Measure for Measure
"Am I fat?" I've never actually asked anyone this question before.
I'm sitting in the office of Dr. Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor in the biology department at the City College of San Francisco and the author of Health at Every Size. I'm here to talk to her about diet and body image because, as a longtime yoga practitioner, I embrace the basic message of her book: Don't wait to live your life, the perfect one you imagine you'll live one day in your perfect body. Live it now. "Yes," she says.
I want to make sure I've heard correctly. "You just said I'm fat, right?"
She nods and says again, "Yes."
I'm silent. For years, I've called myself "chunky" or its kinder, gentler cousin—"curvy." But never, ever fat. Fat was always another country, far away from where I live. I ask her what she means.
"Fat"—and here she grabs her nonexistent belly fat—"you know, adipose tissue. Fat." She is speaking clinically and without judgment, but her words still sting, because she's right.
I know what good food is, and I've long felt entitled to eat as much of it as I want. As long as it had a good provenance (think organic, sustainable, and made by hand), it was fine by me. Pound cake made with organic butter, topped with organic peaches and creme fraiche? Delicious! A rainbow of vegetables fresh from the garden, tossed with pasta, cold-pressed local olive oil, and sea salt? You bet! My choices weren't necessarily the problem. The amount, however, was. Turns out, it is totally possible to eat "good" food and still eat too much.
Although I've long refused to measure my worth in pounds, I know that my weight has made aspects of my daily life more difficult—like keeping up with my 11-year-old boys or doing yoga poses involving inversions and twists. Yoga, of course, is not only asana. At its deepest level, yoga is the union of mind and body. For me, it is also the practice of clear seeing. And what I see clearly in Dr. Bacon's office is that my eating is out of whack.
Cutting A New Groove
It's 4 a.m. and dark outside as I get out of bed, put on my yoga clothes, and head downstairs to my mat. With my hands in prayer position, I begin with a Sun Salutation. I don't usually do yoga at four in the morning, but this is the practice that yoga teacher and ayurveda"target="_blank">Ayurvedic practitioner Scott Blossom gave me.
I had asked Scott to give me a sequence I could do at home that would help me to change my samskaras, the yogic term for the habits and patterns that become etched into the nervous system. Samskaras act like the grooves that a wheel makes in a muddy road—the more the wheel spins in that groove, the deeper the groove gets and the more difficult it is for the wheel to break free.
My specific samskaric focus is food. I often eat too much; I eat certain foods out of habit; I eat late at night, even when I'm not hungry. It's time to climb out of my eating rut. And the only way to do that is through attention and practice.
Scott gave me a flow practice that incorporates elements of Shadow Yoga, a form of yoga developed by his teacher, Shandor Remete, to help free the body of energetic blocks. The practice consists of spiraling, circular, and linear movements that integrate principles common to yoga asanas, martial arts, South Indian dance, and Ayurvedic medicine.
I'm not used to this kind of practice, having more experience with Iyengar-style classes, where you hold poses and focus on precision and alignment. I feel awkward and get winded easily. As I move through the sequence, I remember Scott's words: "Live in your legs and root your feet. Transformation doesn't happen just from the neck up."
I suddenly see why it's been so difficult for me to lose weight in the past. I would go on a diet and impose a plan on my body, whether it made sense for my body or not, whether my body agreed to it or not. My mind, like an imperious general, would issue orders, and my body, like a good foot soldier, would try to follow them.
But as I move through my flowing practice in the hours before dawn, I begin to see my mind and my body differently. I begin to see them as partners of equal rank. And when I ask my body what it really needs, I'm surprised by the answer I receive: It needs less food.
This is a portion? I'm weighing out three ounces of cooked salmon. It fits into the palm of my hand. I serve myself a heap of sauteed kale, which I don't measure, because I know that the more leafy greens, the merrier. And I measure out a cup of cooked rice, which is about the size of my palm. The three ounces of salmon seems small compared with what I'm used to, but what I'm used to was too much. When I'm finished with my meal, I'm neither hungry nor full. I'm satisfied, and that feels unfamiliar.
I start changing my routines. When I make a salad, I add olive oil by the teaspoon instead of pouring it on. I eat one square of dark chocolate, not the entire bar. I savor a cup of my favorite creamy yogurt, rather than a heaping bowl.
A Measure of Awareness
Everything I've wanted in life I've had to practice at. To deepen my yoga practice, I keep returning to the mat. To become a better writer, I keep writing. I see now that finding a balanced relationship with food is no different. So my practice now is measuring my food and writing down what I eat. Measuring requires me to pay attention to how much I'm eating. Writing it down ensures that I'm honest with myself about it. With these tools, I'm learning to eat the amount of food that's right for my body.
Weeks, then months, pass. I begin to lose weight—5 pounds, 10 pounds, then 20, then more. I start buying clothes one size, then two sizes, smaller. Yoga poses that were once extremely difficult become more possible, and more fun. Even at this stage of my journey, I can see that being in a lighter body is complicated. Weight can obscure many things, including loneliness, lust, anxiety, even joy. As I lose weight and my buffer shrinks, I am forced to grapple with these states more directly. I tell myself to be patient—it takes the body and the mind time to learn to move through the world in a different way.
But it's not only my relationship with my body that is changing—it's also my relationship with food itself. With less food on my plate, I'm less likely to eat out of boredom, stress, or habit. Instead, I eat out of hunger and with genuine appreciation, which has a way of bringing flavors and textures into sharper focus.
Take olives, for example, my favorite food in the world. Tangy green picholines; briny kalamatas; tender, tiny nicoises—I used to devour them by the dozen. Now, I eat a few instead of a bowlful, enjoying each one's meaty, oily texture. Or I'll chop a handful and add them to pasta, where each salty, briny bit stands out against the chewy cooked noodles and crunchy garlic breadcrumbs. I'm in a transition state, in the process of letting go of old patterns and of seeing new ones start to emerge. I can't say when or how it will end. But I keep paying attention and doing my yoga. This is my practice.
A Practice in Awareness
Use these tips to bring your appetite into balance:
Slow down! When you eat slowly, you will be more likely to read your body's satiety cues and experience the flavors of the food you're eating.
Measure your portions until you get a good feel for what a reasonable portion size is. This goes for snacks, too: Measure out a handful of crackers or a half dozen olives onto a plate instead of eating from the box or jar.
Keep a food diary. The act of recording is a way of paying attention to what you're eating as well as an exercise in being honest with yourself.
Eat your meals with few distractions so that you can give your full attention to your food. That means no TV, no computer, no newspaper.
Enhance the flavors of your food. Cook with pungent herbs and spices to add flavor to food without adding calories. Roast vegetables to concentrate their flavors. Use higher-calorie foods like cheese as enhancements rather than as main ingredients—think of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano grated over pasta, or a little bit of fresh goat cheese crumbled into a salad.
Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and smaller amounts of healthful, nutrient-dense foods such as nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. Keep processed food to a minimum.
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Dayna Macy is the communications director of Yoga Journal and the author of Ravenous: A Food Lover's Journey from Obsession to Freedom, from which this is adapted.