As a yoga teacher and student, I’ve been exposed to several lines of thinking as to what we should be putting into our bodies. Yoga is about connected and mindful living, and diet naturally plays a big role in that.
Some yogis abide by an Ayurvedic diet, based on the ancient healing practice from the East. In this practice, you eat based on your Dosha (if your constitution is primarily earth, air, fire, or a mix - take the test if you’re curious!) and avoid processed food and stimulants. There are stricter guidelines around times of day to eat as well as fasting, depending how deep into the practice you go. Some yogis apply the yogic principle of Ahimsa (non-harming) to their diets, choosing to go vegetarian or vegan to diminish suffering. Some simplify things and avoid coffee, processed food, and alcohol, honoring their bodies through cleanliness. One revered yoga teacher at my studio unabashedly admits to regularly drinking diet coke and eating hamburgers.
When you Google “healthiest diet” there is no real consensus (though the Mediterranean diet gets a lot of love). Many schools of thought push for plant-based, while others push for genetically-based, like Paleo. While I am excitedly on-board with where the food movement is headed - more local and organic, farm-to-table, minimally processed, and chemical-free options - I’ve yet to find precise dietary guidelines to subscribe to. But my recent yoga teacher training and the accompanying self-reflection brought the what should I be eating? question up again for me.
A primary goal of yoga is to deeply connect with your body and soul. Yoga is intended to get us better acquainted with ourselves - both physically and spiritually. That includes knowing what we should be nourishing ourselves with for optimal well-being. I think some of the truest adages are you are what you eat and let your medicine be your food and your food be your medicine. The impact our diets have on our health and happiness cannot be overstated.
Back in college, I had constant digestion issues. I was frequently bloated and in pain, and sometimes had trouble keeping food down. The first doctor I visited brushed it off as stress and wrote me a prescription. Another suggested something was wrong with my gallbladder and sent me off to an expensive MRI. Neither of these doctors once asked about my eating habits.
Disappointed by the nutritional knowledge of western medical professionals, I did my own research online. I discovered the Paleo diet, and immediately threw away my slim fast bars and diet cokes and low calorie breads. Eating real food - fruits and vegetables and eggs and meats - helped tremendously. My husband the steak-fanatic especially loved this diet. The bloating and cramping went away, my face got less puffy, and I finally stopped worrying about counting calories.
As time went on, I got more flexible with what I ate and starting adding back in some dairy, peanut butter, whole grains, and a lot more cheat meals. I learned that as long as I stayed away from processed foods and artificial sugar, I was okay. But then the “cheat meals” happened more and more often (hey, New York City has AWESOME food). I noticed my digestion getting irregular again and my skin breaking out more. I missed the control and security that a diet with more rigid guidelines offered.
When my sister passed away last year, I couldn’t eat at all for the first week, and then I couldn’t eat meat. The flesh made me squeamish, plus I didn’t want to contribute to any more pain in the world. I switched to a pescatarian diet (gotta have my sushi) because it was what my body and heart wanted, and because it gave me the regulations and limitations I felt I needed.
I broke my pescetarianism a few months into it during a dinner out with my husband at a trendy Mexican restaurant with amazing short rib tacos. The fish ones did nothing for me; my body screamed for red meat. That’s when I decided the only guidelines I needed were slowing down, listening, and eating what feels right. I drink coffee some mornings when my body asks for it, but I don’t do it out of habit. Some mornings all I want is fresh juice or tea. I eat very little meat because I don’t crave it and I don’t want to support the cruelness of factory farms. But at our local farmers market this week I did buy some ground beef that came from a small family farm in upstate New York. I eat as clean and ethically as possible, but don’t do cleanses or eliminations just for the sake of doing them, or refuse lovingly made or exciting food because of any rules.
I still overeat sometimes, and occasionally stuff my face with salt and vinegar chips, and have a few pounds I wouldn’t hate to lose. But I’m learning to live in better harmony with myself. I’m learning not to feel guilty for not participating in dry Januarys or juice cleanses or sugar eliminations. I’m not saying diets like Whole30 or plant-based are bad - if your body is asking for them, do it! But do them because you deeply want to, not from any societal pressure about what you “should” be eating.
I’m constantly working to improve my relationship with myself, my body, and the world around me. Like all relationships, it takes work and attention and reflection. Like all relationships, it means being mindful and slowing down and listening and savoring. But like any good relationship, it leaves me shining brighter and living deeper.