private practiceYOGA PRINCIPLES INSPIRE TRUE NOURISHMENT FROM FOOD
THE OM OF YUM
Holistic nutrition coach and yoga therapist Emily Hightower teaches mindful eating for better digestion, satiety, and enjoyment through the yogic practice of santosha* or bringing contentment to one’s actions. Here’s how to try it:
o Shut the computer, silence your phone, or pull off the road (or save this until you can sit at a table) and take a good look at your food. Yes, look at it!
o Now, smell the food. Smell wakes up salivary glands and prepares the acid buffer in your stomach for better digestion.
o Take conscious bites, chewing fully. Swallow before taking more food.
o Pause. Breathe. Notice the desire to do something else while you eat. Consider contentment in this moment.
“With practice, you’ll look forward to the brain-break that slow eating gives from modern life’s myriad, constant stress,” Hightower explains. “Moreover, you won’t miss another part of life while trying to take in more than is reasonable at once. Truly, with santosha, less is more.”
*In yoga philosophy, santosha is a niyama — a personal practice that creates harmony in life. Learn more about Off The Mat Into the Kitchen at ondalu.com or on Instagram (Ondalu_Em).
ONCE UPON A TIME, I found myself staring down a raisin at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass. No doubt, this mindful eating workshop would have looked ridiculous to an outside observer: A roomful of students, each scrutinizing the landscape of a single, shriveled berry in the time that most people would have downed an entire snack-size box.
We were instructed to scrutinize the raisins, mull over thoughts and feelings that surfaced, and document everything. I turned the reddish-brown morsel over in my hands, tracing its tiny, rugged wrinkles. I noticed its shape change with the heat of my fingers. I held the raisin to my nose and inhaled its overripe, almost dusty fragrance. I thought of eating Raisin Bran cereal at Grandpa’s house, and wondered if those sugar-shellacked specimens were really raisins at all. My mouth watered in anticipation of tearing this raisin apart. Maybe I’d just swallow it. Was it lunchtime yet?
Finally, we were to place the raisin on our tongues — but to hold off on chewing, for now. I rolled the raisin over in my mouth, feeling its parched, rough skin became soft, slick, plump. It tasted faintly sweet, a promise of more sweetness to come.
When directed to eat our raisins at long last, I bit into an edge, opening it up delicately with my teeth. The inside was gummy and sticky, with a slight crystalline crunch. I chewed that raisin one micro-nibble at a time until the timer dinged.
I remember feeling mixed emotions afterward. Pondering the simple act of eating a raisin may have changed my experience—I noticed textures and flavors I hadn’t considered before. Sure, I slowed my pace at lunch that day. But a week later, I was inhaling a Cobb salad as if I’d never see cheese or bacon on greens ever again.
I’m reminded of the long-lost raisin exercise last week at Justice Snow’s, when holistic nutrition coach and yoga therapist Emily Hightower sketches tree roots on a big sheet of paper by way of introducing twenty or so people gathered here to her Shakti Talk, The Yoga of Food.
“Our food is an unconscious practice, for most of us,” Hightower says. “It’s full of confusion and misinformation and impossible standards for what we need to eat to look a certain way. It is a practice to change the way that we relate to food.”
Hightower uses the 10 yoga principles — understood through the metaphor of a tree — paired with food psychology, nutrition education, and mindfulness skills to help folks better tune into natural cues and modify negative eating behaviors. Just as it took many humbling months to build back strength in yoga class following a knee injury last winter, I realize that eating with purpose requires a return to that meditative raisin experience. Practice.
Hightower shows us that the yoga tree’s five roots represent yama, or personal values: peace, trust, abundance, restraint, and detachment. By determining what one considers important (or not), an individual can claim her inner beliefs and commit to personal practices (niyama, which form the tree trunk) that might guide future choices and thus unravel poor habits on a path to nourishment and harmony.
“We start with ahimsa, or peace, so I can help people make peace with their bodies,” she says of the first yama root. Similarly, do we support nonviolence toward animals or not? Do we eat meat? There’s no right or wrong answer, she says, just commitment to taking responsibility without judgment. That’s her issue with diets: strict rules and shame-mongering. Hightower’s Off the Mat Into the Kitchen method, which she offers as a 90-day online course, is not one-size-fit-all. As with yoga, it’s a deeply personal lifestyle practice.
“If I give you the rules of how you need to express connection and gratitude to food, you’re less likely to follow them,” Hightower explains. “You’re not making decisions because some diet told you to eat Paleo or vegan, but [according to] personal values, and a belief of your body being valuable as well. You’re invested in creating peace in your life through food.”
Hightower moved to Aspen at age 21. She became a river guide and a mountain medic and started practicing yoga. Through a yoga-teacher training workshop in Hawaii with renowned yogi Deborah Koehn she realized that yoga was helping to heal underlying emotional eating issues stemming from teenage trauma.
“I wasn’t in an environment that had the addictive, conventional foods I’d been raised on,” Hightower says. “I flooded myself with nutrients from whole foods. I did yoga and was in nature every day. I wanted to help other people feel this vital resurgence that came to me in that practice.”
For more than a decade, Hightower has been helping others reconnect positively with nutrition through her company, Ondalu (which means “wave of light,” or the personal truth one must tap into for real transformation).
“A big motivator, for me, is this modern disconnect we have from nature,” she says. “Often, we think we’re connected to nature because we like to recreate in it. Just because we ski or kayak or climb doesn’t mean that our consumption patterns reflect our environmental values.”
(True: a recent study confirms that Pitkin County residents produce twice as much trash as the national average — a rate that could see our landfill clogged by 2029.) “Food gives us a doorway to authentically connect with nature,” Hightower continues. “Without food, we wouldn’t be here.”
According to yoga philosophy, what’s good for nature is good for everyone. People disengaged from composting food waste might make choices that continue that disconnect. Examining the way we treat the planet, then, reflects back on our spiritual values. “It’s an empowering perspective on food behavior,” Hightower says.
It all circles back to the raisin. “When you slow down and eat with pleasure, your body relaxes, absorbs nutrients, and floods your cells with what they need,” Hightower says. “In yoga this relates to the practice of santosha or bringing contentment to your actions.” (To try it, see sidebar, opposite page.)
Studies show that stress, distraction, and speed release hormones that affect food choices, absorption, digestion, and even fat storage. These also inhibit satiation cues, so our bodies crave sugar and caffeine to match our quick-paced, empty eating habits. Instead, Hightower urges us to “chew into the truth of your daily life.”
The quest to maintain a positive relationship with food — and the planet — is never-ending. As I’ve learned though yoga, practice doesn’t make perfect. Instead, it requires more practice.
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