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The yoga of eating

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Once in a while, you read a book that makes such an impression on you that you feel moved to tell everyone you know about it!  This is how I felt after finishing “The Yoga of Eating: Transcending Diets and Dogma to Nourish the Natural Self,” by Charles Eisenstein.

This book is for anyone who has ever felt confused about how to make sense of the contradictory recommendations of all the external dietary authorities out there as to what “eating healthy” involves.  From raw foods to macrobiotics, classical ayurveda to yogic or Chinese traditions, blood typing to body ecology, Nourishing Traditions to veganism, not to mention the more mainstream diets (South Beach, Atkins etc.), many cultures or experts offer their own  research and logic for why we should eat certain things and not others.  If you research the field of healthy nutrition long enough as I have casually done for the past 3 years, you will get to the utterly confusing place of finding pretty compelling evidence for everything and its contrary (beyond the typically shared condemnations of refined sugar, and factory farming or genetically engineered products).

Charles Eisenstein, the inspiring author of this gem of a book, basically argues that most people’s approach to healthy diet rarely recognizes the fact that our unique life purposes, activities, environmental and psychological circumstances, genetic inheritances, spiritual path and karma, and of course body types form a complex web of critical variables in determining what diet is uniquely right for each of us and what foods will provide the critical nutrients we need at any given time of our life.  The premise of his book is that because our optimal diets are very unique to each of us (and change over time), they can’t be abstracted from one size fits all (or even more sophisticated typology-based) frameworks.  All of these different traditions and approaches may each have valuable insights to offer, but none of them can replace our own body’s wisdom as the ultimate guide for what we need to feed it for its optimal healing and to support the type of work and activities in which we are involved and our overall life journey.

The Yoga of Eating totally challenges our culture’s deep distrust of the body’s requests and signals (including what we judge and dismiss as its unhealthy cravings), and our tendency to either discipline (and occasionally starve it) ‘for its own good’ or silence its emotional cries with numbing types of food or overeating…  without ever really listening to what ‘it’ actually wants.   It suggests that we instead learn to access and trust our body’s great intelligence, and its messages as to what we really need which involves removing the blocks — physical, emotional, and conceptual — that separate us from these messages and have us prefer to trust the prescriptions and advice of all kinds of external authorities or traditions over our own inner authority.  It is also about encouraging people to give up using their willpower to enforce whatever-we-think-is-right-for-us on the body, and restrict the use of willpower to supporting our own body’s deepest preferences (which is rarely the same thing as either its loudest surface cravings or the ‘holiest’ practices according to whatever tradition we feel connected to).  He also offers a very helpful way to navigate the whole dilemma of “How could we possibly trust our body when it craves ice-cream or comfort foods?!”

This book offers powerful reflections about the relationship between food and consciousness, between our eating practices and our spiritual growth (as individuals and a society), and also offers really insightful bits about the blind spots behind various types of perspectives that some people tend to either take for granted or be dogmatic about, including the distinction between body and soul, the benefits of all kinds of miracle supplements, vegetarianism or veganism as a ‘more evolved form’ of eating, habitual cleansing etc.   And somehow, the author talks about all that, without ever being dogmatic himself, recognizing instead the partial truth and insights of all these different perspectives for the right person at the right time, and if and only if the body says yes to it.

Just to be very clear, Charles Eisenstein is not suggesting that we mindlessly eat whatever we want whenever we want, but that we mindfully discover what our bodies (which is really us) actually want rather than regard them as an obstacle or enemy to fulfilling the plans we develop without consulting with it!   And that requires a lot of “unlearning” about what our minds or our cultural beliefs and practices or the latest nutritional fad have led us to get our bodies to eat.   He believes that much of what we eat when we eat unhealthily (defined as out of alignment with what we need), or we “act out” is often an overblown reaction to routinely ignoring or suppressing our body’s deeper signals (or other kinds of needs), and is in all cases the result of being altogether disconnected from our bodies in the first place.

You would need to read the book (which is fairly short and wonderfully well written) to get the whole picture.  It has pretty radical implications for anyone who cares about healthy eating.   I’d like to second an Amazon reviewer who wrote: “If we lived in a sane world, this book would be a bestseller.”