Friday, April 18, 2008

Day 237

Photo: Typical weekly shopping - I've gradually cut down on the amount of processed foods I eat and increased the amount of produce. I used to use my produce drawer to store plastic tupperware and old carryout containers. Now, the produce takes up the drawer and two shelves!

A reader recently asked me about the changes in my diet as I shifted my daily yoga practice to Ashtanga, particularly in terms of diet.

This is an interesting question and I'm not sure I can answer it in an entirely straightforward way. My particular approach to food and nutrition (and this is a key point: each person is unique) has developed over many years of trial and error of figuring out what works for me. In other words, what works for me, may not work for you. That said, there are a few general principles that I think are applicable to everyone and I'll highlight these in my post.

First of all, I might as well put this on the table: I'm an Ayurveda skeptic and eye-rollingly cynical about most alternative medicine. In saying this, I'm not dismissing *all* alternative medicine (nor Western medicine, which I also have a healthy skepticism). I just want proof. I have a background in the sciences and I like 'controlled studies.' Even with all their limitations (and there are many), I believe it's the best way to figure out what really works and what doesn't. I also trust my personal experience - if something works for me in a big way, I'll roll with it.

So basically, you're not going to hear about 'opening up the heart chakra' in my yoga classes and I can guarantee that you will never hear me wax lyrical about the 'aura' of the girl in the second row. I don't believe in auras. I think astrology if fun, but a bunch of bunk. For me, 'the yoga lifestyle' entails living in a way that's healthy and beneficial to my body.

I don't eat garlic - but not because Ayurveda tells me I shouldn't. I avoid it because personally, I've found that it makes me stink. At heart, I'm a practical girl.

I first started paying attention to nutrition about 15 years ago, when I first encountered Dr. Dean Ornish's research regarding diet and its impact on heart disease (I have a family history for it). I found a software package that tracks nutrition and started logging my foods and I've done this sporadically with different packages since then; I'm currently using CRON-o-meter. For a while, I was even vegan. I've been vegetarian since I was in my early 20s and have always paid fairly close attention to the nutritional content of the foods I eat, even during periods of not eating as well as I should.

Last year, following one of my periods of sketchy eating (hereafter referred to as 'The Muffin Era'), I decided to start logging my food intake again. I started walking every day and I cut refined sugar out of my diet. Completely! I have a huge sweet tooth, so this was a biggie. I had developed some bad habits and felt overwhelmed by them. But focusing on just a few things seemed do-able.

First general principle: Make a list of all the things you would like to change, then pick just ONE (or two, if you're feeling particularly ambitious). Work on your one thing until you feel that you've made some progress and then add another ONE THING. Trying to 'do it all' is a recipe for failure.

I've always been a big veg eater, but last summer, I really broke some new ground in my veg-eating. After I cut the sugar out, I proceeded to cut all processed foods, including bread and pasta. This had a huge - and very positive - impact on my health. I had already lost most of my muffin weight over the summer and I proceeded to lose the rest of it. In logging my foods, I noticed that although my food intake was high, my calories levels were low. I turned to my favourite oracle, Google to research this. I wanted to know whether a low calorie diet was harmful - I simply felt healthier eating less. I discovered the research around calorie restriction, and from there, the CR Society.

So here's my second principle: Keep a record. When I was walking every day, I put a smiley face on my calendar each time I walked. Every sugar-free day got a big 'cheque mark' on the calendar. I keep track of what I eat. Bottom line: tracking a goal keeps you accountable to it.

I added Ashtanga yoga into the mix last spring, so many of these changes occurred in parallel as I struggled with the Primary Series. It's a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did Ashtanga cause me to shift to this healthy diet? Did Ashtanga cause me to lose weight? Or did my changes in diet lead me to a more vigourous style of yoga?

At this point, I can make a few general observations:

Ashtanga has made me far more body-aware than any other style of yoga I've worked with. Because I'm doing this practice six days a week and I'm doing the same series of poses every day, I really notice the small variations and changes in my body. I also notice, in a rather dramatic way, how diet effects how I feel in my practice. I don't have a big ethical or spiritual compunction about drinking alcohol. I just notice that it makes me feel rotten for days after drinking it. I don't like feeling rotten, so I don't drink it. Ditto with many foods. Whole foods makes my GI track happy.

Another interesting note: I'm back to my pre-Muffin-Era weight, but my body has changed in *dramatic* ways. Put simply, I've become much leaner and more muscular. The patterns of fat accumulation on my body have changed. I believe my metabolism has speeded up. Clothing that used to fit snug at this weight now hangs on me. I replaced most of my cold-weather clothes this winter and now I'm facing the reality of my summer wardrobe: it's too big. My smallest shorts are tent-like. And I can't attribute these changes entirely to diet.

Doing Ashtanga yoga has had a positive impact on my health.

Which brings me to back to this web space: I first started this blog as a private journal on my computer, half-heartedly keeping track of my Ashtanga yoga practice. I originally planned to do Ashtanga for a month (I seriously didn't thing I would last even that long). After I kept at it and decided to go for 365 days, I went public and set up this blog. This, more than anything else, has kept me inspired to do the practice.

Principle #3: Be bold: tell the whole world. Set a goal, then tell all your friends. Life can be surprising; you may find support in places you never expected. You'll be far more motivated to stick with it if you are held accountable to other people. The blog worked for me because I knew that people were reading it. It felt less like an 'audience' and more like a support network.

When making big lifestyle changes, the whole won't-everyone-think-I'm-boring? issue often comes up. I like to think I'm immune to what other people think, but in truth, I do care. The thing is, people will often rise to the occasion in the most wonderful ways. Generally, I've found that my posse doesn't really care if I drink beer or eat the same things they do when we're out. They like me for me. I'm 'fun' because I like to listen to people, tell funny stories and dance for hours on end. My eating/drinking habit don't define me as a person. I've come to realise that although the people in my life are interested and supportive of my goals and projects, what they really care about is ME.

Here's principle #4: Surround yourself with loving, supportive people. Get off the 'net and into the real world. Take some classes, join a bookclub, join a yoga shala, start a 'lunchtime walking group' at work, play Scrabble. Do the things you love and find other people who love those things.

And finally, one last thing...

Principle #5: Don't beat yourself up. Don't dwell on your failures, set realistic goals. Don't judge yourself, celebrate your successes. Be a supportive friend to yourself. And be mindful of your self-talk - that little voice that judges, criticizes, interrogates, keeps up an endless commentary about your life and your choices. You can change that voice and shift it to a more positive tone. It really does make a difference.

As one of my hockey buddies likes to say: Visualize! ;-)

Practice today: Handstand seems to be back. Everything else felt a bit off and I was exhausted. My heavy teaching schedule on Wed/Thurs really takes a lot out of me. I modified the practice to accommodate my sluggishness, backing off from the bind in Marichyasana D and skipping a vinyasa here and there. Sunday is a Moon Day, so I'll be back on Monday.


surya said...

I can't thank u enough for taking the time to write about this!!!
I've read it twice and I'm really impressed by the way u write.
I cut al sugar out of my diet about a week ago. Al I want to do right now is to munch lots of candy, breads and icecream... But I hope I feel better in a couple of days.
I've been trying to eat in an Ayurvedic way for 6 month and I'm starting to be sceptic to... there soooo much healthy food I can't eat (such as tomatoes, squash, cucumber, oats etc.) because of my body-type. Since I cut out this foods I don't really notice any difference. So I don't know - I want proof as well!!!
Well thank u so much for sharing!

Kaivalya said...

Surya: The sugar cravings subside after a week or two. Drink lots of water (a splash of lemon juice is nice for flavour), herbal tea, green tea. Eat fruit to satisfy your cravings for refined sugar. I eat fresh veggies between meals as snacks so I don't get so hungry that I'm tempted to buy a chocolate bar. Keep paying attention to what you're feeling in your body. I've found the biggest pay-off to eating more healthy is how good I feel doing it. And feeling good is motivating! Good luck!

yogini said...

interesting! thank you for sharing!

surya said...

Thank you!!! I'll drink more water and green tea!
And try to be positive!!!!
Have a lovely day

rand(om) bites said...

I kept nodding my head while reading this, especially with the Ayurveda etc. I am very similar and consider myself more practical as well. I'm not a fan of psuedo-science. Loved this post!


Yogamum said...

Great post, excellent advice!!!

Michelle said...

Great post. I was wondering how you are in such phenomenal shape. Happy Birthday!

Kaivalya said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Rand(om) Bites: Good to know that I'm not alone in being an Ayurveda skeptic - I sometimes feel quite alone in the yoga community, feeling this way.

Michelle: Hey there! How are you doing? I haven't seen you 'round these parts in awhile! :-) Loved your post about Earth Day, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Kaivalya, I have a question for you about your food: what do you eat for breakfast? I need some ideas ... I'm on a grain-free diet (combining with CR) and breakfasts are so frustrating for me. I miss my morning toasts with butter. Nothing else seems to satisfy me and make me warm in the morning (I'm constantly cold).

And by the way, I don't thing you're boring, on the contrary, I find it fascinating, when people are prepared to eliminate so many "normal" things from their lives to reach a quality of a different level. I totally understand ;-)