When coronavirus lockdown and social restrictions were announced in Germany, my first reaction was that it wouldn’t cause a huge change to my lifestyle. I have a fairly simple life, I work as a freelancer in my home office and cafes, I spend lots of time in solitude and my social calendar is fairly low-profile.

Yes, I’d miss the small things that are part of my routine, but this was a good excuse to deepen my meditation practice and step-up for those in need of emotional support. Then it dawned on me: the gym’s closed. My sacred space between the dumbbells and the squat racks, out of bounds, for months.

There may appear to be a conflict for a meditation teacher and coach who emphasizes our identity is not linked to the body. Whilst I’d love to profess I knew I’d miss the gym exclusively for the mental health benefits (of which there are many) I also knew it was going to challenge my relationship with my body, a familiar foe from the past.

Bigorexia, body image, and self-worth

I’ve been a regular gym-goer for over 10 years. The longest I’ve spent without going to the gym in this time was just under two months, when I first moved to Berlin. I’ve grappled with various issues in my relationship to exercise; from unintentionally punishing my body, to obsessively trying to get as muscular and defined as (super)humanly possible.

It’s a risk that comes with a hobby linked to the way you look. Combined with Hollywood images of the hyper-jacked, from Chris Evans to Hugh Jackman, and links between physical appearance and self-worth, it’s no surprise body image issues are a huge cause of emotional distress.

Women are most commonly associated with bodily insecurity, though eating disorders in men have risen 70 percent, and 45 percent of men said they’ve experienced “bigorexia,” the term given to an obsession with muscle-building. With the lack of gym access, high levels of stress, change to routine, and comfort eating, lockdown has created what Mayo Clinic psychologist Leslie Sim refers to as a “perfect storm” for body image issues.

Gyms are open again in Berlin, and it’s good to be back. However, towards the end of the three months’ with no access, the return of familiar thinking-patterns and feelings towards my body (not to mention the genuinely noticeable change in how my body felt and looked) led me to return to a familiar issue with a fresh perspective.

So what’s the link with body image and identity, and how do we develop a skillful approach that will benefit, not hinder, spiritual growth?

Judgment and the root of body image

This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

To identify with the body means mistaking our physical structure as who we are. The process of mindfulness, meditation, and spiritual growth is to understand that who we are is much wider and more extensive than the confines of the body itself. From this perspective, the body can be compared to a vessel which provides a “home” for your individual, unique expression of consciousness.

When we identify with the physical body, we might become attached to its sensations, emotions, and sense of separation. Body image issues arise when we place our inherent value on our physical appearance. Suddenly, self-worth is linked to the way the body looks.

Such a hierarchy of values is largely dictated by a culture that pervades the collective psyche with images of bodily perfection and unattainable beauty standards. From Hollywood to the advertising and beauty industries, the message is clear: here’s the way you should look, and good looks are the recipe to happiness and success.

This creates a vicious cycle of judgment. We judge the value of our appearance and, perhaps unconsciously, do the same to others. The body becomes objectified, a malleable object to sculpt, censor, change, to fit the standards that exist outside of ourselves.

In doing so, it’s possible to lose all appreciation for the gifts the body bestows — legs that move us from one place to the other, a heart that beats for a lifetime, a stomach that extracts nourishment from the food we eat, lungs that inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, eyes that see the beauty of the world… these are overlooked and obscured by one determining factor: physical appearance.

Developing a healthy relationship with the body

The body is a beautiful thing: it’s incredibly intelligent, wise, and adaptable. Having undergone a lot of work to improve my relationship with my body, I can tell you meditation is a powerful tool. I can also tell you that saying “you are not your body” as a seeming antidote offers very little value. It’s one thing knowing this, but it doesn’t offer a practical solution to what can be a very invasive and life-altering challenge.

I believe in making spiritual practice practical and accessible. So here are 5 steps I find helpful in improving your relationship with your body:

  1. Challenge judgmental thoughts: Mindfulness allows you to gain greater clarity on your thoughts. Notice how often judgemental thoughts arise: remember, they aren’t truths, but inherited thoughts from cultural values. When these thoughts arise, as well as observing them, challenge them gently. I challenge thoughts by reframing my self-talk in the same manner I would talk to a close friend.
  2. Meditate on the feeling of the body: Use meditation to simply sit and notice the rich universe of sensations that ebb and flow throughout the body. See if you can notice without labeling “good” or “bad” or “pleasant” or “unpleasant.” See how the body communicates and sense its aliveness. You can sample this now: close your eyes, breathe deeply, and spend a few moments paying attention to the sensations in your hands.
  3. Communicate with the body: You might feel a bit silly, but this works. One of my big breakthroughs came during meditation. I instinctively started an inner-dialogue with my body, and apologies for the way I’d been treating it. I was taking it for granted, exercising excessively, and taking little time to send appreciation. When I said the words “I’m sorry, thank you for all you do for me,” I burst into tears — my body responded to my apology and expression of gratitude with a chorus of chills.
  4. Develop a mindset of fascination: When viewed through the perspective of physical appearance, we look at the body with a judgemental eye, scanning its contours and curves looking for imperfection. Instead, see if you can shift your mindset to one of fascination. Explore the magic of the body: how it heals, how it provides you with the nutrients you need to stay alive. If you sense a change in your appearance, try and apply the same mindset. For example, “ah, look at how my body has adapted to less exercise.”
  5. Send loving-kindness towards your body: The loving-kindness meditation is a powerful, heart-opening practice. In meditation, I found a shift in the way I connected to my body when I visualized a bright, white light (representing unconditional love) throughout my body, whilst extending gratitude for all it offers.

Learning to change your relationship is a slow process, which involves exploring the body from the perspective of gratitude and fascination. Though it may seem irrational to be concerned about physical appearance during a global pandemic, body image issues are one of the most prevalent and pervasive causes of emotional distress – so be easy on yourself.

Rather than aiming to sculpt your body to perfection or learn to love your physical appearance, aim to gradually improve your relationship over time. Listen to your body’s form of communication. Be inquisitive. Sooner or later, this leads to greater harmony, connection, and gratitude, as you become receptive to the body’s inherent wisdom.

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