Amen. Blessed Be. Whatever.

A woman asked me a question this morning at Nia, and I was so glad she did. Her question reminded me of all the things I don’t know. 

She asked how to tune into her body sensations when she’s dancing. 

Since one of the primary purposes of Nia is to do just this, it’s an excellent question. 

I’ve been dancing and teaching Nia from four to six times a week for 13 years. Throw in extra hours for trainings plus learning or practicing routines, and that’s a lot of hours, every week, every year, with the opportunity to remember to be in my body, not stuck in my head. I’ve gotten pretty good at sensing my body while also doing a bunch of other things, such as listening to the music, observing the dancers in the room, and making some quick choices about choreography and cues. It’s a fun challenge. 

I take that sensory awareness with me into the rest of my life. Even with all that practice, every week for over a decade, I surprise myself by noticing, for instance, that I’m sitting in a way that makes me uncomfortable and I choose to keep sitting that way. Or I notice I’m slouching, collapsing my chest into my waist, and I think, geez, all this practice with Nia and I still can tune out and away from my body. 

I’m fascinated by what I don’t know and what assumptions I make. I simply forget how many hours I’m practicing Nia and how many fewer hours my students get. I forget to be in their bodies, with their experiences.

I read a blog post recently (Facing Failing Health as a Vegan) by Sayward Rebhal, who described her multiple health problems -- fatigue, mood swings, rashes.  She’d even stopped menstruating. She was vegan, and family and friends tried to persuade her to eat meat. She knew that wasn’t the answer.  

She finally found a practitioner who helped her see that the problem with her diet wasn’t that she was vegan but that she also chose to eat very low fat. She ate fruits, vegetables, and carbohydrates, which made her fuzzy, lethargic, and angry. 

From the outside, I’m, like, well, yeah, of course, she felt terrible eating muffins and kale. It seems really obvious to me, over here, not living her life, and I’m really surprised she didn’t know she’d need adequate fats. I thought every body knew that we need fat in our diet. See? That’s one of my assumptions. 

The moment Rebhal added a small amount of nuts and seeds to her diet, her health improved. I have a lot of sympathy for Rebhal. I wish I’d been her mom and could have taken her aside, waaaaaay earlier in her journey, and given her information and support that would have helped her choose to eat a moderate fat and moderate protein vegan diet. 

I really wish I could tell everyone how to eat. Really. Don’t eat this food, I’d say, or be sure to eat lots of that. I recently started down that road with a friend, suggesting what she should and shouldn’t eat, and I was mortified at my behavior. We all have histories with food, complex and compelling, and there are 1001 reasons we eat the way that we do. If someone asks me for advice, sure, then I can start talking. Here’s what I’d like to say: “Who knows? Our bodies change all the time. Listen to your body, your Now body.”

Every time you fix a meal, ask your body what it would really truly like. If your emotions or spirit want something else, decide if your body’s needs come first or not. Sometimes, our emotional needs are best met with food. Heck, yeah, emotional eating is nurturing (see Marc David’s post here). 

I’m happy to provide as well 1001 articles that explain the ways certain foods nurture us. I can sum it up, though. Get plenty of good fats, good carbohydrates, and good proteins. What’s good for you is different at every You that you are (nursing mom you, running a marathon you, building a house you, studying for a PhD you, menopause you). Be willing to let go of whatever used to work for you and pay attention to what really works for you today. 

When in doubt, Michael Pollan says it very well: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Eating Paleo? Okay, make sure it’s mostly plants. Eating Special Diet of the Month? Whatevs, make sure it’s mostly plants. If it works for you, whatever special diet it may be, focus on eating mostly plants. That’s the one common denominator for every diet ever that works long-term for health and happiness. 

I could rail against wheat or sugar or dairy or corn syrup and you know what? Some people eat those and feel just fine. So, go ahead if you like it and it feels good. Just make sure that most of what you eat is plants, and you’re good to go. Really. Don’t sweat the details if you’re feeling good. It’s important that you are able to sense your body so that you know you feel good. This post started there: learning to sense our bodies, whether dancing or Dancing through Life, is a practice. It’s a journey. Do it a lot. 

If you’re not feeling good, you may have some work to do to figure out what works best in your diet for you right now. It’s detective work. Like Rebhal, sometimes we have to get the right support, ask the right questions, and be willing to let go of stories and assumptions. I eat a pretty healthful diet most of the time, so it was disturbing to find out that my body stopped functioning well on legumes and beans. I mean, that’s just wrong. It took a lot of feedback before I could figure out what was bothering me. You know what? I’m still figuring it all out, my Now body, and every time I think that okay, I’ve got this, my Now changes, again, and I’m re-figuring how to balance my nutritional and emotional needs. 

I want to mention one other instance in which I was really surprised at what I knew and someone else didn’t know. I teach basic writing at CNM and each term I assign students to write an essay with the thesis “Exercise improves the quality of our lives.” (One student this term caught on to my agenda and said that it was a health class masquerading as a writing class. Busted.)  We read some fun articles, such as Mark Stibich’s “Exercise Makes Sex Better” and we read some difficult ones, such as Gretchen Reynolds’  “Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious,” in which she explains studies that show exercise creates new brain cells, and those neurons are more resistant to stress. We know that when we exercise we often feel less stressed afterwards, and now these studies show that we are creating a brain that is more able to resist stress in the future. That, to me, is a big Wow. It says we exercise to make our bodies more fit, and that exercise is making our brains more fit, too. 

In fact, not only do we make our brains more resistant to stress. When we exercise, we increase the level of BDNF in our brain. We’re not just building up our biceps with exercise; we’re building a bigger hippocampus. That BDNF is crucial for memory. So if we exercise, moderately, about twenty minutes before we need to perform (say, take a test or give a speech), we’ll perform better. BDNF is crucial for creating new memories, too, which is why recess is not the part of the school day that gives kids a break. It’s the part of the day that prepares their brains to learn better. It’s not taking away time from their learning; it’s the activity that enhances learning. It is a crucial, irreplaceable part of their day.

In the February 2014 issue of Runner’s World magazine, Christine Fennessey wrote a beautiful article called “Running Back from Hell.” It describes a running program that enhances cognitive treatment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A pilot program seeks to find out the effectiveness of moderate cardio exercise, such as 30 minutes running on a treadmill, prior to a therapy session that focuses on cognitive reframing of difficult memories for combat veterans. That is, will the BDNF help these vets create new, safer memories to take the place of the traumatic ones? Will exercise help vets in the therapy sessions to remember the awful memories and stay present, without the adrenaline surges, disorientation, panic, terror and then guilt associated with the original memory?

What the article does very well is show how deeply some of these vets have come to rely on running as a way to ease both physical and psychic pain. Becoming part of a running team is one important part of their recovery. I’m sure they’re also experiencing the benefits of those new neurons, the ones that are stress-resistant. They’re also experiencing the endorphins that kick in somewhere around twenty minutes into moderately difficult cardio sessions, the high that buffers us from pain and invites us to indulge, again and again, in our favorite cardio and not those other drugs. (Another article we read for class, by the way, Kate Dailey’s “From Excess to Exercise” discusses how exercise helps addicts recover and maintain their sobriety.)

Here’s something that I thought everyone knew but they don’t. At least three students in their written responses to this article remarked that they hadn’t realized that combat was so difficult and that soldiers came home traumatized. That really hit me. This is something else that I’d taken for granted and assumed that everyone knew. This is something that’s really important for us to acknowledge so that vets can get the support and treatment they need. This kind of research is vital because instead of waiting in line to see a doc, vets can be self-medicating with exercise and can be involved in effective (and cost-effective), non-drug approaches to therapy. 

My hope for myself is that as I get older and wiser, I become more and more aware of my assumptions so that I can make them less often. I’d like to offer less advice and offer instead my ability to witness. I’d like to share what I don’t know as often as what I do know. 

As I make my own stumbling way through my food journey, I often imagine how it must look to someone on the outside. I imagine someone else reading about my choices and wanting to take me aside and say, “Look, it’s very simple and you’re making this way too hard. All you need is X.” 

I don’t need X, though. I need the process of learning what works for me and doesn’t. I need the process of discovering why I do the same things over and over. I need the journey, not the arrival; otherwise, I’d already be there, figured out, already. That’s what others need, too. As much as we say we want the answer, or we want relief, what we need is the process of learning it. That’s why I’m here to witness, to stand with others, because this process of learning can be difficult at times, even overwhelming. I’ll probably keep giving advice, too, because that’s how I roll. 

Here’s what I told the student today, the one who asked me about paying attention to sensation in her body. I asked her if when I cued, “Everybody, sense your hand,” if that brought her into sensory awareness. It did. I remarked that clearly she’s aware of when she goes off into her head, thinking or creating stories, so once she has that awareness, she could cue herself “sense my hand.” 

Her strength is cognitive awareness. Her strength is thinking. So she can use that strength for self-talk. To increase the amount of time she spends in sensory awareness, she uses self-talk to cue herself back into body awareness. She uses the same cue that I use in class because it’s an effective cue for her. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m a teacher. I listen, I ask questions, I evaluate what works already and what isn’t working, and I prescribe. It is so fun. The part where I help someone learn or access new skills is the part that gets me high. Witnessing their work is an honor.

I bring that to my personal food journey: listen, ask questions, evaluate, prescribe, repeat. I bring as well a mixture of frustration, fear, desire, ego, and bull dog perseverance. I bring the long view: if it takes my whole life to learn to eat well and obsess less, then that’s how long it takes. Amen. Blessed be. Whatevs. 

Am I really that calm about it? No, there are tears involved. There is angst. There is also unrelenting curiosity. I’m just so curious about why this process of feeding myself is so fraught with obsession, compulsion, and drama. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants -- I mean, how hard is that? It’s as hard as everything, or anything. It’s the thing I go back to that teaches me about being human and reminds me to ease up on everybody, including myself.