I remember it well. It was on the last night of my Baptiste Yoga Level 1 training in Arizona in June 2014, while I was scoffing down the most addictive caramelised pecans after dinner, that it suddenly dawned on me - I have an eating disorder.
I am not sure what it was that triggered this realisation; after all, it was certainly not the first time I had binged. Perhaps it was the week-long journey of self-inquiry and emotional breakdowns, I don't quite know, but I am grateful that it had finally hit me. Somewhere along the way my relationship with food had deteriorated, and for lack of a better word, I had become an "addict". We have only ever associated addiction with drugs and alcohol. Food addiction however, I believe, is much less understood. I want to tell my story in the hopes that we can spread this awareness and slowly remove the stigma and judgment around overeating. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be telling the world about my story. I have always attached so much shame to my binging and if I'm completely honest, I still do. Isn't it ironic that I am looking to extenuate everyone else's judgments while I am perhaps the one who has judged myself the most? Maybe you can also relate, in some other shape or form. However if telling my story helps but one person during their journey, my work is done.
And so my journey began, I was determined to understand what my issue with food was and why I had been putting my body and weight through so many ups and downs for so many years. While the latter, the "why", is a life long journey and work in progress, I soon started to have clarity on the "what". What was this issue with food that I had had for so many years? The two eating disorders we mainly hear about are anorexia and bulimia and I certainly did not fit in either category. I needed to understand what this problem was, perhaps even assign it a name, so that I can start working on making it disappear.
A week after returning from the training, someone I highly respect recommended I read a book called "Mindful Eating" by Jan Chozen Bays. I did not know what to think of it at first. Everyone who knows me well knows that I am not a big reader; I have always mainly stuck to reading fiction thrillers on the beach. However at this point I was so determined to make a change and get to the bottom of it that I ran out to Barnes & Noble and started reading it the very same day. The book was a turning point for me. I felt like every word was written for me. Mindful eating... Boom! It may seem so simple but the reality of it is that I had been eating mindlessly for as long as I can remember. What does mindful eating mean exactly I hear you ask?
"Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside yourself - in your body, heart, and mind - and outside yourself, in your environment. Mindfulness is awareness without judgment or criticism".
Mindfulness is rooted in the realisation that when we ignore what we are seeing, touching, or eating, it is as if it does not exist. If our friend or partner comes to talk with us and we are distracted and not listening, we all go away feeling hungry for connection and intimacy. If we eat while watching television, distracted and not really tasting, the food goes down without our noticing it. We remain somehow hungry and unsatisfied. We go away from the table searching for something more to nourish us. Through mindful eating we can learn to be present when we eat. It seems so simple, to be aware of what we are eating, but somehow we have lost track of how to do it.
Our brave new world has become obsessed with healthy eating. In the media, social or otherwise, we are constantly told what we should be eating, what the latest craze is and of course, what we should absolutely not be eating. How many times have you clicked on those "10 foods that burn fat" articles online? We are fed all this information on a daily basis, way too much information, and we don't seem to know what to do with it. The food choices we make are then based on all this information; which makes it difficult to simply enjoy food and all the social functions that revolve around preparing, sharing and celebrating the miracle of sustenance and the web of life upon which we depend. We are so disconnected from our bodies, that we have forgotten to listen to its needs and desires. If we truly listen, our body will tell us what it needs to be truly nourished. I believe that we all suffer from mindless eating, to some extent or the other. There is a wide spectrum, from occasional mindless eating which I would characterise as "normal" (we are human after all), to constant mindless eating which leads to an obsession with food and of course binging. Food then becomes medication. It ends up not being about food at all, binging then becomes a manifestation of discomfort and anxieties. In fact, every time I have binged, for the life of me I would not have been able to tell you what the cookie, the nuts or the piece of cake even tasted like.
The summer of 2014 will forever be ingrained in my memory. As I started to follow the simple guidelines of the book, for the first time in a long time I started to be truly present when eating. As I sat down for every meal, I was focused on trying to savour each bite; being fully engaged and present to all the smells, the flavours and most importantly listening intently to my mind and my body. How am I feeling? Am I distracted by my thoughts? And of course the most obvious of them all - am I hungry?
There is a common misconception about mindfulness. Many of us think that if we just do one thing at a time, like eating without reading or working, then we are being mindful. We could stop reading, close the book or move away from our computers, and then eat slowly but still not be mindful of what we are eating. It all depends upon what our mind is doing as we eat. Are we just eating or are we thinking and eating? Is our mind in our mouth, or somewhere else? This is a crucial difference.
I spent a lot of time and effort working on re-establishing a healthier relationship with food. All of that inquiry may seem a little exaggerated to a few of you but when our relationship with food has been disordered for many years, we have forgotten what "normal" eating is like. And as famous yogi Sri K. Patthabi Jois said "Practice and all is coming". The more we practice mindful eating; the more it can become second nature.
Mindful eating has reawakened my pleasure in simply eating, simply drinking. It is however important to remind ourselves that it is all a journey. On some days I can imagine a life without this addiction consuming me, and on others I "relapse". Unlike other addictions where going "cold turkey" is the only option, this is not possible with food. It is all around us, and the truth of the matter is, we need food to survive.
The ultimate lesson that I have drawn from this experience though is the following: once we start to cultivate an awareness of our behaviours, the possibilities for change in our lives are endless. And THAT is what yoga is all about.
If you see yourself in my story and would like to share, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. I am by no means a doctor or psychiatrist but all I can say is that I am doing the work and from my experience, the first step to change is without a doubt to come out of hiding.
Below is an extract from the book, and a wonderful example of mindful / mindless eating. The author describes their experience of eating a lemon tart:
"The first bite is delicious. Creamy, sweet-sour, melting. When I take the second bite, I begin to think about what to write next. The flavor in my mouth decreases. I take another bite and get up to sharpen a pencil. As I walk, I notice that I am chewing, but there is almost no lemon flavor in this third bite. I sit down, get to work, and wait a few minutes. Then I take a fourth bite, fully focused on the smells, tastes and touch sensations in my mouth. Delicious, again! I discover, all over again (I'm a slow learner) that the only way to keep that "first bite" experience, to honor the gift my friend gave me, is to eat slowly, with long pauses between bites. If I do anything else while I'm eating, if I talk, walk, write, or even think, the flavor diminishes or disappears. The life is drained from my beautiful tart. I could be eating the cardboard box."