December 1, 2008

elephant journal’s Mary Taylor: Eco Kitchen: Sustainable Eating, Yoga, Meditation: A Diet That Works.

It starts with the candy corn you stick on as gnarly front teeth, trying to relieve the stress of interacting with your boss at the Halloween costume party. His annual ritual of showing up at the office as Clark Kent, then picking the perfect moment to rip off his shirt exposing the appliquéd “S” below, looses something the second time around. Candy corn, indulged in by the handful, was invented for moments like these.

It’s right then and there that the past year of low fat living, kombucha tea and raw desserts flies like a frigate out the window. Suddenly it seems perfectly legal, if not socially responsible, to dip deep into the Halloween candy bowl. This sets a path of over indulgence through endless Holiday party platters and New Year’s Eve feasts before tightening up the belt again and “eating right” for another season.

Every year publishers and dieting gurus alike wait, poised for another round, trying to strike it rich with the new best selling diet plan. And every year, we as consumers eagerly join in, eating right for our type, singing the praises of protein or discovering the evils of carbohydrates, hoping against hope that this is our lucky year; that the experts will finally reveal the end-all, fast and easy secret to diet that we’ve all been waiting for. Makes sense, if you live in a T.V. set. But since few of us do, we find ourselves time and again falling into the trap of setting the New Year’s resolution to eat right and be healthy that will tide us over–if we’re lucky–to Valentine’s Day when we have our first real excuse to indulge in the gastronomic decadence of our choice.

Most diets are not sustainable because they are theories we impose on ourselves rather than being integrated solutions that have evolved from within us to address our own specific needs. Granted you might have type O blood, and eating too many carbohydrates can be a problem, and you might have a particular tweak in your genetic makeup that nails exactly what you should have for lunch today. But what about your own physical history, your own emotional state of being or–dare we say–your own aesthetic, when it comes to nourishing and nurturing yourself?

Finding a diet that really works and one that can last requires–as unfortunate as it may be to admit–practice. It takes careful observation of your very own circumstance and then some sensible application of dietary theories so you can develop a plan that really supports you and is one you’ll stick with–one that is actually sustainable. To find such a diet you have to be willing to observe what’s really present for you–the effects you feel in your body and mind–when you eat or don’t eat certain foods. It takes honest observation and evaluation of what is really going on as well as some trust in yourself–a willingness to observe accurately.

If you want the immediate gratification of dropping 10 pounds, or if you’re still convinced there’s a simple answer to your unhealthy eating habits, you probably are not really looking for the diet that will work for you for years. After all, if you had a diet that really worked, you wouldn’t have to think about it all that much. You wouldn’t have to worry about counting calories, or balancing carbs and non-carbs. You wouldn’t have to weigh yourself every day and set goals and rewards for the New Year. Now how much fun would that be? And what would you do with all the leftover time and energy you’d have? But entertain for just a moment that you do want this year to be the year when you find that silver bullet–the diet that really does work for you. How in the blazes do you go about it? Where do you start and how do you maintain it?

One excellent solution is to come at it from left field. Rather than mindlessly jumping on the latest fad diet bandwagon, begin honing your contemplative practice like yoga or meditation this year. (You may want to mindfully set yourself up with some dieting parameters that feel comfortable and safe so you won’t be inordinately distracted by old habits of worrying about diet). What you’ll notice is that through a contemplative practice you gradually learn to observe whatever is arising within you–thoughts, feelings, sensations–without identifying with them.

So you’re sitting on a meditation cushion and the idea of a creamy, rich chocolate cake floats through your mind. Rather than immediately berating yourself for even thinking of chocolate cake (and wondering if somehow you got a little extra padding on your thighs as punishment for the thought), you just watch the idea of the cake as it comes and goes in your mind. Or you’re in a yoga class staring around the room wondering how on earth everyone else seems to be effortlessly folding forward and touching the floor. Rather than following your thought through to the end where you begin to resent the other student’s smugness and you start to detest the teacher for holding you in the pose so long, you just let the feelings in your legs and the conclusions in your mind arise and disappear.

This is the nature of a practice. You learn to observe what’s arising as it presents itself, and equally you learn to embrace it without holding onto it. By practicing on the cushion or the yoga mat for a while, the skill of mindful and compassionate observation eventually automatically spills out into other aspects of your life. One day, when you’re least expecting it, you notice that your familiar struggle of whether you should have pizza or a cup of bullion for dinner presents itself and without even meaning to, you’re able to see it merely as an idea that comes and goes. When you indulge in the pizza, you then notice what you’re feeling before during and after eating it. And you notice that when you down the whole pie, you don’t feel so good, but that it passes. You also see that when you deprive yourself of gastronomic pleasures in order to fit the image you have of how you should look or what you should eat, you feel even worse. So eventually, you learn to eat those things that make you feel good and healthy and supported. Sounds simple, and it is, but it takes practice.

Just as a meditation or yoga practice is most beneficial if you actually work at it, so too finding the right diet and a balance for health in your own life takes is a kind of ongoing practice that takes time to develop. But allowing yourself to really know what you need to eat, trusting your body to give you valid signals for what it needs, and believing that you can sculpt a health regime that is specific to your own needs is the silver bullet you may have been waiting for.

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