Q and A on The Yoga of Food

1. Your book is called The Yoga of Food. Most people think of yoga as a physical practice. How does yoga apply to food? The word yoga means `to yoke’ or `unite.’ Yoga can be thought of as a method to unite the mind with the body. For my purposes, the yoga of food means to yoke the purpose of eating, nourishment of the body, with the act of eating. In other words, the physical practice of yoga aims toward more embodied living. The yoga of food aims toward more embodied eating.

2. What inspired you to write this book? I’ve struggled with my own relationship to food and my body, so that provides the visceral backdrop for the book. On top of that, many of my clients struggle with their bodies as well. That may not be why they seek out therapy, but it often comes up. Years into therapy, a client may say, “You know, I haven’t mentioned this before but I think about my weight everyday and beat myself up about it all the time.”

3. Describe how you incorporate traditional psychology in your book. I was trained in classical analytic psychotherapy, so Freud’s theory of the oral, anal and oedipal stages of development is inherent in my perspective. Food is obviously related to oral issues surrounding trust and safety. It is often used in an unconscious attempt to anchor and self-soothe. Making unconscious forces more accessible to the conscious mind is another concept from Freud. Finally, resistance, or adherence to the status quo, was also highlighted by Freud. It must be dealt with directly or it will sabotage the change process.

4. How do you go beyond traditional psychology in your approach to food issues? We all have a living relationship with our bodies. We literally live in our bodies and we relate to them all the time. How we breathe, move, bathe and groom, and of course eat, are all expressions of that relationship. Our relationship to our body was learned in childhood and is inextricably entwined with how we were treated by primary care givers. Many people live with a distrust of their bodies, and sometimes it is downright hatred. This attitude was unwittingly passed on by our caregivers, not intentionally of course, it is systemic in our culture to relate to our bodies as objects. Making our feelings about our own flesh more accessible to consciousness allows us to begin caring for ourselves in a more mindful, gentle way.

5. What are some examples of a negative self-body relationship? Often its very subtle. It may be a backdrop buzz of self-criticism – “Your so fat.” Sometimes it is an unconscious girdle of holding around the belly and shallow breathing that you are not even aware of. The incessant preoccupation with looks or the need to exert control over the flesh, for example, by losing weight or getting a prescribed amount of exercise. These all reflect an outside-in relationship to the body rather than allowing the body to be the guide. On the extreme side are instances of bingeing and purging, starvation, or self-injury through cutting.

6. How can yoga philosophy help guide the healing process? Yoga philosophy emphasizes the importance of how our conditioning, or childhood experience, shapes our habits and then becomes our reality. The word for this in yoga is samskaras. Yoga practice and meditation are aimed to help us step aside from our ordinary habits and Witness ourselves more objectively. When you step beyond your conditioning and Witness your patterns, you are given the power of choice, which is truly a revolutionary human capacity. You are given the power to re-create yourself everyday if you take hold of it.

7. What are some other concepts from yoga philosophy you find relevant to understanding our relationship to food and our bodies? The book is structured around the yogic concept that human beings being are comprised of 5 layered bodies, which are called the kosas. The physical body is really just the tip of the iceberg. The book starts out with the physical body but with an appreciation for our insides as opposed to the common fixation on the outside. Then it moves on to discuss the energetic body, which is comprised by emotion and vitality, and then the mental body, which addresses the role of the mind.

8. That’s only 3 bodies. What about the other two? The other two bodies are the wisdom body and the bliss body, which reach toward the more esoteric levels of yoga and goes beyond the scope of my book. Yoga ultimately aims toward spiritual awakening. My book stays on the level of the personal self, which in my opinion must be well developed before spiritual awakening is possible.

9. Could you say more about the energy body, which you said is comprised by emotions and vitality? The energy body is called the pranamaya kosa and involves our relationship to our own energy. The key to our energetic system is the breath, which if you think about it is a primary form of bringing energy into our bodies and is even more important than eating. I believe many people are so shut down energetically, signified by constricted breathing, that food is used as a substitute form of energy.

10. How can yoga help with this? The physical practice of yoga focuses on slow, mindful movement where you are learning to first bring awareness to, and then eventually to manage your own energy. The rhythm of a yoga class usually involves deep, focused breathing, intensity and work followed by rest and relaxation. As this practice becomes known by your body, you are more able to stop the negative build up of “bad energy” during the day that might culminate in a binge at night. Instead of rushing around all day in a haze of urgency, you slow down and self-regulate. This greatly reduces the false dependence on food as a soother or pick-me-up.

11. You are discussing the over-reliance on food as in bingeing and overeating but not anorexia or food restriction. Does your book touch on this? I do make mention of the flip side to chronic overeating, which is food restriction, but I don’t discuss it as much. Essentially they are different expressions of the same problem – distrust of one’s own energy patterns and an attempt to control the body. In the case of food restriction, it is a position of mastery over the needs of the body and is unfortunately upheld in our culture as virtue. This can solidify a person’s identification with it, even if it creates a miserable existence.

12. Do you see overeating and food restriction as forms of self-harm? It goes in degrees. I believe severe forms of obesity or anorexia are forms of self harm that are usually rooted in severe dysfunction in the childhood environment. Milder forms of either are not necessarily expressing violence toward the self, but certainly express a lack of harmony with oneself and with nature. Ignoring the body’s signals – “I’m too full,” or “I’m depleted and need food,” are subtle form of distrust for the body. This may not be rooted in childhood issues, but rather shows the power our conditioning has in our lifestyle. It’s “normal” in our culture to overeat, to be uncomfortable in our bodies, to age poorly and be reliant on various medications to manage our health.

13. How else is the energetic body involved in people’s relationship to food? I talk about impulse control in the book, which is really just a term that describes one’s relationship with their own energy. People who binge eat are highjacked by a destructive energetic pattern that is interpreted as, “I need to eat.” This is a way to self-soothe by returning to the material world, the world of stuff, in order to create anchoring when faced with strong, unpleasant emotion. On the other hand, food restrictors are masters of their own energy and have found a way to circumvent their need for food as energy. This creates a false sense of power and control that ultimately saps the body of vital energy and creates illness.

14. And how about the role of the mental body? That’s where the practice of meditation comes in. I frame meditation being less about learning to relax but rather a process of getting more familiar with the patterns, or samskaras, of your mind. This helps develop the Witness, which is the part of you that see’s yourself and is called the observing ego in Western psychology.

15. Please say more about how the mind is involved in people’s relationship to food. We all have patterns of thinking about food that have been conditioned by our personal history. Even those of us who have been conditioned in a relatively healthy way in our families are conditioned by our modern food culture in a way that I would argue is highly distorted. The industrial food machine cranks out an enormous amount of food substances that are not at all conducive to the health of our bodies or the planet. Seeing this as “normal” is one example of how a conditioned habit of mind is involved in our relationship to food.

16. How do you work with this? That’s where meditation comes in. As you become more objective about your own thought patterns, you begin to question some of your habituated patterns of thinking. There is a pause when you look at somethings and say, “Huh, maybe there is another way to do something,” Those are moments that are pregnant with possibility. A new choice is possible and this is how new patterns are born.

17. How does the physical practice of yoga impact the mind? “How you do one thing is how you do everything.” Your yoga mat provides a little laboratory where you can Witness your relationship to your body and to food. Are you highly self critical? Are you comparing yourself to others that are skinnier, heavier, or “better” at it? How does this transfer to the dinner table? Essentially not living in your own skin and looking outside yourself for clues as to how you stack up against others is rampant in our highly competitive, image focused, mechanized culture. When you are not comfortable with your own Being this makes it hard to assess your physical needs with food. That is why we are all so vulnerable to a new diet or magic supplement promising to “fix” us. We are looking outside of ourselves for a solution to a problem that resides within us.

18. What are you suggesting as the solution? Increased comfort in your own skin and more awareness and appreciation for your own viscerality and vitality. Self love really is the key and for many of us that is a tall order.

19. Why is self love difficult? Don’t we live in a culture that emphasizes the importance of the self? I would argue that we live in a culture that creates a high degree of self focus with an emphasis upon pleasure and perfection. Look at any magazine and you will see a lure to how you too can be perfectly pleasured and perfectly perfect. Just buy this – insert – car, lotion, hair gel, food product, supplement, house – and you will be complete. This is not food for the self. It feeds illusion and narcissism and many of us act this out on the stage of our bodies. It actually generates self estrangement at best and self hate at worst. We ask ourselves, “What am I doing wrong that I am not “thin, “complete,” “perfect?”

20. How would you define a strong sense of self? I define that as rooted in core strength – yes physical metaphor for strong abs – where movement is coming from the center (values) and is intentional. A strong sense of self is not a static thing that you have, but rather a flexible and moving energy that creates meaning and connection in the world. The more we pursue health or thinness for their own sakes, the more lost we are. These are only manifestations of a life well lived and for the benefit of something outside the self.

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