I don’t know exactly when, but from adolescence and onward, I started using the “O” word:
“Don’t mind me; I’m just one big oaf.”
“I’ve totally got oafish powers.”
At one point, when I first started dating my husband, I tripped over a curb. Before I could even right myself, I laughed out, “And the oaf strikes again.”
“You’re not an oaf,” he said sincerely. “You’re elegant.”
Apparently, I responded to that statement by looking at him like he had three heads.
Years after we got married, my husband said to me: “It always made me so sad that you would call yourself that.”
“Why? I was only joking.”
“Except that you weren’t.”
And he was right.
I’ve been in the 99% percentile in height since the day I was born. I was that lone “tall” kid in all those school pictures, towering over everyone else – boys included –dwarfed only by the full-grown teacher. By the eighth grade, I was the same height as the teachers, if not taller.
I remember being told I had “gazelle power” by my track coach (noting the long leaps I would take when I ran) -- and I remember not signing up for track again after that season ended. I remember quitting kung fu training because I thought I looked like an idiot, my lanky frame kicking and punching like wet noodles in the wind. If you find a group picture from any high school dance that included me in it, you’ll see me sporting a very forced, pained smile: pained either because I’m bending awkwardly at the knees so that I’m the same height as everyone else, or because I knew I was that lone head sticking out of a sea of normal people.
I capped out at 5’11” -- “model height”, as so many people pointed out. I took those people on their advice and started modeling, relishing the idea of being around “tallies” just like me. But, in the end, I was still an inch or two taller than most of the models at the casting calls – and those girls were all much, much skinnier than me, which all but confirmed my “oaf” status.
When I started yoga, I couldn’t touch my toes. I’m pretty sure I could only touch my shins on a good day. Five years later, when I tell people this, suddenly it’s my turn to be looked at like I have three heads.
My body had immediately adapted to yoga. As soon as I had started practicing regularly, I found myself morphing into and through each pose with ease. I could downright feel my body melting into its potential.
About two years ago, I finally stopped seeing myself as “the oaf”. I stopped smiling in pictures like I was ashamed of my height. I stopped fretting over the idea of wearing heels because I didn’t want to emphasize how tall I was. I started actually believing it when my husband called me “elegant”.
The easy thing would to be to point to my “success” in yoga. Of course I would stop feeling oafish once I could place my palms on the floor in a forward fold! I mean, who wouldn’t?
Except that I was a rising star on the track team when I had quit. I was consistently impressing the kung fu instructors with my leg kicks when I had decided I was too awkward to continue. I had already demonstrated to the world how quickly my body can adapt to athletics – but I hadn’t demonstrated it to myself.
What’s the use of hitting the top floor when your self esteem is still at the mezzanine?
What helped me change was not the bendy-stretchy aspect of yoga. What did help was the emphasis on deep introspection – as well as the deep gratitude for and acceptance of the body I had.
It took being in an atmosphere where you let go of judgment and competition – especially with yourself – and appreciate your exact body type and exactly what it can do. It took those gentle reminders to find a variation that suits your body and to let go of what does not serve you. It took those gentle reminders to honor your body – and that your body is worth honoring. And it took years of constantly going back to that environment and slowly growing into my own skin before I stopped labeling it “oafish”.
I recognize that this “growing into my own skin” could also be due to having grown a little bit older and (hopefully) a little bit wiser. But I also recognize that I have could have been stuck in the exact same patterns as I was in before had I not taken that time on my mat – and taken what I had learned off of it. I needed something to help me recognize that my body was elegant regardless of how easily I could touch my toes or kick a bag, regardless of how I ran or how often I tripped on curbs -- and yoga was that exact something I needed.