the real reason i started practicing yoga

I have a confession to make. There’s a bio floating out there (somewhere) about my yoga background and it is – get ready for it – a lie. Not a whole lie. A half-truth. And one made unintentionally. But I want to come clean all the same.

I started practicing yoga from a dvd in my bedroom, when I was about 11 or 12 years old. My partial-truth bio claims “as a complement to dance”. Which is true. I was a dancer (a not very good one) and I thought increased flexibility, which I heard I could get from yoga, might make me better. So the way I remembered it, I bought a “yoga for flexibility” dvd. I vividly remember practicing it in my bedroom – for some reason seated twists stand out in my memory. Maybe that dvd had a lot of them.

Memory is a funny little selective animal. Often it cages out the aspects on which we don’t want to focus our attention. Last winter, in the middle of a move, I came across that dvd again. The title was actually “yoga for weight loss”. Not flexibility. Aha – now all the twisting-postures make sense. The reality is, when I was in middle school, I had an eating disorder.

I used to limit myself to less than 1,000 calories a day. I worked out obsessively –running, swimming, dance, and, apparently, yoga, as long as it promised to turn me into a size zero.

The irony of it is – I started practicing because I wanted to be smaller, but instead, yoga had the opposite effect.

I have heard that eating disorders often originate a means for control. Which, in my case, makes sense. As a kid, I was an oddball. I got made fun of, and had a hard time fitting in. I remember one time, riding the bus home from third grade, a girl telling me the clothes I wore were weird and that I should dress more like her. She was wearing blue-jean overall shorts with bright flower patches sewed on in random (“fashionable”) places. That same day, shopping with my mom at Kids R’ Us, I saw those shorts. I asked my mom to buy them for me. That girl and I ended up becoming friends, when she realized I had the same shorts she did. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

We didn’t have cable until I was eleven, and to this day I still don’t know how to play video games. I think those were the kinds of things that made you cool back then, but I’m not entirely sure. I remember making a new friend when we moved in sixth grade who, upon realizing how shy and awkward I was, stopped being my friend. I have always been an introvert – and in middle school, being quiet and shy was just plain not cool.

I think the combination of getting picked on, and my sensitivity, led 12-year-old me to subconsciously realize that I could never control other people and what happened around me. As a means for coping, I gripped at controlling the one thing I thought I could – myself. Namely, my body. I became obsessed with being perfect. I thought perfection equated happiness. Because people who, in my eyes, appeared perfect, also seemed to be happy. I forgot that inherently, I am happy. Always have been. My mom claims she never met a happier baby. And as a child, I may have been a goofy weirdo, but I loved every minute of being a goofy weirdo.

That “yoga for weight loss” dvd led me to my first “real”, instructor-taught yoga class, which I took at my high school. It was taught by the gym teacher, a marathon runner who I doubt had any kind of yoga-teaching credentials. This was back before yoga was all that popular in the US (and a smidgeon of the size it is now in DC). I told someone about this and he told me I’m “like an original hipster of yoga”, because I did it before it was cool. I think that comment will make my family laugh. At the time, armed with a field hockey stick and a slew of pink hair ribbons, I was the epitome of a catholic schoolgirl, and basically the opposite of hipster. I think the most ironic thing I did was go to a Fall Out Boy concert. And, apparently, do yoga.

I have nothing but fond memories of my freshman-year yoga class. I went to a large public school, and felt lost there. I had very few friends, and spent many an open-lunch period wandering the halls by myself, because I couldn’t find anyone to eat with. But in yoga, none of it mattered. Students of all ages and social statuses took the class, and in the “yoga room”, we were all equal. The teacher would write on a chalkboard the poses we were going to learn that day. Every Friday, she put on meditative rainforest-sounding music, and we did savasana (i.e., corpse pose, otherwise known as the yoga version of naptime), for the entire class. It was awesome.

My first yoga teacher did not wear lululemon (if that even existed then). She did not chant or take photos of herself doing fancy poses, or teach us rigorous flow classes with a peak pose (at least, not that I remember). What she did do was offer us a safe space, in which to explore our bodies through the practice of yoga. She read the room, and gave us what we needed (deep rest). She planted the seeds of yoga, which, for me, have since cultivated into a lifelong practice.

That year, I started eating again. I also, unknowingly at the time, learned to listen to my intuition. I made the challenging choice to transfer to a smaller, all-girls school, where I felt less lost and more at home to be myself.

At first, eating again had the opposite effect – I went through bulimic episodes, and frankly, blew up in size. My journey with food has been a long, hard-fought, solitary battle. It took me years to get to a place where I did not count calories or feel guilty about what I ate. Today, I eat a highly intuitive diet that works for my body. I focus on whole, unprocessed, natural foods, and have eliminated foods that don’t serve my body’s health. I have written briefly about my journey with food here.

Exploring my sensitivities, and which foods do and do not work for my body, led me to another version of my former eating-disorder behavior. This time, instead of focusing on loving myself because of how I looked, I turned my focus to loving how good I felt, as a result of practicing yoga and meditating everyday, self-care rituals, and living a clean, healthy lifestyle. Yet I was still missing the point. Because both of those versions of living involve conditional love – loving myself because I look or feel a certain way.

I realized this recently, when several instances of control-related issues emerged in my life. I believe we attract into our lives what our souls require for higher growth and learning. And I needed to learn the ugliness of the control-gripping monster.

Last week, I saw a photo of myself, and I realized that I was viewing it in a different way than I was accustomed to. A great deal of my life, I’ve seen my photo, and immediately began analyzing the parts. But last week, I looked at my face, and saw the whole person. I looked at my image just like I look at other people. I think this is what it means, to love myself unconditionally. Loving myself in entirety, no matter how I look, what I can do, or how I feel.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading about the beginning stages of my yoga journey. I think this is why I love teaching yoga to all ages, but especially kids and pre-teen and teenage girls. I have visions of one day starting a mindful living club for teenage girls, where we practice yoga, meditate, and talk about mind-body health.

For me, yoga is (and was) a game-changer, the gateway to my own healing. I began practicing because I wanted to be a size zero, and I thought “yoga for weight loss” would get me there. I think a lot of us start a yoga practice because we want something specific. Writing this reminds me of the song lyrics – “you can’t always get what you want/ but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need”. I never did become a size zero, from that dvd. Instead, I got exactly what I needed.

I intentionally don't keep photos around from my disorderly phase. Instead here's one from the peak of my "awkward phase" - 15 or 16 years old. Back when I thought it was okay to cut my own bangs. And apparently I really liked pink.
I intentionally don’t keep photos around from my unhealthy-eating period. Instead here’s one from one of my prime “awkward years” – 15 or 16 years old. Back when I thought it was okay to cut my own bangs. And apparently I liked pink.
Ten + years and so much growth later <3

an apple a day (or not)

Last night I lie, writhing, on my (filthy) group house kitchen floor, alternating between moans of agony and laughs at the absurdity of the “apple baby” growing in knife-like twinges in my abdomen.

As soon as I saw the bright slivers of juicy fruit on my lunchtime salad, I remembered the sickness I experienced last week, when, without thinking twice, I added a few slivers of apple back into my diet. Nevertheless, I took a bite or two of the yummy fruit. It really was the most delicious apple I think I have ever eaten, paired beautifully with my honey-dijon salmon salad. I carefully chose not to eat all of the apple slices, pushing the remainder to the edge of my bowl.

A bite or two is all I needed, to be hit with wrenching stomach pain a few hours later. I am a highly sensitive person, and I have learned through much trial and error that my sensitivities extend far beyond the emotional and interpersonal realms. When it comes to food, I am the quintessential example that a one-size-fits-all approach to health simply does not work. I mean, take apples. These little guys are famous for keeping the doctor away, yet I have one bite, and feel as though I am about to give birth to a slew of your sharpest kitchen knives.

Not just apples. A host of other foods praised for their health benefits simply do not sit with me. Among others, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, my body rejects. Even “superfood” goji berries have sent me to a near-hospitalization rate of deathly illness.

In my quest to feel better, I have learned that food intolerances are relatively common. There are a ton of resources available to help me understand my body’s dynamic response to various foods. I have learned to view food as information, revealing a great deal about the miracle that is human life. My only job is to listen to the messages my body sends in response to what I eat.

In general, food allergy generates a quick response (i.e., a peanut allergy causing the throat to swell), through triggering antibodies in the bloodstream, immunoglobulin E, or IgE. IgE is the most aggressive defense system our bodies have. These antibodies operate by releasing large amounts of histamine, causing swelling, mucus, and congestion. Food allergies are relatively rare. On the other hand, food intolerances are more common and far sneakier than allergies, and can appear in surprising places, especially for those of us who are highly sensitive.

Food intolerance symptoms are normally delayed until hours or even days after consumption, thereby making it difficult to link the food to the symptom. And among the umbrella term food intolerance, there are different types of intolerance, including both true intolerance and food sensitivities. True intolerance means a person’s body has trouble tolerating certain foods, such as gluten, lactose, or MSG, often because the intolerant person is genetically lacking a chemical or enzyme they need to digest the food. Food sensitivities are similar to food allergies in that they occur as an immune reaction, mobilizing antibodies (immunoglobulin G, or IgG), which produce a range of symptoms.

Food sensitivity symptoms appear as a myriad of bodily signals, including congestion, seasonal allergies, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, puffiness, bloating, heartburn, gas, bad breath, sleep problems, inability to focus, depression, moodiness, itchy skin, rashes, joint pain or stiffness, dark under-eye circles, low energy, weight gain, and the list goes on. Because every body is unique, symptoms to various foods, and which foods cause reactions, varies from person to person. According to Dr. Alejandro Junger, author of Clean and Clean Gut, the most common foods that cause symptoms of intolerance, “Wheat, dairy products, and eggs as well as corn and soy are allergic triggers in a large number of people. This is partly because of the way these foods are produced today, with chemicals, antibiotics, and lots of pesticides, but also partly because the human intestinal tract didn’t evolve to produce them in mass quantity.” He elaborates,

 If we ingest a food that triggers an allergic response, a host of processes are put in motion that consume even more energy and time. When the GALT (gut-associated lymphatic tissue), the immune cells that live close to the intestinal wall, get irritated, they start manufacturing substances – histamines and immunoglobulins – to mediate allergy, which in turn activate a series of responses, including the activation of the inflammatory system. Thus, food that cause allergies end up activating three bodywide systems: the digestive, immune, and allergic systems, all high energy consumers…simultaneously, they cause disruption all over the body – draining resources further. The chaos and confusion caused by irritating foods can drain the body, the patient, and the doctors, who typically don’t connect the problem to irritating foods or the eroded state of the intestines to the presenting symptoms.

Beginning the work of discovering which foods cause what symptoms can seem incredibly daunting. Because food sensitivities are so common, many of us become accustomed to living in a consistent state of varying degrees of illness. We put up with the symptoms because we have no idea the root cause. And over time, eating foods that do not serve our bodies causes greater detriment, often in the form of leaky gut, intestinal dysbiosis, and other intestinal problems, which in turn, can exacerbate allergic responses.

There are ways to break the cycle of symptoms caused by eating the wrong foods, such as completing a detox, an elimination diet or following programs designed to heal the gut. Methods such as these focus on rediscovering the body’s baseline health, through eliminating foods that potentially cause reaction. Once the body has had time to remove the accumulation effects from these foods, certain foods can be reintroduced, one at a time, paying close attention to any reaction. Through these practices, I have been able to slowly build eating protocol that serves my greater health. I feel great, and my body functions better than it has in years. Many of my symptoms have disappeared, including (among others) allergies, bloating, constipation, joint pain, as well as issues with attention and depression. I have found food to be a game-changer toward rediscovering how great my body is designed to feel.

Nevertheless, sometimes having food sensitivities becomes frustrating to deal with. Like when I eat the most delicious apple of my life, and my body responds with a blaring message of “you idiot”. In these moments of kitchen-floor agony, I now choose to remember the beautiful ones sprinkled in the mix. Like when I met Ryler.

I know it is no coincidence that I began babysitting Ryler on the exact day l discovered my apple sensitivity. Ryler has the same thing; apples make his tummy hurt. Age 4, last week he told me his favorite food is butternut squash. Kid after my own heart. Just like me, he is a sensitive artist just trying to get by in a world full of disastrous dangers like when his favorite Go-Go squeeZ snack has apples in it, and he (as well as his clueless new babysitter) realize too late. But, the beauty is, because of all my food sensitivities, I carry a purse full of natural remedies like fennel seeds and peppermint oil, and can now share the tricks I have learned work for me, with Ryler, when his tummy aches.

As I lie squirming amidst my cockroach house-mates (we do live in a city, after all), I remind myself of one of my favorite beautiful moments, when, just a couple days prior, the kids and I nailed a paleo pumpkin muffin recipe, and then got to share the treat with their parents. Anyone who has dabbled in the world of gluten-free baking knows it can be an excursion into a culinary wild wild west, full of sifting through endless layers of coconut flour to, every so often, strike gold. This moment was one of those gold-strikes. Sharing the tasty, pumpkin-y, (relatively) sugar-free (save for a bit of honey), cakes, knowing that what we were eating not only tasted good, but was good for our bodies — well that, to me, is pure magic. As is the fact that because of doing the hard work of uncovering my food sensitivities, I now (mainly) follow a dietary plan that works for my body, in which I can thrive. Every so often, something surprising like apples, or not-so-surprising like the extra glass of wine I probably should have said no to, throws me off. But the fact that I can feel the difference between foods that further my health, and those that hinder, is amazing. No longer numbed out, I have woken up to both the apple babies as well as the magic in a gluten-free pumpkin muffin.