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Most view food as the most important factor in getting or staying healthy. Of late, even the less nutritionally enlightened have begun to understand the importance of eating a clean, minimally processed, plant-emphatic diet. And now, the critical mass - albeit reluctantly - consider the idea of moving daily as a lifestyle process that is necessary to fend off dis-ease and promote wellness. If yoga comes up in now commonplace discussions of how to lose weight/avoid illness/defy aging/heal injury, it is surely as the latter prescription....Yoga is not food. It's exercise. Right?
Are we missing an important connection? We are not seeing clearly the overlap in the 'Venn Diagram' that maps out our potential for optimum health and that makes yoga perhaps even more about food than about movement.
As a Chef, nutritionist and food writer I see everything through an Epicurean lens, anyway. However, I write this from a place just around the corner from a birthday (not a milestone but close enough to give pause) So, it is with a little stock-taking and a lot of passion to inspire that I declare: yoga changed my life. I, like many, ate well and exercised. In fact, in the years before my transformation, I even taught a high-energy, calorie-burning dance fitness class 5-7 times a week. It was not until yoga took center stage, however, that the food choices I made began to make a profound difference. The 65 lbs of body weight I parted with is the most visible of the changes. The increase in energy; the change in my experience of eating and the seismic shift in my relationship with my body are less obvious but far more significant.
It started with body awareness. We have found ourselves in a world where we are continually encouraged to move outside of ourselves and even define ourselves and our happiness based on relationships, successes and often, someone else's assessment of what we should aspire to all pressing in on us from the external realm. All this conditioning in distracting ourselves from our own consciousness has rendered the idea of going inside a daunting proposition, indeed. Enter yoga. Yoga makes us notice micro-shifts in our physical bodies. And sure, we think more about what we put in our bodies and where it will end up. But we also come to consider how we will feel about it on its journey to becoming part of us.
We ask: Will I enjoy this? I mean - really enjoy it? When you start to really feel as a result of this acute physiological awareness that yoga promotes, you put aside questions like: Is it vegan? Is it Paleo? Did the article I read in this month's issue of "Tell Me What to Eat" say I should like this? You begin to appreciate if it's actually food and not some derivative that is supposed to fit in to someone's theory of a healthy eating framework. You start to consider what the food means emotionally, culturally and anthropologically. Food and eating become important, beautiful and serious. I never feel deprived or like I have 'been bad' if I eat ice cream or something else that is supposed to reflect 'cheating' behavior in terms of eating. If I want bacon, I'll have bacon. I just seem to want it less. It's not as if wanting less is some strategic decision that my conscious mind has made. Yoga has made me know myself. So, when I turn inward, what I see is familiar and actually much more immediately in need of my acute and focused attention than of anti-oxidants and polyphenols. Ok, those are important. But they come organically when I really know myself.
The other enormously significant realization I made was that what yoga does to our insides is equal to or greater in magnitude to what exercise does for our outsides. Sarah Powers said 'Doing yoga is like taking an inner shower'. Most of us would not forgo our daily external ablutions. We love to get massages and understand how we can loosen muscles and get rid of pain. We don't consider the same attentiveness to the unseen mechanics on the inside.
What good is eating kale if the vitamin A et al therein never gets to our cells? If it is passing through tiny holes in our intestines, for example, and leaking out, then no amount of trips to the organic farmers' market will make us feel better. Those holes in the intestinal membrane (or other digestive/metabolic sluggishness we suffer from that makes our food choices ultimately insignificant) come from not working our insides...not massaging our organs (spinal twists); unblocking our energy channels (meridian-yin yoga), optimizing our oxygen uptake (pranayama) or firing up our digestive kindling (vinyasa flow).
Come to your mat consistently and insides - those insides you will have come to know intimately - feel like they have had a spa day. Then - and only then - will we begin to really eat the food we consume.
So, maybe downward dog has more to do with dinner than we think. Is it really as simple as cultivating acute awareness and taking that inner shower? Yes. When I tell people I lost weight doing yoga (the most universally audible part of this personal story) they find it hard to believe. And it doesn't have to be power yoga or hot yoga or ashtanga yoga. Any yoga will make you know yourself better and take your insides for an enlightening - and lightening - spin.