From my earliest days as a yoga teacher in health clubs in the early aughts, I became accustom to fielding questions from students after class. Typically, they went something like this:
Why does this hurt when I do that?
Why do I sweat so much?
Why can't I do wheel?
What does namaste mean?
Why are my handstrings so tight?
Is it OK to do yoga if I have my period?
How do I practice yoga on my own, at home?
Why do I hate half pigeon?
I came to enjoy and anticipate these questions and many others. I loved how eager my students were to learn and the feeling of sharing helpful hints to make their practices more pleasant and productive. If I didn't know an answer, I researched it so that I could offer better information in class the following week or the next time someone asked.
Then, the oddest thing happened. A very simple question stumped me.
What do you eat? The question came from an earnest 20-something female student.
Huh. Did she mean for breakfast? I wracked my brain . . . A massive smoothie and a granola bar en route to class I recalled. After my marathon teaching stint that morning (two classes in two different locations with a 40-minute walk in between), I planned to meet a pal for a Thai lunch on Newbury Street, where we'd share my all-time-fav fresh rolls, and I would likely order a bowl of tofu, vegetables, and noodles the size of my head. Is that what she meant? Did I get the answer right . . . What do I win?
I searched the woman's face for some hint of information. What. Do. I. Eat. Why was this so perplexing? And, why is it interesting to her? Then it hit me: she probably wants to become a vegetarian! I talked about ahimsa in class today, and she's curious about how to put that guiding yogic principle into practice as it relates to her diet. I was thrilled to help, albeit a tad sheepish. Predominantly vegetarian since the age of 9, I'd recently wandered into exceedingly pescetarian territory. I worried the vegetarian police might be lurking and not wanting to mislead, I copped:
Um, well, I'm mostly vegetarian, but lately I've been eating dairy and even some fish . . . energetically that seems to work better for my body. Ultimately, I think people need to make mindful choices that work best for themselves . . .
I trailed off upon noticing the boredom that swept over my student's face. This was not the response she was seeking.
No, I mean, what kind of diet are you on, she clarified. Admittedly, I bristled at the word. Diet? I don't know, the eat-when-you're-hungry diet?
It was the age of Atkins, and I wanted as much distance from that sort of harebrained, extremist nutritional nonsense as possible. (Sure, eat a bacon double cheeseburger sans the bun, but don't have a piece of fresh melon because there's too much sugar or carbs or whatever? WTF!). Having only recently graduated from college in the debutante filled south and previously boarding school in New England, pressure-filled environments where eating issues among impressionable women can run rampant, I knew all too well the sensitivity of situations wherein one woman (intentionally or unintentionally) pedals her eating habits, insecurities, or beliefs upon others. I can't remember precisely how I answered my student's hunger for dietary advice, but hopefully, it included something like this:
Yoga helps us appreciate our bodies as being vehicles of the spirit. We learn to practice compassion toward our bodies and feel present within our own skin. It's certainly possible to lose weight by doing yoga, through the exertion of asana practice but more likely by making mindful lifestyle choices, including what to eat and when. If we're present in our bodies, tuned into our emotions, and thinking clearly with the help of yoga and meditation, then suddenly, eating a pint of Chunky Monkey ice cream after a bad day doesn't make much sense. It doesn't make your boss more bearable, absolve your parking tickets, or fix your relationships, does it? That's not a diet, merely awareness.
But more than likely I cracked an awkward joke and recommended lots of vegetables. Some eight years after grappling with a student who hoped to learn the magic bullet of weight loss through a yoga lifestyle, I still feel uneasy when I hear students and teachers promoting and evangelizing specific diets, nutrition regimens, detoxes, cleanses, fasts, and so on. It's not that I don't think they can be done safely and have myriad benefits, it's just that I worry about the intentions behind anything so rigid or absolute as not eating whole categories of foods, permanently swearing off meals cooked above a certain temperature, or subsisting on liquids for multiple days. Instead, I prefer the simple advice of the likes of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Or, my mom, "Don't eat just because you're bored." Or, my own initial instincts, "Eat when you're hungry." What do you think?
Have you experienced any of these feelings in conjunction with your yoga practice? Have you ever worried that students or teachers around you were being motivated by unhealthy intentions? Do you think yoga studios and/or teachers should attempt to influence students' eating habits? Please share your thoughts by commenting. As always, I am grateful for your willingness to share.