Do you accept yourself? Yoga can help
Self-acceptance is something we have all struggled with on some level, and getting past that feeling of not being “good enough” and embracing who you are, whether in work, relationships or even yoga, can be a challenge — particularly when each of us is our own harshest critic. However, learning to embrace who you are and foster courage and confidence through yoga can help pave the way toward greater self-acceptance and inner peace.
Getting to know you
Yoga is so much more than a series of stretches. It’s a process whereby we unite and harmonise the mind, body and spirit. Through this, we can really start to know ourselves on a much deeper level and it’s here where we must make peace with ourselves, as we are. However, finding this self-acceptance is not always as easy as it sounds.
The yoga of self-acceptance requires you to look at yourself objectively, all the various layers of your being, and acknowledge it all: the good, the bad and the parts you just plain don’t like.
The inability to accept ourselves as we are can be very deep-rooted. It might relate back to a particular event or experience. It could be a lack of self-confidence, or self-doubt that causes us to compare ourselves to others, beat ourselves up for our perceived faults and feel that we are not worthy, not good enough. These thoughts and feelings can arise any time, including on the yoga mat. Whatever the source, essentially we get caught between the prisons of the past and worries about the future and thus struggle to find acceptance with ourselves in the now. This lack of self-acceptance holds us back and can sabotage our attempts to find true inner peace.
Thankfully, yoga offers a way to cultivate awareness, contentment and happiness within to help us practise self-acceptance and love toward ourselves naturally, in the moment. The yoga of self-acceptance requires us to look at ourselves objectively, all the various layers of our being, and acknowledge it all: the good, the bad and the parts we just plain don’t like. Once we can take all of this in lovingly, we can then start to appreciate what we have and who we are, and can make real progress and grow with courage, confidence and open hearts.
It’s not about changing who you are. It’s about embracing who you are — as wonderfully flawed as you may be — right now. This isn’t a Band-Aid approach. Self-acceptance, like yoga, is a journey, but by using a compassionate, confident and empowering approach to your life and practice you can take a positive step forward.
Acceptance on the mat
Yoga, despite being about the complete opposite, can test our competitive natures. We’ve all been in classes before where we’ve unknowingly pitted ourselves against fellow students, compared ourselves to them and scrutinised every part of their pose. And, almost every time, even if you can balance in tree pose longer than anyone else, you are left feeling inadequate.
It doesn’t help when we are exposed to much-glamorised and sometimes unattainable images of yoga, which more often than not consist of yogis in only the most advanced inversions and arm balances, posing in designer gear and on tropical beaches. This leads us to focus on others and what we lack, rather than our own practice. However, rethinking yoga on the mat, and approaching our practice with an open heart and acceptance of our limits and abilities, allows us to make new ground. It allows us to appreciate and accept the present and where we are right now, and progress on a much deeper level.
The real yoga requires us to transcend and put aside the competitive urges and judgements of the ego and simply be during practice. A key part of this lies in respecting the body and its limits. Your focus should be on the body and the mind during practice, and nothing or no one else. If there’s a position you can’t quite get to, there is nothing wrong with practising a modified version that might not be the highest level or look as impressive, but still has the same benefits. This may seem fairly simple, but accepting this and putting aside the pesky ego can be tough for some.
The real yoga requires you to transcend and put aside the competitive urges and judgements of the ego and simply be during practice.
Learning to rethink your practice and integrate ahimsa, or non-violence, can help with self-acceptance on the mat and beyond. This means not causing “violence” by over-exerting and risking causing injury, or getting frustrated or angry at yourself for not to getting to a certain level or posture. Instead, ahimsa asks that you treat yourself and the practice with kindness, love and respect.
To add to this, in The Yoga Sutras Patanjali gives the definition of a yoga posture, or asana, as sthira, sukham, asanam: a steady and comfortable position. This is something that will be completely unique to each person and offers the perfect space to start practising self-acceptance. It is only in this place, in this position that is right for you, that you can start to release and shift focus from the external, ego-driven desires and expectations to the present, where you can start to experience the real benefits of yoga.
This also links back to the yogic concept of santosha or contentment, which further helps cultivate self-acceptance and greater inner peace. Santosha refers to contentment in who we are, what we do and where we are going. Being content with yourself and your practice, rather than unhappy with what you lack or what you aren’t, allows you to rediscover the bliss and wonder already around and within you.
Santosha is not informed by anyone but ourselves and is something we can always choose. That’s why contentment with and acceptance of who we are is also linked to self-confidence and empowerment. When we choose to practise self-acceptance, we are in charge of your own destinies — and not dictated by anything else.
Silencing the inner critic
Beyond the yoga studio there are, of course, many other situations where we grapple with self-acceptance. It could be in our work, relationships or even walking down the street when those niggling thoughts of, “I should have done this or that”, “I’m not good enough” or “I need to do better” arise.
Self-acceptance is not easy, particularly when we’re our own worst critics. No matter what we do, we all have that inner critic who scrutinises every inch of our behaviour, every thought and every action and compares us incessantly to others. Rather than practise self-acceptance and love, the critic instead beats down confidence by highlighting inadequacies and “shoulds”: you should be doing this, you should feel this way, you should be a certain way.
Self-acceptance paves the way forward for greater self-love and happiness. Through practices of yoga and meditation you can silence the critic and start connecting with your inner, true self and the voice that tells you to love and take care of yourself. The voice that says you are enough. You are you — and you should love and accept yourself for that reason alone. Yogic practices offer the perfect space to cultivate this, as they require us to focus completely in the now and resolve inner conflict by creating harmony in the body and mind.
It is only ... in the position that is right for you that you can start to release and shift focus from the external, ego-driven desires and expectations to the present, where you can start to experience the real benefits of yoga.
The yogic practice of svadhyaya, or self-study, is a helpful tool to use to reflect and start knowing your true self on a much deeper level. This process of self-study or introspection cultivates awareness of the intricacies and various layers of your being. You can become aware of your whole self, including qualities that may surprise you or seem unfavourable.
It’s important to remember during this to also practise ahimsa and not look at yourself with judgement or harsh criticism. Instead, you should take an objective standpoint during svadhyaya and recognise and accept all layers of your being. Santosha can also be incorporated, and you can tap into all this during asana practice, relaxation or meditation, when you cultivate awareness of your entire being, become an observer of your thoughts and create inner peace.
These approaches offer you a chance to acknowledge your feelings but also allow you to start moving away from being overly critical and self-sabotaging and towards compassion and acceptance. It’s an approach with a loving, open heart that also empowers, builds confidence and fosters greater happiness.
Mantras for acceptance
Creating a mantra, or sankalpa (affirmation), is a helpful way to actively practise self-acceptance and build confidence. A sankalpa takes us away from the “shoulds” and focuses on what we already intrinsically are inside. Your sankalpa should be empowering and aim to open you to greater self-acceptance as well as love, growth and happiness. Below are some examples to get you started. Use these to set the tone of your yoga practice or even repeat them to yourself during times when you might need to practise self-acceptance. Your statement should be short and succinct and something that really drives Home why you should accept yourself as you are and your self-worth.
- I am enough.
- I accept all that I am.
- I am confidence and courage.
- I define who I am.
- I am peace and happiness.
- I am worthy of love and joy.
A sequence for self-acceptance
The following asanas have a range of effects on the body and mind. They are empowering and build confidence and stamina, as well as open the heart and allow for introspection and surrender in the very moment. As you practise each of these postures, focus on the breath and become aware of your entire being. Make adjustments as appropriate to find a position you can hold and truly surrender in.
Humble warrior (baddha virabhadrasana)
The humble warrior is often a transitory posture in flowing sequences, but it is a powerful asana in its own right. This pose draws on warriors’ strong and sturdy foundations but also teaches us to surrender. Use warrior one as your foundation by stepping the left foot toward the front of the mat. The right foot should be on a 45-degree angle with toes pointing outward. Bend the left knee so it’s in line with the ankle. Interlace the fingers behind the back and slowly start to bow forward, eventually pointing the crown of the head toward the floor. Allow the hands to remain interlaced and arms to float upward.
Deep side lunge (skandasana)
Begin standing with as much distance between the feet as possible and bring the hands onto the mat. Bend your left knee into a half squat. Come onto the ball of your left foot and straighten the right leg with the heel on the mat. Keep both hands on the mat to get your balance and then slowly bring them into prayer at the heart centre or extend the arms out to the side.
Wide-angle seated forward bend (upavistha konasa)
Sit on the floor and open the legs as wide as possible. Keep the heels of the feet steady and upright. Inhale and raise the arms up, then slowly exhale and bring them down to the mat. Continue to walk the hands away and lower yourself down. Keep the spine straight and attempt to bring the head as close to the floor as possible. Remember to extend and maintain the length of the spine. Once you’ve lowered yourself as far as possible, grab hold of the feet, relax and hold the position.
Camel pose (ustrasana)
Kneel on the mat with the knees hip-distance apart. Square the hips, place both hands on the sacrum and enter a back bend. As you go deeper into the bend, bring the hands onto the heels. If you need some assistance, prop the toes onto the mat to give you extra height. Allow the chest and throat to open in this position. Remember to follow ustrasana with extended child’s pose.
Big toe pose (padangusthasana)
Raise and bend the left knee. Grab hold of the left big toe using the thumb and index finger. Keep your balancing leg strong and stable and start to straighten out the left leg. If needed, the left knee can slightly bend. Hold this position or, if you feel comfortable, start to open the hip and rotate the leg toward the left. Keep the right hand on the hip or extend out to the side to hold and balance in this asana.
Child’s pose (balasana)
This simple posture is the ideal way to end your asana practice. Sit with the shins on the mat. Keep the knees apart and the toes touching at the back. Bring the hands in the prayer position at the heart centre, then inhale and extend the arms upward. Bend forward, lowering the forehead onto the mat, arms extended forward, with hands still in prayer position. Maintain the length in the spine and arms, but use this as a chance to completely surrender and let go in this position.
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