By Portland Helmich
We are a country of excess. Our desire for more and more is evident in the increasing size of our homes, cars, and meals over the last half-century or more. Our waistlines have followed suit. Two-thirds of American adults are now overweight or obese.
But there's more to it than that. Aruni Nan Futuronsky, who coteaches Kripalu's Integrative Weight Loss Program, says that we live in a culture in which our minds are overdeveloped. "Our connection to our bodies has gotten quieter and farther from our awareness," she explains. "And there are so many external cultural pulls that take us away from listening to the body's wisdom and from the nutrient-dense nature of whole foods. We forget what we really need as nurturance."
Speaking of nurturance, I was struck recently when the instructor in a Kripalu R&R Retreat workshop on integrative weight loss asked us to recall our favorite meal. Where was it? Who did we share it with? What did we eat, and why was it so delicious? As I called up an image of a fabulous dinner I'd had on my honeymoon, I realized that I didn't actually remember much about the food. I had visions of the magical ambiance, what I was wearing, the joy of being there with my now ex-husband, and my delight in every perfectly prepared course, but I couldn't remember what I'd eaten per se. What was nurturing about the meal was the experience as a whole -- not whether I'd had spinach soufflé or salmon mousse.
One thing I know for sure is that I didn't rush through that dinner. I savored everything from the presentation to the smells, flavors, and textures. The portions were anything but super-sized, but I was supremely satisfied because I really slowed down and enjoyed each bite.
Mindfulness is key in healing a troubled relationship with food -- whether that involves weight loss or not, says Aruni. "You need to be present in the moment in order to change," she says. "In order to do something differently, you first have to be where you are. If you don't notice the old behavior, you're incapable of changing it. Mindfulness brings you into the moment, where you begin to see your habitual patterns with compassion. Through right action, change occurs."
Aruni's coteacher for Integrative Weight Loss, Annie B. Kay (who is also Kripalu's Lead Nutritionist), says mindfulness can be life-altering when people learn how to turn mealtime into meditation. "Most often, they realize they need much less [food] to be satisfied," she notes.
Rather than modifying behavior with dieting, Integrative Weight Loss creates sustainable lifestyle changes through compassionate self-observation. "It's more about deepening awareness and being curious than it is about white-knuckling it, sacrificing, or becoming someone else," says Annie.
Yoga is a powerful tool for weight loss, because it cultivates body awareness. "Yoga teaches you how to be in your body," says Annie, "which helps you explore how what you eat makes you feel."
Yoga also teaches breath awareness, which helps to manage stress. "Stress creates an internal biochemistry that makes you hungry," says Annie, "so if you find ways to manage it, it can help curb certain aspects of appetite."
Aruni says that, in her experience, when people lose weight and keep it off, it's often because their deeper hunger has been acknowledged. "What you are really hungry for?" she asks. "That is the question."
About Portland Helmich: Portland is the creator, host, and producer of the Kripalu Perspectives podcast series. She's also is the creator, host, and executive producer of What's the Alternative?, a series of 52 half-hour talk shows about natural and alternative forms of healing the body-mind on Veria Living TV, a natural health channel on DISH, FiOS, and Frontier. For 15 years, Portland's been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer. She's been an alternative medicine correspondent for Oxygen, a health reporter for The American Consumer on PBS, and was the creator, host, and executive producer of Journeys Into Healing on Wisdom Television. She produced for HealthWeek and Healing Quest on PBS and was a medical producer for WCVB-TV (Boston's ABC News affiliate). She's also covered the subject as a freelance writer for Body + Soul, Alternative Medicine, and Spa magazines. Portland currently lives in Boston and produces other natural health programming for Veria Living TV.