“In Beauty”–what does it mean?

tree of GodIf you’re on my mailing list, you will know that I ordinarily sign off with the phrase “in Beauty.” Every time I do, I think I should really explain what I mean by that.

Beauty itself is such a loaded term of valuation in our society. Standards of beauty may lead a person to feel good about themselves, or to feel bad. People who are attractive tend to be rewarded for it in areas that are completely unrelated, like a job, promotion, or the acceptance of other people. We mistake beauty for things like good-ness, competency, merit.

I think that it is no shocking thing to say that we do not live in a meritocracy. The lottery of birth places many people at an advantage, while others start way behind the starting gun.

So when the word beauty gets used in other ways, it is hard to shake its previous associations.

Personally, I use it in three contexts. First, when I sign off my emails. Second, when I remark or encourage my yoga students. Yes, I might be heard saying “beautiful!” in response to what I see them do in class. It is not a platitude. It means something specific, which is too hard to explain in the context of a yoga class where time and words get used up all too quickly. And the third context is personal, private use and acknowledgment of Beauty, in silence, in my mind.

When I sign off “in Beauty” it is referring to the Native American medicine paradigm of Beauty. My teacher, Ana Forrest has a whole article on the meaning of Walk in Beauty, and I’ll use her words here: “To Walk in Beauty means to walk in harmony with all things — not only physically, but also with feelings and our inner wilderness. Also with people, objects, animals…with life!”

So, when I sign off that way, it is a prayer of hope, for myself, and for you, that we all find our way in life, that we find our Beauty way.

Personally, when I see a thing of Beauty, I see it filled with Good Medicine and also with Spirit.

Building on this, when I say to my students, Beautiful! it’s in response to my perception of those Good Medicine and Spirit signs. They are breathing well, and I can hear it, and feel it. The energy in the room feels pillowy and soft, but supportive. And then, I can SEE how when they (you!) apply their breath and attention in a specific way in the asana they shine up.

Ana would call it “sparkle” I think, like the way sun dances on water. That’s sparkle. I don’t see sparkle. I see shine and luminosity. And to be able to see that shine, to see the life force running along their limbs—Oh!—it almost enough to take my breath away. Because that’s Spirit, dare I say—that’s God!—and to perceive it in the bodies of other people…? Well, it is, in the truest sense…beautiful. Bodies filled with Spirit are Good Medicine to the people who occupy those bodies. And for the lucky person who gets to witness it…well I’d have to say it is one of the great privileges of what I do. It is Good Medicine for my body and Spirit too, just to be able to really see.

Last week I had an instance of Beauty when working with a new private client. All his attention was running through the body in a Beauty way. And in my mind, I had a personal moment of reverence, awe, and admiration, because to speak it out loud would have been to break it. Sometimes Spirit is best acknowledged through silence.

So with these explanations in place, to you I say: Walk in Beauty.

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3 Ways to Turbo Charge Your Affirmations

bali sky shipI’ve always been suspicious of affirmations. They sound like New Age Big Brother, or the kinds of lies that the computer in 2001 tells just before he kills you.

That said, it is true—your thoughts are powerful, and where you put your attention, things will grow. In fact it is a law of creation: Your thoughts beget your speech. Your speech creates your behaviors. Your behavior determines your destiny.

But, I’ve found that in order to really get affirmations to be effective, you have to do these three things.

  1. Make them Yourself. Do NOT adopt the ideas or positive candy-thoughts of other people. Why? Because affirmations must be anchored in something real and truthful. Telling yourself repeatedly things like “Today, I am brimming with energy and overflowing with joy” (recommended by Dr. Carmen Herra) when it’s clearly a LIE will only serve to create cognitive dissonance, which will turn your thoughts more and more to the fact that you are lying to yourself.
  1. Ground them in Truth. Taking the above example, what would be more useful is something like this: “It is true that today I am experiencing sadness and I’m feeling tired. But I have a CHOICE about how to react to these sensations. I will look deeply into WHY I’m sad and tired, and seek to resolve these experiences as their root.”
  1. Connect them with Movement: When you have thoughts, they don’t live only in your head. Other parts of you are capable of “thinking”—your guts are a great example. Your heart feels and thinks too. Bringing your affirmations into a physical practice—yoga is my preferred method, but you might like running or swimming or dancing—this will help to communicate with ALL parts of your being. When you engage your WHOLE body—not just your brain—it magnifies the power of your thinking.

Try these tips, and then share in the comment section how they work for you!

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Yoga and Body Image Book Review

Yoga and Body ImageI love to read. Every once and awhile I’m asked to read and review books. Here’s my review of the book, Yoga and Body Image.

Body image is the new hot topic, and many yogis who previously showed no interest in it at all are leaping for the limelight. Lift the lid and you’ll quickly discover that body image issues are more complex than you might think. I discovered this myself as I tried to articulate my own experience and began developing useful tools for others’ recovery. At any turn you might find yourself ensnared with complications from eating disorders, pressures from the media, physical disabilities, or gender and sexuality, just to name a few thorny accomplices to body image negativity.

Few if any of those yogis who have rebranded as “body image positive” have the scope of perspective or depth of inquiry contribute intelligently to the conversation. This is why it’s such a relief to see someone who has decades in the field as a yogi, a critical thinker, a visionary, and an academe spearhead this topic with such organization and insight. Melanie Klein is the lead voice on this project, and she partners with Anna Guest-Jelley (founder of Curvy Yoga) to bring a curated collection of essays about body image into one volume.

The table of contents alone promises an even-handed, eyes-wide-open look at the ways that body image cuts across many different topics.

Part One contains general articles about “finding home” in the body, and making it a safe place to inhabit. Part Two addresses being on the “margins” of yoga: an addict, a black woman, having cerebral palsy, living with HIV/AIDS, and being a middle aged yogi. Part Three covers yoga and the media with essays on the beauty standard, power and privilege, and the pressures of the entertainment industry. Part Four covers yoga and parenting, from the experience of being a pregnant yogi, to teaching children yoga. Finally, Part Five delves into gender and sexuality, with essays about masculinity, growing up Puerto Rican and the sexual stereotypes attached to certain ethnic groups, being male and “disabled” and how that affects a person’s sense of gender identity, and being an athletic lesbian.

In its sum, the volume very thoroughly examines the myriad of ways that body image challenges show up hand-in-hand with other topics. It never stands alone.

My own body image challenges stand at the intersection of my understanding of “femininity,” sexuality, eating disorders, and media. So, it was with an interested eye that I read those contributions.

Each of the essays is a personal account of the author’s relationship with body image and specifically how they have found solace and healing in the practice of yoga, if not always within the “yoga community” itself.

In her assay “Yoga is More than Just Workout” Dr. Sara Gottfried contributes a chapter weaving her own life experience with her vast medical knowledge of the woman’s body. She names a truth: that “while most of us don’t have a diagnosable ‘eating disorder’ far too many people suffer from a distorted body image. For lack of a scientific name, I like to call it Fear of Fatness” (p. 25). She goes on to link this to a bigger personal problem, one that yoga can address: her own tenuous connection to a deeper spiritual core. It’s far easier to focus on the externalities of the body than to do the deep work on one’s inner self.

Dr. Melody Moore builds on this theme in “Too Much is Not Enough” delving into the correlation between body image, eating disorders and the capacity to feel. Anorexia, she writes, is a way to starve out of feeling. People who binge eating, or bulimics, eat to soothe themselves through what they think that cannot tolerate to feel. “Yoga is a tool by which we can develop the capacity to sit with and through discomfort” (p. 49) and eventually handle our own inner selves with measure and maturity.

In “Yoga from the Margins” Teo Drake writes with clarity about the experience of being a trans person in yoga class. “Every time I enter a mainstream US yoga studio, I feel barraged by an emphasis on pretty spaces and pretty clothes and pretty bodies…When I’ve approached studios about catering classes and spaces to queer and trans folks, I’ve had to hear ‘Everyone’s welcome! We don’t need a separate class for queer or trans people!’ Yet I can’t even get into my yoga clothes safely to make it to class” (p. 97).

Chief among my quibbles with the yoginis who have been leaping for the body image limelight, is that they seem completely unaware of the ways that they themselves have contributed to the beautification of yoga as a practice, in the very way that make Teo Drake feel in danger in a yoga studio.

I am not saying that it is not O.K. to be beautiful. Yoga has a sweet way of shining up your light, increasing innate beauty and radiance.

What I am saying is that it is important to have a perspective of your own beauty, and how much of it is inherited, and how much of it is the product of your own hard work on the mat, and how the sum total of these things might make other people feel.

I am aware that I was blessed with good genes. My beauty is in part the product of my biology. Other aspects of it are from my own work on my inner self and my body. What I look like makes certain people more comfortable, and others more uncomfortable. As a yoga teacher, I believe that it is my responsibility to understand these dynamics.

In her essay “Power, Privilege, and the Beauty Myth,” Seane Corn examines the ways that she, herself, has contributed to the beautification of yoga. This is a must-read contribution, for her bird’s eye view of her career development, and her own acknowledgement that the way she looked had much to do with it. Corn realized that she received opportunities that other, more talented teachers, would not be awarded, because they didn’t look the part. Yet, she did something admirable: she turned her position of privilege—awarded to her thanks to her societally approved looks—into a platform for leveling the playing field.

As if her admissions weren’t enough, Corn takes a step the “new” faces of yoga and body image have not paused to do in their race for “the next thing.” She apologizes. Corn writes, “I apologize for the ways I perpetuated the myth that beauty is a certain size, shape, and color.”

Thank you. Apology accepted. Respect.

In another fascinating inside look at privilege, and the cost of attaining it in the music industry, Alanis Morissette speaks with editor/contributor Melanie Klein in an interview about the toll the music industry took on her sense of self, and the extreme controlling environment: “The unsolicited feedback about my weight and food intake severely impacted my self-esteem and my relationship with food…Every version of hunger ever known to humankind came up for me…Not only did I enter a state of anxiety, but my response was to eat alone and secretively, by the light of the fridge at four in the morning—only to be admonished for it the next day” (p. 161).

Whenever a person wishes for fame, it’s circumspect to bear in mind the personal cost. Morissette’s story gives a little peek into the price she paid.

In a story of beauty, she goes on to tell how her brother helped her to find her way to a healing practice of yoga.

One of the few other academes to contribute to the volume is PhD candidate Chelsea Jackson, who writes on the historical representations of black women in the United States, and the impact it has on the psyche of the people portrayed:

“Aside from the hyper sexualized images that objectify black women, we have also been presented as people who are not in control of our own emotions and usually resort to aggressive attitudes or physical lash-outs when confronted by stress or trauma. Not only does this incomplete narrative illustrate a story that is imbalanced, but it also begins to construct an illusion that is our only reality. Images become internalized, thus creating our reality based in incompleteness” (p. 155)

Ms. Jackson is talking specifically about black women, but her observation about fractured representations extends to all of yoga culture. When the media narrows in on representations only of thin, young, white women, it not only disfigures white women’s sense of self, it also disfigures that of everyone who stands outside a very small circle of inclusion.

She relates the historical representations of black women to current experiences in the world of yoga: “I regularly post photos and videos of myself moving through yoga postures on various social media platforms, and I often receive comments on how impressive my ‘stripper moves’ are from both men and women” (p. 156).

These sorts of comments are shockingly inappropriate, particularly in the context of yoga. My own body has been the battleground of these sorts of wars, but Jackson’s account and academic analysis suggests that black women experience a certain tone of sexual commentary that women of other skin-types do not.

Each essay has so much to contribute to this conversation; I could go on, and on. And this is just the point of bringing all these voices “under one roof”—no one voice can be the voice of yoga and body image. The topic is just too huge. And when we come at it from only one angle—eating disorders, blackness, or gender—we actually do a disservice to the topic itself, and disengage people who could find healing in the conversation.

This volume is a tremendous contribution to the literature on body image, and in yoga. It is an incredible gift to our ever-evolving yoga community, a community that increasingly must fight to hold up the ideals of non-violence and inclusion in ever-more complicated ways as our yoga world grows and becomes commoditized.

In short, Yoga and Body Image is a “must read.”

2014 in Review & Lessons for Ease in 2015

Inhale 2015. Exhale 2014I’m feeling humbled by 2014, so much so that I’m hesitant to proclaim anything bold for 2015.

In fact, this may be the big lesson from 2014–to expect nothing.

Here are my top hard-learned lessons from 2014. I hope they will bring us ease!

1. Growth and change will come mostly only from necessity and the force of circumstance.

I’m pretty self-motivated and actualized, but there were steps and leaps even I hesitated around taking because, well, I didn’t really HAVE to. Then, circumstance kicked my ass and she forced change upon me.  How impolite.

A coach of mine always asks WHY you want what you want–what for, how will it change your life? There needs to be a pull (or push) for growth, in order for it to happen. It’s all too easy to just stay the same, right?

So as you think about the changes you want for 2015, consider the WHY of it and focus on that. Then the change will seem all the more important.

And if it’s not that compelling, you probably won’t change. Until life forces your hand.

2. Falling in love is the easy part–learning to keep your loved one is where the magic (and hard work!!!) begins.

Love will certainly make you do all kinds of things that you never thought, or planned, or anticipated doing.

As my beloved says, love is a good reason to try.

To try what, you might ask? To grow, to be a better person, to be bigger of heart.

Often I found myself feeling the opposite: small, hard, angry. And one thing that helped me often was the question: What would love do?

Would love respond in a way preoccupied with its own interests?

No.

Would love not try to listen, try to understand, focus on the beloved even in a moment of strife?

Absolutely. Especially then.

Try using that question as a guidepost when in a difficult spot with your beloved: what would love do?

3. People can be full of fear, malice, and selfishness. Be open, kind, generous any way.

This year has been full of all kinds of heartbreaks for black people in our country. While my sorrows pale in comparison, personally, I’ve been trod on a little bit too.

But, another lesson I learned from my beloved, is not to let those experiences harden you, or change your true nature. Continue to be kind. Continue to be generous. Continue to find ways to open your heart. Why on earth would you allow horrible people make YOU horrible too?

Finally, like I stated at the beginning, the biggest lesson of 2014 was (IS!) to learn to let go.

As Lao Tzu says in Tao #9: this is the way of heaven: do your work, then quietly step back.

If you win, great. If you lose, great.

Do your work. Then let go. Breathe and smile.

I must remind myself of this, continually.

Let the lessons of 2014 prepare us for all that 2015 will bring. Many blessings for you in 2015. May she be a kind, generous, and forgiving year.

4 Signs You’re Getting Over Your (fill-in-the-blank) Issue

airplaneSometimes when I’m working with coaching clients, they despair over what they perceive as setbacks.

You know—when you fall back into a pattern that you thought you had kicked.   In those moments, sometimes they wonder out loud, “will I ever get over this?”

And, the answer that I give, because you can rely on me for truth, is, “No. But.”

Here’s the scoop.

I believe that we all are patterned with our own life challenges. Some of us will have problems with our family of origin. Some will have addiction issues. Some will struggle with depression. Some will have challenges around finances and home. Some of us will struggle to create partnerships. Some of us will live with chronic illness.

And here’s the beauty: Our challenges are set before us to help us grow.

To grow means to get bigger in some capacity.

When you get bigger, the things around you get smaller. So, as you wrangle with your whatever-issue and grow, your issue forces you to get bigger, and the issue therefore becomes smaller.

Think of it like spiraling up higher and higher in an airplane. You can see the shapes of your patterns from above, as you circle around, and they get smaller as you ascend.

While your issue will never go away completely, because it’s wired into you neurologically, there are some signs that you are getting more skilled at dancing with it.

  1. You catch the pattern faster
  2. It has less power
  3. You don’t get pulled in as deep into it
  4. You move on more quickly

Your challenges make you who and what you are today. Don’t let them keep you small: make sure they become instruments of your transformation, beauty, and growth.

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Making Peace with Getting Pissed

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I’ve often noticed in yogi circles that any expression of “negative” emotions sends people scattering.

 It’s almost as if folks feel like they will be poisoned merely by being in the presence of something uncomfortable.

Anger is one of these perceived poisonous “negative” emotions.

Any emotion is just a kind of energy. Energy is created by some kind of stimulus, and then likes to move—be expressed. Emotion is grammatical. It has a subject, a verb, and an object.   For example: “Someone or something made me feel an emotion. As a result I did something.”

Emotions become problematic when they stagnate. Even a “positive” emotion like joy can become problematic if it doesn’t have a mode of expression.

Expression can simply mean observing: I feel joyful.

And then asking: Do I need to act upon that? Does it need expression? And then, finally, responding to what you determine.

When emotions don’t have appropriate avenues of expression they become backlogged, and then when they finally DO get a chance to come out, they often are mismatched with the circumstances. You over-react, usually in an embarrassing way.

In my world view, anger can be a very productive emotion.

Anger, at its most basic, is a sign that your boundaries have been violated.

When your boundaries are violated, and you don’t have a chance to respond to that fact, THIS is when anger becomes a problem.

Anger builds up, and because it is so powerful, it leads to numerous damaging behaviors when it actually does express. Some people turn their anger inward on themselves, and it becomes depression, self-hatred, or addiction, for example.

Some people turn their anger outward, and it becomes violence towards others—usually NOT the people who first violated a boundary.

Every human being has a right to erect and maintain healthy boundaries.   If you find yourself feeling angry often, and deciding that there is something wrong with you, because you are feeling this “negative” emotion, and then working to just get rid of it, try instead asking yourself if there was some original assault upon your person that you were unable to respond to in a way that helped you express clearly the terms of your boundaries. Work on that deep level to clear the energies bound up in feeling violated, and then move forward knowing that it is O.K. to tell another person when they have crossed a line. Better to speak that truth than to further bind up your own emotions in an ever-tightening knot.

Let your anger be an energy that frees you up.

 

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Should I Eat if I’m not HUNGRY?

hungry-caterpillar1There’s a philosophy that circulates: eat only when you’re hungry. But many things can affect your ability to experience hunger. By this I mean, you might be hungry and just have lost the ability to feel it.

Tinkering with your diet, fasting, stress, yoga, alcohol, cigarettes, extreme emotional expenditure are all thing pressures that can reduce or even numb a persons’ ability to experience hunger.

And so, I believe that under certain circumstances, “eat only when you’re hungry” in NOT good advice.

Sometimes I don’t experience hunger for days and days—and this is not because I eat a lot! Sometimes, in fact, I eat very little, and still don’t feel hunger. But, if I just didn’t eat, that would really wreck my metabolism.

So the wisdom here is to be sensible, feel in for what experiences are affecting your sensation of hunger, and to eat more or less regularly, in moderated amounts.

If you need more guidance, here are some questions and my answer as to “should I eat if I’m not hungry?” Take a look: there are some nuances.

  • I haven’t eaten in DAYS. But, I’m still not hungry! > PLEASE EAT! Start with some soup, like miso, or chicken broth.
  • I’ve been eating ALL DAY, and I’m not hungry. > Please, stop eating. At least until tomorrow. Why have you been eating all day?
  • I’ve been drinking, and it dulls my appetite. I’m not hungry! > Have a light snack of protein and fat. Pay careful attention not to overeat, since you’re buzzed. It’s easy to do.
  • I haven’t eaten since yesterday, and I’m waiting to get hungry. > Eat something light to keep your blood sugar up.
  • I’m constipated, and have been for 3 days! I’m really not hungry. > It’s time to take action. Don’t pack more food into your guts. Move to a liquid diet, starting with a green juice. If you’re bowels don’t start to move in a day, give yourself a coffee enema. This should jump start things. Once your digestion comes online again, eat lightly—veggies and brown rice is a good place to start. Work to find out what caused you to get backed up in the first place.
  • I’ve been drinking coffee all morning and I’m not really hungry. > Actually, you are. You’ve just suppressed the sensation. Please eat something grounding, like a baked sweet potato.
  • I’ve been teaching a yoga teacher training, and I’m never hungry! > You must eat. Eat things that are easy to digest, and not too much of it. Cooked vegetables with some olive oil will help, or some hot soup with oil drizzled in.
  • Everyone says I ought to eat breakfast, but I’m never hungry in the morning. >  I’m not an evangelist for breakfast.   I’ve heard of research that says those who don’t eat it live longer. But, if lunch is way in the distance and you’ll go for many hours without eating, and then find yourself to be very hungry, think of breakfast like a morning snack. Have a handful of nuts, a green juice, one egg.

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Are You a Spiritual Materialist?

Breaking news—we live in the information age! Did you hear? No? You say got distracted by your iPhone? I get it.

It’s hard to pay attention.

It’s ALWAYS been hard to pay attention, even before we had shiny gadgets to distract us.

Which is in part why traditions such as meditation and YOGA came to exist.

As modern seekers, we have so many options. In the yoga world, we can explore many different traditions, sample from each of them and voila! Make our own kind of yoga.

Many 200-hour yoga teacher trainings have this kind of “buffet” approach. A little Yin, and little Restorative, a little Acro, a little Forrest…

The benevolent intent of this kind of sampling is for students to get to know what’s out there, and then make a choice. But, actually, I don’t think it works out that way. I think it just encourages the kind of non-committed, drifting, “don’t you ask me to really care about anything too much” attitude that pervades much of our society at the moment.

Shopping around for the perfect spiritual fit is called “spiritual materialism.”

The goal of a spiritual practice is complete recovery from a fractured sense of self, says Marianne Williamson.

At our fracture points are thing things that hurt us the most.

Any good relationship will put pressure on your fractures.   A relationship with a yoga teacher, or a system of yoga, qualifies.

So the problem with our lack of commitment to a teacher, or a system is that we actually miss out on the opportunity to grow.

In The Wisdom of No Escape American Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron talks about this tendency not to commit. She says that the shopping around—the spiritual materialism—is a way of finding security and comfort or trying to feel good about yourself.

Whereas, sticking to one boat means that when the going gets tough and you really start to hurt, instead of “looking for a better fit” you make a warrior’s choice to meet all your dragons. Tremendous, heartfelt growth can come from that.

Forrest Yoga, and the ongoing rite of initiation of becoming and being a Guardian have tested my resolve to stick to one boat. But I’ve learned from this opportunity that what Chodron says true: when you make the choice to stay in relationship and look at the things that hurt you the most, you have set foot on the path of the warrior’s journey.

You don’t become narrow in your views. You become deep.

“It’s best to stick to one thing, and let it put you through the changes.”

Find your boat. Then stick to it.

 

 

 

4 Signs You’re Getting Over Emotional Eating

ID-10072652I’m not exactly sure when I began using food and eating as a way to take the edge off my anxieties about life. The depths of my memories offer up, “adolescence?” Sure. I’ll take that.

Yoga gave me the tools of what I call “emotional rehabilitation.” Emotional rehabilitation helps a person to learn to feel again. Instead of using whatever method we have of numbing out emotionally (in my case, food), we use the skills learned at yoga to feel the emotions, and to handle them. Instead of shutting as much out as possible, we open the window of tolerance, and learn to sit in it.

Yoga–combined with years of therapy–helped to unravel the knots inside of me that lead me to eat instead of feeling.

Now, standing on the far edge of a long journey that is by no means over, these are the things that I’ve noticed about my own feelings and behaviors. They might be guideposts to you as well.

  1. Once upon a time, eating was my answer to all difficult sensations. Even the need to sleep or rest, I mistook for the need to eat. Now, I’m able to sort out these different sensations. Tired emotionally? Get some alone time. Tired physically? Rest or sleep—don’t eat!
  1. I notice that sometimes when I feel inside and think about eating a food that used to make me happier, now I feel disappointed. This shows me that the incorrect connection between feelings and food has been (mostly) unhooked. Food can’t fix my emotions. Something else, out in the world will need to change to help fix my emotions.
  1. Snacking is no longer a satisfying way to evade nourishing eating or feeling. Now I know when I start to fall into a spiral of snacking, to check inside and find out a) do I need a real, full-on, sit-down meal or b) is something upsetting me.
  1. At parties, instead of hanging out by the chips and stuffing my face, I can face social anxiety head-on and do something about it.

It’s my personal opinion that we never actually completely “get over” these sorts of addictions. What we gain is actually much more useful than complete recovery: the skill of self-awareness. With this skill, you can handle just about any life challenge that comes your way.

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Healthy Craving vs. Addiction Presentation

Often in my work with my life coaching, holistic health counseling, or body image clients, the question arises, “how can you tell a healthy craving apart from an addictive habit reappearing?”

 

This can be tricky, because your addictions can be so seductive as to entice you into thinking that you truly “need” them.

 

Yet, no one would deny a pregnant woman her cravings, and they present just as strongly as a “need.” 

 

So how can you tell a “real need” from a false one? 

 

I’ve considered the distinction between a “true need” and an addictive one in the past few weeks as I’ve been recovering from the stomach flu.

 

The past few weeks have been an interesting study in cravings, and has jogged my memory about similar experiences in the past. 

 

In the immediate aftermath of the recent flu, everything smelled gross, and the mere thought of some items made me feel nauseated. 

 

I recall an instance in my life where this has happened before.  In my early twenties, I was working a desk job, and fell ill, with the flu.  While I lay in bed, I didn’t consume much, and above all, I drank no coffee.  Prior to this, I had quite a coffee habit—four of five cups a day.

 

In the wake of that sickness, the thought of coffee nauseated me.  So, I switched to tea.  First black tea, and then later, green tea.  While I adore the aroma and flavor of coffee, now I can’t drink it, as it gives me heart palpitations. 

 

It occurred to me that the illness was a kind of cleanse.  My acupuncturist would agree, and from what I’ve gleaned, many illnesses can be viewed as a “healing event” of sorts.  That sickness in my twenties I recall at the “coffee purge.” 

 

With the recent illness, what I observed was an accompanying craving for foods that I’ve not wanted in years—mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese. 

 

There was a clear progression from one to the other.  First, about three days of desire for the potatoes.  Then, a break.  Then, emerged the desire for macaroni and cheese.  As a gluten-free eater, this posed a problem.  Thankfully, Annie’s makes a decent rendition with rice noodles.

 

For three days straight, I followed the craving, and ate a box of mac & cheese.  On the third day, it tasted too salty, and no longer entirely hit the spot. 

 

Many people would probably identify these cravings as “bad.”  Both of these foods fall in the “carb” category, and even in the “junk food” category. 

 

This illness was the opposite of the “coffee purge.” 

 

Instead of removing foods from my palate, it introduced them back in.

 

And, they are not foods that I ordinarily consider “healthy.”

 

As I indulged my body’s desire for another day of packaged, processed mac & cheese, I considered if I was truly experiencing a nutritional need, or if some addiction took the opportunity to show itself again. 

 

If you examine closely the sentence above, it reveals part of the key to understanding healthy craving versus addiction. 

 

The key lies in the distinction between “me” and “my body” and creating a healthy relationship between those two things.

 

In the past, my “addictions” were primarily the product of my mind, which then hooked my body.

 

In the past, eating “junk food” was the result of feeling lonely, isolated, scared, unloved, unrecognized, angry, powerless. 

 

As I did the work to resolve those core issues, I was able to see that actually my body never “asked” for those junk foods in the first place.  My mind did. 

 

So the distinction between “healthy craving” and “unhealthy craving” has to do with where the craving is truly arising.  Is it in your body, or is it in your mind?

 

Let’s examine these two “purging” illness that I’ve told you about above, looking for traces of both kinds of cravings—of the body and the mind. 

 

In the instance of the coffee situation, I had been drinking coffee for so long, that my body was actually hooked on it.  There way truly no way that I would have known that it was something my body didn’t want, unless I tried not drinking it for a while.  And that thought would never have crossed my mind.  The sickness introduced a situation where I could remove the substance, and from there create a clean slate inside against which to test if coffee was really a substance my body likes. 

 

I started drinking coffee not out of a love for coffee—like many I began drinking coffee as a means to extend my productivity.  I drank it because my family members did.  And, I drank it, because it was a sign of maturity, or so I thought.  Never did my body “ask” for coffee, and I doubt that yours would either.  We just like caffeine.  This is a clear instance of “me” introducing a food to my body, and getting it addicted. 

 

Sugar is like this too.  It is a substance scarce in naturally occurring foods.  Fruit is sweet, and some vegetables are.  So are grains.  But white table sugar—that is an invention of modernity.  Sugar is highly addictive, and if you don’t agree, try taking it out of your diet entirely (that includes agave, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, sucannat, and any other “alternative” sweetener you can think of) for an entire week, and see just how cranky your get. 

 

I found out about this when I did my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training.  I all but eliminated sugar from my diet.  And when I cam back from the training and had a glass of lemonade, I just about passed out from the sugar high and the ensuing crash. 

 

In the end, the “coffee purge” was a little of both–I created a real addiction that was the product of my mind.

 

So check to see if your “craving” is the result of your mind desiring something to fill the uncomfortable spaces in your life, and if you’ve fed it something that now it is hooked on. 

 

If you check inside, and know that you are not really feeding your mind with food, then you can examine what kind of craving your body is truly experiencing, and satisfy that craving at it’s core.  

 

Let’s look at the more recent example of the mashed potato and mac & cheese craving. 

 

When I mentioned the craving to a friend of mine, he told me that potatoes are very high in electrolytes, so much so that they actually conduct electricity.  In fact, you can light up a light bulb with a potato! 

 

Craving explained—stomach flu leaves a person dehydrated, and depleted from the electrolytes that help usher fluids across the cell membrane.  My potato craving was my body self-medicating with food.  Amazing! 

 

There are a few other reasons that your body might experience a craving. 

 

Seasonal:  Our bodies are set to function with the cycles of the natural world.  In the spring, we tend to desire detoxifying foods like leafy greens or citrus foods. In the summer, people crave cooling foods like fruit, raw foods and ice cream, and in the fall people crave grounding foods like squash, onions and nuts. During winter many crave hot and heat-producing foods like meats and cheeses.

 

Lack of Nutrients: When the body is nutrient deficient, it will try to make up for it as immediately as possible.  A lack of minerals leads to salt cravings.  Overall inadequate nutrition leads to cravings for instant energy in the form of sugar and caffeine. 

 

Yin/Yang Imbalance or Balance:  Certain foods have expansive qualities while others are contractive.  “Yin” refers to the expansive quality of a food—think how sugar makes you feel, or alcohol.  These are extreme examples.  Leafy greens are also an example of an expansive food, or a “yin” food.  “Yang” refers to the contractive quality of a food.  Consider how salt makes you feel, or meat. 

 

Sometimes eating one kind of food creates a cycle where a person only wants to eat those foods.  The body gets stuck in a feedback loops. 

 

Other times, the body naturally balances.  You eat some meat, and want some leafy vegetables to go along with it.  This is just one example. 

 

There are also other reasons why the mind might create cravings. 

 

Displaced Desire & Dissatisfaction: Being dissatisfied with a relationship or having an inappropriate exercise routine (too much, too little or the wrong type), being bored, stressed, or uninspired by a job, or lacking a spiritual practice may all cause emotional eating. Eating can be used as a substitute for entertainment or to fill any void in your life.

 

De-evolution. When our lives are going better than usual, sometimes a self-sabotage pattern emerges.  We crave foods that throw us off the good path, thus creating more cravings to balance ourselves. This often happens from low blood sugar and may result in strong mood swings.

 

Longing for the Past: We’ve all experienced this—it’s the desire for “comfort foods.”  One of my teachers calls it “Inside Coming Out”—the longing not only for your childhood foods, but also for your ancestral foods.  Any way you look at it, your relationship with the past is showing up in the present in the solid manifestation of food. 

 

When I examine my recent longing for mac and cheese, I can see realistically that it is my past coming out, and a longing for comfort.  The needs of my body (potatoes) gave way to the desires of my heart for care and comfort of my mother (mac & cheese).  Seeing that clearly for what it truly is will allow me to make better decisions about whether to indulge the craving or seek to resolve it in another way.

 

In summary, it is important to discern between a craving that is the product of your mind, and something that comes from your body. 

 

Once you’re clear on that, then you can make a better decision about how to handle it.