As the Zen master Cheri Huber once said, “How you do anything is how you do everything!” Yoga can teach us many, many things about our relationship to life, and in particular, our relationship to food. Our eating style is a reflection of our internal state, and when we are feeling stressed or chaotic, it’s likely our eating style will be that way too. When we are feeling balanced and relaxed, that’s how we show up with food. When we practice yoga, we become more mindful, which makes a big difference at the dinner table. After all, we don’t do yoga to be better at yoga – we do yoga to show up better in life.
So what can yoga teach you about your relationship with food? Let’s take a look at the foundational guidelines that underlie all of yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas.
Yoga teaches us to be sensitive to all of our actions and their impacts. This principle of ahimsa is also translated as “nonviolence.” From a yoga posture perspective, if you don’t practice ahimsa, injury can take place and potential benefits vanish. For example, you may be always trying to push yourself further even if the body may not be ready Or you may be focused on perfecting the pose, telling yourself insensitively, “you’re not good enough,” “you could be better,” “you need to be stronger/thinner/more flexible” – critiques that reveal insensitivity to your words and their impacts.
If this is true for you, then perfectionism may also be showing up around food. Maybe you’re restricting or controlling calories, or punishing yourself with guilt after eating something sweet. Alternatively, insensitivity may play out when you deny your body’s hunger signals, or when you keep eating even though you are full.
By practicing sensitivity with yourself on the mat, you can begin to cultivate the awareness needed to bring the same nourishing relationship to food – and vice versa!
In yoga terms, honesty means acknowledging what is actually happening for you right here, right now. Your ability to imagine and remember can take you anywhere, but your yoga practice provides the tools to bring you back to the present moment, and to become intimate with the truth, with what really is. This means being true to your own heart and inner destiny.
This is a practice, as even when you become clear enough to recognize what that truth means, you may lack the courage to live that truth. But, if you’re not following your heart or you’re not being honest with yourself, your relationship with food may become disordered. You may try to control your appetite and tell yourself you are not hungry. You may overeat to mask the fear, or binge to numb your true feelings.
If you are able to be true to who you are, and trust in yourself and your journey, your relationship with food will be more satisfying. And if at times you do overeat or binge, you can accept where you are in the moment, become aware, and notice without judgment.
As you move and open your body during yoga, holding shapes that you don’t usually make in your daily life, your perspective starts to shift. You learn to notice your reactions to certain situations. You notice if you easily become angry or frustrated because things didn’t go your way. Let’s say you fell over in a balancing pose and it caused you rage. By practicing openness to this emotional experience, you may notice that you have a resistance to a new posture, or that you’re trying to to control the outcome of events.
As your yoga practice invites you to open up, you can look at your relationship with food and notice if the same applies there. Perhaps you are stuck with eating a certain diet, one that no longer serves you. Maybe you need to change your macronutrient balance, but have been tightly controlling your food intake so that your openness to new choices is limited.
If you can learn to be open on the mat, you may be able to do the same with food. Cultivating openness allows you to be an explorer with food and to find a way of eating that works best for you.
Being Present (Brahmacharya)
The practice of yoga invites us into the present. You can spend five minutes in one pose exploring every single body part. This intimacy with your body helps to connect to what each part is doing and feeling. As you become more deeply intimate with your body, it becomes much easier to recognize sensations of hunger or fullness. You can learn to interpret your body’s responses to find out if what you are eating is nourishing you or not. This may begin with noticing if a certain food makes you feel tired, energised, bloated, warm, congested, stimulated, and so on.
You can apply the same mindfulness practices you craft during yoga to your eating rituals. Closing your eyes, deep breathing, and eating slowly can help cultivate a deeper connection to yourself. Through enjoying the sensory experience of eating food, it becomes more nourishing for your body. In fact, the science of Mind Body Nutrition, which is part of what we teach at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, shows that being present with our meals dramatically enhances our digestive power. Click here to learn more!
Yoga is, at heart, a practice of self-enquiry into the depths of your own experience. Curiosity about yourself will teach you a great deal about your relationship with food. Do you eat when you’re not hungry? Do you overeat when you are in social situations? Do you eat to calm your nerves when feeling stressed? Do you deprive yourself of foods you want? Looking deeply at yourself allows you to be really present with the way you are, and make conscious choices to direct your life in the way you want to go.
If you are unconsciously moving through life, or unconsciously eating, you are likely to repeat the same patterns until you bring the light of awareness to the areas you’d like to shift. By practicing self-enquiry both on the mat and with food, you can tap into your inner wisdom and live and eat with sensitivity, honesty, openness, and presence.
And if you’d like to explore in greater depth how all of these principles apply to eating, or learn how to help others bring more consciousness to their relationship with food, you may be interested in our Eating Psychology Coach Certification Training. Click here for details!
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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