“…how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction…” ― Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
This is a blog post about the yoga of food. Not in the healthy recipe sense, but in the sense of what it means to fully inhabit my body through a practice of conscious eating. This isn’t about ‘watching’ what I eat – do way too much of that already. No, it’s about overcoming my deepest food fears and healing my split psyche. It’s about getting in ‘touch’ with my culinary cravings and desires. It’s about reconnecting with what may be my most basic body wisdom of all, my instinct for nourishment.
I undertake this quest because I’ve discovered a huge blind spot in my holistic consciousness – my body’s innate wisdom vanishes wherever I enter the kitchen. To whit the daily dilemma of breakfast – light cleansing fruit? Might shoot up the blood sugar. Hearty whole-grain cereal? Gluten will irritate my gut. You get the picture. Between counting calories, tallying nutritional components, or choosing foods that are sustainable, ethical and organic, my relationship to food has become an abstract, disembodied even fearful affair.
I suspect I suffer from “Orthorexia Nervosa” an obsession with healthy eating. This term coined by Steven Bratman, M.D. is used to describe the growing epidemic of people who avoid foods perceived to be unhealthy and/or impure. Key symptoms of this mental dysfunction include “seeking control through eating properly” or guilt or self-loathing when eating “incorrect” food.
Guilty. I regard non-organic strawberries (laden with pesticides!) with such fear and loathing I feel nauseous whenever forced to consume them. Never mind the gloom I plunge into whenever I succumb to the greasy lure of a Double Quarter Pounder. Has my obsession with healthy eating morphed into an eating disorder? Am I not just dutifully following the gospel of good health through good eating dished out to us by food experts from Oprah to Yoga Journal?
As a yogi I’m not alone in my quest for nutritional purity. Walk into any organic restaurant, raw eatery or vegan bistro and you’ll find it filled to the rafter with similarly minded yogins and yoginis. And most I’m sure would agree with Ayurveda educator and yoga teacher Scott Blossom who states “Eating is perhaps the single most important act for one’s yoga practice.” “For yogis, food choices reflect personal ethics …They are inextricable from our spiritual development.”
Blossom believes most yoga practitioners would probably name ahimsa, the yogic precept of non-harming, as a major influence on their dietary choices—“although how they put that principle into action varies.”
But according to Dr. Bratman, by believing one kind of food or way of eating is more virtuous, or more holy than others – we are simply exhibiting symptoms of Orthorexia. As Bratman wrote in Yoga Journal “The act of eating pure food begins to carry pseudo-spiritual connotations… As orthorexia progresses, a day filled with sprouts, umeboshi plums and amaranth biscuits comes to feel as holy as one spent serving the poor and homeless.”
So I’m confused. I feel by being so well, orthorexic, I’ve lost touch with something primal, essential, even earthy about my relationship to food. Something more vital to our sustenance than scientists can currently dissect under a microscope.
The Gospel of Food Guidelines
I agree with food activist and author Micheal Pollan who states “We’ve lost track of just how peculiar our view of food has become. We think the only question is health. Historically, people have eaten for a great many other reasons: for pleasure, community, to express their identity, to commune with nature…”
According to Pollan we’ve fallen victim to the insidious idea of “nutritionism”, a belief that nutrients are the sole and deciding factor as to whether a food is life-sustaining. But as Pollan writes, nutritionism has replaced “common sense with confusion” because whether its low fat, no fat, low carb, vegan or high protein, thirty years of nutritional advice has only left us “sicker and fatter” than ever before.
So as I vigilantly and virtuously attend to the fiber content of my raw organic kale salad, I can’t escape the feeling I’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Consider the fellow in Britain who ate only crisps (potato chips) for decades with no health detriment? Or the brilliant and robust Temple Grandin’s exclusive diet of jello and ice cream? Or the Inuit who once thrived on a diet of whale fat and seal blubber? Perhaps we can survive on a diet of trans-fats and corn syrup – who really knows?
Creature Comforts and Good Cheer
After all – what truly makes food life-sustaining? What matters most in our experience of eating? Because when it comes to dressing up and dining out on that special date, breaking bread communally during ritual feasts like Sunday Dinner, or consuming an amazing buttery blast of sugar and love in a birthday cake baked specially for you – I suspect it has less to do with dietary piety than it does with the pleasures of the heart .
Adam Gopnik’s lovely book The Table Comes First begins with the letters of Jacques Decour a resistance fighter who is about to be shot by Nazi’s. In his last days, awaiting execution, he writes to his friends and family:
“All these last days I have thought a lot about the good meals we should have together when I was free… I don’t want your thoughts to dwell on the good time we might have had but on those that we have really shared….I had an excellent meal with Sylvan on the 17th. I have often thought of it with pleasure, as well as of the New Years supper with Pierre and Renee.”
Could it be so simple? In the end, what matters is not how healthy the food we consumed was – what matters most is the memory of delicious meals taken with those we love. I quote the wisdom of Gopnik’s words “For us, as for Jacques Decour what makes a day into a happy day is often the presence of a good dinner.”
And so I declare a new manifesto. I will no longer eat to live – but live to eat!Yoga (as commonly defined) means to “yoke or bind”. So in a ‘yoga of food’ I will cure my orthorexia by yoking consciousness to my body through eating. I want to go beyond dualities of satisfying the flesh or denying its pleasures. I want to consciously seek a balance between the opposites of fullness and emptiness, between satiety and hunger, between discipline and abandon- and find the middle way.
In this practice, I will take guidance from the great Goddess Annapurna, who celebrates the divine aspect of nourishment found in the five organs of perception: our ears, eyes, nose, skin and tongue. Anna means food in Sanskrit, and Anna-yoga refers to a branch of yogic science that deals with more than a healthy diet, it refers to a journey of self-knowledge through food. Temple art in India often depicts Lord Shiva with his begging bowl asking Annapurna to provide him food that gives the energy (Shakti) to achieve knowledge and enlightenment.
And to the commencement of my practice of yogic eating I say -Bon Appétit ! Whether I’m at the stove recreating happy memories of steamy dinners in my grandmother’s kitchen, or feasting on the forbidden foodstuffs (Slutty Brownies, thanks to Betty Crocker and Kraft) or Dining Alfresco with family and friends to celebrate the earthy terroir of the landscape and seasons – my goal is the same. To cast aside my fear about how food is made, or whats in it – and to trust what my body, belly, mouth, salivary glands -and my heart – are trying to tell me.
I understand trusting my body wisdom even means trusting where my gluttonous desires may lead me. It means going past rising panic at the calorie count consumed in a tub of Coconut Gelato to ask -what nourishment, what sweetness – am I truly seeking?
This doesn’t mean I will stop buying locally or asking if the meat I consumed lived and died humanely. I can’t help it, these ethical ideas remain embedded in my experience of food. But I also recognize something disrespectful in my attitude towards the factory-farmed eggs or irradiated lettuce. After all, this blameless produce was grown in the earth, and these small creatures gave their lives.
So with Annapurna as my guide, I will honour all food as a sacrament and give thanks (in a world where so many are hungry) for the blessing of each meal. I will remember that deeper mystery at work in a chilled glass of white wine on a summer day or in that toasted cheese sandwich on a snowy evening.
I will care for the earth, seek nourishment at the communal table, and feed those I love – and to share when I can. And in this way, I seek to remember what truly matters – what my poor Orthorexia ridden self has almost forgotten- the vast interconnected web of life, love, death and pleasure that is the soul of food.
And finally, I promise to stand at the refrigerator door each morning and abide by the counsel of my divine senses. Chocolate chips with oatmeal? Well -why not?
For more on Yoga & Food check out The Yoga of Spring Nettle Pie