Yoga teachers have a reputation for being super-healthy. Does it have something to do with what they eat?
Yes. And no.
This week’s Yoga Tool, Aparigraha, or non-hoarding, has enlightened me on more than just the material goods around me and whether I need them or not. We’re most accustomed to thinking of hoarding as accumulating and holding on to a lot of stuff in our homes.
But the idea of hoarding can also extend to over-eating. Feeding ourselves beyond the point of feeling full, eating constantly whether hungry or not, and eating highly-processed foods (and even edible non-food items) even when we know they’re not good for us all have psychological components that are easy to understand.
We get stressed out. We’re upset over something. We feel frustrated and want a reward, and a big coffee drink (essentially a milkshake with coffee in it) or fast food or some other treat sounds just about right.
In my own experience, I’ve definitely had periods of eating my feelings. In times of stress over jobs, relationships—or no job, no relationship—after my friend Marnie died of cancer, and other times when I felt life weighing me down, I ate. Constantly, sometimes healthfully, sometimes not, sometimes a mixture of healthy and unhealthy.
Yoga helped me look at my eating habits. When I say Yoga, I mean the spiritual practice. The physical practice, Asana, also helped; it put me back into a healthy relationship with my body, and it got me moving and stretching. Asana, or any movement, is good for your body.
What was most helpful was Yoga in the overall sense, the spiritual tools of Yoga. One was Aparigraha. Its definition is non-hoarding, but in a broader sense it can mean the idea of enough. Not too much, not too little, but just enough. Enough things in your home, enough food in your belly.
Unfortunately we can live in a state of constant “compare and despair” when it comes to how we feel about our bodies, and how we eat. Even Yoga classes, which we go to in order to feel and become healthy, can make us feel less than, if we begin comparing ourselves to Yoga instructors, who tend to be very fit and thin. (For a look at Yoga instructors with a variety of body types, check out Accessible Yoga.)
So are Yoga instructors usually so fit and thin because of the way they eat? It’s true that many Yoga teachers are very aware of healthy eating; it goes with the territory. Many are vegetarian or even vegan.
As a Yoga teacher myself, I have been vegetarian, and vegan, and not. Those diets simply didn’t work for my body. I try to eat as healthfully as possible, and I still indulge in the occasional gluten-free chocolate chip cookie. To me, eating like a true Yoga teacher would mean listening to your body more than your mind. Here are the 6 ways I do that:
Release specifics. I used to say I needed to get down to a certain weight. Or that I was a certain type of eater—vegetarian, vegan, etc. I realized over time that this was my mind imposing something on my body that had nothing to do with what my body truly needed. Consequently, I over-dieted to get down to that “magic number on the scale,” nearly developing an eating disorder. And I got sick when I restricted my eating.
Make your goal generous and expansive: to become healthier. Release yourself from the bondage of numbers and types. Learn to listen to your body and give it what it truly needs. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be less stressed.
Eat food rich in Prana. In Yoga, Prana is life force, or life energy—what makes us feel alive, what makes light bulbs burn brightly. It’s said that we take in this energy through sunlight, air, and food. The kind of foods that are rich in Prana are obvious: fruit, vegetables, anything natural. Foods that have little to no Prana are processed or made of chemicals.
Think of the Prana you can be ingesting from a fresh peach or simply-prepared fish and vegetables, and your body will naturally steer you toward what’s right.
Reconnect. For many years, I swung between over-eating and over-dieting. I’ve tried every possible diet—Atkins, Weight Watchers, low-carb, no-carb, vegetarian, vegan, Paleo. After all this dieting, and subsequent over-indulgence afterward, I no longer knew how to “listen to my body.”
I found help in a book called The Yoga of Eating. This book dispelled myths that led my mind to dictate what I ate more than my body and helped put me back in a good relationship with my body. I was able to get on a path of eating when I was hungry (imagine that) and knowing when I needed something other than food to soothe myself.
Another great book on Yoga and eating is Jessica Berger Gross’s EnLIGHTened: How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle-Pointer.
Get a magic notebook. We all know about eating our feelings, stuffing our emotions down by stuffing our faces. But you can deal with this more skillfully through journaling. A recent medical study showed that journaling helped patients dealing with illness better, and even improved their immune systems. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, found that many of her students writing their morning pages experienced natural weight loss, without even trying.
Get yourself a journal—something pretty, but that you will use—and practice writing every morning, just a few pages of stream of consciousness. It’s private, so you can say whatever you need to say. Don’t forget to praise yourself for practicing Maitri, kindness, to yourself by doing this.
Go to bed. You don’t need a study from a big medical research center to know this one: When you’re tired, you eat more to stay awake. I can remember busy times in my corporate life when I’d been at the office until midnight or 2 am the night before, and back in my chair the next morning, fighting to stay awake. And I ate constantly, mostly sugary snacks. If you have to stay awake, your body will demand energy in whatever form is most convenient. This leads us to over-caffeinating and overeating sugar.
A simple solution: Go to bed. Get more sleep, eat less crap. It’s as simple as that.
Reduce stress, not calories or fat. Nervous eating made up most of my over-eating and weight gain. By learning to calm down, I just naturally ate less, as well as feeling better. That’s why I begin each day with Deergha Swasaam breathing practice, and repeat it whenever I feel stressed. It works magic for stress reduction.