What a doozie this one is. Something we all want, something we all see in others, yet somehow self-empowerment remains an elusive force within ourselves. We’ve all got it – an immeasurable and powerful truth that stirs just beneath the surface of everything. At the best of times, it informs our every word, action, and thought. At the worst of times, a force that can evade us at every corner, leaving us experiencing ourselves as fragmented, powerless, and mired in disillusionment of who we really are.
“What would be the most empowering thing for me in this moment?” is a question I live by. Following in a close second with: “And how can I best empower those near me right now?”
This is a story that has been demanding to be told for a long time. Stay with me, it’s a long one. Or, if you rather, daydream your way in and out of it, gather what wisdom comes to you and discard the rest.
I’ve been living in this question of empowerment for a long time. It’s hard to pinpoint when it began, but I remember distinctly a telling moment in my early teen years. I was surrounded by my female peers, my girlfriends, as they bashed themselves. “I’m so fat”, “I’m so ugly”, and “I’m so stupid” were on auto-repeat. It was as though we’d crossed an invisible line along our way, from innocent childhoods of self-love, self-empowerment, and that kind of little girl confidence (that completely evades the angst of the teenage years), into a collective agreement of what teen hood would look like. We had decided it would be about self-deprecation, insecurity, and disempowerment. To be disempowered: to give our power to that which we do not want to have our power taken by. Here we were, joyous, lively, and capable young women with our whole lives ahead of us, and yet it had become “cool” to tear ourselves apart. In that moment, surrounded by this self-destruction and self-hate, a profoundly simple question formulated in my mind. I can still hear the words, clear as day: “Is it ok that I love myself as I am?” Followed by, “What if I actually don’t believe that I am ugly, fat, and stupid? Will my friends still like me if I share that I actually think I have a kind of pretty face, I like my body, and I think I am smart?” I didn’t say any of that out loud, of course. Back then, my fear triumphed over my truth. I feared they would see me as vain, self-centered, and narcissistic. So I played the game. I crossed the invisible line with them, thoroughly confused at how I was portraying an external reality so utterly backwards from what I felt inside.
The moment was likely one of the most quantifying and qualitative moments of my life. I had no way of knowing it then. That one question, “Is it ok to love myself as I am?”, would lead me to walk great distances and reach great heights within myself, all in the name of self-recognition, self-remembrance, and self-empowerment; all in the name of uniting these warring aspects within myself…. all in the name of Yoga. This one question would be the one that would begin to take me home.
I wish I could tell you it was without torment and self-torture; long nights and days and years of self-destruction; but it was not. This brief moment in time that wrote my historical trajectory, surrounded by my disillusioned peers, led to a full-fledged three year affair with an eating disorder – bulimia. My family might tell you that my romance with bulimia must have began during the many years I spent working around the world as a successful fashion model, because that wraps itself up into a nice, neat, but dysfunctional little package, doesn’t it? Somehow we can make more sense of it when it is wrapped in that kind of wrapping …. the pill gets easier to swallow. But they would be wrong. My years spent face down in a toilet bowl began when a group of young woman collectively decided to cross the invisible line from self-love into self-hate. Several girlfriends in my social circle started dabbling with throwing up after eating, in order to “get skinny” . It was a clean act to not love ourselves. It felt “off” to me from the first day, but driven by the fear of what might happen if I spoke up, (and, gasp: asked if we could practice loving ourselves how we were instead), I too took part. I began to rapidly swallow down all that I couldn’t quite chew. All the truth I wanted to say out loud but didn’t, only to spit it up and flush it down in the dark of the subconscious night, when the rest of the world was sleeping. How symbolic is that? If any of those very girlfriends are reading this now: I wanted to tell you what a beautiful, intelligent, and magical human being I thought you were. I let the fear of being judged, shunned, and unaccepted by our commonly accepted societal standards stop me from speaking that very important truth. I willingly separated my head from my heart, and this has made all the difference in the course my life has taken.
That blip in time, that moment of betraying my truth and integrity, this one moment of dishonesty, has spun its web seamlessly into the fabric of my bottomless journey of listening for truth, honouring truth, and giving myself to truth; even if it rubs against every single uncomfortable corner and fibre of my being. Even if it tugs at every strand that upholds all the fears that may still live inside of me; I speak it. I don’t swallow it down any longer. I cannot, given the grace I’ve been shown in this lifetime. But it wasn’t always this way. All lessons spin themselves fervently through time and space, organizing themselves into order within chaos as we ourselves become ready to chew on them, swallow them, digest them, break them down into all their necessary bits of timeless truth, and excrete the unnecessary leftovers – giving our lessons back to the fertile ground that fed us in the first place. And so the cycle goes, over and over and over again.
I first immersed myself in illusion, so as to make sense of living in such a dichotomy (a great lesson I didn’t comprehend was at play at the time). As mentioned, I spent about seven successful years travelling the world as a fashion model from my mid-teens into early twenties. Once the seed of bulimia was successfully planted while I was living in my remote and unassuming Canadian Prairies hometown, Creator spun the web and flung me out into the big wide world of diversity and adversity. I would be taught fortitude and endurance. I would be taught how illusion unveils truth; how tightly intertwined the two are, and shall remain; forever in bed with one another.
My years spent in the fashion industry were my first real years “playing scientist”. In Tantra, it is said that a true practitioner is merely a scientist, with all theories first and foremost tested within ourselves. We take nothing as gospel, and question everything (this is also why Tantra has been coined as, “walking the razor’s edge”). I toyed with “truth”, and I toyed with “untruth”. I toyed with presenting to the outer world everything my modelling agents and clients asked me to be, and I toyed with bridging the gap, presenting what I felt to simply be my honest self. My biggest experiment towards the end of my modelling career revealed to me the essence of it all… that no matter how conscious or unconscious, we are all ultimately motivated and drawn to what is true, beautiful, honest, and pure. We are silently pulled to that which is soul, or “atman”, in Yogic terms. Choose the words you choose – but we, as human beings, inevitably move towards that which is invisibly visible, silently powerful, yet visibly invisible, and powerfully silent. When given the choice, we all walk towards that which is naturally and inherently Whole.
The big experiment was this: after years of buoyantly working the fashion industry as myself (no smoke and mirrors), a big-time agent and owner of Next Models International called me out on my (physical) talent and potential as I reached eighteen (also a peak age to “make it big”). He asked me to refine myself. He wanted me to reform myself into what the fashion industry perceived it wanted: a skinny, heartless, monotone-faced disembodiment of sexy “femininity”. Being the closet experimentalist and tantrika yogini that I hadn’t yet fully realized I was, I naturally decided to test his theory. Was this really what my clients wanted? Would presenting a falsified image of myself really bring me more success? Were we, as humans, ultimately more drawn to the superficial than the real? Did we want illusion more than we wanted truth? I wondered. And if there was any industry to test my theory, the fashion industry was it!
I dutifully wore my high heels and skinny jeans to castings, the classic yet hyper-sexualized wardrobe. I withheld my face-mask from betraying the myriad of character that hid just beneath its skin. My body strained to contain the boundless soul I housed within. I played the part of “top model”. All of this was a dramatic shift from the carefree and spirited young woman that had once played my modelling game – a much more honest version of who I was at the time. Before my “reform”, I skateboarded to all my castings. I wore baggy pants, gypsy skirts, rainbow-toe-socks-turned-hand-warmers, and enjoyed all sorts of other crazy forays into personal expression through style. But not anymore. Now, I followed all my agent’s new rules. The end result? I made less money in those two years combined than each of my previous three years of modelling. My old clients stopped hiring me, and new clients no longer hand-picked me from the plethora of pretty-but-dead-faces. Nothing separated me from the masses of artificial, or, at minimum, externalized beauty. There was no more soul, no more light to crystallize the blue of my eyes. No more glow to shine behind my skin. No more zest to animate my movements. No more inner guidance to illuminate my words, and share with the world the personalized expression of “me”; an individualized God-droplet, projection of Creator, ray of Source’s Light, or in Tantra, Shiva’s beloved Shakti (insert your preferred nomanclatcher for “that-which-is-you-yet-far-greater-than-you” here: _______________ ).
If the question, “Is it ok to love myself as I am?” was one of the most gravitational questions of my life, this experiment matched it in the gravity of its implications. We think we like the superficial, but we move towards what is real. We think we want the illusion, but we respond to truth. We think we want to stay on the surface, but we inevitably swim into the depths. I would come to implement this truth into my existence from that point onwards. Lesson received. I chewed on it, digested it, absorbed the nutrients, and excreted it back into the earth; the necessary letting go and surrender of all that is not necessary, as every spiritual lineage teaches us, over and over and over again.
All this time, I was also observing a curious phenomenon. Bulimia continued to judiciously inform me of where, and how, I fragmented from my truth. Nine months of every year I spent in fashion capitals around the world; London, Milan, Paris, Tokyo, LA, “the circuit”, as we called it back then. And for about three months per year, I would return to Canada to spend time with family and friends. Mysteriously (or, rather indicatively), the bulimia would cease to be a part of my reality each time I returned home. It would vanish into thin air, as though it hadn’t ever existed. And when I returned to my twisted version of reality as a model, so too did the bulimia return.
Enter Yoga to the stage. The same big-time agent who lead me to the big experiment that revealed the big teaching of my essential essence also suggested Yoga to me (by far the best addition into my new reform of high heels, tight jeans, and my all-new, heroin-chic, expressionless face). The intent behind his suggestion was a far-cry from where the suggestion actually landed me, and for that, I am infinitely grateful. My agent was looking for a way to lengthen my muscles without my body getting any skinnier and thought stretching might do the trick (I was very thin at the time, but have always had a very athletic build, and the fashion industry proved not to be too fond of muscle). What I found in my first Yoga class, however, changed my life. It was as if I’d finally caught up with my self. My heart, my mind, and my soul all fell into step with one another, and together we began making great strides (and fumbling baby steps) along a path that supported all the theories I had been testing, ever since that big question, “Is it ok to love myself as I am?”
And Yoga said to me, “Yes.” Yes, it is ok to love myself. Not only is it ok, it is imperative. My own embodiment, empowerment, and capacity to receive success, joy, freedom, peace, and beauty in this very precious life depends upon it.
And the rest is history. The more Yoga I practiced, the less modelling I did. I made an inherently natural shift towards self. A movement that could only take its destined trajectory once I had fully rested in all that was not-Self (remember, we cannot escape the dichotomy within which we live – it is here for our digestion!). A practice of rigorous self-reflection (the Yogic practice of svadhyaha) and a committed, ruthless, brutally honest journalling habit drew me out of the dark tunnel of bulimia. How? By shining light on what was dark. What happens when you turn on a light inside a dark room? …You can see again. What happens when you turn towards the sun? You can see everything that it shines upon. This is consciousness. This is how consciousness works. It’s not rocket science. I think in the english language, and perhaps in spiritual circles, we have too much added weight and bulkiness to the word… Consciousness. There is a light, an awareness, inside of all of us that has the capacity to always stay on – whether we are awake, dreaming, or deeply asleep. In this particular story, in my instance, dark nights facing my reflection in the water of the porcelain bowl were followed by days of living in my soul’s refusal to look the other way any longer. In the light of day, I watched and I watched and I watched myself. I wrote. I stayed honest. I held myself accountable for my actions. I questioned. I questioned everything, over and over and over again. “Why did I do that? Why did I respond that way? What was behind this word, this action, this feeling, this reaction?” I didn’t let myself fragment. I held it all in an even and steady awareness – the pain, the confusion, the torment, the pleasure, the love and the hate were all evenly held within my being. I embraced the dichotomy that dictates this stunning human experience. I came into Yoga with myself.
“Yoga” literally means to “yoke”, “to bind”, or “to come into a union with”. It is to recognize intrinsically the boundless nature of this very bound existence. It is abiding in the home-ground of awareness itself, while still inhabiting fully this human body with all its ferocious pain and astronomical pleasure, and ultimately, its death. It is experiencing wholeness through its fragmentation. That which ails you will also be what sets you free. I think we all know this one, we’ve heard it before. Yet, somehow, we sometimes struggle to choke it down, don’t we?
There is so much to share beyond this pivotal point in my story, the point at which Yoga came alive in me, and yet, there is really nothing more to share. Every other teaching and every other story mirrors this most fundamental lesson that placed me directly into the line of fire for the rest of my life’s work. It was at this point that I began to experience my boundlessness, by leaning into everything that bound me. Anything I share with you from this point on is both transient and transparent. It exists and it doesn’t exist – it is bound only to this very moment in time and space, but to nothing more; it is only alive so long as the awareness points to it. Otherwise, it simply melts back into the one giant continuum of the existence experiencing itself.
And to me, this is empowering, my friends. So this is my invitation to you. I invite you to recognize the dichotomy in which you live, and claim its power as your own. I invite you to look long and hard at where you feel restricted, at where you feel bound, and see if simply looking lights your way to freedom. Hold evenly in the light of your awareness what is dark within. Play in that which both reveals itself to you and incessantly conceals itself, and watch your power come back. I invite you to love yourself exactly as you are. I invite you to question. I invite you to walk along beside me, as we make our sweet return. I invite you to come home.