Diet free zone


Something which troubles me about the yoga industry is its conflation with food advice. It's something which has troubled me since starting out it in last year. You might find this strange coming from someone who cooks at yoga retreats and is mostly vegetarian! But I am also someone who has struggled with an eating disorder and a lot of disordered eating throughout my life.


I finally had a lightbulb moment about food in Victoria Station in London of all places - on my way through it on my morning commute. I suddenly realised that all the self hatred I had for myself, how I was convinced I was fat, how I hated my legs was exactly what every other person in that station was also thinking. Not about me, but about themselves. I was convinced for years they were thinking it about me, and then suddenly I realised that wasn't the case, that actually that if I was obsessing this much about what I looked like, then probably everyone else was also. There was probably a few thousand people in that station as it was rush hour. And then I wondered, what would it be like to stop thinking about food, my body, to stop analysing and obsessing for about 90% of the time. And what I might do with my amazing mind if it was able to think about other things? And right there in Victoria Station I began my journey in body positivity (although I didn't know it was called that until about 18 months later), in self love, in body acceptance, and in re-patterning my mind so it didn't automatically go to self hate thoughts as soon as something difficult came up in life.


Because you see, food, my body, and my control of those things was how I managed to pretend I was in control. I couldn't control the outside world, I couldn't control my life and what happened, but I could control food and I could control my body. So that's where I went when life felt confusing and challenging.


So this journey of determination to love myself began in Victoria Station but most definitely didn't end there. It's not ended in fact, its a daily thing, and there are times this year especially when my thoughts have gone back to controlling food, controlling my body, to shaming and hating myself and I have had to gently lead my mind away and back to grooves which over the years have become deeper and easier to come to - ones of self love, self acceptance. And this includes accepting whatever it is I need to eat at any time and not beating myself up for it. Right there in Victoria Station I gave up diets. And I don't diet for health or for weight loss or for self hatred anymore. I eat what I want, when I want. I ended up vegetarian because of working in yoga retreats (which are mostly vegan actually). But I found I felt better in myself being vegetarian, so I carried on. I found vegan wasn't for me because I would get tired and lethargic very quickly - because of the years and decades of destruction to my belly with diets, with disordered eating, with the trauma I've stored in my gut, and I am very gut sensitive - I can't digest a lot of things well including beans, legumes and grains - which makes getting all the nutrients in a vegan diet very difficult. In making these choices they were based on what my body feels, what makes it feel good, and listening to it. This felt very different from punishing it with diets to lose weight.


According to the BMI I am overweight. But the BMI is bollocks and basically the current settings we have were proposed by Weight Watchers and approved by the FDA - ensuring that the majority of the US population (at the time) was then overweight, overnight and so needed the Weight Watchers diet. And quite frankly, I don't care. My body feels good, it feels healthy, and I listen to it. I am a very typical body size and can find clothes easily to fit me. But even if I wasn't, this says more about the fashion industry than it would about me. I did care very much at one time. I was caring very much in Victoria Station that morning. But one of the things that precipitated that realisation was that I had been dieting on a few different diets over the course of around 9 months and my weight and body shape had stayed precisely the same for the entire time. And suddenly I thought, maybe my body is meant to be this size, this shape, this weight? Maybe it's trying to tell me something?


So this is my story with food and how I have come to where I am now with it. And it's an ongoing journey for the rest of my life because food is something we have to eat in order to continue to live. But instead of it being a torture, a punishment, something to control; I have turned it into my passion, my joy, and pre-covid - my livelihood. I love cooking and eating food. I love experimenting with food. I am known for taking a recipe, finding a bunch more similar recipes, reading them all, going back to the first and then changing about half of it. If you ask me for a recipe I can never just send you a recipe - I always have to give you notes with it of all the things I changed!

I love cooking in the retreat environment. It's so special, to think about how I am cooking with care and love, passion and joy and putting that into the food so that the people who've come there, often because they need a reset, or rebalance, or regroup, or release - or perhaps all of them - and I give them the opportunity to connect with themselves, their bodies, their truth - through the beauty and joy of food.


I also have studied ayurvedic nutrition and cooking just because its fascinating and has a lot of overlap with yoga. And yoga does tend to promote a vegetarian diet as part of the lifestyle. Its history comes from South Asia and India where vegetarianism is common for both health and spiritual reasons. And there's nothing wrong with this. However, you will never find me advocating any one particular diet for health, fitness or weight loss. In fact I refuse to discuss this. Its harmful to me and to you to think about food like this. And this goes against the ethos of yoga to me.


Yoga is union - of the mind, body and soul. This necessarily requires an acceptance, or at least a tolerance of your body. You cannot obtain union when you're at war with your body. You cannot obtain union when you are punishing yourself, when you are talking bad about yourself, when you hate yourself. These emotions, these actions, these thoughts create separation between you and your body, you and your emotions, you and your heart, you and your soul. This is not yoga.


So I will never tell you what not to eat, or what to eat. I may suggest things to support you to return to balance, if you ask me for this. But the premise of this first is a love for yourself, an acceptance of yourself. Because we cannot heal ourselves if we hate ourselves. And I personally stay away from any yoga or teachers who are telling me I must eat in a certain way for purity, cleanliness, or anything else. This is conflating food with morality, which has been done as a way to control people, especially women, by the patriarchy and capitalism. I'm not saying these teachers are in cahoots but this conflation of good/bad with food is so pervasive in our culture that it is easily absorbed and regurgitated without really seeing how damaging this is. Foods are not either good or bad because they are not a moral thing. Food is life, food is love, food is joy - whether that's a carrot or ice cream. Both have a time and place in what we eat.


For the same reasons, I avoid fasting except for medical procedures, and detoxes don't feel particularly good to me. But I recognise they can have a place if considered in context. There are no shoulds or shouldn'ts in eating (except don't eat melon with anything else - it'll upset your stomach - it's my only rule). This is what I love about Ayurveda. It recognises we are all individual and different and so we have different needs and different bodies, different minds and different spirits and it seeks to bring balance to all through a highly individual approach. Nothing is forbidden in Ayurveda, it's just a matter of what is imbalanced for you, and how best to restore and maintain balance for you. And what that looks like for you will be different from what it looks like for someone else.


We can see this overlap in the joy and the love of Ayurveda and yoga. We can see how we can bring harmony to the body, mind and spirit through food and through yoga, and Ayurveda advocates an approach which incorporates both. But it most certainly doesn't prescribe a particular diet or a particular yoga. Because it's really about you and what works for you. So eat the cake and feel joy when you do, because this is really the best way to eat cake. Remember how much you love yourself. And do the yoga poses your way that feel good in your body, however that looks like. You cannot create union if you're at war with the pose, with the cake, with yourself.

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Hari Charan Kaur