Yoga + Diet Culture: Think Less, Feel More.

First off, I love my yoga practice and I love teaching yoga.

It brings me so much joy and presence to fully be in my body when I practice and teach. The sight of students in savasana at the end of a practice is one of the best things ever - and my own savasana is bliss, most of the time.

Yet, lately, I've struggled with how the physical yoga (asana) practice has become enmeshed with diet culture. It's become the way for many wellness-obsessed people to "cleanse and detox" and engage in disordered behaviors under the guise of health. Yoga on Instagram is all about challenges to do the fanciest arm balances or poses that require extreme flexibility (hypermobility that may lead to injury or pain).

In the last year, I've been to a handful of classes where teachers talk about "burning off calories" or talk to students afterwards about juice cleanses or vegan diets. I've seen challenges in studios that encourage taking as many classes in a month as you can - leading some students to take multiple classes a day (or high-intensity physical practices).

Not only is it inappropriate and unethical for teachers to encourage disordered eating and exercise patterns, I also find students are so vulnerable and see their teachers as leaders in the community that they trust their guidance. Students and teachers can become so extreme in their diet and physical practice. To them, it looks like dedication but it can easily turn into disordered exercise - or an eating disorder. 

I find yoga can be such a healing practice in recovering from an eating disorder, improving body image, or connection to self, but when studios and teachers encourage extreme methods to the physical practice, it's confusing and harmful for students. Instead of encouraging being gentle and compassionate with their body, students are being told to push through another chatarunga or find their limits and only given two minutes for stillness in savasana at the end. Stretching and sweating can lead to a sense of calm or an endorphin release, and while that can be beneficial, if that's your only go-to coping tool, it ultimately becomes more harmful than good.

When yoga teachers use language rooted in diet culture, such as pushing or forcing, it encourages disconnection to the body. Instead of connecting mind, body, and heart, which is what yoga (union) is, it's turning people further away from their body's signals while using spiritual language. It turns into an obsession with the physical practice and how the body looks in the pose rather than how it feels.

Many studios use mirrors, which can be helpful at times to help with alignment, but it also can lead to comparison or a hyper-focus on the look of the pose. Many students are intimidated by studio classes because of focus on the body and many teachers' lack of knowledge to teach to all body shapes and size.

One of my favorite cues - from Jason Crandall and the Yoga Land podcast is - any amount of the pose is still the pose. (Heads up: I enjoy that podcast, but there can be talk about sugar/clean eating at times if that is triggering to you). It's never about what the pose looks like because physically, we all have different body shapes and proportions. If you put 10 people in the same pose, everyone will look differently, and some people may never be able to do the pose or the full expression of it. That's totally okay. I may never do lotus pose because when I try, it hurts my knees, and I'm not willing to risk injury for a shape.

Instead, when you can switch perspective to how the pose feels from the INSIDE OUT, it allows you to build connection with your body. You notice the sensations of your muscles working, stretching, or the breath circulating within your body. 

This was one of the biggest lessons ever for me. I could focus on the internal sensations of the breath and my body, and with that, it shifted to the emotional and mental state in a pose. In triangle pose, I feel expansive and free. In child's pose, I feel grounded. In a seated forward fold, I can surrender deeper into myself. In backbends, I can open up, be vulnerable, and learn to trust myself. Embodying these shapes helps me feel more comfortable with these feelings in my life.

That's the magic in yoga. 

It's never about the physical pose or those Instagram shots of handstands on the beach. Sure, that can be fun and playful, but the magic comes from the inner work.

The healing and power of yoga comes from being able to build that connection with your body. Your body will tell you your limits. In the physical practice, your breath is a great guide. When your breath becomes choppy or you lose it, back off. Skip a vinyasa, rest in child's pose, or take a restorative or yin practice instead. 

The physical practice through classes is the way many of us get into yoga. The sweating and moving can feel really good, and it can help get people into their bodies in order to experience the other benefits. Yet, when yoga becomes linked with diet culture, that's where most people stop. They compare themselves to Instagram yogis and focus on perfecting the poses or getting a "yoga body" (not a real thing).

It's through the physical practice that we can prepare ourselves for stillness - in savasana, meditation, or pranayama. In our crazy-busy society, stillness is needed. In the stillness, we can realize we are enough as we are. We don't need to change our bodies or ourselves. 

If you're struggling with disordered eating, here are some ways to use yoga in a supportive way:

  • Find a variety of classes. Try out a gentle yoga practice or a restorative or yin practice. 
  • Feel free to take a break from sweaty hot yoga classes with mirrors everywhere.
  • If you do practice vinyasa classes, skip a vinyasa or rest in child's pose when you're tired. It's okay to take a break. Remember ahimsa (non-harming) - listen to your body and practice compassion. Injury or pain is never worth it.
  • Tune into the internal sensations - your breath, where you feel the muscular work or the stretch.
  • Explore different themes on your mat like creativity, stillness, expansion, freedom, grounding, surrender, playfulness. This can be a chance to embody different emotional states.
  • Explore other aspects of yoga, like meditation, pranayama (breathwork), or svadhyaya (self-study) or yoga philosophy. One of my favorite books lately is The Radiance Sutras - it's a great one to pick up and read a few pages at a time. 
  • If you just really don't like yoga and have tried it out before, don't force yourself to go. If it's not your thing, find a different way to connect to your body. Yoga classes may not be your thing, and that's fine too. 

I'll leave you with one of the intentions I've been using my classes lately: "Think less. Feel more."

How to Nourish your Brain

One of the most fascinating parts of nutrition and the body is the brain. 

If you've ever struggled with disordered eating - or just have gone too long without eating - you've felt the side effects in your body. You start to think about food, food cravings pop up, and you probably feel hunger in your body in some way. If this becomes consistent, the food thoughts become constant and obsessive. The food cravings may turn into binges or just eating a lot of food, especially easy to digest food like snack food or desserts.

In any type of disordered eating, the brain is going to be affected. It's also going to react in a protective manner because it wants to survive. 

How to Nourish your Brain

All these obsessive thoughts about food are a protective mechanism for the brain and body! When you're not getting enough nourishment, your blood sugar starts to drop. Since your brain's preferred fuel is glucose (delicious, nutritious carbs!), it starts to signal hunger through hunger hormones. You'll start to think about food or you'll be craving your next meal or snack, and you may feel sensations in your stomach. With increased hunger, you'll feel ravenous, tired, and perhaps lightheaded as your blood sugar really drops. 

If you have a meal or snack and refuel your body, you'll fill satisfied and satiety cues will be triggered. Food just won't be as appealing for the next few hours, and your brain will be able to think, focus, and concentrate on other parts of your life like work, relationships, or fun until your next meal or snack. 

It's pretty cool how your body can manage this so well on its own. 

The brain is such a small organ compared to the rest of your body, but it requires a tremendous amount of energy. It uses more energy than any other organ in the body and 20% of the energy you eat goes up to your brain! 

This means that disordered eating patterns directly impact the brain. If you are restricting your diet - or following a diet, which is restrictive by nature - your brain isn't the energy it needs. You may find yourself obsessing about food, not able to focus or concentrate, irritable, lightheaded, or anxious because of lack of nutrients. You'll likely feel more emotional or have mood swings.

Your metabolism is going to slow down as your food thoughts amp up because your brain wants you to seek out food to refuel. You might have intense food cravings for carbs and fats (think ice cream or chips) because it's energy-dense food. You could struggle with "emotional eating" or binges, which are often a sign that your body needs consistent nourishment.

Luckily, recovery from disordered eating or an eating disorder leads to a well-nourished brain. I've heard many clients feel the difference pretty immediately. As you give your body consistent fuel and tune back into your hunger cues, your thinking may clear and food thoughts decrease. You'll have sustainable energy again and won't have to rely on coffee to stay awake during the day. Your moods may stabilize, so you can do the mental and emotional work of healing your relationship with food and your body.

Eating regular meals and snacks and honoring your hunger is one of the best ways to build back trust with your body and brain. It helps your body's cues to normalize over time because your brain starts to trust that there is consistent fuel coming in and that it's not in a "famine" state. It will also allow you to live a life beyond diets. When your body is satisfied, you'll have so much more mental space to be creative, explore other hobbies, and live life outside of food. 

Now, I'm signing off for a night-time brain-fuel snack (chocolate, of course!). 

Thoughts on returning to running: Joy + Rest

A few months or so ago, I got this crazy urge to go on a run after work. It was a beautiful day, and I saw so many runners out in the sunshine. When I got home, I grabbed my shoes and my pup, and we headed out. 

It felt amazing and reminded me why I love running, even after 13ish years. Getting outside in nature and moving with joy is why I run and always why I return to it.

I used to run a lot in college and my early 20s. After my first marathon and some definite overtraining, I felt burnt out and needed a break. So, I took time off of all movement for a while, then had a period of really gentle movement (lots of walking + gentle, restorative yoga). That's what my body needed at that time.

In the last 5 years, I've continued to run but not consistently. I'd head out for a run pretty intuitively - when I felt like running and for however long my body wanted to. It's been joyful and a form of self-care rather than exercise.

In the past, I was obsessed with the numbers around running like pace and mileage and kept pushing myself to run faster and further. Now, my runs are generally slower, shorter, and have lots of breaks to let my dog sniff pretty much everything or search for squirrels. If I feel like taking a break to walk, I let myself. If I feel like running for a long time, I go for it.

Lately, I have been running more consistently because it feels really good. There are also so many amazing trails around me that I've been exploring through runs/hikes. Surrounding myself with giant redwoods, muddy trails, and grassy stretches during a run nourishes my heart just as much as my body. When my life feels stressful or overwhelming, nature is always my go-to.

Through this process, I've noticed how incredible the body is when I listen to it. When I truly tune into my body, I let my breath and body lead the way. Instead of comparing myself to how fast or far others can run, I allow myself to run by feel. Some days, it feels really good to run slow while other days, I feel inspired to speed it up. 

Running for me is all about joy. While out for a run, my dog always looks back at me with a happy face and her ears and tongue flapping around. She exudes joy. When I let her off-leash, she will happily take off sprinting laps around, then comes back so happy. 

Sure, there are runs that feel harder, and I don't return with a runner's high every time. Yet, each run is a chance to tune into my body, as well as my mind. It's like a moving meditation for me that allows me to be present of each breath, each step, and find space in my mind to just be. 

Running is part of joyful intuitive movement for me right now. At times, I do catch myself brainstorming how many miles I could run or races I could train for, but I just come back to why I run now. I know I'll naturally go through cycles of my favorite ways to move my body - running, yoga, snowboarding - or cycles of more rest and gentle movement throughout the year and my life. 

If you're struggling with movement, explore intuitive movement.

If you feel burnt out or like you're forcing yourself to exercise, take a break. It's okay to rest - or do more gentle movement like walking or gentle/restorative yoga - for a week or months or however long you need. Rest is so important for your body and mind!*

When you feel ready, explore a variety of different movement types and notice what brings you joy, body connection, and feels nourishing to your mind, body, and heart.

Notice how movement makes you feel on all levels and challenge your rules around it. There's no need to have rules around what "counts" or not - your movement does not have to be for "x" amount of minutes, a certain intensity level, or everyday. It will always vary based on your life, stress, and schedule too.

Some weeks, my work and life is pretty busy, and I may only get in 10-15 minutes of yoga a day or not much movement at all. Other weeks, I can get in a few runs and classes. It's all okay. If I'm stressed or not sleeping well, I'm going to prioritize sleep and restorative movement.

Moving your body can feel amazing and support your health, but always remember it's only one part of your life (rather than your whole life). Find the joy in it, then allow yourself to fill the rest of your day with joy, connection, and much much more. 

*If you are recovering from an eating disorder (or other medical concerns), use your treatment team (therapist, dietitian, physician) to provide recommendations around activity.