EveryBody Bends – Dana Damara

“Before my pregnancy, my identity was completely tied to my body image, what I looked like, the image that I put out there,” Dana recalls, brushing wavy blond hair off her shoulder. “Before I got pregnant, I was in the gym every single day no matter what. It was such an addiction for me that at one point, I had actually broken my foot and I still went to the gym and rode the bike with this big boot cast on my foot. I was just heck-bent on maintaining this body image that I thought was perfect.”

Dana lives with her two daughters in Marin County, California, in a sunny house surrounded by trees. The living room is completely free of furniture, a wide-open expanse of golden hardwood where Dana practices yoga. Dana is wearing a loose-fitting top and harem pants, perched upright on a chair in her family room. She speaks in calm, measured tones and moves gracefully, whether tiptoeing between mats at her hot yoga class or cooking dinner with her girls at home.

When Dana became pregnant, her previous routine of kickboxing, running, and tennis was no longer realistic. Between her drastic lifestyle change and her pregnancy, her body began to change in ways she found hard to accept.

“I couldn’t wrap my brain around missing a day at the gym. It became an addiction for me. It was an addiction to have this certain body type, this athletic body type, and after pregnancy that whole idea just got blown out of the water.”

“The very first time I was pregnant, I had a terrible time adjusting to weight gain and how my body was changing. I was very much into what my body looked like. It was very important to me and it was hard for me to watch it get so big.”

That’s when Dana found yoga. “I started yoga because I got so big in my pregnancy that I couldn’t do the regular things I was doing,” she recalls, thinking back on that pivotal moment in her life. “Someone gave me a yoga tape and I practiced at home, and then I took a couple of classes before I gave birth, and just absolutely fell in love with it.”

That was almost fourteen years ago, and Dana has maintained a regular practice since. She teaches at Yoga Tree Castro and at the Pad in San Francisco, as well as offering private lessons in Marin County and in the city.

“Before I stepped on the mat, I was highly type A,” Dana recalls. It’s hard to believe, given her perpetually calm demeanor now, but Dana was a very different woman before yoga. “Now I say I’m recovering type A. I say it all the time and I think it’s true, and I think I’ll always be a recovering type A.”

With the new, more relaxed Dana came a shift in her obsession with her body. “After my first pregnancy, I wanted to get the weight off,” she says, “but I didn’t feel compelled to get out there right away.” She laughs. “Mainly because I couldn’t. I stayed home instead. I laid with the baby. I didn’t work. I didn’t really do anything for the first few months. I didn’t feel like there was somewhere to be.

“The second time around, when I got pregnant again a couple years later—and that time in between, when my body never really went back to what it used to be—I was much more accepting of where my body was. There was a lot more compassion involved. ‘Hey, you’re growing a baby. Hey, you’re mothering. This is a whole new stage of your life.’ So the body image took a different turn.”

Now, Dana is committed to passing on a healthy body image to the next generation. A few years ago, she founded Girls Elevate, a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening the connection between mothers and daughters and strengthening girls’ self-esteem through yoga.

“The idea of body image and self-confidence in this next generation—specifically for my children, who are almost eleven and thirteen—is relentless,” Dana says. “Girls in that age bracket are very aware of their body as it changes and how they compare to other girls. There’s still that sense of competitiveness in them.”

For Dana, the parallels between the media in general and yoga specifically are clear. “My personal belief around body image and the yoga culture is that it’s gotten out of hand,” she explains. “We’ve gotten too obsessed with the perfect posture. We’ve gotten obsessed with the perfect clothes. We’ve gotten obsessed with ‘is the background OK? And is this OK?’ And I’m not talking about professional photo shoots, I’m talking about taking a quick selfie.

“I personally believe that yoga is an art,” she continues, leaning forward as her enthusiasm for the practice starts to come through. “And I think it’s amazing when I look around the room in class and I’m calling out postures and people are moving and breathing in sync. But every single person looks different.”

That’s the lesson that Dana tries to pass on to her students, her daughters, and the girls she works with in Girls Elevate. “Remember who you are,” says Dana, “and remember that everybody grows differently, everybody looks different, everybody likes different things. Every time we step on the mat, our body is different. Our frame of thought is different. So how could our body be perfect? It can’t. The only time it’s perfect is when we’re not thinking, when the thought and the word and the body is all in one moment.”

“There’s a whole group of people that don’t come to yoga because they’re concerned with how they look, or if their hamstrings are loose enough, or if they have the right clothes,” says Dana, smiling into the fading afternoon light. “I feel like this practice has become something that is supposed to be some definition of crazy perfect. This is yoga practice. It’s not yoga perfect.”

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