your brain deciphers as high risk. The act of “being myself” was unbelievably terrifying. I had my guard up all the time and a face for every occasion.
In my early twenties, I started to analyze my unhealthy thought patterns and tried three different therapists. Each one encouraged me to give a monologue about my life while they vacantly nodded and asked questions such as “How did that make you feel?”
It did nothing for me. What I desperately needed was to cultivate a loving relationship with myself. I needed to get to know the girl I had been and the woman I was becoming. To be there for her, to soothe her, and to cheer her on.
That’s where yoga came in.
There was no single defining moment. My first yoga class didn’t change my life. Neither did the second, the third, or the fourth. Yet, little by little, as I went to more classes and read ancient scripture, I began hearing one important message reiterated over and over again—the importance of looking inward for validation, love, and support.
Years of looking outside myself for these things had left my worth precariously hinged to other people, yet once on the mat, with only myself, I was challenged to connect with it all—my own fears, my own desires, and my own needs. Without this step, I couldn’t have moved forward in my life.
My yoga practice went deeper when I found yin and restorative; branches of yoga which emphasize gentle support, nourishment, and mindful movement as opposed to any kind of striving or precision.
Unlike the sweaty sequences of fast-paced flow classes, yin is a soft, intuitive practice that slowly guides you toward opening up, both physically and emotionally. Poses open your heart and your hips—places where those with low self-worth are often most closed off.
Positions such as supported twist and swan can be held for over five minutes, encouraging a deep tissue release whereby tension dissolves out of your body and onto the mat. Meanwhile torso opening poses like butterfly and camel can make you feel totally vulnerable.
As you sprawl out across the mat, the urge to close up can be powerful and it’s not unusual to feel emotional. It left me with no choice but to surrender, despite resistance from every cell in my body.
Many of the poses in yin yoga are named after animals and insects we associate with peacefulness. The gentle movement of a swan emits a blissful sense of inner peace. The slow-moving ways of a camel and the flutters of a butterfly convey the kind of quiet strength you feel when you finally reach a solid sense of self-worth. When you know you are enough, the need to prove yourself gradually begins to subside, being replaced by a lightness in both the body and the mind. It is this lightness which yoga instils.
Similar to yin, restorative yoga aims to center you through both stillness and slow movement. It took all the energy I was relentlessly giving out to the world and brought it back to me. It felt like the first time I’d fully, and completely, focused on my own experience. It felt good.
I went to restorative classes on Thursday evenings. I remember the first class I went to vividly because it felt so unnatural. Away from the pace of everyday life, where there are so many opportunities to numb out—with work, TV, socializing—this session involved just four restful poses each held for five to seven minutes.
Poses included reclining hero, where you relax your entire body onto a supportive cushion, and bend your knees gently back, and Supta Baddha Konasana—lying with your legs open, feet together and arms left flat to the side. Whatever the pose, the purpose of it was comfort for the body, rest for the mind, and replenishment of the spirit.
At the beginning I found this practise excruciating. My body was tense and my muscles were contracted. After years of avoiding myself, I simply couldn’t relax and let go because I was scared.
The teacher noticed and he often came over to lightly press my back down onto the mat. Other times, he’d swap the hard cork block I’d picked to hold up my head for the softness of a folded blanket. As with many other yoga teachers, his non-judgemental support provided the safe, gentle push I needed to finally relax into my own body.
These simple yet nourishing acts reflect the philosophy of yoga so well, in that the practice has little to do with who can stretch the furthest, the longest, or the most elegantly. Instead, one of the key tenants of yoga is union with yourself. If a pose feels painful, you adjust. If you’ve reached your edge, you pull back.
This mantra has been repeated throughout every class I’ve been to, and it’s the most tangible evidence I have of the effect yoga has had on my life. If something feels painfully uncomfortable, out of line with my true nature, I now ask “Why am I doing this? Is it for me, or to please other people?”
Chronic people pleasing, in order to gain a sense of self-worth, always felt excruciating to me. It put me at the whim of just about everyone I met. But it was only when I found the teachings of yoga that I realized why it felt so bad and found the courage to change.
When you’ve been so far away from yourself and finally connect to your inner being, it can feel overwhelming. The discovery that, I too, existed in the world, and not only that I had needs and feelings that deserved to be heard, but that who I was really, really mattered, was profound. In this way, yoga worked to highlight how prolifically I’d been neglecting myself in a way that talk therapy never even touched upon.
I began to engage in radical self-care, I started a soothing inner dialogue, regularly asking myself if I was okay: how did I feel? (as opposed to how others felt). Albeit daunting and uncomfortable at first, I gradually stopped doing things to please others and started revealing every part of myself—the goofy side, the quiet side, the intelligent side. Why? Because my self-worth was inherent, it was within me rather than outside of me, and therefore, I had the safety to be exactly who I was.
If you’ve ever struggled with low self-worth, you’ll know that the path to true acceptance is long, tedious, and never linear. It is a one step forward, two steps back process. One where you must wake up every single day and commit to building yourself up rather than down. One where you must silence your inner critic and instead begin to accept every part of yourself—even those which you find unpleasant.
By practicing yoga and learning from the principles that underpin it, that path can be made easier, and a whole lot brighter, too.