Over the past year or so, I've been frequenting a local hot yoga studio. It's one of the most intense workouts I've ever done, and I've developed a bit of an addiction to it. Hot yoga is basically a yoga class taught in a heated room—about 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Most newcomers (including myself!) can have a hard time getting used to this type of exercise, and it often takes a few weeks before they can make it through an entire session without needing a break.
Because of the combination of an elevated heart rate, focused breathing, and balancing poses, it's essential that you have laser focus on the task at hand—if you let your mind wander, you'll find yourself falling out of poses. One thing that helps is staying focused on the instructor's voice as she delivers pointers on perfecting the various poses, sprinkled with reminders on keeping your attention within and listening to your body. Maybe it's the heat getting to my brain, but I'm frequently inspired to apply these yoga mantras to the way I talk about food. Consider a few of my favorites:
"Always listen to your body." In yoga, you're encouraged to take breaks when needed, and to not judge others when they do the same. In fact, taking a break is celebrated because you're honoring your body's request. How might we eat differently if we always checked in with our body first? Think of all the times we eat without checking in—when we eat even though we're not actually hungry, or we eat beyond the point of being full, or we eat because it's fast, not because it's good. Think of the times we devour something "forbidden" because we plan to start dieting the next day. If you've gotten away from checking in with your body when it comes to eating, give yourself a few days to do just this one task: Focus on your internal cues of hunger, fullness, and desire for certain foods. See if it makes a difference in calming the chaos of your eating patterns.
"Keep your eyes on yourself." Humans are competitive, and we're constantly measuring ourselves against others. During a yoga session, if you focus on your neighbor, who's holding each pose to perfection, you're not focusing on your own body. This won't serve you because you won't be getting better at your own practice. I find that this also applies to how we eat. When we're so focused on what other people are eating, we have a harder time realizing what works for us, and we can't fine-tune our eating habits in a way that really improves our overall diet. Instead of trying to mimic that celebrity diet you read about, or live up to your friend who makes home-cooked meals for her family every night, turn your focus to the way you eat today, and adjust it to make it better. Small daily changes can make all the difference.
[See How to Find Your Ohm...]
"Allow the practice to become a moving meditation." The more you do yoga, the more it becomes second nature—and your mind will shift into a meditative state while flowing through each pose. I like to think of cooking the same way. The more time you spend in the kitchen, the more it becomes a soothing introspective process. At first, your brain has to focus on learning the cooking basics (just as you have to learn various yoga poses). Once you're more comfortable in the kitchen, you can surrender to the process of dicing and sautéing, and allow it to take on a type of moving meditation. I find that spending time in my kitchen at the end of a busy day can be a great de-stressor, which ultimately helps my overall diet and my mood.
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.