I started school a few weeks ago. It has been quite a transition, getting used to reading and studying and retaining information again. Some days it hurts my brain, but I’m excited about the material and even more excited to start putting it into practice.
The thing is, I’m feeling a little vulnerable too. You see, I’m taking Holistic Nutrition.
My relationship to food has never been an easy one.
Apparently I was a picky eater as a kid. I didn’t like veggies, I didn’t like meat. I still remember sitting alone at the table after everyone else was done, trying to finish those last few bites. Rules were rules and I had to finish what was on my plate!
When I was old enough (14 was old enough, according to mom), I took the leap and became a vegetarian, but no one told me how to do it. I just ate whatever was served, minus the meat. It was the first time I was making my own rules around food, and that appealed to me. I started to experiment with tofu and veggie burgers and soy-dogs. And I started getting chubby. Those extra few pounds were only a small part of why I felt left out and alone in high school. I spent my days wrestling with this feeling of sadness I just couldn’t quite shake (or understand for that matter).
By the time I was 18, I was carrying around an extra 50 pounds. My self-esteem was shot which just seemed to exacerbate my food choices.
When I moved to Montreal, things continued to spiral. I was living in the most beautiful city in the world, surrounded by the most beautiful people (Montrealers are seriously HOT)! Inundated with beauty, all I could see in the mirror was ugly, fat, not quite likeable and just not smart enough. I hid behind baggy clothes. Every time I sat down with someone, I lifted my shoulders up to my ears and forward a little so that my shirt would fall in the perfect way that would hide my stomach rolls a tiny bit. It didn’t matter what they looked like or how much they liked me, my friends were always thinner, prettier, smarter than I was. Always. And I still couldn’t shake the sadness that hung over me like a cloud.
That’s when I took my yoga practice to a new level. Though I still remember my 14 year old self in my very first yoga class, I had never committed to it in a serious way. I finally found a class that I wanted to go to regularly. We were only ever 4 or 5 students, which was enough for me to get over it and twist my flabby self into some seriously compromising poses.
And you know the story from there on… I was inspired to see myself differently, to learn about self-acceptance, to make healthier choices. Ah! The joys and rewards of being a yogi!
Except that’s not really how it happened.
The reality is that I still felt ashamed. I still felt sad. I still felt lonely.
I had already lost a few pounds when I decided to talk to my doctor. She told me I was fat, and I believed her. So I went to see a dietitian and I wrote down every bite of food I took. I made bargains with myself: have these fries for lunch, eat a pound of spinach for dinner. I ate low fat cheese, fake crab, fat free salad dressings, chemically seasoned rice cakes. I counted every calorie. I became obsessed with taking the weight off. And I did! It was working, and I could measure my worth through my size 4 pants. I was skinnier than I had ever been, and ever would be again…
When I finally ditched the food charts and the dietician, I managed to keep most of the weight off. I (thought I) ate perfectly – in public that is. I made low fat choices all day long. I vowed never to eat poutine or avocados again. But in the privacy of my home, I ate 20 cookies at a time. I finished whole bags of potato chips, walked to the street corner to hide the evidence and promised to have nothing but celery for the rest of the week. I didn’t realize at the time that I was starving my body from the fat that it needed to function properly, but I had enough sense to know that things were out of whack. There was so much shame attached to what I was doing that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it.
After traveling the world for a year eating delicious vegetarian foods, doing yoga in ashrams, orphanages and on beautiful beaches, I decided to make some serious changes. Again.
I moved to Toronto and made some amazing new connections. I was part of an incredible community of yogis, lived in a fantastic neighbourhood, biked everywhere I needed to go. Avocados became my new best friend. I discovered the wonders of coconut oil. I bought local, organic foods as much as possible. I continued to learn about how my food choices affected the world around me. I felt more satisfied. And from what my friends and family could see, I was the picture of happiness. Like a good yogi, I lived on almond milk and kale and hemp seeds.
And yet I still felt sad and lonely. I knew I wasn’t speaking my truth. My throat was in a permanent state of tension; never allowing my voice to come through… I didn’t even know what I wanted – what I needed – to say. So I dealt with it the best way I knew how. I hid to eat doughnuts and cheese buns. When we’d buy cookies and they’d be gone the next day, I would lie to my boyfriend saying friends had been over for tea. I biked to places nobody knew me and bought fast food. I ate standing next to garbage cans so that I could get rid of the evidence as soon as I was done. Sometimes I felt full but still had dinner when I got home rather than explain that I’d already eaten. I hid it so well… I didn’t put any weight on because I was doing 3 hours of yoga a day, riding my bike to go to my teaching gigs, and taking spin class with my boyfriend in the evening. I was determined that no one find out. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, the food was a way to (literally) keep shoving down the sadness and the words that just didn’t know how to come out.
My boyfriend and I moved to Guelph. We bought a home. We were excited to start over again. I was opening a yoga studio! More proof that I was a true yogi! In that first year I had the house to myself. He had an interim job in the States, and I needed to be here so that I could make our home and put down roots.
Except the loneliness and the sadness came flooding back, hitting me from behind like a tidal wave. There was no way to escape here. No friends to have tea with, nowhere to hide from myself, and too much pride to reach out. So once more, I did what I knew how to do. I ate. I stuffed all of my emotions down with as much food as I could take in, and then I sat alone in the dark, holding my shame, my guilt, my aching belly and my many, many tears. I felt so incredibly ashamed.
I had all the books I needed on my shelves. I had helped students from my yoga classes with their eating disorders. I had pointed them in the right direction, given them the right practices, introduced them to services and people they needed, said all the right things. I couldn’t bare the shame and embarrassment of coming out with my little secret… Until one night, I binged so much I actually threw up. And it scared the shit out of me. That’s when I picked up the phone and made an appointment to talk to someone. The whole process didn’t take long, because I already new what to do. I was already awake, I had all the tools I needed under my belt. All that was necessary was a little push in the right direction. I realized quickly that my little dance with that ‘official’ eating disorder was a final attempt to repress my emotions a little further, to not look at the truth of who I was, the deep hurt I was holding, the feelings of being unseen, unheard. I was trying to push down my truth, not wanting to face what I wanted and needed in my life and what I was erasing about myself in order to fit into the picture of who I thought I should be.
So I threw out all those stupid magazines. You know, the ones that promise to show you how to ‘loose those pesky last 5 pounds’, or those that help you ‘master vrskchikasana in a few easy steps’. They made me feel like crap. They reminded me that I was never thin enough, pretty enough, organized enough, a good enough yogi… And instead of keeping my fridge and shelves free of temptation, I allowed myself to buy the cookies, the chocolate, the good cheese. And I ate them regularly. Whenever I had a craving I had a little piece and soon enough, I wasn’t craving them anymore. I started to learn – actually no, I started to remember – that it’s ok to have a treat, that there is no need to feel guilty or to hide, and that your body tells you what you need, if you listen. I remembered that the person in the mirror was actually my best friend, I had simply become estranged from her. In this process, I realized how much I had erased myself in those last 10 years, trying desperately to fit into a mold that I thought was ideal. I didn’t even know who I was anymore, I didn’t know what movies I liked, or what music I wanted to listen to… I had been making all these choices so that other people would like me, but I had completely forgotten how to like myself. A yoga teacher who doesn’t know who she is!? Talk about a shoemaker with bad shoes…
I’ve told you part of the story before. The bomb went off, my life changed in so many ways and so fast I could barely keep up. But I started to find my voice again. I started to get to know this sweet woman who’s been hiding inside me. I started to listen to her wisdom and her experience and her guidance. I saw her looking back at me in the mirror and I liked her more and more with each passing day. I allowed myself to do things I’d always held back from. They may seem insignificant to you, but saying ‘I would rather see this movie instead’ felt like an act of freedom and rebellion. I lost some people in the process, but found others that truly love me for who I am: people who support me, and encourage me, and laugh and cry by my side.
So why am I sensitive about the wonderful information I am learning in school right now? I am concerned because I don’t want to lose myself again. Food can be a trigger and a crutch. It has been for me in the past, and it has the potential to be one again. Yet I know that the knowledge I am gaining has the power and potential to free me even more, and to help others break away from the grips of food and shame. What I have learned is that moderation is always best and when we start to make rules around anything, we inevitably end up wanting to break them. As I learn about the process of digestion and how foods affect us, I feel the pull… that temptation to make rules, to cut out certain foods: never eat sugar again, never drink water out of the tap. But here’s the thing. I know it’s a slippery slope. All I can do is remind myself to look in the mirror, admire my curvaceous body, smile at myself and be proud of the work I do, the studio I own, the words I write (whether or not anyone reads them. Ha!), the life I am creating.
I am still learning to let go of the guilt and the shame. I’m still learning to trust my voice. I’m still learning to get to know myself again. It’s amazing how much we change over the course of time and what an incredible gift it is to make friends with ourselves over and over again… In the process, my throat is feeling freer than it ever has, and the sadness is lifting. It’s still there and likely always will be, but I think that’s a good thing. Pema Chodron said that “the genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion”, that it is only through getting in touch with our deepest sadness that we can feel true happiness and act with loving kindness towards ourselves and others… So I choose to keep it in my heart: that wisdom-sadness, that love-sadness, that I-am-beautiful-in-my-truth-sadness. I choose to trust my darkness and my light. I choose to do the work and piece together my fragmented parts, to stay awake, and to eat kale, and hemp and chocolate cupcakes.