Yesterday I had arrived a bit early to an empty yoga studio. I placed my mat up near the front and close to the large studio mirrors and looked at my body in the sunlight. My stomach has 5 scars on it in various stages of healing and I have gained considerable weight. The kind of body an old ancient warrior would have been proud of.
I immediately thought of a story Martha Beck had written in one her books, "Following Your Own North Star" when she was a college art student and they had a model to sketch that was less than ideal:
"She looked well over sixty, with a deeply lined face and body that was probably fifty pounds heavier than her doctors would have liked. She'd had a few doctors, too, judging from her scars. Shining purple welts from a cesarean section and knee surgery cut deep rifts in the rippled adipose fat of her lower body. Another scar ran across one side of her chest, where her left breast had once been. When she first limped onto the dais to pose, I felt so much pity and unease that I physically flinched. But we there to draw her, so I picked up a pencil.
"The thing about drawing is that you can't do it well with your social self. You have to bring out your essential self, which doesn't know anything about social stereotypes. And so, as I began to draw this maimed old woman, the most amazing thing happened. Within five minutes, she became a person of absolutely wondrous beauty. She didn't look like a supermodel; she didn't have to. Her body, in and of itself, was as beautiful as a piece of polished driftwood, or a wind carved rock, or a waterfall. My essential self didn't know that I was supposed to compare the woman to various movie stars, any more than it would have evaluated the Andes Mountains by judging how much they looked like an Iowa cornfield. It simply saw her as she was: an exquisite sculptural form.
"When this perceptual shift happened, I was so surprised that I stopped drawing and simply stared. The model seemed to notice this, and without turning her head, looked straight into my eyes. Then I saw the ghost of a smile flicker across her face, and I realized something else: She knew she was beautiful. She knew it, and she knew that I had seen it. Maybe that's why she had consented to pose nude in the first place. Knowing that a roomful of artists couldn't draw her without seeing her--I mean really seeing her--she may have decided to give us gentle education about our perceptions."
I stood there watching myself carefully while smiling as I remembered her beautiful story. My "essential self" didn't seem to mind either of my supposed liabilities. I glanced up and down my body while allowing the sun to look in without having any judgements. The surgery cuts were miraculously healing without me reminding it to do so. The belly hung there in confidence like a snow drift that had been blown upon for a bit too long. It seemed perfectly content and happy. Healthy enough to take on a 90 minute yoga class in 105 degree temperature.
I watched my body move in and out of the postures as the class started and I marveled at the way my belly and scars moved with me. I caught glimpses of myself as Martha did with the older model. Shiny skin would appear and disappear into the mind and the mirror held out for me a new way of looking at myself.
It is strong and healthy.
Full of wisdom and wonder.
This is what the woman model must have seen in herself too.