Healthy Eating through Yoga

For most Americans, sedentary lifestyles and consistent abundance of food have led to this country having the highest obesity rate in the world (as U.S. News and World Report described in a May 28, 2014 article). Some in our country have tried every fad diet, combined with every exercise regime, only to find themselves struggling to keep the pounds off. They might overindulge out of rationalization—“I worked out hard and already lost my goal of pounds this week”—or in innate responses to their bodies’ calls for balanced nutrition. Many eventually come to find that no matter what diet they try, no matter what type and intensity of exercise they combine it with, sustained healthy weight management only comes with fixing the problem at its roots, often skewed relationships with food and personal body image.

Yoga can help those chronic dieters—some we might bluntly call “yo-yoers”—come to healthier relationships with food, and their bodies, in several meaningful ways. Yoga enhances body awareness, so it becomes easier to understand sensations of fullness and hunger. In addition, many of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs can help us to take a step back and more objectively evaluate whether or not that extra slice of chocolate cake is what our bodies, minds, and spirits really want at a particular point. Finally, yoga teaches us that there is no “one size fits all” for everyone, so a way of eating that works for one person may not work well for another. Say good-bye to fad diets. 

Most, if not all, of those traveling the yogic path are sharpening their body awareness. With each Trikonasana, pranayama exercise, and mindful adjustment to a teacher’s cue, we enhance our abilities to listen to our bodies’ messages and beneficially respond. That becomes all the more possible with yoga’s gift of building mindful approaches to each task in each moment. Those who struggle with healthy weight maintenance can learn to more objectively and accurately observe their body’s sensations, of hunger or satiety, fatigue or energy, or of a settled versus an upset digestive system. Difficulties observing these sensations as they truly are often lead to such individuals’ weight maintenance difficulties. If skewed body images also contribute to those problems, expanded body awareness can also be healing for that.  

Throw in noticing the differences between wants and needs, as well as emotions such as anxiety and sadness, and such objective awareness is even more difficult. Yoga helps us to notice, yet not impulsively respond to, physical sensations. Through yoga, we learn to take a breath and a moment to assess all factors involved with a situation before acting. If one notices that he or she jumps to a certain variation in a posture because of anxiety or boredom, the individual could perhaps make a similar assessment when reaching for that carton of ice cream and thus avoid eating something that his/her body doesn’t truly need.

In fact, Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas (in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras) offer a structured framework for building—and then acting with—such virtues. For instance, the yama of satya, or truthfulness, can help one avoid unhealthy rationalization when it comes to food. You may be more likely to ask the question: do I really need that food, or do I just want it? Ahimsa, or non-violence/non-harming, can help us to commit to no longer harming ourselves through unhealthy ways of eating. If others berate themselves for “extra pounds,” when that is simply their healthy normal, ahimsa can help them to be more self-compassionate. They would then not feel as compelled to do “crash” diets— those that often lead to effects such as slowed metabolism and fatigue (read: reduction in healthy activity). 

In a similar way, ksama, or forgiveness, can help us to avoid unproductively berating ourselves if we might “slip” (so to speak) out of healthy eating plans. Dhrti, or fortitude/non-fear, can help us to step back on that healthier path and try again. These applicable principles aside, there is even one specifically for following a moderate diet: mitahara. In the niyamas, sauca (purity of one’s whole being) can help us to devote ourselves to “clean” eating, and being true to ourselves and our goals (rather than lying to ourselves). Tapas, or persistence, can help us to persevere through weight loss and maintenance challenges.

Finally, yoga practice enforces the important truth that we are all separate individuals with different strengths, growth areas, needs and wants. Using a block in a certain posture may be beneficial for me, but limiting for you. I may enjoy, and be skilled at, arm balances, but inversions are more your “thing.” Yoga encourages a non-judgmental attitude towards such differences—that we are who we are, and that’s all right. In fact, that’s what makes living in harmony with others interesting and fulfilling.

With such a perspective, people will be less likely to start certain diets merely because they “worked” for friends. If they do try those diets, those individuals would be less likely to blame themselves if the diets didn’t help them shed unwanted pounds. They would instead put that time and energy towards finding what is right for them. Acknowledging such personal uniqueness, those struggling with weight loss/maintenance will also be less likely to latch unto “fad” diets, those that might prohibit entire food groups, for instance. They can then, more likely, instead eat according to their bodies’ wisdom and objective nutrition science.

With yoga’s gifts of sharpened body awareness and abilities to respond accordingly, guidelines of the yamas and niyamas, and letting go of “one-size-fits-all” approaches, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight can be more attainable.  With yoga’s help, individuals who struggle with those tasks can come to enjoy greater physical health, in a sustained way. Through that they can experience a higher quality of life—closer to what we all have the potential to reach.

Kathryn Boland is a third­ year Master’s degree student in Dance/Movement Therapy at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA), and an E­RYT 500. She is originally from Rhode Island and attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in dance (where she first encountered yoga). She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations, from children at a local Boys and Girls Club satellite to senior citizens at a local nursing facility. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa­ style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD ­afflicted veterans, all demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow! 

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