“The body loves gentleness” – Sandra Sabatini.
When I speak of eating a mostly plant-based diet, and generally sticking to non-stimulating foods, what I often hear is this:
Wow, you must have so much self-control!
I’m happy to eat like that when it’s provided for me, but I can’t be bothered to make it myself!
I wish I could, but I don’t have the time/energy/knowledge/money to eat like that.
And when I speak of yoga, and self-practice, what I also hear is this:
Wow, I would never have the discipline to practise every day.
I’d go to a class, but I never manage to practise by myself.
I’d love to do that, but I just feel so lazy after a hard day at work.
And I understand completely. Why would you engage in a movement practice, or a way of eating, that required constant vigilance? Just knowing that discipline and self-control are required is enough to make me run for the hills. And the habits that I know could be supportive (like mindful movement and eating real food) remain out of reach – they are dry, uncomfortable activities, an extra burden on my life, as dry and unappetising as a stale oatcake.
Having just returned from a week-long yoga retreat, I am noticing how my perspective has changed. I am lucky to have found a way of eating and a physical practice that draws me in, that comes to me without harsh discipline or a self-imposed regime.
Previously, my understanding of diet and exercise was all about achieving the desired result. You tolerated the pain and discomfort at the time in order to feel the benefits afterwards. The end justified the means. So you exercised until your joints hurt, your body ached, or you injured yourself. You drank the disgusting shake, the bland salad, the watery soup. So often, we move and eat from that place – a place of purgatory, self-flagellation and martyrdom, hoping against hope that the discomfort we feel now will pay off in the end.
I do not agree that the end justifies the means. Today, I say that the means, and the end, are one and the same. I will not sacrifice my present moment for any future pay-off. Ultimately, the present moment is all I have. And I am committed to making my present moment as peaceful and comfortable as I can.
And my body, it lives in the present moment. In the present moment, I am either hungry or not hungry. It is simple enough to tell. The belly knows nothing of your crazy calculations, the mind games you play with food. In this moment, my body is either comfortable or uncomfortable, painful or pain-free. And I am the one who creates pain in my body, by moving and eating in painful ways. My poor body knows not why it has to suffer internally to achieve some external goal – a desired shape, a particular silhouette. Ultimately, this imposed physique may not support my digestion, my breathing, all the internal functions that are necessary for a body to feel well.
We can make eating and movement a sensory experience to be enjoyed, experienced with pleasure and joy. One that feels good in the present moment, and in the moments that follow. And we can approach this practice of eating and moving with an attitude of pleasing the whole body:
Does doing sit ups hurt your neck? Poor neck!
Maybe you love the taste and texture of bread but it hurts your belly. Poor belly!
Perhaps your lungs enjoy the feeling of a great sprint around the park but you’ve sprained your ankle. Poor ankle!
And what if your mouth is watering at the sight of an indulgent dessert but your belly is as tight as a barrel after a big dinner? Ouch!
And so, what to do? I must go inside, and experience the process, noticing what I am creating for myself, in my eating, and in my movement practice right now. Not the after effects, not the benefits, not the weight loss or weight gain. I must feel this eating, and feel this movement, as it is. And in the words of my wonderful yoga teacher, I must make it kind.
And with that intention of kindness, the practice become utterly delicious. It unfolds without force, or discipline, or control. I actively move towards it, because the body loves kindness. No one has to make me. I don’t need a reminder to do it. I want to do it, because as a pleasure-seeking human, I naturally gravitate towards what feels good.
Going inside myself, I experience the delight of a spine that is free and responsive and I roll around my living room floor. Going inside myself, I experience the tension leaving my jaw and skull, as I rest my head back onto the rug. Going inside myself, I experience the breath reaching into pockets of tightness in my back and shoulders, a delicious release which opens and expands my entire being.
Put simply, it’s more carrot, less stick. And it starts with the present moment. Make your present moment comfortable and kind. Ask yourself – does this behaviour please all of me? Does it bring peace and satisfaction to my whole being? If not, why do I tolerate it?
Let what you love be your guide, you may find yourself eating and moving in comfortable, supportive ways without any “discipline” whatsoever. Gently does it.