Like many people around the globe, I came to know about Maris Degener’s story through the documentary “I am Maris”, available in the subscription service Netflix. The film chronicles Maris’s battle with an eating disorder and her inspiring recovery with the practice of yoga.
I interviewed Maris Degener to talk about her healing process and how her life evolved since shooting this remarkable project.
1_ Maris, thank you so much for this interview. Can you tell us a little bit about how the idea for the documentary “I am Maris” occurred and the breakthroughs during the process of filming and putting it out into the world?
The filmmaker Laura Van Zee saw some of my artwork, and reached out about making a film centered around the stories behind it. I agreed to participate in the film only if it was a different kind of anorexia nervosa film: one that didn’t romanticize mental illness, one that portrayed hope, and one that didn’t center my body or weight in the narrative. Laura did a wonderful job capturing that mission and a time of great transition and growth in my life. Throughout the process, I was reminded of the importance of honest storytelling, but also compassion for the ways in which our perspectives and opinions change over time. Today there are things 16-year-old Maris did or said during the time of filming that don’t resonate with me anymore, but I’m able to honor that as growth: not failure.
2_ You used drawing and writing as a creative outlet in your recovery, which seems to be the perfect complement to the practice of yoga. How important do you find having emotional and physical ways of expression whether it’s for an eating disorder or any other kind of mental illness?
Whatever we keep inside for too long without allowing it to be released can poison us. An example my teachers give me is the breath: we can’t hold an inhale forever, at some point we have to exhale again. I think we all have different ways of expressing ourselves – art, dancing, singing, whatever it is – and it is all equally important. Whether we brush up against mental illness on our path or not, we all benefit from allowing our inner voice to be heard and recognized.
3_ In the light of the current body acceptance movement there’s two quotes that sound so meaningful to me, personally, which are “Love is louder than the pressure to be perfect” and from 5 year old Sofia in Interrupt magazine “I like my body because it’s magic”. How vital are having nurturing loving relationships to be able to not only survive the illness but to thrive? Could you also explain specifically how you reframed your mind to think of your body in terms of functions capable of keeping you alive and not only something to be looked at?
Having loving, nurturing relationships with others is a right and a necessity. Humans are wired to be interconnected and the support we gain from loving relationships is crucial to our health and well-being. Not all of us are born into the luxury of a family or social circle that is inherently loving or nurturing, but I believe as a collective we must work towards leaving no one out of the gift of community. When others see us through eyes of love, we can slowly learn to see ourselves as they see us. And in the other direction, when we see others through eyes of love, we’re holding a mirror up to them in hopes that they will see the same beauty within themselves.
It was helpful for me in recovery to focus on what my body can do: especially as I found the asana (physical) practice of yoga. I learned to care less about how my body looked and care more about gratitude for the way it moved on my mat and carried me throughout my day. Today I still honor this, while at the same time acknowledging that my self-worth must also be untethered from what I can “do.” A day may come where I can no longer do a handstand or a chaturanga, and I will still practice loving my body anyway. My self-worth is based most imperatively on the fact that I am here, on this planet: that is enough for love.
4_ The documentary ends with you being accepted in University to study Psychology. What are the main insights you are taking away from this experience? How does it feel in terms of a new chapter in the process of becoming yourself?
I didn’t want to go to college, because I was fearful of the unknown. I didn’t know who I was away from the yoga studio where I began to find myself, or who I was without the community I’d come to love so much. I was afraid that going away from home meant losing myself: but what I came to find was the growth on the other side of that fear. I’m grateful now that I was able to move forward and go away to college, where I’ve met countless amazing people with perspectives I’d never considered before. It taught me that my home goes where I go, and that has opened so many doors for learning.
Not everyone has the access to attending a university or accessing education. My maternal grandmother was never able to attend school beyond elementary school, in order to work and provide for her siblings. I think of her often when I find myself in a place of fear or worry instead of gratitude for my education. I see it now as a privilege and an honor to use what I’ve learned in my studies to work towards a more equitable and compassionate world.
5_ What would you say to that teenage girl who was going through so much pain? What do you hope to achieve next?
You are enough. Right now, as you are. You are not broken, and you do not need to be fixed. You are just learning to see the beauty that is already within you.
I hope to be happy, to choose gratitude, and to play as often as possible.