Sweat dripped out of every pore on my body. I wiped my chin with a towel to prevent it from trickling into my nostrils. It was 102 degrees, my body was bent in an upside down V, and I was struggling to breathe.
To make matters worse, my shirt kept sliding down and hitting me in the face. I was tired and frustrated, but more than anything else, I was hot.
I glanced at the other people in my yoga class – the beautiful women practicing in their sports bras and the men exposing their hairy chests and stomachs – and I wished I had the confidence to join them in their topless practice.
Then I looked at the rest of the class, and I saw people of all different shapes and sizes. Each person was unique, but they had one thing in common: they were all pushing themselves to be the best that they could be. I reminded myself that yoga was about acceptance, and that I didn’t need to impress or prove anything to anyone.
So I took my shirt off.
There were forty-eight other people in the room, and I was terrified of their reaction. I was scared these strangers would look at me and see less value because they saw more skin. My shirt was a shield from judgment and insult, and I was petrified of losing it.
I also felt like my shirt was protecting these strangers. With my shirt on, they didn’t have to see the belly I was hiding. I felt like I would offend them by exposing myself, like they deserved more from me.
But I took my shirt off anyway.
Contrary to the scene I imagined in my head, the world did not stop spinning. Nobody gasped or pointed. In fact, class continued as normal.
I stared at my reflection in the mirror. Immediately, I began berating my curves. Is that really what I look like? I asked myself, disgusted.
I hated that this was my automatic reaction.
So I vowed to practice shirtless until I changed my mind.
I have been self-conscious about my body since I can remember. Growing up, I was much shorter than my peers. I got teased about it frequently, and it wasn’t long before I believed that what I lacked in height, I also lacked in value.
Once I hit puberty, I grew – in my stomach and butt and chest – but I was still shorter than all my friends. I felt like my list of flaws was growing each day. No matter how confident I tried to feel, there was always a small voice in my head whispering insults about my appearance.
And then I started doing topless yoga.
It was extremely difficult at first. I couldn’t look at myself because I hated what I saw. I would place my mat directly behind a tall man so his body blocked my view of the mirror. My heart rate spiked the moments before I took my shirt off each morning. But I persisted.
Studies suggest that the more you expose yourself to something, the more attraction you will feel toward it. So, eventually, after looking at my near-naked body for an hour each morning, I began to love my body.
Watching myself bend and balance in poses made me appreciate my body for what it is: a structure that allows me to walk and run and stand and do anything that I want with it. It helped me acknowledge everything my body does for me and discredit the idea that there is only one definition of beauty.
I may not have the skinniest tummy or the smallest butt, but I have the best body because it is mine. It is the one that allows me to move and breathe and dance. And that is the best thing I could ever ask for.
Now, when I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t let my eyes travel to the cellulite that spills over the top of my shorts. Instead, I look at my posture. Am I standing up straight? Are my shoulders back? Am I doing what I came to do?
And then I thank my body for allowing me to answer yes to all of the above.
Body issues are tough. I still feel timid when the woman next to me is six inches taller and fifteen pounds lighter than me.
When this happens, I remind myself of Theodore Roosevelt’s wisdom: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” My neighbor is different than me, but that doesn’t make her better. Comparing myself to her accomplishes nothing.
It is not a competition and it is not an art show. As long as both of us are happy and healthy, then we both win. It doesn’t matter if you weigh eighty pounds or a hundred and eighty pounds – if your body functions, it is perfect.
When I first started taking my shirt off, I was nervous about how the other people in the class would feel. I felt like going topless was an open invitation for them to stare, and I worried that my body wasn’t good enough to “show off” to them.
We need to shift this mentality that our bodies are there for someone else’s enjoyment – to look at, to touch, to use. Our bodies are ours. And we should love them exactly the way they are.
I know it is hard. And I know it is scary. But your body is the one companion that will stick with you your entire life. The sooner you learn to love it, the happier you will be.