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Shame Song: Learning to Love through the Mirror Gaze


Passionate musings on yoga, writing, creativity, and self-love 

Shame Song: Learning to Love through the Mirror Gaze

leslie stjohn

mirror yoga

After another late-night marathon of Netflix and snacking, I woke up feeling heavy, bloated, lethargic. When those physical feelings show up, shame soon follows.

People describe shame as a spiral: one thought leading to another and another until vision narrows, breath thins, and momentum drags you down.

It starts with my stomach: a little rounder than normal; last night’s cheese, crackers, wine (chocolate granola) still nesting in my gut; and the mirror judges— talks a lot of shit to my downcast eyes. You should be ashamed to leave the house… you call yourself a yogi? Disgusting.  But here’s where the metaphor breaks down. Rather than take a few stumbles of thought, self-doubt, guilt, I fall headlong into a dark, narrow well. The walls, wet and inky, covered in mold and death; the air ripped from my chest as shame draws me into its pit. No progressive spiral—a pitfall.  And once I’m there, all the gremlins of my past mind-fucking trips have a free-for-all on my broken bones, my diminished resolve. I hear their teeth tearing me apart, inside out, and like a bad dream, I can do nothing, paralyzed by shame. I watch them devour me

I know this sounds dramatic. If you looked through my window, all you’d probably see is a woman swiping her hand across a healthy abdomen. Maybe she would throw away the remaining chocolate granola—removing the temptation and evidence. You’d see her looking at pictures of tall, thin yogis on Instagram: their sleek legs reaching into infinity; their slim waists vanishing into twists. You’d see her shoulders round, maybe wonder at the thoughts that keep her staring at the bleach stain on the carpet.

How many of us approach the spiral? How many slip backward into the well of regret? Food is often the culprit. But, of course, we’re not just talking about food. We’re talking about an emptiness we try to fill with anything available: food, alcohol, work, clothes, sex, good deeds, busy-ness, religion, Netflix etc. We consume to forget, to numb out, to find an ounce of pleasure. Because we’re bored and well-trained. We consume so as not to be consumed with those unresolved parts of ourselves. And for many women who have been culturally conditioned to find their value in outward appearance alone, we are deeply ashamed when we get off track. The threat is real. Am I still desirable? Lovable?   

At thirty-five I think of the fourteen-year-old girls who are learning this pattern from their friends, their own mothers.  I picture my Cal Poly students small in their desks, legs and arms crossed tight against the world, as if finally, one day, they could…just…disappear. I want to gather them into my arms and say, “you are worthy—just as you are, even now. Especially now.”

But how can I do that for Leah or Rose or Monique if I can’t do it for myself?

This morning I wrote on my chalk mug, “I love and approve of myself, Now.” With each sip of coffee, I received these words, open to a new vibration.

I lay in the sun and breathed with my hands on my belly. So often I’m hard here—I suck in. I tighten. I brace. Why? Because thin is beautiful? Because I’m holding something in, keeping something out? What if that something is love?

I do not have the answers to these questions, but as Rumi writes, I’m trying to “live the questions,” and in doing so, hopefully, I will find a clearing in these dense woods, if not an answer. I’m trying to live these questions…

Because disgust is a strong word: A feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval, arousing something unpleasant or offensive.


It is one of sociologist Paul Ekman’s seven universal facial expressions of emotion: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise, and happiness.  Do I wear the face of disgust—nose wrinkling, upper lip raised-- as I turn sideways in a mirror or a window reflection, my hand searching for the concave valley between hipbones only to find a round mound of failure. I have ninja blocked lovers from touching me there. It is the entry point to my shame portal

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But today...

(But today, one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language, less silvery than cellar door, but Oh, how illuminated! A blast of light through an open window.)

I tried something different. And even in the trying, I felt myself climbing out of that well, one slippery handhold at a time.

I brought a sculpture of Parvati, the Hindu yogini goddess and consort to Shiva, Shakti herself, into my living room. A candle, a crystal. And a mirror. I made my altar and positioned it so I could see myself doing asana; then I stripped down to my underwear. Not sexy, supportive pieces, but a simple bra and panties. And this is how I practiced, witnessing every fold and crease and bulge. To my surprise, I saw beautiful muscles I’d never seen before. I saw cellulite. I saw my body. My one and only body that lets me experience the world in its agony and glory—this body of injury and grief, passion and bliss: legs that carried me down a wedding aisle and, a few years later, to the small casket of my nephew; arms that fought a lover in Indiana and cradled a baby while taking a candlelight bath in Arkansas; eyes that watched a doe feed in a field at dusk and wore a metal patch for months at a time; a heart that climbs hills on a bike, propels me forward over waterfalls, lets me nearly drown in a lover’s last words, always brings me back to the sunlight surface of hope and possibility.

This body I watch stretch and strengthen and dance is my home, my gift. I am grateful to see her, to be her, to love her today.

Shame, I hear you. I open the door and usher you out. You’ve outworn your residence.

Practicing in this way—vulnerable, nearly naked in the mirror gaze—I say for myself, my friends, the teenage girls approaching that foggy horizon of body image,  “I love and approve of myself.” And now, I do.

This healthy perception is a practice in which we actively step sway from that dark well with its familiar gravitational pull. How do we take these steps? We keep breathing. Inhaling and exhaling before the fashion room mirror, the refrigerator, the scale. We inhale and exhale as we dress and undress, as we touch and allow ourselves to be touched. We inhale and exhale as we tell our stories and seek to connect rather than compare. And when we make a less than edifying choice, we breathe, knowing this too shall pass. Tomorrow contains a new choice. But today… May we see ourselves, love ourselves even more through our yoga practice on the mat, off the mat, through the mirror. We are our bodies—and so much more.