Even for confident cooks, Thanksgiving dinner can be the most anxiety-provoking meal of the year. Yoga can help.
In my dream, I’m sitting on my mat awaiting instructions from a panel of my yoga teachers. I’m at an Iyengar Yoga assessment, for which I’m completely unprepared, and I am terrified. After what seems an eternity, they deliver my task. I’m to carve a Thanksgiving turkey right there on my mat using the props in front of me: a plastic fork and knife. You might say I carry some anxiety about cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
I can still smell my mother’s kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. The fragrance of her homemade pies mixed with the aroma of the turkey roasting in the oven created an air of anticipation that could be felt throughout the house. My sister and I would watch the Thanksgiving Day parade on TV in our pajamas and would periodically be called into the kitchen to help my mother stir a pot or lick a bowl. The whole day was spent waiting for the moment we were called to the table. By the time dinner was ready, we were practically giddy as we loaded our plates with my mother’s delicious food in the most anticipated meal of the year.
Now that the torch of cooking the family’s holiday dinner has passed to me, my anticipation has morphed into a recurring anxiety about living up to my memory of all those Thanksgivings past. Last year, the turkey wasn’t fully cooked, the side dishes were cold, and I sat down at the table feeling totally defeated. The pressure to replicate the magic of my childhood memories, combined with the fear of failing, turns out to be the perfect recipe for a really bad time.
Fear of Failure
Whether in the kitchen or on the mat, fear is like a big bucket of ice dumped on the spark of adventure. Fear leaves us either too much in our own heads to access our inherent creativity and intuition—or so paralyzed that we convince ourselves we’re not even capable of trying. Fear seduces us into a place of complacency, inviting us to avoid what scares us in favor of dwelling in the comfort of our familiar beliefs. Fear prevents us from making mistakes and gaining the kind of wisdom that arises from taking risks.
Patanjali’s classic text, the Yoga Sutra, offers several accessible tools to manage our fears. Foremost among them are practice and detachment. Practice, as outlined in Sutra 1.14, includes three aspects: We must practice for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness. This last one means we have to believe what we’re practicing is actually possible.
Sutras 1.15 and 1.16 describe detachment, which essentially means that we understand that our identity is not dependent on our success or failure. This knowledge leads to freedom and a very real connection to the present moment.
Which brings me back to Thanksgiving dinner. Once I came to grips with the fact that the truth of who I am does not depend on my producing a flawless meal, my anxiety lifted.
Practicing—continuously showing up in the face of real or potential failure—is trusting that the process is the goal. Ultimately, it’s the intention behind my cooking, the effort I’ve devoted to the meal, and the heart I’ve poured into each dish that will make the meal a success.
I’ve come to think that a botched attempt at cooking Thanksgiving dinner may actually be another opportunity to live your yoga. Some of the best memories are born of the times when nothing goes according to plan—when you’re forced to surrender. It’s often in those moments that you get to know your own resilience and experience a true connection to the moment. One year my apple pie fell apart, and I had no backup plan and a table full of guests awaiting dessert. I decided to scoop out the apple filling and spoon it over some vanilla ice cream. No one knew the difference; in fact, it was a huge hit! It’s often when things fall apart that you realize just how much you limit yourself with your own expectations. Opening yourself up to life often results in experiencing something greater than you could have imagined.
See also Who Was Patanjali?
Taking risks in the kitchen is about listening to the motivations that drive your efforts. If I’m considering a challenging recipe, such as an apple pie with pastry made from scratch, and I can feel myself getting excited about the process, I go for it. I know that no matter how it turns out, it will have been worth it because it was my commitment to the adventure, not the result, that inspired me to be daring in the first place. If, on the other hand, I stare at the recipe with a sense of dread or expectation, or if I’m hoping that the finished product will prove something to myself or to others, then I know that no matter how it turns out, I will not enjoy the fruits of my efforts.
Practice your yoga in the kitchen by tuning into how you feel as you create your Thanksgiving menu. Anxiety, doubt, and fear can all be felt in the body and are signs that you need to reevaluate your approach. Focus your attention on the process of executing what you can manage to the best of your abilities.
In yoga class, when you can’t get into a challenging pose, the practice is to focus on what you can do and then to do it well. Flailing toward an end result will get you nowhere, and if somehow you arrive in the pose by luck, you will have missed the point because there was no connection to the approach. It’s the process of getting into the pose, rather than the pose itself, that reveals the nature of the asana. Cooking is the same: True appreciation of a dish comes from a connection to the process that made it.
Learn to let go of your expectation that you need to whip up elaborate food just because it’s Thanksgiving and this can free you from the pitfalls of self-inflicted suffering. It’s perfectly okay to opt out of a challenging recipe if it doesn’t feel right. I’ve learned over the years to ease up on myself by swapping out difficult, time-consuming recipes for simple, foolproof ones, such as incredible, crispy roasted brussel sprouts with maple syrup and balsamic vinegar, which take about five minutes to prepare before you pop them in the oven.
Cooking, like yoga, is about connecting to yourself in the moment. Asana instructions such as “stand equally on all four corners of your feet” become useful only when you can feel them in your own body. Similarly, a recipe is only a guideline. Great cooking happens when you listen to your gut, trust your instincts, and make the recipe your own. Use the Sweet Potato-Ginger Soup as a safe place to experiment and decide for yourself how much spice to add.
This year, I’m not nervous. I know that no matter how the meal turns out, the people who matter most in my life will celebrate the love and effort I put into our shared experience. I know that what I’ll remember most is the attitude I choose to bring to the kitchen and the wisdom I’ll gain from opening up and letting go.