Ever since she first saw the movie Dr. Zhivago, Barbara Moroney had longed for Julie Christie's nose -- and her 21-inch waist. Oh, and a couple of extra inches of height wouldn't be bad either. Moroney was petite, not overweight, but she still didn't like what she saw in the mirror.
After she started practicing yoga, all that changed.
"In the first couple of months, I started feeling this release of all this tension," Moroney tells WebMD. A few years later, she says, "I realized that the ideal image I had of my body no longer worked for me. The realization made me focus on how I could change."
Even in the midst of a culture that promotes dissatisfaction with our appearance, adherents say that yoga, Pilates, and other mind-body exercises can teach us respect for our bodies -- whatever their shape.
"Body image, how we view ourselves, often lacks compassion," says Steven Hartman, director of professional training at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass. "Many of us learn at an early age how to disconnect from our body and our body's signals. We learn not to pay attention to pain, to joy in our bodies."
Through yoga, he says, you can re-create a relationship with the body. In each pose, your attention is drawn not to how you look in your tights, but to whether you feel tight hamstrings or an imbalance in the alignment of your hips. Yoga, says Hartman "helps you have an objective awareness of the body."
Christina Sell, author of Yoga from the Inside Out: Making Peace with Your Body through Yoga, says yoga puts you in the moment.
"It's very here, very now, how you stand on the earth, how the position of the body feels on the mat," says Sell, a certified Anusara yoga instructor. "If you're focusing on the immediacy of the body's sensations and the steadiness of the breath, then the attention rests inside the body as it is, rather than in the mind and its projections and images about what is."
"I'm learning that the body I have is a reflection of who I am inside," says Moroney, author of Natural Body, Natural Shape: Develop a Strong Self Image, Good Health & Ageless Grace & Beauty through Yoga. "I'm more relaxed and less stressed. I see the world differently."
But it's not just mental, she says. Yoga helps you to become physically stronger, better aligned, and more flexible and that, combined with the release of tension, "causes the natural shape of the body to change," she says.
"When you look in the mirror, you begin to see a younger-looking person. You have better posture. You look thinner. Yoga puts your tummy in place, your butt in place, and reduces stress, and a stress-free face looks younger."
The Power of Pilates
"I wanted to exercise but I didn't have the energy," says Stanley, a retired schoolteacher. "It didn't feel good."
Then she learned of Pilates through watching an infomercial. It wasn't the exercises that intrigued her as much as the fact that they were done barefoot.
"One of the things I hated most was bending over to put on tennis shoes," says Stanley, who has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Stanley discovered Centerworks Pilates in Wichita, Kan., six years ago and has been practicing Pilates ever since.
"Obviously, I wasn't happy with my size, but that wasn't the biggest motivation," says Stanley. "I was looking for something I'd stick with."
Still, she's seen some weight-loss benefits.
"I've gone down at least three dress sizes and I've not dieted," she says. "As you become firmer and get a little smaller, you tend to watch what you eat. I'm more conscious of what I put in my mouth."
Stanley's teacher, Aliesa George, is quick to clarify that Pilates isn't designed for weight loss, though that is often a byproduct.
"Getting that mental focus to pay attention to what's going on with the body helps you to get in touch from the inside out," George says. "Once you get control of the body, and of finding the right muscles to put the body into the positions, you realize you can control other things in life."
Strength and Focus
The focus that mind-body exercise requires seems to beget a strength that can go beyond the Pilates Reformer or the yoga mat. Indeed, results of a study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly back up the idea that yoga can make women feel better about their bodies.
The study compared women who practiced yoga regularly with those who did other forms of exercise. Women who hadn't done regular exercise for at least two years were also included.
In surveys, the women who practiced yoga expressed healthier attitudes toward their bodies and had fewer disordered eating behaviors.
Yoga students learn to tune in to their bodies as they move through the poses. That could emphasize the body's abilities, instead of its appearance, say the researchers.
"Through yoga, this study suggests that women may have intuitively discovered a way to buffer themselves against messages that tell them that only a thin and 'beautiful' body will lead to happiness and success," researcher Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, of California's Preventive Medicine Research Institute, said in a news release.
If you're in search of a healthier body image, getting involved in a mind-body exercise may be worth a try. But just as you wouldn't attempt a full lotus during your first yoga class, don't expect to start loving your body right away, warns Sell.
Just like yoga, she says, transforming your body image should be seen in the context of a practice being perfected over a long period of time.
"Body image and all of its thoughts and complexities wasn't born overnight, it didn't get its stronghold in the psyche overnight, and it won't be dismantled overnight," she says.