Emily Hightower is a past Wanderlust Festival presenter.
This article is the final installment in our series on applying yogic philosophy to food. Check out the previous articles on Brahmacharya, Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Aparigraha, Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, and Svadhyaya.
Here in the New Year we begin with an ending. The last practice, or Niyama, in my Off the Mat Into the Kitchen programs is called Ishvara Pranidhana, meaning “Surrender to the Spiritual.” By the time we get to the end of the course, our bodies and minds are connected, replenished, and available. We now have the capacity to drop into a bliss that comes from deep nourishment.
When you rock a balance pose like Ardha Chandrasana, you earned that moment of alignment and purpose. You practiced. For many the reward is very physical and athletic. With time, it may evolve into a spiritual experience. As I’ve heard many times in class, you “let the yoga work on you” over time. What’s happening in there? Why do so many people report entering our Western yoga studios to get lean and fit but come away with a deeper spiritual practice? When we show up again and again to align our bodies in space and empty our minds into the moment, we eventually surrender our egos and feel connected to something essential. That’s Ishvara Pranidhana. So how do we apply such a thing to food?
Every meal is a chance to heal.
Like yoga, most of us initially have very physical goals when it comes to eating well. We want to look and feel lean, strong, and healthy. It’s easy to say “food connects us to life,” but do we really feel it? To feel more than a physical connection to food requires a body, or instrument, that is clean and replenished. If we’re hopped up on sugar, caffeine, or other drugs like nicotine and alcohol we can’t feel things fully. We are numb. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy these things. We are human; we need balance. We don’t arrive at connected nourishment in a day, or a month. Deep nourishment, the kind that makes you feel at one with your body and food, takes practice. Luckily part of practice is letting go of past perceived failures and gently returning to nourishment. Every meal is a chance to heal.
Once we’re nourished, the bliss comes with surrender. I can explain this with my favorite quote by James Snyder, a pioneer in squirt boating, a form of kayaking with a flattened boat where you allow yourself to be submerged under the water’s surface. He said, “Be big enough to be small enough to let the world be awesome, and it will.” With water, with yoga, with food we can yield our egoic selves and drop into a spiritual connection with an awesome world. Suddenly the strawberry you’re about to bite is a gorgeous mathematical wonder of patterns, flavors, and color. Not because you lit a candle and intentionally sat with it, or because you know the exact calorie count, but because you’ve been practicing nourishing yourself and you’re able to surrender into a connection with nature through food. You can feel it. You dropped the story of you, of your weight, of your body, and remembered the miracle of a piece of fruit. How lucky are you to be alive to taste it at this moment?
This blissful surrender is more than “mindful eating,” which to one of my clients is a threatening phrase that makes her feel trapped, bored, and frustrated. I get it. No one really wants to surrender to the spiritual nature of food by force. The good news is that if you nourish yourself over time, you arrive here in a way that can feel spontaneous. You’ve earned it. You want to sit with the food and taste it. And this sort of bliss isn’t exclusive to days-long meditations in an Ashram, or during a conscious cleanse, or while sitting for an hour with one bite of rice. This bliss can happen just as readily when you’re exhausted from a long day of work, having a bite of food to replenish. You can tap into it when grocery shopping with a healthy body that steers your cart toward good food choices. We get momentum from choosing good things over and over again. Soon we just need to order the veggies, just as we need a good Down Dog to feel lined up again.
We come to awakening when we drop the effort.
When I learned that the poses in yoga exist not to help us fit into skinnier jeans, but to help us sit still in meditation without pain or mental distraction, I felt liberated. Similarly, the other Yama and Niyama exist so you can surrender to the spiritual and trip out on a strawberry like it’s life itself. We circle back to elements of our practice when we need to. If you are stuck in body image hell, you can go back to Ahimsa to practice loving yourself again. If you can’t feel connected because you’ve been binging out over the holidays, use Saucha to gently purify and replenish. If you are out of rhythm with exercise and meal planning, stoke up your will power with Tapas and get back into a healthy groove.
With these practices, “mindful eating” becomes a given instead of a boring or frustrating practice you think you should be doing. We come to awakening when we drop the effort, but our practices provided the fertility to blossom into that connected state.
In this New Year, you can begin with the end in mind. To arrive at Ishvara Pranidhana for food, I now offer my course like a book club you join with friends, in my Big Kahuna Master’s Group each year, or in private coaching through the curriculum customized to support you. Please contact me and share your thoughts or learn more.
Emily Hightower founded Ondalu to empower people to make holistic decisions for their health. Her integrative programs have helped thousands of people including Wounded Warriors, Teens, and Women in Crisis using yoga, nutrition, and nature. Emily guides in person, on retreat, or by Skype and is based in Carbondale, Colorado, with her husband, son, chickens, and huge dog.