Weight Loss and Finding Your 'Self' with Yoga

Jill Spencer (Savita, South Africa)

Even a fat girl has a personal limit and tipping the scales at over 100 kg set off a whole orchestra of warning bells in my head. My bookshelf was groaning with every diet book on the market; the 'welcome to summer' magazine articles were stacked on my beside table; the swimming pool was clean and sparkling; my trainers fresh and ready to run; but where was the spark needed to kindle the flame of motivation?

I paged through the local newspaper and found an advertisement for Tai Chi classes. Here was something I could tackle - no special equipment, no action-woman antics and no ball skills are required. I headed off to the health centre only to be told the instructor was no longer there. I idly picked up the advertising brochures, skipping through 'aerobics', 'spinning' and the like, until my attention was caught by one simple sentence: "Satyananda Yoga - private tuition offered - contact Swami Yogasagar."

Where to now? I had practised yoga many years ago when I was trim and slim. Nevertheless I took a pamphlet home and after the usual humming and hawing, thought I would give it a bash. At least I would only have to face one person, not a whole class of strangers. I made an appointment and raided my cupboard for the largest T-shirt and stretch leggings I owned.

My first surprise was the teacher. I was expecting to meet a severe, Gandhi look-alike and there was this huge fellow - Australian cum world traveller - smile on his face and brilliant blue eyes. We started our first session of yoga and I realized immediately that this was not the general 'housewife' yoga that I had previously practised. The movements were simple, slow and controlled, with the emphasis on awareness - awareness of the breath, awareness of the body, awareness of how I felt in the body. What did he mean by feelings in the body - for years I had denied the existence of my body. I was constantly caught up in my head with the embarrassment and discomfort of being overweight, so how could I even begin to focus on my body?

But this is the very essence of Satyananda Yoga - bringing awareness into each and every action and reaction. Slowly I learnt to become attuned to my body - to the feelings of heat, the feelings of heaviness and the tingling sensations. I learnt to feel the stretch in the posture, to feel the pattern of my breath, the rate of my heartbeat and in this way I renewed the relationship with my body. I was no longer just an amorphous blimp with an over active mind. I was able to observe my jumbled thoughts, be a witness to my feelings, and slowly begin to let go of the emotional clutter.

Yoga is much more than an exercise program and I soon came to realize that it is a complete formula for living a personal lifestyle that is holistic and integrated with a journey of self discovery, and this was the beginning of an exiting adventure. I joined with no expectations (a very yogic outlook, unknown to me at the time!) and was surprised when the changes within became apparent.

My teacher encouraged me to walk to class instead of driving. This in itself was a liberating experience - I became familiar with my suburb, made friends with the gardeners and security guards, followed the seasons, and felt the physical benefits of stepping out. Of course, the hip rotations that I had been practising religiously in class prepared me for this exercise, opening up the pelvic girdle which increased the length of my stride. The breathing exercises had shown me the way to expand and use the breath to facilitate physical movement. I was introduced to the chanting of mantras. This had a very powerful effect, as I could feel the vibrations of the mantras and the music of the harmonium resonating throughout my entire body. Singing has such a wonderful healing power. Now I was not only walking but also chanting all the way to class.

After six months, I knew that yoga would be part of my life forever. The discipline required in practising the postures extends to the discipline of the mind, which naturally has a direct influence in controlling the bad habits, such as random eating and 'couch potato' syndrome. Yoga addresses all the apparent factors connected to weight matters - uncontrolled eating habits, lack of physical movement, emotional reactions, lack of physical energy, lack of mental energy and stress.

I did not consciously follow a particular eating plan, but just brought a few changes into action. My teacher suggested in the beginning to focus on just one item of food such as bread, and eliminate that from my diet. This was an easy way of introducing a discipline into my daily eating and of course controlled the intake of all the high calorie sandwich fillings. Most people know the basic principles of a balanced diet and I just tried to supplement this with the yogic principle of awareness.

In the teachings of Swami Satyananda, I read that a portion of food is equal to one handful and just bringing this awareness to my servings allowed me to cut down on the quantity of food eaten. Best of all, I learnt to cook vegetarian meals using Indian spices and as a result never felt deprived of tasty, flavourful and interesting food. I did not try to eliminate everything that was familiar in my life, but gradually found myself choosing a healthier option at home. The beauty of yoga is that without being totally wrapped up in the process, my weight began to move and over a period of 18 months, I lost 25 kgs.

The weight loss has been a very positive spin off of my yoga practice, but this is just a manifestation of a far subtler inner shift. The changes are not only apparent in my physical body, but I began to experience the vitality known as prana, which influences every aspect of our existence. The asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing practices) and meditations are responsible for activating and directing the prana within the body and the mind, and I have not felt this good for years. When one becomes trapped inside an overweight body, those trappings extend into all aspects of one's life - lack of energy, lack of self-confidence, lack of self-motivation. Food provides instant emotional comfort; physical exercise is an effort that the lazy mind often avoids. This sets a pattern of behaviour and you are caught up in a vicious cycle. I am still not by any means a skinny bean, but there is a song in my heart and a purpose to my day. I have also expanded my experience through reading and have found comfort in the knowledge that although I have not been a long-time practitioner of yoga, my inner feelings have had synchronicity with yogic philosophy for many years.

Whenever one becomes involved in a learning experience, there is a two-way process. My teacher gave me all the tools to embrace yoga in my everyday life. Often the learning process is challenging and full of stumbling blocks, but looking back I know Satyananda Yoga was the 'spark' needed to set off my journey of discovery. Ultimately you are responsible for yourself, but yoga provides you with the skills - namely awareness, patience and discipline - which open up new levels of experience.

Within six months, I joined the general classes and found that my fears were completely unfounded. 'Yoga is for everyone' - all shapes and sizes, each one with his or her own capabilities and drawbacks. There is no pressure to compete or compare. Recently I have made the shift from student to teacher and find myself being challenged on a different level, but what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to share everything that I have been taught. When people ask me, why I chose yoga, I always reply, "Yoga chose me." And every day I say thank you.