Yoga, hunger, nutrition

I find eating exhausting. Not because I don’t like to eat – I do – but because I find choosing what to eat discouraging. I grew up on a diet, as did every other female born after 1950, so most foods seem risky.

When I first began a serious six day a week practice, I was used to not eating much, and I wasn’t very strong. Yoga meant I had to eat more, and that I had to eat foods that filled me and gave me real energy. I would love to say that I then discovered how to eat properly, became a macrobiotic vegetarian, and went on to develop from slightly underfed to slim and toned and that I now get tons of energy for my yoga practice from juicing kale and eating brown rice.

This is not what happened. What happened was, I gained weight, maybe 2 kilos or a bit more, and went crazy thinking about how to get it off. Over the next four years, I vacillated between trying to find a diet that would make me into a skinny yogi (various versions of eliminating animal products and eating more whole grains) and ones that would make me into a skinny person who did yoga despite her moral failings (various versions of increasing consumption of animal products and other proteins).

I relied pretty heavily on peanut butter for most of these four years to sustain me in whatever dietary regime I happened to be following. Diets that forbade peanut butter were out, so I never tried to reduce fat.

My findings? I am rubbish at dieting, and the only thing that makes me lose weight (again, we are talking about the 2-3 kilos that I added when I established a serious six-day-a-week practice) is to cut down considerably on how much time I spend on the mat. I can’t gain the strength I need to do nakrasana while maintaining a caloric deficit. My body can do a lot of amazing things, but it can’t get stronger if I don’t feed it.

Fine. A good realisation.

Does this knowledge necessarily make me eat better? I am eating better than I was four years ago, when the non-peanut-butter segment of my diet was principally composed of tomatoes, cucumbers and feta cheese. I eat more cooked greens, more rice, more porridge. Less peanut butter, which I had to give up because it became an unhealthy attachment.

But yesterday, my textbook healthy regime of green smoothie at breakfast, roast chicken at lunch, and hummus and pita for dinner with snacks of fruit and toasted chickpeas was not enough for my day, and I woke up this morning starved.

I agreed with myself to just drink my coffee and get on the mat, but the coffee was too much for the empty stomach, and I didn’t want to get hungrier. Then I would eat, and everyone knows you can’t eat and then practice.

So I got on the mat, but when I finished the standing postures and prepared for Pasasana, I had to lie down. And once I was down, I wasn’t up but my smoothie was in the blender. I was starved, so starved I couldn’t do my yoga and had to eat immediately.

(Don’t worry, yogis: I will reflect on my hunger as citta vritti, but later, after I deal with it in its material form).

This is not atypical for me, worrying constantly that I am eating too much for my lifestyle (of which both yoga practice and wearing skinny jeans are a part) and ending up somehow energy-depleted, with not enough in me for the yoga.

There are some posts that are about the yoga, the realisations that come with the yoga, the wisdom that you gain with the yoga.

This is not that post. This is a post about how confusing it is to keep doing yoga, and how confusing it is to find oneself on “a yogic path”. Not that I would necessarily equate doing a lot of yoga with a yogic path – I just don’t know what else to call it. Needing to work your life around your yoga a bit, maybe, or needing to adjust your life to enable your asana practice.

I want to be a good yogi, but sometimes what that entails seems out of reach to me.

I find pieces about “discovering” how a certain diet works for the writer, and supports his or her yoga practice, and makes them thin and beautiful and strong and energetic, particularly discouraging.

Who are these people, that find that eating raw food goes along perfectly with their blistering travel schedule and graduate student income and 2-hour-a-day practice? This is not me. I find that what I eat is often out of my control, or, perhaps more accurately, that the need to constantly exert control over what I eat is less healthy than eating something fried or processed. That is to say, sometimes I am in situations where to eat “healthfully” means offending others, or inconveniencing them, or not eating with them at all. Am I the only yogi who likes to eat with other people, who don’t necessarily share my (borderline obsessive) approach to diet?

No one will be surprised at this trade off, the calories-for-peace-of-mind exchange of allowing yourself a cheeseburger, or an ice cream cone, or something cooked, in the name of sanity. (Pick your poison). We all do this, eat sometimes less healthfully than we ought to because it’s easier to just swallow whatever is in front of you than to go through whatever hassle is involved in finding something more sattvic.

For me, though, I find the most destructive thing is the constant rumination on what to eat. I feel like a failure because I haven’t found my perfect diet. I don’t know what magical combination of imagined allergies, moral repulsion and palate preference will lead to me being slim, strong and energetic. I mostly just feel bad about everything I eat.

Of course this is citta vritti. But it is a very persistent manifestation of it, for me and I imagine others who try to reconcile the messages they get from the mainstream media about beauty and the messages they get from the larger yoga community about how they should eat with their real lives and their real bodies. And I think the temptation to dismiss hunger as one more mind-trick is sort of a meta-vritti. That is, a refrain I’ve tried adopting because it makes me feel more enlightened, but that ends up essentially propelling me wayyyyyy further down the path of yoga than I am ready to go. I have not achieved such a level of mastery over my body.

There is no conclusion to this post. It’s just another episode of an ongoing dialogue that I have with myself – and that the yoga community has with itself – about food and eating and body image.

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