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The Yoga of Eating.

The Yoga of Eating.

I have a yoga mat made by a company called “holding.” It’s short for “holding the edge”– a phrase that describes a key concept in yoga. When we arrive at a difficult posture, one that causes discomfort, we stop carefully and notice it. We don’t react by flinching or jerking back, but we don’t shove forward either. We bring awareness to the physical (and mental, and emotional) sensations we’re experiencing in that posture. If there is physical pain, we carefully back out of the posture. Otherwise, we relax into it.

holding the edgeIt’s also called “riding the edge” in surfing and some other sports, or “dancing on the edge,” which accurately portrays the practice of moving forward and back along the rim of discomfort. And there is great wisdom at the edge. It teaches us not only what we’re capable of physically, but also what our patterns of reactions are, mentally and emotionally.

In the face of discomfort, what arises? Fear, anger, judgment? And what’s our natural tendency–to ignore the sensations and shove blindly forward, thus risking pain and injury? Or do we run away from the difficulty, missing an opportunity to grow and advance?

This concept of holding the edge–neither forcing through nor shrinking back–applies to most other areas of our lives. Relationships are best served if we show up fully and completely, not holding back but not forcing what can’t be forced. Successful careers are built on the concept of giving it your all, while not shoving forward into uncontrollable circumstances. And it applies to our food lives.

If you struggle with mindless, emotional or stress-based eating, holding the edge will serve you well. Let’s imagine a scenario, one that happened to one of my clients who wrestled mightily with mindless eating. She worked as a house-sitter for a battery of wealthy clients who regularly traveled to exotic locales. Her regular dietary habits were stellar, but when she was staying at a client’s house, the gloves came off.

Around sundown, she would start to get uncomfortable–bored, lonely, out of sorts; sometimes, she found herself inexplicably stricken with grief. By 9 p.m., she would find herself alone in an unfamiliar house, standing at her client’s kitchen counter, elbow-deep in a bag of chips. And she couldn’t stop, until she had devoured most of the chips, cookies, cartons of ice cream in the pantry and freezer. Afterward, she felt shame, disgust, powerlessness. It was exactly the same pattern as an addiction.

Was it because she felt lonely and vulnerable in an unfamiliar home? Was she grieving her modest life in comparison with the spectacular lives of her clients? Was it just the novelty of a pantry filled with forbidden foods? Doesn’t matter. What’s important is that somewhere along the line, she checked out. Emotional discomfort arose, and she yanked back from that edge.

What does holding the edge look like in this instance? The urge to eat arises. You stop, and just notice the sensation. Eating some chips, cookies or ice cream will create a pleasing cascade of happy brain chemicals that will relieve the sensation for a bit. But you don’t do it. Instead, you stay there at the edge of discomfort. It gets stronger, worse, even painful. Maybe you get mad. Maybe you sob. Either way, you stay with it, noticing what arises without reacting to it. Something lies just beyond the craving. Something is there at the edge, some great wisdom and the potential for mental, emotional and spiritual growth.

As it turns out, she did all of the above. One night, alone at the home of a family who was taking some fabulous, pricey vacation, and overcome by the desire to eat, she held her edge. She grieved for being alone, unmarried and childless, for living in a modest home, for being heavier than she wanted to be, for her heartbreaking childhood, for feeling helpless and vulnerable, for the sheer passage of time. She went into the expansive yard, lay facedown under the stars, and pounded on the manicured lawn with both fists. She sobbed for the better part of an hour. At the end of it, she felt renewed, and honest, with a deeper clarity toward her life.

That’s the power and wisdom any of us can find at the edge. The process may look something like this:

1. When a craving strikes, and your first impulse is to head to the kitchen, stop. Do nothing. Close your eyes and breathe, deeply in, deeply out, 50 times. Feel the cells of your body softening and relaxing. Sometimes, this is enough.

2. What’s the level of your discomfort? If 1 is barely noticeable and 10 is unbearable, is it a 2 or an 8? Having a somewhat objective measure puts your feelings into perspective. If your discomfort meter reads “3,” perhaps you can allow it to be there; it may subside after a few minutes.

3. If your discomfort is substantial, find a quiet place and space to let the feelings come up. If you’re in a work situation–a meeting, a cubicle–change your surroundings. Go for a walk, find an empty conference room, take a bathroom break and go sit in your car.

4. Sit there with your feelings. Imagine having them in for a visit and a cup of tea. Let them talk, and listen attentively, as you would to a trusted friend.

5. Allow some space for whatever arises. It’s not necessary to label or judge it. Just let it be there. Envision being in a difficult yoga posture, or catching a tricky wave in surfing. See what happens when you find your edge and take it for a ride.

In what areas of your life do you experience the edge of discomfort? And how do you hold the edge? Think about it, and add your comments here ~

What’s eating you? The emotional side of holiday dining

What’s eating you? The emotional side of holiday dining

Don’t get me wrong: eating the right foods is important. But even the most creative dieting tricks and healthy stuffing recipes won’t help if you don’t follow them. Really, you already know what and how to eat. So why do you find yourself bent over a plate of brownies, or halfway through a second heaping helping of stuffing that you swore you wouldn’t take?

Tricks don’t work because they don’t explore the underlying issues, the mental and emotional side of eating. And the holidays, more than any other time, are fraught with emotions. We’re short on time, low on cash, and either overburdened with family responsibilities or feeling the pang of loneliness. Certain key dishes may also bring back happy memories of past holidays. And all those high-carb, sugar-rich holiday treats temporarily boost levels of serotonin, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter, which makes us crave more.

Most of the time, you’re not really hungry for pecan pie or holiday ham. You’re craving a quick boost of feel-good brain chemicals to counter the effects of holiday emotions, or you’re starving for connection, peace, happiness, a fond memory of past experiences.

This season, if you’re hoping to maintain some control over holiday binging, look to the underlying cause — the emotions themselves. Approach this exploration with a gentle, inquisitive air, rather than another must-complete item to cross off your to-do list. Here’s how you might start:

1) Stay in touch with your feelings. Most of the time, we don’t have a clue what we’re feeling in any given moment. Make it a habit to check in two or three times a day; just before meals is the perfect chance to stay on top of your feelings, before they run your food choices.

2) Be in your body. Most of us walk around all day in a state of half-awareness, not really present in the room, on the earth, in our bodies. But if you’re not in your body, you have no way of knowing when it’s hungry or full. Get in the habit of checking in with your body, especially your belly, during the day. Where are your feet? How do your legs feel? Is your stomach tense, cold, empty, satisfied? Once you’ve practiced this for a while, it becomes automatic and makes it easier to choose foods based on what your body needs.

3) Examine your cravings. Binges and cravings are fraught with symbolism. The next time you find yourself in the throes of a craving, examine it. What is it about that food that you’re really longing for? If you like crunchy cookies when you’re stressed, is it the sweetness you’re craving, or the texture? Biting down on something hard and crunchy relieves tension in the jaw, and that loud, crunching sound as you chew may literally drown out the noise in your head. If you’re aching for warm eggnog, maybe the temperature and creamy texture is symbolic of what you need in your life: something warm, rich and soothing to fill up empty spaces.

4) Shift your focus. Imagine you’re alone in the house with a refrigerator full of holiday leftovers. Just before you plunge your hand into a box of chocolates, or your fork into an apple pie, quickly shift your attention. Take your focus to something outside of yourself. It may be visual: look out the window at the snow, the clouds moving across the sky, the blush of sunset. Or it may be auditory: the sound of your children playing in the living room, a favorite song. Focusing on sensory input calms the mind, gets you back in your body and helps you stay present. It’s also a fast, simple way to break the chain.

5) Be happy now. We think that once we get thin, or lower our blood pressure, or give up sugar once and for all, we’ll be happy. Most of the time, though, it’s the opposite: once you get happy, you’ll have a better chance of achieving your goals. A few years ago, a study found that happiness may breed success, rather than the other way around. The researchers suggested that happy people were more likely to seek out opportunities that would ensure their success. I believe happy people are more likely to stick to a way of eating that works for them, and less likely to eat from stress, depression or anxiety.

At any rate, there’s no point in delaying happiness, or loving your body and yourself, while you wait to achieve some possibly far-off goal. It’s all a process, and it may be a life-long one. Enjoy your holidays — and your life — in the meantime.

What we want from food.

What we want from food.

I spent last Thanksgiving in the Santa Fe State Penitentiary. It’s not what you think; I left after a couple of hours, having gone there as an invited speaker to lead a talk. Our topic: what makes us feel nourished. And though I expected the answers to be vastly different, they were heartwarmingly similar. Family. Love. Rest. Nature. And, not surprisingly, food.

What is it that makes most of us feel nourished, and what exactly does it mean to be nourished–truly, deeply nourished? For me (not surprisingly) as it is for many of us, the answer is food. It’s quick, easy, darn cheap compared to other pleasures, and can be had at all hours of the day or night.

Of course, we want nutrition from food: we expect it  to make us lose weight, lower our cholesterol, increase our energy, make us live longer, and generally render us infallible, if we can just arrange the appropriate line-up of vitamins, minerals, omega-3s and healthy fats. But we also turn to food for solace, comfort and joy, for company when we’re lonely, for peace when we’re feeling put upon, to make us feel whole, complete and nourished.

How does nourishment differ from nutrition? Not long ago, I had an illness that resulted in, among other things, an inability for me to chew and swallow. Needless to say, this greatly interfered with my ability to eat. Suddenly, my once-fertile culinary landscape–rich with fragrant sauces, tangy dressings, robust spices and interesting textures–was barren. I couldn’t eat harissa, coarse sea salt, pomegranate molasses, chipotle peppers, crisp lettuce. All I could eat were bland, lukewarm soups, pureed into a drinkable gruel. I made as many variations on these as I could; because I was sick, I often ate them alone. Brimming with sometimes a dozen different organic vegetables, legumes and nut oils, they were the gold standard for a nutritious meal. But I didn’t feel nourished.

The difference between nutrition and nourishment is easy to see. The difference between the soul’s need for nourishment and the mind’s desire for distraction can be trickier. When we turn to food for  comfort, indulgence, solace, company or peace, we’re not really seeking nourishment. The mind is looking for a quick fix, a way to get out of itself. It’s using food as a fix, a fast-acting, cheap and painless drug. We dig into a pint of ice cream while we’re standing in front of the freezer. That’s not nutritious, and it’s certainly not nourishing. It’s the “get me out of here!” reaction of the ego’s fear of discomfort. This concept is at the heart of understanding cravings: if a desire for a certain kind of food feels obsessive, desperate, intense, or as if immediate action is required, that’s usually the mind’s desire, not the body’s or the soul’s need. The whims of the mind can be distracted with immediate, enjoyable but simple tasks: a telephone call, a crossword puzzle, an interesting book, a funny movie. The body’s needs and the soul’s desires are not so easily avoided.

A long time ago, I cooked for groups of people in a spiritual environment, we in the kitchen came to cook after meditating, in a tranquil state of mind. We moved slowly and spoke in calm, happy voices, occasionally punctuating the air with laughter. We learned to sing beautiful chants as we chopped onions and stirred beans. The great peace and calm in the kitchen, the sweetness of the atmosphere, the melodic, rhythmic sounds of devotional chants—all conspired to render a meal as simple as dahl and rice a gourmet masterpiece. This sense of reverence for the practice of nourishing our bodies extended to how we ate the food. We paused before eating. We ate first with our eyes, taking in the colors and textures of the food. As we ate, we chewed slowly, breathed deeply, paused often to notice how the food was feeling in our bodies.

I’d like to say these practices are so automatic to me now, they’re almost second nature. It’s not true.  I still fall into bad habits—especially eating  at the computer, or when I’m stressed. When that happens, I may feel full, and righteous about my nutritional choices, but I usually don’t feel nourished. Incorporating mindfulness and discerning between nutrition, distraction and deep nourishment is a lifelong practice that, like any practice, requires patience, determination and, ultimately, compassion and forgiveness.

8 Ways to Make Holidays More Meaningful

8 Ways to Make Holidays More Meaningful

You’ve perfected low-fat holiday cookies. You hit the outlets in early October for pre-season shopping. You’ve decked the halls, hung the mistletoe, lit the menorah and trimmed the tree. But what have you done to celebrate the true spirit of the holidays?

Remember the reason for the season with simple ways to create a deeper connection.

1. Be of service. It’s better to give than to receive — and that applies to more than material goods. Some ways to spread cheer to those in need: Help your kids deliver homemade holiday cookies to a retirement home, schedule a visit to the children’s cancer ward at a local hospital to deliver baskets of toys, help serve a holiday meal at a homeless shelter. To find more volunteer opportunities in your area, visit the Red Cross website, call local churches, or check with assisted living centers and hospitals.

2. Make food count. How much money does your family spend on “meaningless” food — soft drinks, chips, cookies and the like? Reexamine your food choices and buying patterns, and pass the savings on: Calculate how much you spend on junk food and gift that money to a charity, or donate 2 percent of your food purchases to a food bank.

3. Create a ritual. Rituals anchor holidays, and give kids a sense of continuity and a tradition they can pass on for years to come. It can be as simple as lighting candles, singing songs, or saying a special prayer. Other ideas: Take a holiday hike in the woods, throw a latke party, host an annual holiday dessert potluck.

4. Share your toys. It’s never too early to teach kids to share. Explain to your children that not all boys and girls have gifts to open on the holidays, and ask if they’d like to share some of theirs. Most kids are eager to pick out and wrap old favorites, especially if they’re involved in delivering them to the recipients. Sharing toys goes for grown-ups as well: old computers, golf clubs, CD players or cell phones are meaningful holiday donations.

5. Tune out. You can’t stop holiday commercialism, but you can refuse to partake. Kill your television, and engage kids and family in more festive activities. Give kids disposable cameras and have an afternoon of photo-taking; make cookies for an assisted living center; head to the local ice rink, museum or aquarium; drag out the markers and paints and make homemade New Year’s cards; stage a neighborhood snow sculpture contest.

6. Simplify. It’s hard to focus on the true meaning of the holidays when you’re rushing from one shopping mall to the next. Try this: Six to ten weeks before the holiday season, sketch out a weekly calendar with all your holiday obligations—then start eliminating. Weed out and delegate as much as you can (it’s easier if you start early); you’ll free up more time for real connecting.

7. Let your purchases reflect your values. Instead of supporting plastics, box stores and rampant consumerism, make gifts more meaningful. Shop on websites that help artisans in developing countries (find lists at Fair Trade websites); buy at small, local stores; make your own holiday cards and donate the savings to charity. Or ask family and friends to skip your gift and make a donation instead to their favorite charity.

8. Feed your soul. As much as you want to connect with your family and friends, it’s essential to carve out time for yourself, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day. Take time for meditation, introspection, yoga, a solitary hike, gazing at the evening stars. When days get busy and stressful, schedule an afternoon siesta during which everyone goes to his or her room for 45 minutes to read, nap and play quietly. If time alone is at a premium, get creative: Lock yourself in the bathroom with a hot bath, or drive to a park as a detour on the way home from the grocery store. And don’t wait until New Year’s Day to rethink your personal priorities; list them now and let the magic of the holidays inspire you.

Soul Food: spirituality and nutrition

Soul Food: spirituality and nutrition

Years ago, I spent a lot of time in an ashram. One of my jobs (besides less-glamorous stuff like cleaning toilets) was to cook in the kitchens. It was lovely. The food was simple, clean, pure; most of our meals were composed primarily of beans,rice and vegetables, but they tasted like the fare of five-star restaurants. I am convinced it was the serenity and open-heartedness of the people cooking, the melodic chants we sang as we stirred. The spirituality of the place entered the food – or maybe, we became more spiritual because of it.

In their well-known quote from Consuming Passions: The anthropology of eating, authors Peter Farb and George Armelagos note, “Food to a large extent is what holds a society together, and eating is closely linked to deep spiritual experiences.” Most religions and spiritual paths throughout history have some kind of ritual or rule related to food and eating. Fasting is one practice; in many spiritual traditions, the act of abstaining from food is thought to increase spiritual awareness, achieve the discipline necessary to resist temptations of the flesh, purify the body or atone for evil acts.

And when they do eat, devotees are mindful – even rigorous – in their choices. The Hindu dietary regimen, for example, thinks of food as belonging to one of three categories, depending upon its effect on the body and spirit. Tamasic food is overripe, spoiled, stale, processed or canned, and results in dullness, heaviness, sluggishness and lethargy. Rajasic food is spicy, pungent, hot or stimulating, and is related to overactivity, agitation and overstimulation. Sattvic foods – considered the most desirable – are pure, fresh and light, and leave us feeling refreshed, clear and alert. These (predictably enough) include fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. I think it’s moving and elegant that this ideal diet, the one mostly widely recommended for healing, was described in the Bhagavad Gita more than 2,000 years ago.

Other traditions have other rules. Buddhists aren’t necessarily vegetarians; Buddha was said to have instructed his disciples to accept whatever food was offered, and that to refuse an offering was to reject the giver (without helping the already-dead animal). Careful admonishments were given, however, to avoid eating carelessly: to eat mindlessly, or just for pleasure, is to be moved by selfish temptations.

In Judaism, kashrut is the set of laws defining appropriate foods (in English, it’s called kosher), but other, more subtle, spiritual rules also apply. Traditional Jewish teachings believe the body is a gift for which we are responsible; and on a very practical level, an early book of Jewish ethics writes, “It is not possible to understand and become wise in Torah and mitzvot when you are hungry or sickly or when one of your limbs hurts.”

So these are all interesting theories. But what exactly, as spiritual folk, do we eat? I asked two retreat centers on the Front Range to share some of their recipes with us, and they graciously agreed. So, for you, two renditions of true soul food.

Mediterranean Red Lentil and Spinach Stew

Serves 6 to 8

This lovely soup recipe exemplifies Shoshoni’s (www.shoshoni.org) simple but beautiful cooking. Reprinted with permission from their book, Yoga Kitchen: Vegetarian Recipes from the Shoshoni Yoga Retreat, by Faith Stone and Rachael Guidry (Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company, 2004). Get the book for more inspiration!

2 tablespoons ghee
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons cumin, ground
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons coriander, ground
1 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
5 cups water
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 cup dry red lentils
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 bunch spinach, washed, stemmed, and finely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup currants or pitted dates, chopped
3 tablespoons Bragg liquid aminos or soy sauce
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1. Heat the ghee in a saucepan. Add the onion and saute until well browned and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and saute for 2 minutes. Stir in the cumin, paprika, coriander, and cinnamon. Add the water, squash, lentils, red bell peppers, and celery. Simmer uncovered until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.

2. Stir in the spinach, cilantro, currants, Bragg liquid aminos, vinegar, salt to taste, and cayenne. Simmer just long enough for the spinach to wilt. Serve hot.

Sunrise Ranch Winter Vegetable Soup

Serves 12

Joyce Karchere, executive chef at Sunrise Ranch (www.SunriseRanch.org), makes these from a combination of organic root vegetables grown on their farm; apple juice made from Sunrise Ranch apples adds a little sweetness that lifts the earthy blend. (All other ingredients are also organic, needless to say.)

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
7 1/2 cups combined equal amounts of carrots, winter squash, and yams (peeled and chopped)
3/4 cups onion, chopped
1 tablespoon peeled, sliced ginger-root
1 1/4 cups apple juice
2 tablespoons organic orange juice concentrate
1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
Pinch each of allspice and nutmeg
5 cups coconut milk (or 2.5 cups vegetable stock and 2.5 cups coconut milk)

1. Heat olive oil in a large pan. Saute carrots, squash, yams, onion and ginger for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in juices and spices and enough coconut milk and/or stock to cover. Simmer until vegetables are soft, 25 to 30 minutes.

2. Transfer soup to a food processor and puree until smooth. Return to the pot, add the coconut milk and gently reheat. Season to taste with sea salt. Serve immediately, with millet patties, or hummus and pita.

Lisa Turner is a food writer, intuitive eating coach, and cooking and nutrition instructor at Bauman College of Nutrition and Culinary Arts in Boulder. Visit her websites at www.TheHealthyGourmet.net and www.InspiredEating.com.

Check out Lisa’s New Inspired Eats iPhone app featuring hundreds of original recipes–from creative appetizers and salads to clean, beautiful desserts–for every dietary choice.