Svadhyaya and Food: You Know Your Body Best

Curious about the best foods for your body? Practice Svadhyaya, or self-study.

Emily Hightower is a past Wanderlust Festival presenterThis article is part of a series on applying yogic philosophy to food. Check out the previous articles on Brahmacharya, Ahimsa, Satya, AsteyaAparigrahaSauchaSantosha, and Tapas

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Most people hire me to tell them what to eat. How should I know? You’ve known yourself for a lot longer than I have.

Many nutritionists tout a certain diet, but my coaching is through a yogic lens: you have the answers within you, Young Grasshopper! Really, would you stick to anything I told you without learning it for yourself anyway? The diet industry fails 98 percent of the time, so clearly that’s a “no.”

Enter Svadhyaya: yoga’s practice of self-study. It reminds us to learn from the experts while developing tools to follow our own body/mind wisdom. This doesn’t mean you’re on your own completely. We can all agree that eating less refined, processed, chemicalized foods is good. What we can’t agree on are the finer details like if you should eat dairy, meat, cheese, raw, cooked, macro, micro, traditional, vegetarian, vegan, or paleo. This is where Svadhyaya invites the experts to weigh in. Once you know a few things, you can start playing more meaningfully with your food, just like your mom told you not to do!

Ayurveda is yoga’s big sister and India’s original system of medicine. Ayurveda uses the Doshas, or temperaments, along with thousands of years of scientific process, study, and observation to discern your lifestyle needs. You can take a simple test to find your dosha here. You’ll fall into one or a combination of three constitutions: Vatta, meaning space and air; Pitta, meaning fire and water; or Kapha, meaning water and earth. From there you can learn volumes about how you are supported by certain foods and choices. Many of my students fall in love with their dosha and the healing gifts they learn about themselves.

Another window into what to eat is coursing through your veins right now. Eat Right 4 Your Type by Dr. Peter D’Adamo compiles more data than any other eating program in our time. Over 250,000 participants submitted data from all over the world that revealed astonishing consistency. For example, if you are an O blood type, your blood DNA connects to the oldest people on earth. The studies show you do well with Paleo style eating, and less well with grains. If you are type O yet practice veganism for ethical reasons, you could use this intel to add in more B-12 that you’re missing by not eating meat and go light on grains. That’s Svadhyaya in action!

As you learn, keep using your yogic self to listen to your own response to the information and examine each potential practice.

You may have less choice when it comes to allergies. A good naturopath can send your blood in to test for antibodies to certain foods. I thought I was gluten intolerant until I studied my blood. It turns out my body does just fine with gluten! But I’m hair-on-fire allergic to bananas, which I’ve churned into my morning smoothies for years. This knowledge gave me awareness and power over my food choices and a dose of humble pie. Without Svadhyaya prodding me to dig deeper, I may have coined it “gluten!” while ignorantly sipping a giant inflammatory smoothie. I’m so happy to trade in bananas for toast.

There is beauty, learning, practice, and wonder for you here. Isn’t it wonderful that you have a Dosha? Or that you have a blood type that connects you to the history of all other beings in your DNA line? What other tricks match your genetics that you weren’t taught in the drive-thru medical culture we were born into? It’s gorgeous to me that superfoods can heal cancer, that grapes can heal hearts, that chocolate when dark and real does more than soothe my emotions. You can study your metabolic type, food energetics, macrobiotics, seasonal diets, traditional diets, raw diets, and endless other food topics. As you learn, keep using your yogic self to listen to your own response to the information and examine each potential practice. What are you learning? What resonates? What doesn’t? Encode your studies as experiential knowledge, then Zen-out when eating to fully integrate your personal food curriculum.

Beware that we humans occasionally use knowledge as a means to remain disconnected. There are two tricks to watch out for here. The first is a tendency to expand fear and study only the bad things happening in the food supply. It’s seductive! Knowledge is power, and mandates a responsibility to expand good things with what we learn. We need to manage our own energy supply in the process of learning. Stress is a toxin worse for you than eating non-organic food.

Second is the trickster in you that will use knowledge to justify addictive behavior. You can find a reason to eat anything these days. Twinkies, after all, are a “low fat food.” Overcome this by using your yoga practice. Meditation, breath practice, and concentration in yoga increase your capacity for calm, centered thinking.

Lastly, enjoy the journey. Svadhyaya has no destination. It invites us to stay open, to honor our ancestors and our experts, and to gather personal experience from which to draw. With practice your wisdom will flow without analysis, and you’ll be serving yourself up the kind of nourishment that feeds your whole self. You’ll also honor others more for their unique path, seeing how audacious it is for any of us to tell the other what to eat.

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.