Ahimsa at the Dinner Table

I had just returned from my evening power walk using my new fitness app to track and record the miles I covered and calories I burned. As I sat outside to cool down a bit, I scrolled through Facebook and saw this post on my friend’s wall:

“I made the mistake of eating dinner and now I must work out. — 🙁  feeling fat.”

I’ve known Kimberly for years. She’s a beautiful dancer, strict vegetarian and wonderful yoga teacher. Her post not only confused me, it concerned me. Why would this woman who radiates love and compassion feel she needed to punish herself for eating dinner?

Yet, in my own similar way, wasn’t that what I had just done by walking the extra mile to burn off an ice cream sandwich from earlier in the day? Wasn’t I punishing myself for enjoying a sweet treat?

We may be yoga teachers and encourage wellness in our students, but some of us are forgetting to honor our own selves too.

Practicing Ahimsa

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lays out an eight-fold path for right living. The yamas and niyamas are ten principles for living an ethical life.  The first of the yamas is ahimsa, which is normally defined as non-violence. It’s often used in reference to cruelty to animals and a vegetarian diet. But it is so much more.

The translation and commentary of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda defines ahimsa as not causing pain. 

“Killing is different from causing pain. Causing pain can be even more harmful than killing. Even by your words, even by your thoughts, you can cause pain.”

Telling ourselves we are fat causes pain. Telling ourselves we are bad or weak for eating something causes pain. Telling ourselves we aren’t a good enough yogi because we can’t do the same pose as the person on the mat next to us causes pain. This is not practicing ahimsa.

Eating “Clean” May Set Us Up for Orthorexia

Of course eating clean, nutritious food is best for our bodies. Daily movement and deep breathing is vital for both our physical and mental health. But the truth is we are fallible human beings and the unrealistic expectation of constant perfection is causing pain within us.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is reporting an increase in cases of orthorexia nervosa. Megan Klenk, DTR, CPT, says orthorexia nervosa “in its literal definition is to fixate on righteous eating. Orthorexics may become so obsessed with healthy or ‘clean’ eating, the limited amount of calories and lack of variety becomes unhealthy.”

Although not an official eating disorder yet, recent studies have found about seven percent of the general population may have orthorexia nervosa, with nutritionists and healthcare professionals being at higher risk.

The Centers For Disease Control say diagnosed eating disorders affect an estimated 7 million American women. Eating disorders also affect another 1 million American men. An eating disorder is so much more than physical. It includes the extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors surrounding food and weight.

However, eating patterns and eating disorders actually fall along a spectrum. On one end you’ll find what we most commonly think of when we use the term eating disorder, anorexia and bulimia. These are eating disorders with compensatory behavior (purging, laxative use, refusal to eat, etc.). The other end of the spectrum is binge eating without the self-imposed negative consequences.  In the middle is healthy, balanced eating and attitudes toward food. Everyone falls somewhere along this spectrum.

For many of us, our desire to be healthy has turned into a source of our pain.

When I spoke with Kimberly later she said that although she didn’t intend her post to sound like she was punishing herself, yes she absolutely struggles with body image issues. Growing up as a dancer she became used to the pressure to look a certain way. She also admitted that, like myself and most women I know, she has certain triggers that put her in a place of imbalance in her perception of her self.

For me, all it takes is a comment from a stranger or my frustration that my body isn’t designed to perform certain poses to send me into a spiral of self-doubt, negativity and pain. Those of us in the wellness field too often run the risk of self imposing a higher standard of body shape and overall health upon ourselves.

Klenk says when she hears a client say they feel fat, she knows to dig deeper than the actual comment. “Most of the time, the answer has little to do with actually gaining weight!”

Kimberly agrees and says when she made the post, she was actually referring to eating so late after an already exhausting day.

Bad days are going to happen. That doesn’t make us bad. Ill-mannered people are going to make hurtful comments. That is their issue. It becomes our problem when we allow those comments to be internalized and taken on as our truth.

Practicing Ahimsa at the Dinner Table

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.”   Buddha

How can we begin to practice ahimsa in our daily food and exercise choices?

  • Pay very close attention to Chitta Vritti, the internal chatter in your head. Notice how often you put yourself down. Even keep track of how many times a day you speak unkindly to yourself. Notice the pain you feel in your heart when your mind is cruel.

  • Consider if what you say to yourself is something you would repeat aloud toward a friend. Would you tell a friend she disgusting for eating a few too many cookies? If you wouldn’t repeat it, don’t say it.

  • When you catch yourself saying something negative, tell yourself that is unkind and unacceptable. You are worthy and lovable and deserve encouraging words.

Replace Negative Self Talk with Positive Affirmations:

  • My body receives the nutrients it needs from the food I eat.

  • I am an adult and I consciously make my own food decisions.

  • My self-worth comes from other places than what is on my plate.

  • Exercise is just one way I show myself love and care.

  • Exercise keeps me strong both physically and mentally.

  • I practice compassion for all beings, including myself.

Kimberly understands the need to practice ahimsa and reframe her thinking. “I have to retrain my brain that my body does not need attention or approval from others to feel validated,” she says. “My frequent mantra to my clients and myself is don’t wait to love yourself! Today is your day.”

A thoughtful article – more on Ahimsa – from YogaUOnline and Rachel Danya Smith: Picture of an Ordinary Yogi.

More from YogaUOnline and writer Christine Malossi: Ahimsa -Nonviolence.

Jennifer Williams Fields

Jennifer Williams-Fields is passionate about writing, yoga, traveling, public speaking and being a fabulous single momma to six super kids. Doing it all at one time, however, is her great struggle. She has been teaching yoga since 2005 and writing since she first picked up a crayon. Although her life is a sort of organized chaos, she loves every minute of the craziness and is grateful for all she’s learned along the way. Her first book “Creating A Joyful Life: The Lessons I Learned From Yoga and My Mom” is now available on Amazon. She has had her essays featured on Yahoo! and Dr. Oz The Good Life. She is a regular writer for Elephant Journal Magazine, YourTango and YogaUOnline. See more from Jennifer at jenniferwilliamsfields.com

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