Unbecoming What You Think You Are
Unbecoming What You Think You Are
Bri: Could you give me a little bit of background on what led you to the path you are on now?
Dana: After sophomore year of college, I had spent that entire year actively trying to lose weight. I dieted, went to the gym, and so on. I lost about one hundred pounds. I had set the bar super high for my entire life being dependent on me being smaller. Also, other people around me were saying “You look so great now, are you happy?” And I really wasn’t. It left me feeling almost worse than I felt before I lost the weight. I had put so much work in, but I didn’t get what I thought I wanted. I was looking to feel happier, or like a new person.
I went to yoga just to try something new. I didn’t have the intent that it would be my thing, or that it would change my life. It was so hard and super challenging in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. I just kept practicing, even though I was really shitty for a while. And after so many months I started noticing certain poses get easier. Things in my body started happening that I didn’t think I was going to be able to do because I was heavy, started happening. It made me start questioning that in relationship to the rest of my life. For the first time ever, I was experiencing: A.) Proving myself wrong, and B.) Defying the body that I thought was keeping me from doing things. It was the first time I realized I was doing it to myself, essentially. That was what allowed me to start changing the way I interacted in my life. It’s not that you can’t learn those lessons in other ways, but for me I learned them through the practice of yoga.
Bri: So yoga was the catalyst?
Dana: Yes it was the catalyst that made me realize I didn’t have to be miserable. Also, I didn’t have to hate myself and I didn’t have to care what someone else thought about me or said about me, or let that control how I was going live my life. So that became the message I started posting on Instagram. I didn't even know that there was this whole yoga community on Instagram at the time because that was totally over my head.
I never preplanned anything and thought, "I'm going to start doing this now and build this brand" at all. I started exploring on Instagram, and found other people calling themselves different things like #fatfemme, #bodypositiveyoga. I realized there were other people going through the same experience. I started using specific hashtags and interacting with them.
I did get lucky also because the timing was just perfect. This last year has been the "body positive year" big time. I think people were just ready to receive this message for whatever reason, and it all kind of snowballed from there. I graduated from college and had ten thousand followers on Instagram. I felt like I could do this maybe and teach yoga for a living. But I'm such a control freak type. That was the biggest plunge I think I ever took in my life I think. I had planned to go to law school to be an entertainment lawyer. I decided not to go and moved back home. I went to teacher training that summer right after graduation and immediately started traveling and teaching. And then that was it. Now this is my career which is just insane! It just further proves the point that you just do the things that you really love to do and are passionate about, and good things happen.
Bri: Do you think that there's a higher purpose to everything that happens to a person in their life? And I mean everything, as in the “good” and the “bad.”
Dana: I believe that everything happens the way it is supposed to happen. I don't believe that things are inherently good or bad. I think those are things that we associate. Actually that is something that I have become very aware of through my practice. In yoga practice, the word Santosha (Sanskrit) translates to “contentment.” A lot of people think contentment equals happiness. But I don't see those things as mutually exclusive. I think contentment is more about neutrality and equanimity.
I’ll give an analogy using physical aspects in yoga practice. If you ride the “highs” too hard, such as you're nailing the poses, it feels amazing… and you're just letting that feed your ego. Say you break your leg the next day and then you can't do that pose again for a year and then you feel like nothing because you let the high get so high, and now the low is awful. Vice versa, if you hang out in low negative space for too long you can get stuck there. I think a lot of people, myself included, are really drawn to extremes. When something really bad happens we almost like to sit in the self-deprecating thoughts. Then when something great is happening you want more of it so badly. We create comfort zones or security in whatever we are currently experiencing. And I am so like that! A huge lesson for me has been, "Can you remain neutral and content when something insane is going on or when something amazing is going on, and still linger midline both ways?”
Bri: I feel that when things are going great and then something comes along and takes it away we are left with the question, “Who am I now?”
Dana: Exactly. You've tied the outcome to your identity. You put it all in something that's fleeting, which is any external circumstance. But you can of course always control how you're going to react to circumstances and if you're going to internalize it or not. For me happiness is sort of the second step past contentment. People think that happiness equals contentment, but I think they're separate things. You truly have to be content first. I also think a lot of people believe "I'm just going to tell myself that I'm going to be happy or I'm going to tell myself that this doesn't matter." Whatever it is... It's not that easy. It always starts by planting the thought, but then there has to be more than that, something has to be behind the thought. That something has to come from inside you, it can't be a superficial belief.
People ask me how I stay disciplined to practice and where that discipline come from. Well in my mind it comes directly from your self-worth. If you think you're worthy of doing something then you'll do it. It can't be "I know that I should think I'm worthy," or, "I should think that I'm going to be happy." Does thinking these things mean you made all of these internal changes and all of a sudden, you're going to be happy? No. So then it will fall off.
Bri: In Eckert Tolle’s book "A New Earth," he talks a lot about the ego. One of the main messages of the book is that our true essence or nature is masked by the ego really. And so essentially this is the cause of conflict in ourselves and our world. Another thing that he talks about is suffering. It's only when you accept suffering that you can truly transcend it. Do you think “suffering” is a tool that we can use as a catalysis for growth and change within ourselves?
Dana: It’s so funny I was talking to someone yesterday about the image portrayed of yoga, which is generally very happy one. Essentially it can be used to market "happiness" I think (laughs). But actually, yoga practitioners are people with some of the most intense stories that I've ever heard. People come to the practice for a reason. Everyone that comes is either healing something or looking for an answer. Whatever it is, there would be nowhere to go if you didn't have questions, pain, or suffering.
It's interesting I used to think about this in high school. I would look at one of my friends who had a perfect family, at least in my eyes. They were a traditional American family... Parents together, golden retriever, one boy, one girl, everyone seems super happy… which was not my scenario at all. I used to envy this friend, and think, “Why is my family not perfect like this?” Now I look at my life, and everything great that has happened over the past two years is a direct result from every painful experience that I've ever dealt with.
I literally feel grateful for the absolute shittiest moments of my life. I feel like the more you experience, whatever good or bad it is, the closer you get to shedding layers and get back to the essence of who you are.
WIB: Has your yoga practice open you up spiritually? What were you like prior to this?
Dana: (laughs)... Atheist! Oh yeah, literally. I grew up Catholic... always hated it ...always. From the very beginning I told my parents I don't know what this priest is trying to tell me here, this is not jiving with me at all. We agreed that I would go until Confirmation and then I’d be done. Paralleling that, when I was in third grade I transferred from a local public school to a private Quaker school. I was in Quaker school from third grade all the way up through college. The personality of the young me then is sort of like me now... super fiery, aggressive, independent. Kind of "you can't tell me anything and I already know everything, and I don't need your help.” Was and is (laughs) who I am. I think that was a huge part of why I rejected religion.
When I was in middle school I didn't appreciate Meeting for Worship. Quaker Meetings are really simple, they are held in a big empty barn with wooden benches. No one will lead the Meeting, you just sit wherever you want to sit and everyone settles into silence. It’s silent the whole time, and if you want to say something you just stand and say what you want to say, and when you're done you sit down and people silently reflect on what you just said. One person ends the meeting by shaking the hand of the person next to them, continuing through the room and that's how the Meeting ends.
When I started practicing yoga that I really missed the experience of that practice. It was a chance to reflect. I started realizing how much we go through our day constantly suppressing everything that's happening. We are so out of touch in so many ways because we are constantly thinking, “Where am I going? What’s the next thing I’m doing?” We don't have time to acknowledge what we are feeling.
I would say at this point in my life I’m super spiritual. I would even say I believe in God… which is insane because if you met me three years ago I would've given you the longest rant of your life about why religion is stupid and people that believe in God are weak and dumb. I would've given you the whole spiel. I just see a completely different side of that. I might not see it exactly how someone who is religious sees it, but I do think that everyone needs something that helps them believe in something beyond themselves. Whatever it is that you want to call it, or if you want to give it a label or not.
When I practice yoga I feel so in touch. Though it's getting to the point that I feel like this on a regular basis, not necessarily just when I’m on the mat. I’m more in touch with myself and how I'm feeling and what's going on and what's going on around me. In a sense I kind of feel like that's what God is…sort of this universal awareness and compassion. It’s hard to explain and put into words but I definitely feel it. There's no doubt in my mind that there's more than what our senses can tell us is here.
Bri: I think the limitation of religion and human beings in general is we have this need to personify God. It is an intangible and abstract concept. I personally feel that everything boils down to energy. So whatever God is there is no limit to how high and pure that goes. I’ve heard it explained that the whole universe is just systems within systems within systems, endlessly. Which is mind blowing when you step back and think of it that way. I think when we get hung up on the details and labels of what we think God is and how we should connect with “Him,” we limit ourselves.
Dana: Absolutely and it's so funny because a couple years ago I used to feel like everything was black and white. Now I play the role of devil’s advocate all the time. I look up at the sky and think, “How can we think there’s not so much more that we have no clue about, and we absolutely may never know?” Which is amazing.
Bri: It seems your message is mainly about self-love and self-acceptance. Do you have any thoughts on how they fit into the bigger picture in our world? Because to me it's just a stepping stone... If we can except and love ourselves more then don't you think we can do the same for others?
Dana: Absolutely. I almost feel like the first half of your life it's so easy to morph into the person that people want you to be. It makes sense that that happens. We grow up around parents, family, friends and teachers telling us “you're so this" or, "you're so good at that." You slowly start becoming that person. It’s not necessarily that you aren't those things. But maybe those are not the parts of yourself that you identify with the most or that you want to bring out the most. I think we all get to this point where we question, "Who am I?" I think it's because we've put all of these layers on top of us, that aren't really what we are. When you start peeling all of that off, you get back to the essence of who you are as a person… what you care about, what you want to do with your life, who you want to impact, and so on.
I think it takes a lot of self-love to get to that place. You need to care about yourself if you're going to backtrack and put the work in, and not be some half version of yourself. Maybe it's more like you're not the best version of yourself... yet. Do you have enough self-love and self-worth to figure out who that person is? I can look at my past and my yoga practice and now see where I was peeling these layers back.
As you come back to yourself you have to open and vulnerable to a huge extent to try and find that person. In that process you naturally become more open to everything else. As this has happened for me, I've noticed I’m a little more spiritual and I'm a little more positive. I see things through a different lens. Coming to this place of self-love changes the lens. It changes the perspective which of course is always going to change how you see everything and how you interact with people. If you love yourself, it's a lot easier to love other people. If we are happy, it's a lot easier to be happy for others who are happy. The better off each individual is, the better off we all are together. I feel like it is my job to share that message. I want to share the light that I have come to receive. Maybe it’s more accurate that light was always there, but I didn't let it out.
For so long I felt isolated... just like fat and miserable and very alone and depressed. I felt like everyone around me was happy, but I wasn't. That was not the reality though, that's what I just chose to see. I chose to see the good in other people and the worst in myself, which lots of people do. When I started posting on Instagram and sharing these darker times, more and more people have come forward and said, "that's me too." I feel the more you perpetuate positivity, and openness and realness, the easier it is for everyone else to do the same.
I really believe that every single second of your life is meaningful and counts. I really believe that one person can make an enormous impact on others. The closer you get to realizing what your purpose and truth are, and how you can use being the best version of yourself to positively impact others... I think that is the epitome of life.