Yoga and disordered eating: What are you really hungry for?

If you think food—what you eat, and how much—is a problem, use these spiritual tools to find out what’s really eating you. The first of our four-part #SoulSelfie series.
By Suzan Colón  Published on 04/05/2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
Nathan Tweti

Yoga teachers have this reputation: We (allegedly) get up before sunrise to meditate, our minds clear and placid. We glide to the kitchen, where we whip up a kale-spinach smoothie. We spend our days teaching Yoga, occasionally breaking for sustenance: nibbling on dark leafy greens, spooning avocado slivers and brown rice sparingly on our plates. Maybe we partake of a square of dark chocolate (on special occasions). And we’re all super-slim and in perfect shape.

Either I’m not a Yoga teacher, or that whole thing up there is a myth. (Answer: B.)

I am a Yoga teacher, though I’ve gone from teaching the physical practice of Yoga to teaching the Yoga that gets you through the other 23 hours of the day with peace and balance. Basically, I went from teaching physical fitness to spiritual fitness. I teach people ways to find their own definitions of happiness and how to reduce stress. And I’ve learned that one of the things that gives people, especially women, the most stress is food.

Not food, specifically, but their relationship with food and eating. Of all the different kinds of conversations I’ve had with female friends, some of the biggest bonding points have been about food, eating issues, and dieting. Apparently, my friends and I aren’t alone; in 2017, the U.S. weight loss industry was estimated at a worth of $66 billion.  

Sometimes I think we actually like stressing out about what and how we eat because it’s something we can control. When I was a kid, I went through typical kid problems like being bullied, dealing with the sudden deaths of beloved grandparents, my parents’ divorce, etc. After school, on my own until my mother came home from work, I binged on food. I’d gorge on an entire chocolate cake one day (minus one small slice saved for my mother) and a pound of carrots the next. The world felt very unstable, and the only thing I could control was what I ate.

That carried on for a long time. Whenever I felt a job, a relationship, or my whole life was out of control, I’d control my eating. I’d restrict calories, or meat, sugar and fat, grains, dairy. Each new eating plan felt like a Bigger-Picture Plan with results—becoming thinner, healthier, more spiritual—that would change everything.  

Then I’d start feeling like crap (and really, really hungry). I’d give up the failed restrictive regime, go on a food bender, and start all over again soon after.

When I was getting over disordered dieting, I thought of my body in the same way I thought of my cat: as a living being under my stewardship.

The spiritual path of Yoga has taught me a lot about why we do the unhealthy things we do, and how to do better. Using Svadhyaya, the Yoga tool of self-examination, I saw the bid for control through what I ate. Satya, compassionate honesty, helped me understand that food wasn’t my problem; my eating issues were manifestations of stress. And with Ishvara Pranidhana, or self-surrender, I let go of the illusion of control, and I dealt with my problems directly. Slowly, over time, the food issues relaxed.

Now, I just eat. I eat when I’m hungry, and I don’t overeat or go to extremes anymore. The only thing I restrict is gluten, because my body has become gluten intolerant. I’m at peace with eating, food, and my body.

RELATED: A yoga tool that will make you happier 

If you go to these kinds of extremes or obsess over food in a way that’s not fun and happy, you may have struggles like mine, or possibly eating issues that would benefit from the help of a compassionate therapist, doctor, and/or 12-step program of recovery. Using Yoga’s spiritual tools can help you determine where you are. Start with these simple steps:

Get deep. A regular meditation practice will help you reduce stress, which helps everything. Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated; just use this breathing practice as a form of meditation. Start with a few minutes a day for a week and build up to ten minutes each morning. And you can do it throughout the day for a few minutes, whenever you feel stressed.

Go harmless. Ahimsa is the Yoga tool of non-harming, which translates to not causing injury to any being—including ourselves. When I was getting over disordered dieting, I thought of my body in the same way I thought of my cat: as a living being under my stewardship. This made me want to take good care of my body, giving it healthy food, some exercise, and an occasional fun toy.

Be honest. Use Satya, compassionate honesty, and ask yourself—you, and your body—what you’re really hungry for. People think if they listen to what their bodies want, they’ll go on a burger and cake binge that will wreck their lives. It’s not true; that might last a day or two before your body would say, “A little kale, please?” Start by asking what your body is truly hungry for, and give it some of that. Make it fun: Take yourself out on a lunch or dinner date. While you’re satisfying physical hunger, do some journaling about what else you’re hungry for—the goals, desires, and dreams you’re craving.

Compassion and kindness improve any relationship. They’ll definitely help your relationship with food, and with your divine, radiant self.

Next week: The #SoulSelfie series takes a look at body image and finding the type of fitness that’s right for you.

Suzan Colón is the author of  Yoga Mind:Beyond the Physical: 30 Days to Enrich Your Practice and Revolutionize Your Life From the Inside Out.

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