I, like many, used to think that the path of yoga meant vegetarianism, meditation, incense, and zen vibes. Yoga does in fact contain all of the above. Because it’s non-exclusive, it inhabits all forms of people, lifestyles, and beliefs with love and compassion as the undercurrent (even if and when bonafide yogis are not all “peace and love” all the time).
Even the modern-day spiritual seeker, however, is not exempt from working with personal and societal challenges, especially when it comes to our overall health and wellbeing. A controlling factor we often turn to in order to help mitigate these issues — alongside exercise and general lifestyle and mindfulness practices — is food.
Also not exempt from this self-work is why and how we eat and prepare food. Are we eating quickly in front of our laptop (guilty as charged)? Are we eating out of boredom or sadness? Are we cooking when we are frustrated and disoriented or happy and alert?
Just as we learn in an asana class to pay attention and breathe in a wide range of physical and mental circumstances (e.g. remaining tranquil while balancing on our hands), we can apply the same mindfulness principles to how we approach grub.
As Ayurvedic chef Divya Alter so wisely advises in her amazing cookbook, “health comes first, and healing begins with self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-love; food is meant to keep us healthy, not make us sick.”
Here are a few mindful teachings from yoga that can be applied to our attitude around food.
Practice. The “Yoga Sutras” state that we must practice for a long time (practice is ongoing — keep on truckin’), without break (as consistently as possible, not just once in a blue moon), and with devotion (wholeheartedly, because we care about our wellbeing). Whether we are testing out an unfamiliar dish or trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, we must remember that a desired result might not appear instantaneously. It is imperative that we practice and be open to how things shift. Enjoy the process of learning more about your preferences, taste buds, and kitchen skills.
Non-attachment. The “Bhagavad Gita” teaches us to relinquish the fruits of the efforts. Losing weight, avoiding desserts for the rest of our lives, or juice fasting for a week will not necessarily solve all of our problems. Our relationship with food relates to our relationship with our selves; when we release expectations of what we/life should look or be like, we allow ourselves to relax into the moment. Approach what and how you eat with love and without the expectation that what and how you eat will make you a more lovable person. We are all lovable just as we are.
Effort and ease. Yogis are taught to meet strength or steadiness (sthira) with sweetness or softness (sukha). One of my instructors, Iyengar teacher Nikki Costello, explained to us in class recently that we are not necessarily seeking comfort, but that comfort will likely come as a result of our efforts in cultivating steadiness. If we make the effort to eat mostly unpackaged foods/plants or try to cook more at home, over time we will ease into that which we might have previously resisted. Practices that once seemed challenging might flow a bit more fluidly into our daily routine, and they might even make us feel better to boot.
Compassion. Be patient with and kind to yourself. If a recipe bombs or if you break your cleanse, it’s not the end, and it doesn’t mean you failed. Be open to experimenting, and cut yourself some slack — this is all an ongoing learning process. When we offer ourselves, others, and our actions compassion, life is more likely to reveal that which we really seek — especially when said desire comes from the heart and not from the ego. Similarly, practice compassion toward the brands and companies who have compassion for a planet that provides us with everything we need: shop and eat as locally and seasonally as possible, with as limited amounts of waste as possible.
Awareness. One of the eight limbs of yoga is dharana, or one-pointed focus. When we are able to maintain our attention on something, we become absorbed into the practice — the thoughts calm down, the mind centers. What a beautiful way to prepare food, no? It also helps with digestion.
Ayurvedic health expert Dr. John Douillard says, “Meditation, a powerful sattva [balancing]-promoting exercise, helps regulate the body’s stress response by suppressing stress-reactive states while maintaining a healthy microbiome and gut-barrier function.”
Inherent goodness. Everyone has a physical and physiological heart; we are all made and capable of experiencing and offering love in our own unique ways. It is often said that love is the most important ingredient when cooking. If anything, it will benefit us more than it will hurt us, so why not try tapping into your own inherent goodness when both cooking and eating? It might even make the experience more special and enjoyable, serving as a reminder of what a gift it is to be able to nourish ourselves in the first place.
How will you put these food and mood principles into practice?