Issues Weighing on a Yogi’s Mind

From my earliest days as a yoga teacher in health clubs in the early aughts, I became accustom to fielding questions from students after class. Typically, they went something like this:

Why does this hurt when I do that?

Why do I sweat so much?

Why can’t I do wheel?

What does namaste mean?

Why are my handstrings so tight?

Is it OK to do yoga if I have my period?

How do I practice yoga on my own, at home?

Why do I hate half pigeon?

I came to enjoy and anticipate these questions and many others. I loved how eager my students were to learn and the feeling of sharing helpful hints to make their practices more pleasant and productive. If I didn’t know an answer, I researched it so that I could offer better information in class the following week or the next time someone asked.

Then, the oddest thing happened. A very simple question stumped me.

What do you eat? The question came from an earnest 20-something female student.

Huh. Did she mean for breakfast? I wracked my brain . . . A massive smoothie and a granola bar en route to class I recalled. After my marathon teaching stint that morning (two classes in two different locations with a 40-minute walk in between), I planned to meet a pal for a Thai lunch on Newbury Street, where we’d share my all-time-fav fresh rolls, and I would likely order a bowl of tofu, vegetables, and noodles the size of my head. Is that what she meant? Did I get the answer right . . . What do I win?

I searched the woman’s face for some hint of information. What. Do. I. Eat. Why was this so perplexing? And, why is it interesting to her? Then it hit me: she probably wants to become a vegetarian! I talked about ahimsa in class today, and she’s curious about how to put that guiding yogic principle into practice as it relates to her diet. I was thrilled to help, albeit a tad sheepish. Predominantly vegetarian since the age of 9, I’d recently wandered into exceedingly pescetarian territory. I worried the vegetarian police might be lurking and not wanting to mislead, I copped:

Um, well, I’m mostly vegetarian, but lately I’ve been eating dairy and even some fish . . . energetically that seems to work better for my body. Ultimately, I think people need to make mindful choices that work best for themselves . . .

I trailed off upon noticing the boredom that swept over my student’s face. This was not the response she was seeking.

No, I mean, what kind of diet are you on, she clarified. Admittedly, I bristled at the word. Diet? I don’t know, the eat-when-you’re-hungry diet?

It was the age of Atkins, and I wanted as much distance from that sort of harebrained, extremist nutritional nonsense as possible. (Sure, eat a bacon double cheeseburger sans the bun, but don’t have a piece of fresh melon because there’s too much sugar or carbs or whatever? WTF!). Having only recently graduated from college in the debutante filled south and previously boarding school in New England, pressure-filled environments where eating issues among impressionable women can run rampant, I knew all too well the sensitivity of situations wherein one woman (intentionally or unintentionally) pedals her eating habits, insecurities, or beliefs upon others. I can’t remember precisely how I answered my student’s hunger for dietary advice, but hopefully, it included something like this:

Yoga helps us appreciate our bodies as being vehicles of the spirit. We learn to practice compassion toward our bodies and feel present within our own skin. It’s certainly possible to lose weight by doing yoga, through the exertion of asana practice but more likely by making mindful lifestyle choices, including what to eat and when. If we’re present in our bodies, tuned into our emotions, and thinking clearly with the help of yoga and meditation, then suddenly, eating a pint of Chunky Monkey ice cream after a bad day doesn’t make much sense. It doesn’t make your boss more bearable, absolve your parking tickets, or fix your relationships, does it? That’s not a diet, merely awareness.

But more than likely I cracked an awkward joke and recommended lots of vegetables. Some eight years after grappling with a student who hoped to learn the magic bullet of weight loss through a yoga lifestyle, I still feel uneasy when I hear students and teachers promoting and evangelizing specific diets, nutrition regimens, detoxes, cleanses, fasts, and so on. It’s not that I don’t think they can be done safely and have myriad benefits, it’s just that I worry about the intentions behind anything so rigid or absolute as not eating whole categories of foods, permanently swearing off meals cooked above a certain temperature, or subsisting on liquids for multiple days. Instead, I prefer the simple advice of the likes of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Or, my mom, “Don’t eat just because you’re bored.” Or, my own initial instincts, “Eat when you’re hungry.” What do you think?

Have you experienced any of these feelings in conjunction with your yoga practice? Have you ever worried that students or teachers around you were being motivated by unhealthy intentions? Do you think yoga studios and/or teachers should attempt to influence students’ eating habits? Please share your thoughts by commenting. As always, I am grateful for your willingness to share.

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  • tiffany

    I think you are exactly right. Its ALL about awareness. That is where we fall short as we have become such a "in your head" society. People don't live in their bodies any more, so they don't really KNOW when they are hungry. We are to busy comparing ourselves and trying to be better than.
    I have always been a "bigger girl" I am 5'8" 150lb. growing up I weighed 158 and that was considered fat (at least by my family). I have been on roller coasters of diets. NONE have worked, mainly because the minute I say DIET.. all i crave is CHOCOLATE:)
    recently a friend became paralyzed in a tragic snowmobile accident, it made me stop, be in my body and be grateful… for everything it does, no matter how it looks. No matter how I berate it, it has never let me down. Since the day of that accident, my whole relationship with it has changed. I cut it some slack, I am more IN it during yoga (which has brought that to a whole new level), I am more "IN" it and not my head so much.. I am grateful

  • jessieg

    Right on sistah! More than anything I listen to what I need to eat. And I listen to what I don't need to eat. I know for example that if I eat a bowl of brown rice and broccoli (my favorite!) that my body is really happy. And I try to stay off the scale. Numbers don't factor in that happiness. And jumping on the scale isn't staying in the moment because you're automatically thinking about what you can do tomorrow, the next day, or what you shouldn't have done two hours ago. I think a little common sense and self control can be the best "diet" for your body. Everyone wants instant gratification, but just like it might take years to do a handstand, getting your body back in balance takes time too.

  • Kathryn

    Thank you for raising this question, which I've mulled for years. At one point I started studying with a very "high profile" teacher in LA, who promoted a macrobiotic vegan diet, which I, in her thrall, adopted to the best of my abilities. Eventually I went on a retreat led by another teacher, and one night we all ate at a local restaurant. I was shocked to see this other instructor tuck in to a gorgeous tuna steak, accompanied by a glass of wine. "You can eat that," I asked, confused, because I truly thought that all serious yogis– especially teachers!– would "have" to be vegan. She opened my eyes to the idea of balance and personal choice. Yes, I feel better when I eat more consciously, and wish I did so more often, but my life would not be as happy without wine or cheese. Is yoga about denial? Or is it a complement to a happy balanced life? Believe me, I still struggle with these food related questions, especially as they relate to my now 12+ years of practice, so I'll be very interested to read other comments.

  • Aneliya

    After years of struggling with food issues I can say that I eat better when I feel better. And even though I just started practicing yoga I can say that it makes me feel just that- better, more energized, lighter(in every way – emotionally, mentally, physically) and so I don't ever feel the need to eat my problems away.
    I think people should listen to their bodies more, and maybe do a little bit of research on nutrition instead of just jumping on the next diet fad without thinking. Being a biologist by profession some of the diets that have come lately just blow my mind by their physical impossibility. Some of them are just downright dangerous. People really should know more about how their bodies work.
    Awareness also helps. Feed your body when its hungry, listen to your cravings, hydrate and try not to stress out about food so much. I think food should be something to be enjoyed, not stressed out over. Its very easy to enter into a vicious cycle of eating because you're stressed out, guilty or angry at yourself for eating badly.
    Best wishes to everyone who is struggling with food, its a tough fight.

  • Teresa

    My yoga teachers have always been important role models for me so it was natural for me to want to try any diet that they mentioned in class. I have tried to be vegetarian, vegan and even a raw foodist due to influences from my teachers. None of these lifestyles really fit with my yoga practice since I am prone to hypoglycemia. Also I became a "junk food vegetarian" eating nothing but larabars, cereal and roasted vegetables. In my yoga teacher training we were encouraged to try a raw food diet for 30 days…I only made it two days in before my body revolted.

    I think that yoga teachers can unwittingly encourage others to try fad diets by talking or reporting about them in class. Many of us look up to our teachers and want to emulate their characteristics. Ultimately, of course it is up to the student to practice yogic principles of non-harming when it comes to their own bodies…but learning to listen to our bodies often takes some time. Even now my relationship with food remains a daily issue in which I need to apply compassion and care. And I have learned a hard lesson that sometimes you need to listen to your own body and your own wisdom rather than that of your favorite yoga teacher.

  • cassandra madsen

    I think of food as fuel. My bod is the engine. I fill up in the morning with a nice nutritious breakfast. Throughout the day, I keep my eye on the gauge remembering to refill when I get near empty. I do this with healthy snacks and small meals packed with healthy fats, protein, and minimal sugar. This keeps my engine running smoothly–and my metabolism, too. As far as my "diet," I am all about the 80/20diet. This means you'll eat healthy 80 percent of your life and not-so-healthy about 20 percent. So if you're good alll day and then you need to have a froyo for dessert–go for it. I like to eat realllly good all week and maybe splurge a little bit on Saturday–I can't say no to barbecues or movie dates! Thanks for the post! xo, cm

  • Jen

    I like your diet mantras, Rebecca, and I try to use them too. I find that when I practice Yoga regularly, my body craves healthier foods. I look for those "whole" foods Pollan speaks of – no perservatives, no processing, just food. Granted, that doesn't mean I'm on a super-healthy diet all the time; I still reach for an occasional candy bar (like this afternoon!) when I feel the desire to do so. But, overall, I think my diet is more balanced, and I'm cooking for myself more!

  • Anonymous

    Well done as usual OmGal. I think your querie really is tied up in the Westernization of Yoga. Adapting Yoga to the Western culture. In India, vegetarianism is a way of spiritual life. It is not tied to aesthetics. I find that a lot of Yogi's are caught up in walking that tightrope of promoting an ancient practice in a modern Western Culture. As it so happens, this has a great appeal to body dysmorphic types (who see problems with their bodies constantly), and unfortunately border on anorexia. Yes these "cleanses" "detoxes" and "high vibrational only eating" seem to be thinly veiled eating disordered type yogis. And Yoga is just a disguise……
    Thanks for shining the light on this issue and I hope more men and especially women can follow your suggestions for conscious but not controlled eating. Namaste

  • Anonymous

    Hey Great I just saw Michael Pollan's DVD on tv today Food Inc. .

  • Mandy

    Interesting… I saw Michael Pollen on Oprah today. I love this post (and your blog) because it is all about what makes you feel good. I like to think of my body as a temple, one which I would be very upset (sick/yucky) if I left to much garbage in it. Balance is the key to all…and for every veggie there is a piece of chocolate…

  • Scout

    Well, yoga is initially, or only, a health and wellness plan for many people. They want to look good and feel great, so the diet is just part of the expected plan.

    But then we also have a lot of senior teachers saying gluttony is the worst of obstacles, fasting is an essential tool, vegetarianism is a necessity. So there are more "serious" students also concerned with the optimal diet. Because it doesn't make sense to spend 20 years on OM or asana as a route to transcendence, if your diet is a big old anchor.

    So I think we as yoga teachers have to address it, VERY DELICATELY. Food is incredibly emotional, messing with someone's diet is like taking away their blankie. I refuse to label my diet any more. I tell people to eat 80% vegetables, and 20% whatever they want.

  • Michelle @ Find Your Balance

    For me, yoga and food have been inextricably linked. Down Dog? My stomach gurgled. Agni Sara – whoa nelly. Yoga brought me to where I am today, eating what feels right for my body. I have no use for rules or restrictions but I do know what is going to make me feel great and what will make me feel ick.

    I'm actually running a program right now targeted at yogis – this will help everyone get a clean start and remove some variables so they know how certain foods affect them!