Yoga for Hikers: Stretch, Strengthen, and Climb Higher by Nicole Tsong (2016)
WHAT YOU EAT FUELS your body. It’s a simple concept, and yet it can feel very complicated when you dive into the world of nutrition. For someone who is active, it matters even more that you get enough calories to sustain yourself through a yoga class or on long days out in the woods.
There is no right way to eat mindfully. But the first step is to notice whether you pay attention to what you eat in the first place.
The world is rife with cleanses, diets, and other challenges. I have tried many of them, some for myself and some in the name of research. I have at times cut out sugar, alcohol, gluten, dairy, grains, legumes, red meat, processed food, caffeine, canola oil, sweetened drinks, and fruit. Thank goodness for vegetables. I’ve done an anti-inflammatory diet; I’ve eaten only fruit; I’ve gone Paleo; I’ve done a vegan cleanse; I’ve experimented with having five meals a day and with filling my plate two-thirds full of veggies and fruit.
But what’s the point of all this cleansing? Every time I’ve experienced one, I’ve noticed something about my food habits. Eliminating a certain food or type of food for a short time has helped me recognize when I was eating out of habit and convenience versus choosing the best food for my body. Through my experience, I’ve found it is best to eat foods in which you recognize all the ingredients. It’s even better if you know where it comes from, and it’s helpful for the environment if it originates close to home.
But I’ve also learned that every person’s body is different. What works for one person may not work for you.
Every year, I lead a three-day fruit cleanse with yoga students in my “40 Days to Personal Revolution” program. At the meeting leading up to the cleanse, I always hear diverse, creative excuses for why people can’t do it. Some are traveling. Others already have dinner planned with friends on all three nights of the cleanse. Some question whether it’s healthy to eat so much (natural) sugar for three days.
Ultimately for many students, doing the cleanse is simply a triumph of commitment. Some appreciate discovering how fixated they are on food. Others learn that they are addicted to their morning cup of coffee. One mom realized that she snacks constantly while fixing her kids’ food for the day, a mindless habit.
The three-day fruit cleanse is one real-life step to bringing your yoga practice to your day-to-day life. You may already have noticed how your eating habits affect how you feel during yoga, for example. Having wine the night before an early morning class might make it feel rather challenging. Or you might be in a twist, and with a groan, realize that whatever you ate wasn’t quite right.
These days, I know my body does best when I eat at home, cooking vegetables, whole grains and humanely raised meat, along with some fruit. I tend to eat seasonally, particularly with fruits and vegetables, and love to shop at my local farmers’ market in the summer. If I’m eating out alone, I pick a salad or something healthy. If I’m out with friends or family, I enjoy myself. When I hike, my favorite thing to eat is a sandwich and a brownie from a local bakery. Of all the days to eat whatever I want, a day outside definitely wins.
Still, I like to take on a nutrition challenge every three months or so to direct some awareness to how I’ve been eating. Sometimes I do a cleanse because I want to lose a couple pounds. Sometimes I do a challenge to balance out energy slumps during the day. Other times, I’ve been eating out a lot, and I’m ready to bring some more mindfulness to my diet.
When focusing on food, it’s helpful to add other mindfulness practices that bring health to your day, such as sleep habits. I prefer the rule to sleep at least seven hours a night, which is simple if not easy. However, when I pay attention to my sleep, I tend to sleep even more.
Below are a few practices to eating mindfully, two modified from some of my favorite resources on this topic: Savor, which delves into both nutrition and mindfulness practices; and The Abascal Way. Whatever way you choose to approach mindful eating, know that you can always make a shift simply by paying attention to what you eat!
Apple Meditation Practice
This practice is modified from Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, which advises “Eating an apple consciously is to have a new awareness of the apple, of our world, and of our own life.”
»Take an apple. Wash it. Before you take a bite, look at it. Take a few deep breaths in and out. Observe the color and the shape. Smell it. What kind of apple is it? Consider the tree where the apple grew, the orchard where the tree lives. Think about the person who plucked the apple, the people who drove or flew the apple to your city, the people who brought the apple to your grocery store.
»Slowly take a bite. Savor the texture as you bite into the apple. Notice the give of the skin and the crisp flesh underneath. Eat it slowly, taking twenty or so chews to finish your bite. Is it sweet, tart, juicy, or crisp? Notice how the texture changes as you chew. What does it feel like when you swallow?
»Savor the taste of the apple. Chew consciously, savoring the taste, and immersing yourself completely in the apple. Eat the entire apple this way.
Mindful Eating Practice
Bring mindfulness to your diet by eliminating one of the following. Or, if you are feeling bold, choose two or more! Note that both caffeine and sugar are stimulants (caffeine can affect sleep), while alcohol is a depressant. Sugar and alcohol are inflammatory for all people.
Choose to eliminate one or more of these items for one week:
»Caffeine: If you drink coffee regularly, replace your morning cup with two cups of green tea for two days before eliminating caffeine entirely.
»Alcohol: Abstain from all types of alcohol.
»Processed foods: Do not eat any packaged food that includes ingredients you can’t identify.
»Tobacco: Cut out all tobacco.
»Sugar: Refrain from eating foods with added sugar, including all refined sugars and natural sweeteners like honey, agave, and maple syrup. This includes soft drinks. Note that many packaged foods use sugar identified by different names, like dextrose, maltose, sucrose, etc.
No Midnight Snacks! Practice
This practice is adapted from “The TQI Diet,” described in The Abascal Way by Kathy Abascal.
»Stop eating two to three hours before bed.
As adults, we have one daily burst of hormone that occurs a few hours after we fall asleep, which helps maintain muscle mass as we age. But if you eat a bedtime snack, “the insulin released will shut down the important burst of growth hormone that night” writes Abascal.
Eating before bed over time also sends signals to your brain to change your normal hunger and satiety signals. Humans are supposed to be hungry in the morning, not at night. Leptin, the hormone that is tied to satiety also affects melatonin, which is released during the night. If you give up your bedtime snack, people typically notice “they are sleeping better and feel more clearheaded during the day,” says Abascal.
LIKE YOGA, EATING MINDFULLY is a practice, and it takes time to shift patterns. Don’t take it too seriously if you go off the path on occasion. Remember your intention. Observe what feels best in your body and choose from there.