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How Yoga Practice Can Transform Your Relationship To Food

This article was written by Melissa Grabau PhD
posted under Yoga

yoga

A good yoga class provides a physical workout with a healthy serving of food for thought. Like a side salad with your meal, worthwhile nourishment is to be had in the crisp insights and tender offerings from the teacher. One such insight that I received during a sweaty weekend morning practice many years ago was the suggestive comment, "How you do one thing is how you do everything." The class laughed, because the way that this particular teacher intoned the phrase brought sex to mind; we all looked around and giggled, wondering what our down dogs might have to say about our comportment in the bedroom. However, my mind soon migrated from the bedroom and landed squarely at the dinner table—which, for better and for worse, is not an uncommon occurrence for me. What might my yoga practice have to teach me about my relationship to food and my body?

  • "Get it over with already!"
    Somewhere along the way, I noticed that I was getting my yoga practice over with. “"Okay, what do I have to do today? Need to go to the bank, get some shopping done, pick up the dry cleaning. Play date at 1:00. I'll get my yoga out of the way before lunch." Enter yoga room, set up mat. Mind projects ahead to lunch, which lay just around the long, seventy-five-minute sweaty corner. Then lunch, that long awaited fuel stop so imbued with intent and need. Shovel food down as if I'm...go figure, getting it over with. How you do one thing is how you do everything... I will spare you the extension of this wisdom to the bedroom, thank you very much.

  • "All work and no play makes Jane a drone."
    "Man, this teacher is soft. How long is she going to hold us in this wimpy forward bend? Doesn't she know I have a few calories I need to burn? Damn. I'll be sure not to frequent her class again." We all have a particular style of navigating pleasure and pain through the day. Some people abhor discomfort and avoid every situation that might expose them to an unwelcome sensation or view of themselves. Others of us pride ourselves on manning up for the pain, at least the physical kind, and use this as some sort of justification of our right to Be. For me, pleasure is earned in small portions relative to a large serving of effort. This might mean plowing through hunger in order to save it up for that luscious let down in the evening. Or enduring a painfully difficult yoga practice in order to earn, well, lunch. This calibration of pleasure and pain can become quite rigid and boring over time. You find yourself not really wanting to hang out with Jane, which is quite a problem when you are Jane!

  • "It's never enough!"
    "I could use another round of that vinyasa. One more round and I'll be complete. I know I'd really get my yoga buzz on if she'd just take us through again. Maybe she'll do a hard back bend series. I guess I could take another class after this... " Later at dinner, "Boy that was a good meal. I'm still hungry, though. I need more. Maybe a cup of tea and a little chocolate. These pieces are so small. Are they really 120 calories each? I'll get by with one. Geez, I really could use more. I wonder what else we have..." The realm of the hungry ghosts (a concept from Buddhist cosmology), emaciated creatures with distended bellies wandering around in search of nourishment that they can neither assimilate nor benefit from. Does this remind you of any one? Plowing through sensation without stopping to taste, chew, and assimilate. How you do one thing...

  • "Did I really just eat all that?"
    "Man, I'm tired today. I don't feel like moving at all. Well, I'll push through the practice; maybe I'll feel better after. Geez, my head hurts. How long have I been here already? I'll just hold this twist and go a little deeper and this will be over soon." Dissociation refers to shutting down awareness of your experience and running on autopilot. This can become a habit, and creates a numbing haze around your daily tasks. Fast forward to the dinner table: "Chew, swallow, shovel. Chew, swallow, shovel." Akin to jump, pushup, twist. You hobble out of the yoga room or away from the dinner table. Lack of awareness does have its hazards!

  • Your body: it's a dangerous place to live!
    Feeling a little worn down. Dizzy. Stomach congested. Foot tingly. Something wrong? Mirror mirror on the wall. Dark circles. Bags. Should get blood work. Hungry. Eat. Too much? Not enough? How much is enough? How much is too much? What if I never stop? Scale. Am I okay? Too large? Too small? How large is too large? How small is small enough? Living by the numbers. Am I making the grade? Worry, anxiety, lack of trust—whatever you want to call it, the worm of doubt begins to pervade your life. How you do one thing...

  • I'm not okay. Are you?
    Yoga practice. Person next to me. Pretty. Strong. Thin. Always happy. Nice lululemon™ pants. Leave. Hungry. Always hungry. Too hungry? Others eat more. Others eat less. Am I okay? Yoga teacher is vegan. I should be vegan. Yoga student is paleo. Flat stomach. I should be paleo. Comparisons. Looking outside for guidance. Ignoring the inner girdle of tension because it's just too real and disorienting. If I can't be comfortable on the inside, where do I turn? Yoga? The dinner table?

  • Empty spaces.
    Savasana. Silence. Fidget. Discomfort. Itch. Cough. Grasp. Never enough. Did I really eat all that last night? Have to do better. Tick, tick, tick... Yoga class over. Lunch. Chores. Tired. Hungry? Crunch. Sweet. Distraction. Restless. Need stimulation. Empty. Bored. Tired. Hungry? Entertainment. Need to be needed. Meaning? Wandering. Dinner? Tick, tick, tick...

What is anxiety? Perhaps the above are good depictions of the everyday experience of mild to moderate anxiety. Eastern psychology, which incorporates the body in its understanding of the psyche, conceptualizes anxiety as a disturbance at the level of the Earth Chakra. The chakras are energy centers distributed in key areas of the body corresponding to the developmental challenges we encounter through life. The Earth Chakra is at the base of the spine, and signifies your sense of comfort and safety in the world and in your body. Problems managing food, money, and just plain old lack of comfort in your own skin are related to a weak or underdeveloped Earth Chakra. People who don't have a strong Earth Chakra are uncomfortable—all the time. They worry. Their anxiety may have a habitual hook; for example, it may land on the body, as in hypochondria, anorexia, bulimia; it may settle on worries about money and security; or it can be experienced as OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Worries about germs, calories, or safety predominate. The private fantasy goes something like this: "If I only cold [insert your choice of the following]: lose 10 pounds," "make more money," "clean up this mess," "never have to fly again," "meet the love of my life," then I would be (pause, crescendo please) happy!"

Well, I'm sorry to disabuse you of this cherished idea—I have it myself—but it just isn't the case. You see, your anxiety lives in you all the time. It vibrates right under your skin. You attach a story to it, but it lives in your body and is separate from your story. You think that your anxiety is there because of your "reason" (oh, I’m sure its a good one. So is mine.), but instead you have created your story to give your anxiety an alibi. Your anxiety is actually a bad habit of fear and insecurity that lives in your body. It's the thing that keeps you out of the present moment and distracts you from all that is right in your world and in your body. It lives in your shallow breathing, tight breathing, and clenched jaw. And if you fix your problem du jour without addressing this underlying anxiety, then your anxiety will migrate and feed off something else. It's like bad bacteria; your anxiety will find a new problem to attach that vibrating cauldron of discomfort within you to and although the story line of your new problem will be different, the feeling of it will be the same. It will feel like things are just not okay, you are just not okay, and this feeling will infect every moment of every day until, maybe, God help you, you can fix said problem.

Individuals with food/body issues are often expressing a problem with the Earth Chakra. Food becomes the focus to mark time through the day, and the act of eating becomes imbued with a lot of emotional attachment. Food equals security and provides you with that thing to hold onto, to get to, an island of security in a sea of fear. The anxiety is lived out in your craving for food coupled with the prohibition or shame attached to food. This is called conflict, and it doesn't feel good. Your shame is related to being judged for eating too much or for having a larger body. Your internal conflict surrounds wanting/needing the food for anchoring with your opposing shame for being so needy.

Not everyone who overeats or struggles with weight is expressing Earth Chakra conflicts. How do you know if your issues with food are related to your Earth Chakra? If you feel a lot of shame about eating and often do it in private. If you believe that you are bad for eating and vow to start controlling yourself better. If you place a lot of emphasis on the size of your body indicating your worth as a human. If you are focused on controlling your body in order to look a certain way. Overall, if your identity is wrapped up in the size or shape of your body and you spend a lot of time and energy trying to manage this, while also being overly focused on the amount and kind of food you will eat, then your food issues indicate unresolved safely and trust issues, and it is likely that you hooked into the sensations of eating as a source of comfort for your perpetual feeling of being uncomfortable in your own skin.

If you determine that you have a weak Earth Chakras (by the way, that's not a judgment, just a descriptor), how did this happen to you and what can you do about it? A weak Earth Chakra is transmitted by your family of origin. Now mind you, your parents did not sit down and say, "By the way, Junior, just to let you know, BE CAREFUL. Your body is dangerous. People are dangerous. Keep alert at all times for danger! Don't trust your own needs and feelings, because they are WRONG. Instead, look to others and compare yourself and be sure to dissociate from and devalue your own needs and feelings." No—if your parents did do this, perhaps the lessons would be easier to unlearn. As a child, the above lessons were learned on an implicit level. You were not even aware that you were learning about the world and yourself; you just experienced these lessons and filed them away as "normal," and "how things are." You were programmed by how and when you were held, fed, and diapered, let alone the countless other interactions you had with your caregivers. Through these experiences you learned how to relate to other people, to your body, and ultimately to life. If you conjecture that your programming was faulty, this is not an accusation toward those who nurtured you, nor is it a life sentence for you to live out his faulty programing. Rather, it is a turning toward yourself with acknowledgment of what is and turning toward those who nurtured you in acknowledgment of the shared burden you have with them.

Healing involves cultivating a flexible and living relationship with your body. This process requires slowing down and tuning in so that your demands of your body are reduced and you become more receptive to the subtle language of your flesh. Words are inadequate, really, to convey the inner landscape of the body. The language of the body is felt in a deep breath, or conversely, an inner retraction and clutching. The tight jaw, the truncated breathing, the girdle of tension that overlays everything. Intuitive knowing is a gentle opening in the center of the heart that is easy to miss when you are checking off your to-do list. If you have food issues, I suggest that you begin your healing process away from the dinner table. Food may be just too charged for you to reach any meaningful state of relaxation or awareness while in its presence. That's okay. Yoga is a tool that will help you bring awareness to the inner landscape of your Being. Yoga practice can act as a mirror; you look into the reflection of yourself on the mat and begin to learn about how you respond to challenge, to rest, to other people, to the world and your place in it. You also become attuned to your style of breathing (constricted? stingy?) and how often your jaw is tight and your teeth are clenched. In this way, and with the encouragement of the teacher, you learn to bring awareness with compassion to your physical Being and the storyline you attach to it. As you become more aware, you are empowered to change. You see yourself and more importantly, you experience yourself, with some objectivity and kindness. In so doing you offer yourself the opportunity to loosen the jaw, let go of the competition, breathe into the emptiness. And soon you are doing everything (including eating) just a little bit differently. And that, my friend, is the magic of yoga.

Melissa  Grabau PhDMelissa Grabau PhD
Melissa Grabau, PhD, (Roseville, CA) received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Duquesne University in 1998. She became licensed as a psychologist in California in 2001 and has been in private practice since 2003. More recently, she has broadened...  Read more

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