Making Peace With My Body Through Ahimsa

How I did away with guilt and focused on joy.

Emily Hightower has been a Wanderlust presenter. For this year’s lineup, to buy tickets, or for more information, click here!

Even though I appreciate my body, I have body image issues that make me cringe at the idea of having my photo taken while I’m in a swimsuit. Yet here I am, nearly naked at a public hot springs, painting myself with love notes in a gesture of self-acceptance.

I’m sealing the deal by plunging into an icy river. This baptism among bemused onlookers is part of my practice of ahimsa, the crown jewel of yoga’s lifestyle wisdom, meaning “to make peace,” to heal my sense of body and in so doing, my food behavior.

When it comes to our self-image and food, our culture has placed peace in a holding pattern. We think we’ll find contentment after _____ (fill in the blank: we lose 10 pounds, finish this diet, or have clearer skin, etc.). We fixate on fixing ourselves rather than being ourselves. Holding off peace for a later time makes us focus on our problems instead of sharing our gifts. We also confuse peace with passively accepting ourselves as flawed. This is not real peace, and usually leads to donuts. Lasting peace comes from actively recognizing our innate goodness. When we love ourselves, we nourish ourselves.

The science supports self-love. Negative self-talk releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which activate the fight or flight response. This causes us to choose quick-energy foods on the go because our brain thinks we’re having an emergency. Once eaten, food is digested quickly under stress and anything it can’t use is stored as fat. Our satiation cues are distorted, and we crave more sugar and caffeine to stay “up” in the adrenal fatigue that can occur from carrying negative stress. It’s self-perpetuating because eating under stress creates more stress, health problems, and self-loathing over time.

Ahimsa instills us with dignity, respect, and simplicity.

When my favorite old jeans won’t button, the slow drip of stress hormones starts flowing. How do we practice ahimsa in a jeans crisis? Breathe innate goodness, “I’m not my body. What am I expanding today, hate or love?” Ironically, this might lead to slipping back into my skinny jeans, but for now, I’m sure I have to let go of that END game and make this a NOW game of enjoying my life without negativity. How many of us let a pair of tight pants dictate our level of peace? Apparently, 60 percent of 4th grade girls already do. They are paying attention to what we care about. Isn’t it time to shift our focus?

Beyond our body image, what and how we eat affects our peace. Ahimsa instills us with dignity, respect, and simplicity—all needed strengths for the Earth right now. Foods grown by local farmers using organic, sustainable methods are imbued with these qualities, which we absorb and support when we eat them. Foods from industrial farming shamelessly disregard our rivers, soil, air, and overall health. These foods are so complex they require legions of scientists to create them. Choosing industrial foods reinforces their existence and the violent cycles they promote.

If all of that made you feel guilty about the way you’re eating, throw me back in the river! This isn’t about guilt or perfection. I recently tossed leftover pizza at my son while slamming coffee on the way to school. It is, after all, a practice. Ahimsa is a “North Star Value” that takes loving navigation to seek. I don’t live in my kitchen or eat only kale smoothies. I have a fun, desperately busy, athletic life that has me dealing with the hardest of these issues every day.

Sometimes food is a burden in my life, when it could be a meditation bell for sharing the love. Inspired, this week we washed, chopped, stirred, ate, and cleaned as a family without distractions. It felt, well, peaceful.

After yesterday’s colorful swim, my body has all the same cellulite, rolls, and imperfections that I’ve harped on for years, but I truly don’t care today. In my morning meditation, I felt light as a feather, my self-consciousness carried off by the Crystal River. I feel free. I hope it lasts. I hope you dive into your own self-love to expand peace in your life, and that your food is infused with ahimsa. The world will notice.

So what’s next? After Ahimsa, we travel to Satya next month to discover Benevolent Truth in Food. Discover more at for retreats, group courses, and coaching from anywhere with Emily Hightower.

emily-hightowerEmily 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.