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Authentic Eagles: Maddie Quirk on Surrendering

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working toward being more authentic individuals.

Maddie Quirk, CSOM '17

In 2007, I was a stereotypical pre-teen. Being a seventh grader, I was obsessed with Abercrombie & Fitch, field hockey, and instant messaging. I spent the majority of my weekends at friends’ houses, school dances, and the movie theater. As such, when my mother asked me whether I wanted to join her at Bikram yoga, a 90-minute class requiring participants to contort themselves into different postures in a 105-degree room, I responded as most twelve-year olds would: “Are you crazy?!”

Despite my initial hesitance to try what sounded like inevitable death, I finally agreed to join her one Saturday in February. With snow carpeting the ground outside, the extreme heat did not seem as daunting as it normally would. I entered the room, rolled out my mat, and mentally prepared myself for what I would eventually discover to be a journey of meditation. The class shocked my body at first, but as my mother warned, I became addicted and continued to return to Scorpio Fitness weekly. People on the outside view this style of yoga as an intense and, perhaps, insane form of exercise, but once one is a “yogi,” Bikram becomes no longer a place of extreme exertion, but a place where peace of body, mind, and spirit is achieved.

Although Bikram is a reflective and healing practice, it did not shield me from the turmoil that lay ahead. Despite commencing the journey of a yogi, I still had a long way to go and a lot of obstacles to face before I would come to realize how positive a role this practice would be in my life.

From eighth grade to sophomore year of high school, I struggled greatly with my self-image. Like many adolescent girls, I never thought I was pretty, smart, or good enough.  It was more than just a feeling of self-consciousness: My view of myself became so distorted during these years that I went through a long period of time where I didn’t look in the mirror and refused to take photos with my family and friends. I struggled through each day just wanting it to end. I wasn’t exactly depressed, but I could not manage to stifle all of these negative feelings about myself despite the fact that I was a good athlete, a great writer and student, and a good friend, sister, and daughter. I simply could not find the intrinsic self-worth that I needed to overcome this difficult phase.

As my self esteem continued to plummet, I began to isolate myself from many of the positive facets of my life. Although it was never officially diagnosed as such, I suffered from an eating disorder over the course of three years. I was stringent to a fault in my diet and exercise routine, and I vividly remember the feelings of guilt I experienced if I thought I had eaten too much at dinner or hadn’t worked out my hardest at practice. Despite the fact that I was on my high school’s swim and lacrosse teams, something in my head told me that if I didn’t stick to my meal routine, I would gain weight. Everyone noticed how unhealthy my mindset was and the damage I was doing to my body—everyone except for me. When anyone close to me attempted to broach the elephant-in-the-room topic of my eating habits, I was immediately on the defense. My identity became my eating disorder, and I felt intense anxiety about changing anything in my regimen. I remember feeling angry and annoyed that no one trusted me to make my own decisions about my body. I wanted—and at the time, needed—control in order to feel sane. It got to the point where all of my self-worth was tied to losing or gaining weight.

I took a break from Bikram for a period of time because the mirrors were too overwhelming to face. However, once I returned to the studio, my practice played a pivotal role in surviving this dark period of my life. It was the beginning of junior year when I realized how important Bikram would be to my recovery. After my long hiatus, it took me a few classes to feel in sync with the other students again; once I finally caught up, however, I didn’t simply regain muscle memory. During my fifth year of Bikram, I was able to see clearly the problem with my practice in the past: the sole purpose of it had been to suffer through the unnerving heat in order to burn calories. Now, the mirrors on every wall of a Bikram yoga room forced me to face myself, to face my deepest anxieties and insecurities.

The dialogue—a standard recitation through the 26 postures and two breathing exercises done by all Bikram teachers around the world—emphasizes that “the mirrors are not to judge, not to compare,” but rather to improve one’s relationship with the self.  As the postures twisted and turned my body, and as the sweat torrentially poured from my forehead, toxins and negative thoughts were released. I felt strong. I was forced to focus not on the way I looked, but instead, balancing for thirty seconds in Dandayamana Janushirasana or remembering to breathe rhythmically as I struggled to lift myself into full locust pose.

Chaos and order play a unique role in Bikram, just as they do in life. The chaos of my everyday life can be silenced, but 100% order will never be achieved because of constant growth and change. Bikram is founded on the concept of restoring order by focusing on mind, body, and spirit. This idea resonated with me, but I came to associate the practice with another word: control. The teacher’s emphasis throughout class is on controlling your breath with deep exhalations and inhalations, controlling your muscles to find balance in a seemingly formidable pose, and controlling your thoughts so that you center wholly on your movement. My need for control in my life—specifically in my eating and exercise habits—was what stifled me. Bikram became the outlet through which I could channel this need for control, thus allowing me to surrender it in the areas of my life where it had been too present.

When I enter a yoga studio today and look around the room at my fellow yogis, I realize that everyone attends these classes in order to refocus his or her mind on a certain purpose. On any given day, I see students of all ages in attendance, ranging from 13 to 65. Some days, a 6-foot-7 basketball player works to stretch out his body from years of pounding the court; a petite, 30-year-old Asian woman seeks to escape her nine-to-five job; a 400-pound father tries to lose weight to lengthen his life for his children. Despite each person’s individual motivation for practicing, almost everyone leaves with the same incentive to return: the desire to pursue a 90-minute journey of meditation.

I have learned more about myself, my desires, my goals, and my weaknesses in the past nine years since I began this journey than I could have in 90 years without it. My confidence in my strengths, positive mindset, and ability to focus on the present have stemmed directly from my practice. Looking back, it is entirely evident that my struggle was never about weight, food, or exercise. It was a lack of confidence, and the nagging voice inside my head that I have learned to quiet. Sure, I still have to make a conscious effort everyday to silence the voice. I frequently have to remember to focus on my strengths and count all of the positive relationships I have in my life, but just like anything worth feeling or achieving in our lives, it is a work in progress.

Although with my schedule at Boston College I can’t make it to class as often as I would like, every time I return to Bikram is a cathartic experience. I will always be grateful for how the practice has guided me toward a healthy body, mind, and spirit. As my favorite teacher Leo says, “You have one life, one chance,” and I now try every single day to wake up with a cup of coffee and this mantra.