The Yoga Diet?
Yep, I said it the dreaded “D” word, but only because I knew it would get your attention. We love a good diet in this country and are always on the look out for the next best thing. In 2010 Americans spent $68.7 billion on weight loss including (but not limited to) diet programs, books, meal replacements, bariatric surgery, even diet sodas. Though I am appalled by the number of people who are injured and even killed by weight loss supplements, prescriptions, and surgeries, what really devastates me is the toll this takes on us as individuals. We spend so much time and energy worrying about food and calories, binging and exercise, feeling like dirt or worse than dirt for failing to follow our eating plan, get to the gym, fit into our jeans…. It breaks my heart that in a country with as much abundance as ours that people, mostly women, starve themselves out of hatred for their bodies or that some feel entitled to overeat and then purge when so many around the world are desperate for even one nutritious meal a day.
What is equally distressing is the increasing amount of fat that we as Americans have packed on in recent decades. Many, many of us are nearly disabled by sheer size, and I’m not even talking about all of the health issues related to obesity and overweight. Clearly diets don’t work! They never will! If diets worked Americans wouldn’t be so overweight and unhealthy. In fact, diets are part of the problem. A recent study by Medicare researchers challenged the tightly held notion that diets lead to long term weight loss. What they found is that diets contribute to greater weight gain than loss. What a cruel irony; all of this suffering, deprivation, and self loathing when statistically you were always bound to gain rather than lose long term. Indeed, all of that suffering, deprivation and self-loathing have been part of the problem all along.
I have been a teacher my entire adult life. I’ve taught individuals to sing, choirs to harmonize, yoga students to chaturanga and down dog, and small children to potty on the toilet. For as many great yoga classes as I have taught, or fantastic students I have mentored, or dollars I’ve saved on diapers; I’ve always wondered and agonized about how to breach the subject of weight with my students. Many of my students have very committed yoga practices and get stronger and more flexible and more confident, but rarely shed significant weight. A few lose weight and keep it off, like myself. This blog has grown out of my frustration as a teacher. I really, really want to see people live healthier lives. If you are happy, vibrant and healthy at any weight, I think you should stick with what works. If you are sluggish, feel rotten about yourself and find that the state of your body is holding you back; I hope that you will take this journey with me.
So what is the Yoga Diet?
Mindful eating is a big deal right now. Google this term and you will find dozens of books on the subject, I myself have read several of them. I propose that we bring a yogic approach to this concept of mindful eating. Svadhyaya is one of the observances in the Eight Limbed Path of Patajali, a yogic scholar. His writings are dated back to 200 a.d. and still relevant today. Svadhayaya is the practice of self study or self examination and is one of the many transferable skills that yoga students learn in asana practice. The simple act of becoming aware of the breath, or noticing how a pose feels in the lower back or discovering that coffee makes you jittery are all examples of Svadhyaya. How can this ancient concept be useful to us today in our effort to become more healthy and eat mindfully? Consider the following study from 1992 in The New England Journal of Medicine. This study examined obese people who considered themselves resistant to diets. Most claimed that the problem was due to genetic factors and slow metabolism and that their dietary habits were normal. After careful evaluation researchers discovered that participants were underestimating their food intake by 47% and overestimating their exercise by 51%. Careful self study is about viewing oneself impartially. Deepak Chopra says that the highest form of human intelligence is to view oneself and ones deeds without judgment. To truly make meaningful change in any aspect of life we have to be willing to do this. So the Yoga Diet isn’t a diet really, it’s about awareness. It’s about connecting to this ancient, honored observance in a modern way. I like to tell my new yoga students that the most valuable thing I can teach is awareness. When we are aware of how our bodies really feel we start to pay attention more to what we eat, because we notice that certain foods make us feel good and others really awful. Soon this awareness spreads to other important aspects of life. We begin to spend our time on things that fulfill us, people that support and care for us, we move more and smell the roses more. This, my dear yogis is the Yoga Diet, the pursuit of Santosha, or contentment in all things through careful self study. Join me in this journey. I’d like to tell you more about Svadhyaya – self study, Metta-loving kindness, Santosha-contentment and lots of other esoteric Sanskrit concepts that I am sure will have relevance in your pursuit of a healthier body to live your life in.