“Feel pretty!” my ballet teacher yelled above the music as we rehearsed for our spring performance. Once, dance meant the world to me. By the time I was a teenager, I attended ballet class every day of the week and devoted evenings and weekends to rehearsals. I loved my teachers and kept a journal in which I wrote down all the corrections they gave me so I would remember them. Sometimes while dancing, I was so immersed in music and movement I forgot I had a body.
But after a couple of years of auditioning, attending professional programs, seeing performances at the Kennedy Center, and going through puberty, I realized how imperative the appearance of my body was to my life as a dancer. The physique lauded in the dance world—high arches, long legs, short torso, and very thin—anchored in my mind. When I looked into the wall of mirrors of the dance studio, I was overwhelmed with the parts of my body that didn’t fit this ideal and that somehow needed to be fixed.
I wrote down everything I ate until I’d cut down to 1,200 calories a day and was 98 pounds. I internalized every critique I received at an audition. One choreographer said I was a talented dancer and should come back when I got the fat off my legs. A year after high school, I was fortunate to be hired by a dance company, but during the first season, I was shocked to learn the director held weekly weigh-ins with dancers who were “too big.” I was caught in a strange place of loving and needing to dance but loathing myself for not being what I was told I was supposed to be.
When I was twenty, I went to my first yoga class with a friend. There were no mirrors. The teacher asked us to soften our bellies, which was challenging, and to focus on breath leading movement. During the silent moments of rest and meditation at the end of class, I quietly cried. I felt vulnerable and shaky when I walked out of the studio and wanted to stop going to class, but something inside me knew how crucial it was to keep practicing.
It was in this safe space that I realized the weight of my sadness, fear, and exhaustion. The process of moving, breathing, and exploring my body and experience at my own pace helped me to gradually reclaim an innate strength and gave the necessary distance to realize I had a choice to move my life in a healthier direction. The deeper I moved into yoga, the less the dance critiques pierced me as I realized they were opinions, and it was up to me to take their words to heart or not.
It’s still a struggle to move past self-negating thoughts, and I’m grateful I’ve learned yogic techniques such as breath work, meditation, and restorative yoga to move through times of despair towards a deeper interior of spaciousness, clarity, and healing. During the past few years, I experienced heavy heartbreak, confusion, and hopelessness, but yoga was the lifeline that reminded me of my self-worth and allowed me the courage to keep going.
When I teach yoga, I try my best to create a space where mindful movement allows students the quietude to visit deeper layers of consciousness and visceral intelligence. I believe that it’s from this steady place that we can begin the work of unearthing self-damaging, limiting thought patterns and move towards self-nourishment, transformation, and empowerment that allows us to live more fully and love ourselves and each other deeply.
Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman, E-RYT 500, is a YogaWorks certified teacher and teacher trainer in New York City. Formerly a professional dancer, she integrates a love of movement with a mindful, creative, and interoceptive practice that creates a space for students to learn, explore, and transform. She’s also a poet and earned her MFA at Columbia University.