Let’s say Grace . . .

The tradition of saying grace before eating is in danger of dying out along with the shared family meal.  If your household is like mine, where we grab food out of the fridge and eat standing in the kitchen, eat on the run or eat in front of the computer or TV, then it has probably been awhile since you have sat down with a beautiful plate of food in front of you and took a moment to express gratitude for the gift you are about to enjoy.

How about for a change we begin our meals, as well as our discussions on health and nutrition by “saying grace “? Doing so, in the way that I envisage, might mean a great deal more than a simple prayer mumbled mindlessly before tucking in to the bounty before us.

After months of reading everything I could find on the subject of nutrition, in an effort to cure myself of chronic hunger and the resulting problem with my weight, it suddenly struck me that I needed to pause for a moment and remember to “say grace”  like my mother taught me as a young child. The spiritual discipline of expressing thanks for food before thoughtlessly devouring it has more merit than we might imagine.  “Mindful Eating” is being taught to the generation who has forgotten how to feed themselves in an effort to curb overeating.  Saying grace is one way to eat “mindfully” and might have more to do with health and weight management than you may have realized! Because by saying grace we give thanks for one miracle and request another.

The first miracle is that we have food to enjoy and to nourish ourselves.  The miracle that Mother Earth, as much as we have abused her and taken her for granted, still graciously produces food for us to eat.   That the farmer still plants his seed, the rains still come, the crops still grow, and we still have the health and strength to work to earn a living and obtain food for ourselves and our family.  When our food arrives already highly processed and pre-packaged we become disconnected from the process by which it comes to our table and lose all sense of appreciation and awe for the fact that we have it at all.  A return to local, traditional, whole food goes a long way to bringing back this sense of wonder.

The second miracle is one that we ask for in faith:  That the food we are about to eat will nourish us and bless us with health and strength for the day ahead.  We ask that the food we eat will be good for us. The prayer we used to pray as children was: “Dear Lord, Bless this food to our bodies, and bless the hands that prepared it.” This ritual is a simple acknowledgement that we eat in order to care for our bodies, that it requires a moment of grace for this to be possible at all and that it is fitting to honor those whose labor, love and creativity went into preparing the food. However, as much as we may do everything within our power to prepare a healthy meal, given the current state of our planet and our food supply, it is more appropriate than ever to appreciate that whatever benefit we may gain from our food is a blessing not to be taken for granted.  In many cases this requires nothing short of a miracle!

Most cultures and religions have festivals and traditions around the harvest, food preparation and the sharing and enjoyment of the meal.  Although these have been largely lost in our fast-paced, deadline driven western life style, recovering them can be enormously beneficial.  Yoga therapist Brandt Passalacqua, teaches eating as a practice of self-care.  He recommends beginning meals with a meditation.  See “Make Peace with Your Plate.”  I particularly like this part:

Say to yourself, “Today I will nourish myself in the best way I know how. In this moment I am nourished. I have all that I need.”

How about saying grace, not just at the dinner table, but wherever food is an issue?  Discussions on the subject of diet can be remarkably ungracious.  They can become zones of conflict and fierce disagreement, or like-minded individuals can subtly use their particular diet as a way to create a sense of superiority and self-satisfaction at the expense of those that don’t happen to buy into their approach to food.  This is particularly true of  judgmental, condescending attitude made socially acceptable by “the cult of beauty” so revered in western culture.  One of my favorite Joey scenes from Friends illustrates the ungraciousness of it all really well:

My mother was a gracious lady who not only taught me to say grace before eating, but to behave graciously when sharing food with others.  Once incident from my childhood is especially vivid in my memory.  Having been raised a vegetarian, I had a hard time understanding and accepting that meat is food.  We were at a meal with friends and family where meat was served, and I must have said something childish and inappropriate, expressing distaste at the meat dishes on the table.  I was sharply pulled aside by my mother and informed that I had just behaved very rudely and that one never criticizes the food on someone else’s plate because by doing so you are criticizing and rejecting them and hurting their feelings.  I learned a valuable lesson that day, not only in social graces, but about the sacredness of food.  Just because it isn’t something you happen to eat because of personal or dietary preference, it is still food and still worthy of the proper respect*

In addition to often being quite unkind, diets are usually reductionist.  Food is deconstructed down to almost atomic level and the concern is almost exclusively with macro and micronutrients and calories.  What if eating “whole food” means more than not overly processing it physically, but also not over-processing it intellectually?  A big part of eating whole food is appreciating the “whole food.”  Not just what is in the food, but the food in it’s completeness and fullness: It’s taste, texture, color and smell.  The intricate natural process by which it was grown.  The physical labor and skill of the farmer. The effort, planning and creativity of the chef.  The family ties and social bonds that it reinforces.  The celebration that it invites us to join.  The beauty of enjoying it, not only as fuel but as food in which we delight and take great pleasure.

Michael Pollan discusses the problem of “nutritionism” and the resulting reductionism in “In Defense of Food”  in which we regard food as a “delivery vehicle for nutrients.” Since nutrients are invisible you need experts to tell you how to eat.  Experts that can help us look past the food itself to the nutrients it contains and use this a basis to dictate what to eat and what to avoid.  As Pollan puts it:

“As soon as you accept the nutrient view of science, you accept the expert driven food culture. It’s sort of like a religion . . . We need a priesthood to navigate the relationship for us.”

He goes on to say that food gets divided up into “evil” nutrients that we try to drive from the food supply, and “blessed” nutrients, that if we can just get enough of will cure all our ills and possibly allow us to live forever!  With nutritionism the whole point of eating is about health and what we eat ranges on a spectrum from destroying your health on one end to redeeming it on the other.  However, Pollan tries to remind us that throughout history people have eaten for a great number of other, equally legitimate reasons: Pleasure, Community and Identity.  He warns that we are in danger of reducing our understanding of food to a very narrow set of “nutritionist” beliefs, which wouldn’t be so bad if it worked.  However, he points out that reducing food to a question of health hasn’t actually made us any healthier!  Ain’t that the truth!

The nutritionist approach to food doesn’t work for my fledgling attempts to learn how to feed myself again, nor is it helpful in the Bold Experiment.  I can’t afford to leave what I eat up to “the experts” because so far they haven’t been able to help me.  Nor can I reduce food purely to a question of health via the demonization and deification of a list of macro and micronutrients.  Among other things I would like what I eat to nourish me and improve my health, but in so doing I don’t want to give up eating for pleasure, put strain on my relationship with others or lose my identity.  For me “nutritionism” is a recipe for disaster because it creates disordered eating – in my case yo-yo dieting and mindless binge eating when it all gets too overwhelming.  I am trying to avoid replacing my junk food addiction with “orthorexia” – an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating! (Pollan)

I am learning to feed myself again.  Learning to say grace again.  It’s helping me and maybe it can help you too.  Before you open your mouth to put food in it, or say something about what the person next to you is eating, don’t forget to say grace!

* I believe that the respect for food should be extended to all whole foods.  The same is not necessarily true for processed food and junk food specifically when it functions as a drug.  This “food” should be named for what it is and put where it belongs.  However, the person consuming it should always be treated with the utmost grace and kindness.  If junk food calories are really the only ones available, one should still say grace over them, and hope they will do some good, but this is never ideal and the aim should always be to restore whole food to your own food supply and that of others.

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The head bone is connected to the neck bone. . .apparently!

This post is about how I tricked myself into joining a yoga class.  And changed my life!

It all happened one fateful day when I was going about my business as usual when an unexplained, random thought popped into my head:  “I should join a yoga class!”  I can’t explain what prompted this brief lapse of sanity, and under normal circumstances the thought would have passed out of my mind uneventfully and as quickly as it had come.  Impulses like this usually result in a quick mental process whereby my brain assesses the merit of the thought along the following lines.  “Yoga is exercise.  You are Monique.  Monique does not do exercise.”  Case closed. However, on this occasion I happened to be sitting at my computer when I had the weird yoga thought.  Although the rest of my body is a blob, my fingers are supremely fit, and when they have access to a keyboard they are capable of moving much faster than my brain.  Consequently, before I was able to engage in the logic outlined above, my fingers had typed “yoga teacher somerset west” into Google. Oops!  The profile of Domenique Hendricks popped up, I quickly read it, accidentally filled in her contact form and clicked submit! She sent a prompt, pleasant reply, and to cut a long story short I somehow convinced myself to try out a class.

At this point a bit of my personal background is relevant.  Healthy eating is not a foreign concept to me.  I was raised by an extremely health conscious mother who taught me to cook and to eat right.  She also raised me a vegetarian and I have never eaten meat in my life and never plan to.  I absolve her of any and all responsibility for the fact that I became a “junk food vegetarian”, because never did a mother try harder and face greater resistance than mine did with me!  However, when I eventually decided to stop being a brat and eat like a grownup I had plenty of healthy diet information and cooking skills to fall back on.  What’s more, I actually like healthy food on condition that I eat it to the degree that I have no space left for junk food.  Once the addictive junk food eating takes over for some reason the veggies I adore taste “yucky” and they remain untouched and go rotten in my fridge.  Exercise, however, is a whole other story.  I was extremely uncoordinated as a child and horribly bad at sport.  Always last in a school-yard pick.  The sports field or the gym were places of intense humiliation for me.  In the classroom however, I reigned supreme and took my revenge on the jocks who spurned me at recess and during physical education class.  I excelled at academics and inevitably felt good about myself when engaging in intellectual activities.  It is no surprise then, that I ultimately opted for a sedentary lifestyle and avoided exercise as much as possible, particularly in group situations. I have no positive history with exercise from my early development to return to, unlike the rich heritage of healthy eating that is currently serving me so well.

But enough with the autobiography and back to the yoga class.  How I ended up there is still something of a mystery to me, but perhaps on some level I knew that if I wanted to get somewhere I have never been, I would need to do something I had never done.  I was so ignorant of what yoga entailed that I wasn’t sure if I was meant to wear shoes or go barefoot.  So arrived wearing a pair of trainers just to be safe and quickly discovered my mistake when I stepped across the threshold and was greeted by the instruction “no shoes in the yoga studio!” Also, although Domenique was welcoming, she clearly had serious concerns about my general state of health and my ability to do yoga – for very good reason.  I felt the old feelings of embarrassment rising and tried not to let myself think too much about how this felt like high school all over again. However, Domenique encouraged me to try a class and also informed me that yoga was non-competitive, we all worked at our own pace and ideally the whole class was done with your eyes closed.  Phew!  So not like high school after all!  I was particularly relieved to learn that while I would be watching to learn the yoga postures (asanas) the experienced members of the class would keep their eyes closed and not look at me.  If only my gym teacher had a rule like that things would have turned out very different for me! 🙂

When I joined the class I had made myself one promise:  No matter how tough it was, I would keep coming back until it felt better.  So I did. I was a bit sore after the first class, but other than that have had none of the DOMS (stiffness or “delayed onset muscle soreness”) I have with other high impact workouts. I certainly found it strenuous and struggled through the first few classes, but it was doable.  I put this largely down to the fact that Domenique is an excellent, extremely experienced teacher who knows how to work with people at different levels within the same group.  She modifies exercises for me, and forces me to work within myself.  She also does this in such a way that I do not feel I am disrupting the rest of the class too much.

So now let’s get to how yoga is changing my life:

  1. For almost as long as I can remember I have suffered from regular, severe headaches.  I was getting tension headaches almost every day and severe migraines every few weeks. This is debilitating, to say the least. In order to function at all, I was taking a codeine-based painkiller pretty much like a chronic medication.  This made me feel lousy and I knew this was terrible for my health so I really wanted to get off the drug.  The doctor thought my problem was rebound headaches as a result of addiction to the painkiller, and while this almost certainly was going on, it was not the whole story and she wasn’t giving me any workable alternative. It is probably the headaches more than anything that made me consider taking yoga in the first place.  I have other health issues related to diet, but I firmly believe that my headaches are caused by stress and lack of exercise. I noticed a marked improvement in my headaches within the first week of starting yoga and today they have almost disappeared and when I do get one it is much milder and more manageable.
  2. Yoga has helped me to reconnect with my body. It frightens me when I realize how much I was trying to live my life like some sort of disembodied consciousness hoping somehow that my body would look after itself and leave me alone!  Starting yoga was literally like flicking on a switch, or reconnecting a lose wire.  Simply by exercising with your eyes closed, your awareness automatically shifts inwards.  In addition, yoga focuses very much on breathing, meditation and relaxation which greatly improves your sense of connection to your body.  This is particularly helpful for someone trying to lose weight because you find that you naturally become more aware of signals of hunger, thirst, tiredness, stress and anxiety and can take corrective action before they become a huge problem.
  3. Yoga is one of the best strategies for stress management I have ever come across.  At the end of a class you feel profoundly relaxed, even more so than if you had had a full body massage or taken a sedative!  This is critical for losing weight because high stress levels push up cortisol, which signals the body to eat more and store fat.
  4. I find that I am better co-ordinated, more agile and generally able to get through normal daily tasks more easily since starting yoga.  I have also found that I care more about what I do to my body and am much less inclined to abuse it by eating the wrong things!

One thing that did concern me when I started was that although the internet is full of articles discussing the benefits of yoga, there are quite a few stating that it is not particularly helpful for weight loss.  However, these articles are based on the assumption that the primary goal of exercise for weight loss is to burn calories. Since it is believed that you don’t burn as many calories from an hour of yoga as you would from, say, an hour of running, it is not considered the best choice if your main aim is to shed body fat.  Well, as my new bff, Dr Lustig, points out, calorie burning is actually the least compelling reason to exercise.  In “Sugar  – The Bitter Truth” he states:

  • It’s not the Calorie Burn. You’d have to work-out too many hours to burn off the calories from a candy bar, juice, or dessert.

However, exercise is extremely beneficial for:

  • Toned Muscles. Exercise improves skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity–because insulin works better in strong lean muscle.
  • Stress Reduction. Exercise reduces stress and the release of the stress hormone cortisol–appetite goes down when stress goes down.
  • Detoxifies Fructose. Exercise makes the body’s “Citric Acid Cycle” run faster, which detoxifies fructose, improving liver insulin sensitivity–and preventing fructose from turning into fat.

You can’t beat yoga for strength training and muscle toning, stress reduction and detoxing! Which means that yoga is a fantastic form of exercise, not only for all it’s other well known benefits, but for weight loss as well!  It is has definitely made a massive difference in my life, and I am convinced that it is one of the key reasons why I am succeeding this time where I have failed in the past.

If you are trying to lose weight, get healthy or just generally feel better, I highly recommend finding a good yoga class with an experienced teacher.  If you happen to live in Somerset West, South Africa, look no further than World’s View Yoga Studio.  If not, there is bound to be a good teacher near you.  Come on!  If I can do it, so can you!