I’ve had a hard time reconciling this post as a follow up to my last one, but my aim is to be real with you. So let’s get real.
There might be an idea out there somewhere that yoga teachers have perfected their bodies, and don’t struggle with regular body stuff, like weight. If you have that idea, please take this gently, but you are wrong. Practicing daily, exercising often in general, is not the same thing as being thin. There are thin people who are strong, thin people that run fast and far, thin people that are weak and out of shape. There are round curvy people who are strong, who can run fast and far, and who are weak and out of shape.
I have a confession to make as someone who practices yoga 9 out of 10 days, who runs regularly, hikes very often, and happens to be pretty strong. I have been unhappy with my body for a little while now.
In late 2012 I got on the stress hamster wheel, there were personal difficulties in my life, I wasn’t eating well and exercise took a hiatus. I gained some weight. I think that when people are stressed and sorting through things, sometimes we do gain weight, sometimes we lose it. This fluctuation is a natural part of our lives. It truly is the Vinyasa of Life, the ebb and flow.
Last year long after the external stressors in my life had faded, and my healthy exercise routine returned, I may have changed shape a little, looked a bit better in clothes, but the extra size and extra weight that I had gained went nowhere. The difficulty comes when we look in the mirror and realize that we are not happy with how we look, that we don’t look or feel like ourselves, it can make us even more anxious, even more stressed. Once we develop this negative self-image, negative self-speak, and stress response to the mirror, we actually make change in the opposite direction we wish to. A stressed body will not happily give up it’s reserves, fat is one of the ways our bodies protect themselves against stress.
I have always been a ravenous eater, I enjoy food of all kinds and grew up in a family of seconds and deliciousness. My ethics along with my love of food have led me to eat organic and to make many meals for myself. What I mean to say is, I am a good eater. I will probably always be a good eater. But recently, I have learned to also be a mindful eater.
It may not seem like a new concept to think about eating mindfully. And especially for a yoga teacher, you would think it came with the territory. It doesn’t. Most yoga teacher trainings do not dive into the realm of food, besides perhaps in passing conversation. I started teaching when I was 19, at the time I smoked cigarettes and ate a lot of pasta. I was also teeny tiny and angry. I’ve spent the last 8 years working my stuff out, just like most people have done, or are doing now.
I have made leaps and bounds from my days of ramen noodles, but I feel like I have only just begun to address food with the same conscious attention as I have always brought to my mat.
A couple of weeks ago, when I told her I wanted to lose some weight, my teacher (Elena B) suggested I start taking pictures of everything I eat. She’d learned this from her coach and mentor, Lauren Zander, co-founder of the Handel Group, as a method used to help folks with bulimia and anorexia become friends with their food, and make their consumption a point of personal pride, rather than a source of shame or something to hide. She asked me to add a caption of intention to each photo that breathed positivity into what I was about to eat (eg. “Food is a source of nourishment and pride in my life”, “I am blessed by this delicious meal”) and to email her the pics at the end of each day.
A week later, I’d lost six pounds, which represents a huge chunk of what I’d gained and been struggling with for more than a year. Victory.
Taking just a moment to take a picture of what was on my plate, and knowing it was going to be seen by someone I truly admire, completely shifted my mindfulness around food. Of course Elena never said anything discouraging or judgemental in response to the end-of-day pictures; sometimes she’d offer a little cheer from the sidelines, sometimes there was no response at all. It was never really about her knowing what I was eating, it was about ME knowing what I was eating. The gap of awareness around my food gave me the space to mindfully make choices about what I wanted to eat, and even more importantly to feel good about my choices, and then to truly enjoy my food without rushing.
Since taking the time to really think about my food, I’ve also cut out a lot of the extra junk that was in my diet and I’m eating cleaner than ever. I have tried veganism and vegetarianism of many kinds and while I support these diets, they did not work for me and my body. I’ve found meat to be an important food for me, and I buy only the highest quality and most ethically farmed and fished proteins that I can. I’m lucky to live in an area where it’s not hard to find local organic steak. What I did feel like I could live without were grains, sugars, alcohol and dairy; at least for the most part.
I found it wasn’t hard for me to eliminate these more toxic foods from my diet. It happened pretty easily, and I’m allowing myself occasional free passes. Because life is better when you can have pasta once in a while, and I was not going to turn down the tuna macaroni salad at the Superbowl Party I attended last night. Most people who eat this way (called the Paleo diet) agree, they feel good. I can certainly say I feel good, and I am proud of what I’m eating and the changes I am making for myself.
My opinion is that health and weight can be separated from each other, and while it will be nice to drop a size, the number on the scale has never been that important to me. What drives me is how I feel. That extends to my physical body: do I have high energy? do I feel strong? can I get through my day with ease? And it extends to my mind: what do I think about myself when I look in the mirror? how do I feel in my clothes?
I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, or a doctor. I can’t tell you what will be best for you (and maybe those professionals can’t either.) But in this yogini’s experience, living a life of grace means exploring possibilities and finding your own path. Don’t run on the hamster wheel of stress and insecurity. Pause, listen, and make change.
If you have your own story of mindfulness, eating and weight I would love to hear it.