This is an article that I had half written 2 years a go as a response to some observations I had about the exercise and diet culture in Karachi. Finally got motivated to complete it thanks to Nabeel Khan who administers a Facebook group for people trying to change their lifestyle in a healthy and mindful way.
Ahimsa (nonviolence towards Self & Others)
I was quite dissatisfied with the shape of my body for years, as it had accumulated stress and fat in all the wrong places. Yet every yoga teacher made me feel like my body was an incredible gift.
My experience with yoga had been long and uneven, until a moment of deep recognition on a Sunday afternoon in April 2009. During a yoga session, while holding my body, an awareness of my body and self dawned on me. In a flash I inhaled peace, exhaled presence and attention in my body and breath, and sensed a deep source of stillness in my heart. I returned to that yoga class every Sunday to build on and explore this incredible new way of experiencing myself, my emotions, thoughts and my body. Every class I attended, and as I developed my personal practice, I became more and more amazed by the capacity my body had to adapt and change. At the same time I became aware of my body’s limits, where I held tension, where I continued to feel pain (even now), and with how little awareness I moved my body. However, with practice the awareness of my body has grown and with it so has my respect and gratitude for what my body allows me to do every day.
Eventually practicing yoga became the focus of my life, and in 2010 I decided to attend my first teachers training in Baja, Mexico and subsequently began teaching yoga in Karachi. In the past few years I have had the privilege to teach people of all ages, sizes, gender, and experience with yoga. However, I have consistently observed that yoga is growing as a practice in an exercise culture where one’s external form is our primary focus. Where if someone has some extra belly fat, or large hips and thighs, or any normal female shape then they feel that they have to punish themselves through exercise and diet to conform to what has become a dangerous female body ideal: too thin to be healthy or a size 0.
The first question I ask participants – What is health to you? What qualities do you find in people that are healthy?
When I look at a person who is healthy, my first cue is their face and eyes. A healthy persons face and eyes shine with vitality. Then I watch their movements, which irrespective of shape, present a grace in their coordination. And finally I notice their breathing, which is natural and light. You can’t hear their breathing, and you can feel peace and warmth in that person’s presence.
In yogic terms the answer to this question is exceedingly simple and deep. Health is internal peace and union with the Divine. To achieve internal peace the body must be taken care of as it is the home of our soul. How do yogis suggest we take care of our bodies? Through a simple diet (vegetarians for those who can) that includes whatever is local and fresh, grains and dairy. A simple set of basic yogic movements to keep the spine flexible and strong (no six pack required, or certain size). And most importantly the focus on the breath to help reduce the turbulence of the thinking mind and increase the life force (prana) in our body.
There is no correlation between one’s external form and these signs of health. When we fixate on the form, we may think its someone’s biceps, or calf muscles, or their restrictive diet and daily exercise that create health. But the ancient teachings of yoga do not point in this direction. They point us towards the internal, and challenge us to surrender our desires in the external form.
What can we do to support ourselves with the genuine desire to feel healthier, lighter, stronger and more energetic? How can we embody the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, into our desire to improve our health?
1) Evaluate past attempts to incorporate exercise and healthy eating into your life: In my experience most people with good intentions begin an exercise/eating regimen that requires drastic change. We forget in our desire for certain outcomes that the process of change is gradual and mindful. There are also some people on the other end, who have the opposite experience and commit to too little and keep putting off necessary lifestyle changes, delaying their response to their body and minds needs for exercise and nutritious food.
Make the intention to have a balanced approach to bringing changes into yourself.
2) Exercise and Eat to Fit Your Life:- We have to accept that changing our eating habits is also a gradual process. Try to create goals that are reasonable and be grateful for all the bounties available to a person. Also realize that at times, our emotional state can also determine the types of food we eat.
My primary goal is to eat food that is easily available, affordable, local and fresh. I personally try to eat nutritious home-cooked food, and avoid processed foods and sugar. I am mindful about how my emotions affect my eating habits. The more I eat food that is nourishing and wholesome the more energetic I feel, which motivates me to continue to eat better. Being around people who are focused on a healthy lifestyle can support your lifestyle goals.
Make a commitment to incorporating exercise based on your current lifestyle with the goal of it being sustainable. If that means a daily 20 min routine, or just an hour once a week, start with that. The process will unfold at its own pace for each individual.
Remember with exercise and food there is no one-size fits all prescription, but that our bodies were built to move regularly, and digest a varied, diverse diet of fresh wholesome local seasonal food! Be curious and non-judgmental about your process, increase awareness about your needs, and develop tools to cultivate self-compassion along the way.
When I started yoga I could only do it once a week regularly and even that one class a week and tremendous benefits for me! Now I practice yoga, run and swim regularly, and also love to walk, hike whenever I travel. I am open to trying new classes, new forms of movements, and always honor my body.
3) Just Breathe:- The most amazing, simple, and important intervention in my experience is making time to practice breathing exercises. Simply 5 minutes a day to start with and you can build up to 15-20 minutes. It can be done anytime of the day, but ideally before you start your day in the morning or in the evening before sunset. Tips for a beginner – all we have to do is notice our inhale and exhale breath, through our nose, and very gently make the exhale longer than the inhale. This affects one’s body physiologically at the level of their nervous system and organs, while simultaneously affecting their mind, emotions and spirit.
4) Be kind and compassionate with yourself, so you can be with others:- Lastly but more importantly our exercise goals are based on feeling better about ourselves. But we keep chasing an elusive illusion of our ideal self because we forget that actually the best part about being at peace with ourselves is our impact on others. So reorient your intention from self improvement for an external purpose (so I can be a certain weight, or look a certain way) towards an internal one. Make a goal of becoming more aware of yourself through examining your body, mind and emotions.
Exercise and eating healthy are important tools to balance our emotions, thoughts and physical body. By approaching these goals gently, you will be able to be more present with others, and give more to the various priorities in your life.