How Yoga Transformed My Relationship with Food

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

I grew up in a big family of cooks, which means that a passion for food — cooking it and eating it — is automatically in my DNA. I spent a good chunk of my formative years in the kitchen: I learned to make the perfect marinara sauce from my dad, and master the art of cake batters and frostings (and the importance of taste-testing) from mom.

I reveled in our weekly friends and family dinners that brought together all of the people I cared about and all of the foods I loved. My fondest memories from childhood are sitting down to those Sunday suppers and eating until I was so stuffed, I could barely move.

And then came puberty.

How My Relationship with Food Changed … for the Worse

As I got older, my relationship with food got more complicated. My teenage years brought with them intense body image issues.

Like most young American women, I was (and still am) bombarded with unrealistic beauty standards from all sides. Being constantly reminded that I did not have the “ideal body,” especially when I was younger and more impressionable, seriously damaged my own self-image and the way I thought about food.

Eating, which had once been a pure and simple joy, slowly became a source of anxiety, and it wasn’t long before I feared meal time as much as I had once loved it.

I spent my late teen years and my early 20s struggling with yo-yo dieting, starving myself, then binge eating. It was torture (emotionally and physically), but I couldn’t stop the cycle. I’d starve myself until I had no more self-control. Then I’d eat all of the things until I felt so bad about it, I’d starve myself again.

How Yoga Helped Me Put an End to Yo-Yo Dieting

I’ll be honest: When I started doing yoga, I saw it as an opportunity to lose weight and get closer to my ideal body. But it quickly became so much more than a physical activity for me. It became a serious lesson in mindfulness, an intense practice of learning to be fully aware and present in the moment.

On the mat, I learned to focus on my breathing and what my body was doing. Outside of class, I became more aware of my eating — or more accurately, my binge eating. I started to understand that, if I didn’t mindlessly shovel food into my mouth while I watched TV in an attempt to soothe myself after a rough day, I wouldn’t feel like I had to cut off my food supply the next day.

I finally felt like I had the power to change my habits, although, at first, all this new mindfulness made eating pretty uncomfortable. Being present in the moment made me hyper aware of everything I was eating: every carb, every gram of sugar, every last calorie.

If I ate too much, I felt the bloating and discomfort more fully, and if I didn’t eat enough, the hollow in the pit of my stomach seemed to go deeper than before. I also questioned everything: Am I choosing the right foods, eating at the right times, consuming the right amounts? Would I be able to find the right answers? Are there even right answers?

I tried to let these unhealthy body thoughts slip out of my mind while I ate, and replace them with the physical and emotional experience of eating: Eating is delicious! And fun!

And you know what? It worked. Okay, not right away. But, I slowly re-learned how to enjoy a delicious dish, and appreciate the nourishment it gave me instead of worrying about the calories.

Importantly, I began to listen to what my body needed, letting it make the calls. Instead of unconsciously overeating and then starving myself as a result, I started to give my body food when I was hungry; for once, I feel in tune with its needs.

Of course, this didn’t all happen overnight. And there are still meals where I mindlessly eat without tasting a bite, days where I punish myself for food “mistakes,” but every time I recognize one of those moments of perceived weakness, I celebrate it as a win. Hey, at least I noticed! If yoga has taught me anything, it’s that transformation comes from honesty, even when that honesty is uncomfortable.

Like my yoga practice, my relationship with food still isn’t perfect. Eating is like doing a really challenging standing pose series: There are days my legs might shake, but it’s noticing those moments of weakness and feeling them fully that helps me move through them and onto the next pose.

Do you practice yoga? What has it taught you about food?