This is my own personal story of food, yoga, health and recovery.
I am not preaching, advising, or even making suggestions for you, but simply want to share my journey. Take from these words what you will, and keep exploring what works best for you with an open mind and an open heart.
This story starts back in 2011 when I was doing my first yoga teacher training at The Australian Yoga Academy Melbourne. I absolutely loved my training. Each week was another fascinating nugget of yogic wisdom to digest, and I never lost my appetite to hear and learn more about this amazing yogic path.
I was also a person who (still working on this by the way) held extremely high expectations of themselves, and strove fervently to be "good at things" and would get really upset with myself if I felt that I was falling short of being on top of things and continuing to improve at all things.
A great example of that was how much I beat myself up mentally if I was not rolling out my mat and doing some kind of asana practice every day, or meditating every day. I struggled a lot with the cultivation of discipline in this area, which was kind of the perfect toxic storm for my own self-worth and ability to access joy over self-imposed "good yogi" check boxes.
Needless to say I was constantly in battle within my head about my failing to practice yoga every day. I went to two yoga classes on average each week, and that seemed to be as much as I could muster. I would actually be stoked if I was attending two classes a week now in my life, but I don't put nearly as much pressure on myself as I did back then. There was a significant turning point when I shifted my mind from "I should meditate every day" to "I will meditate when I feel called to." And for the past two years I do sit and meditate every morning, but that is largely because I love it and it is a necessary part of my self-care.
I can't quite remember the lecture that we had on a particular day of the teacher training, but I remember making a firm agreement that I was no longer going to consume meat of any kind. The principle of "ahimsa" which translates to "non-harming" was a strong influence on my decision. This does get a lot of publicity within yogic communities as eating meat or animal products is often equated with violence or harm. I wanted to be a good yogi. Something within me firmly clamped down on this new agreement and set me in motion for a very bumpy 4 year ride with my own health and physiology.
"I think my low self-worth had equated vegetarianism with being a good person"
I mentioned that I was going to make these dietary changes to my yoga teacher. She gently reminded me that of all the doshas, the Pitta dosha (me), can handle eating meat the best with regard to the strength of their digestion. Looking back now I wonder if she sensed the fierceness within me about the challenge I was setting for myself and wanted to help me soften against my own intensity before it was locked in. I however had made up my mind. No meat. Never again. I think my low self-worth had equated vegetarianism with being a good person, and that link had been created in a way that really set me up for a lot suffering both physically and emotionally (still working on this too).
At the time of my yoga teacher training I was working in hospitality at a bustling Thai restaurant in Melbourne. As I began to listen to other people's thoughts on eating meat, it became clear that there was no way around the guilt factor.
So it wasn't just red meat, but also the meat of chicken, fish and any product from the sea which including anchovies, krill, fish oil, fish sauce, shrimp paste etc. (I mentioned I worked in a Thai restaurant, yeah?)
Working in hospitality (in some pretty swanky places mind you), I had been taken very good care of in the meals department. Delicious lamb curries, chicken stir fry, roasted meats, amazing vegetables, it was a huge perk for a time period that was not forgiving on the body with regard to the working hours and physical exertion.
Once I had made this decision, I cut out meat cold turkey.
Now, with what I understand about my own body, I did not have a great ability to absorb nutrients from my food very well. (I am one of those people who can take an iron supplement every day and my body simply will not hold it). So to cut out a huge source of iron and protein by no longer eating meat, things went downhill pretty quickly.
So what did I eat? Tofu, lots of tofu. Staff meals now became standard bowls of green curry with tofu, and stir-friend Chinese broccoli. (I can no longer eat green curry...... and tofu is a real struggle). And I ate a lot of raw salads, and sweets, and bread my goodness the bread consumption was huge! Lots and lots of hummus, and toast, and potatoes, and lentils for protein (even though my body did not have an easy time digesting those legumes). I constantly craved bread. I could eat dinner, and then within 30 minutes I would be over at the toaster making a bread snack.
With what I now know about Spleen Qi deficiency, (which is essentially the strength of your body's ability to digest food, absorb food, and transform food into energy), the body will be ravenous for sugar! Refined carbohydrates are one chain away from being a sugar, so I see bread as being kind of like sugar too. I used to have my coffee with honey every day and I ate lots of chocolate and craved sweet foods all the time. I could eat a block of chocolate like it was an inhale... so my Spleen was not doing well!
From a Chinese Medicine perspective Spleen energy also makes blood which was clearly on the decline for me. And the Spleen is responsible for helping to keep the fluid metabolism of the body in check, read, when the Spleen is exhausted there can be significant weight gain, which is excess murky fluid (we call that "Damp" in Chinese Medicine). Also, if the Spleen energy is exhausted, there will be constant brain fog and fatigue, which is another sign that there is damp accumulating within the body.
I was ok initially with eating animal products such as honey and eggs, although my guilt over eating these did get the better of me and early 2015 I spent a month on a vegan diet and tried to do a juice cleanse at the same time. Oh the Chinese medicine practitioner in me wishes she could go back in time and give myself a big warm hug and help guide me better emotionally with the choices I was making back then to nourish my body.
Let's go back to late 2011. Newly vegetarian. About to embark on 6 months of solo travel around Thailand and India. I was booked in to do another yoga teacher training, a month of study at an Ayurvedic college and was also spending a month with the late great Maty Ezraty in Goa. There was so much exciting study and adventure on the horizon.
My first landing place was in Thailand. To the humid hustle and bustle of Bangkok. I was graciously staying with a friend who lived there. About two days into my stay, on a particularly humid and hot day, I was hit with a huge migraine type headache, that for the next 4 years, never went away although it did decrease in intensity. It was absolutely debilitating. I saw a few traditional health care practitioners whilst I was there, but they just gave me some migraine medications (which were full of high doses of caffeine) and sent me on my way. I was probably 1 or 2 months meat free at that stage.
I struggled quite a lot with this headache as I continued my journey through Thailand and then eventually India. I tried so many things to bring relief: massage, acupuncture, herbal medicines, eventually top sports physiotherapists, chiropractors and even saw a neurologist when I was back home in Melbourne and insisted I get an MRI to see if I had a brain tumour.
But I digress. When I was in India, safe in the nest of the Ashram, I was learning that the headache was pretty constant, even though it had softened to a dull ache most of the time. The other interesting physical change was that my menstrual cycle pretty much stopped. I think I had one bleed during the 5 months I was in India, and it was pretty ghostly.
With all that I know now about Chinese medicine and blood, this was very clear blood deficiency. You could call that anaemia if you like. In Chinese medicine blood is really really important. Especially for a woman of child birthing age. If there is not enough blood, then having a uterine lining to grow a baby is not a priority.
The body needs to save the precious drops of blood that it has to oxygenate the organs and tissues of the body. Funnily enough, as is with a lot of spiritual communities, I had lots of people giving me their opinion on why I had headaches and why my period had stopped. My favourite was that it was simply the "shakti" working through me ("shakti" was bandied around a lot to explain all sorts of things that may or may not have been shakti derived).
Every time we practiced yoga asana in the training I would feel awful. I had very little energy and my headache was really painful, especially if I was upside down (pretty much 50% of yoga postures). People were very sweet and offered to massage my head with Ayurvedic oils, and do reflexology on my feet but nothing helped. Oh and I should mention that the meals at the Ashram were also vegetarian (and delicious).
I spent 3 months at the ashram and it was wonderful. India slows you down in a way that I have not experienced anywhere in the world. Walking slowly around the grounds was magical. Nobody is rushing like they do back home. The days were filled with beautiful chanting, spending time helping with the medical van, journal writing, chats with my ashram pals and drinking chai. Everyone comes together for afternoon chai.
After I was finished my adventures in India, I spent some time traveling around Europe and America. The headache was really bad now, but it had become my normal. I had to allow it to become part of my life and for the most part still get on with things and try to be positive and enjoy my travels. I think I did pretty well with this, except for days when I simply could not open my eyes and had to lay down and rest. I used to get some relief doing acupressure around the base of my skull (which was often where the discomfort would sit), but it was only temporary. I managed to still have a great time away, and will always look back on those adventures with a lot of love and fondness. But deep down I was worried that the rest of my life was going to be full of the pain and discomfort.
"Nobody understood, nobody could help me. It was a very low time in my life."
So this continued for another two years after I returned home. I have so much empathy for people that have chronic health and chronic pain that they live with and have to manage. It is really difficult to talk about what is happening to you, as most people, with the best of intentions just want to give you ideas on what you could do to make it better. I don't know how many people during that time in my life asked me "are you drinking enough water?" I would get very curt and often would just shut down in conversation because I felt I had exhausted so many options of healthcare, and nothing made me feel better. Nobody understood, nobody could help me. It was a very low time in my life. I was also regularly teaching yoga classes and had to "hold it together" even on days when I was in agony.
Looking back I know I had a lot of stress in my personal life that was probably making the headache situation much worse (stress knots out the flow of Qi in your body, and any pain in the body is a sign that Qi is not flowing smoothly).
A huge shift in my life occurred when I made the decision to leave the degree I was studying (Masters of Podiatric Practice at Latrobe University) and pursue a life long dream of studying Chinese Medicine at Southern School of Natural Therapies.
I was really unhappy with what I had been studying at the time, and I knew it was not my path, but for some reason I did not allow myself to acknowledge that I was unhappy, instead I demanded that I finish what I had started simply because that is what you are supposed to do. So every day I was soaking in a life that I, quite honestly, detested, and my own joy and happiness were completely out of reach. I think there were some deeper stories playing out at that time where I didn't believe I deserved to be happy and to be fulfilled in my life.
Thank goodness I had certain angels in my life at the time who gave me a sharp course correction and I finally made this transition into my new degree in March 2015. Not long after starting this new course I became a patient at the student clinic, hopeful that somebody there would be able to get a good holistic understanding of what was wrong with me and finally relieve me of my head pain.
I was given a few different herbal formulas during that time. They were all variations on the theme of clearing "wind-dampness from the head." It might have been a month or so of taking the herbs, and then one day I was walking to campus and I was stopped waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn green. I realised in that moment that I did not have a headache!!!! It was just gone. Not that I wanted it to come back, but I did a good internal search in that moment and..... nothing. Headache free.
Now before you reach through this screen and hug me (thankyou so much), this relief was temporary, and it was not long before the headache returned. But, it gave me hope that I was on the right track with the right kind of treatment. So I continued the herbs, and the intensity of the headaches did begin to slowly diminish.
If you have ever been to see a Chinese Medicine practitioner, you may have been asked whether or not you eat meat. It's a thing. Especially for women. This is not the part of the story where I start to tell you what you should be eating, not at all, you do you. For all my lovely vegan readers, please do what is right for you! In class, we got the meat lecture a lot! As in, you need to eat meat to build blood and yang, end of. After hearing this over and over, and desperately wanting to feel better (I had not really made any connection with diet and the headache yet) I thought, well, maybe I need to see what happens if I eat some red meat? Maybe this is just what can happen when a person has extreme blood deficiency?
Not long after that I had my first red meat meal. It was a steak. It was amazing. It was the first time in a long time that I felt satiated after a meal. I remember sitting back in my chair and feeling the sweet contentment of being full and satisfied. No post dinner toast. Or the second serving of toast after that. I rapidly began shedding weight (probably because my sugar and carb cravings went down as my protein and fat consumption went up).
After a month or so of bringing meat back into my diet, the frequency and intensity of my headaches dropped significantly. It was so wonderful to get the reprieve after so many years. I still get them from time to time now, especially if I have pushed myself too hard or added in too much cardio to my workouts and its my body's way of saying "slow down girl, rest and nourish" which thank god I listen to now.
My body needs meat. I know that without a doubt. So what is more harmful? Not giving my body what it needs, or not consuming animals? I had to really sit with the concept of "ahimsa" and decide for myself how to come to terms with this.
"What is more harmful? Not giving my body what it needs, or not consuming animals? I had to really sit with the concept of "ahimsa" and decide for myself how to come to terms with this."
My periods returned after India somewhere along the way, but have remained on the light side ever since, which is often a sign of blood deficiency, possibly weak spleen, possible tired kidneys. So I need to be really careful with how much physical exertion I do.
Most people that know me have been announcing to me for a hundred years "you are so busy." But I'm really not that busy anymore (in comparison). I can't be. I crash.
My body has been through a lot, and much of this journey stemmed from me just wanting to do something right and be recognised for it. I just wanted to feel like I had conquered something and I was a good yogi. Most of it stemmed from some serious deficiencies in self-worth and self love, which I am now healing on a daily basis.
"I just wanted to feel like I had conquered something and I was a good yogi."
So as I come to the end of my tale. I encourage you deeply, to follow your heart when it comes to the way you take care of your body, and give yourself the permission to try things without locking yourself in to some kind of self-imposed dogma and guilt trip that you cannot release yourself from.
Try different things, try different foods and see how they make you feel. Try different ways of moving your body and see how they make you feel. Give yourself permission to change your mind.
And also, allow space to listen deeply to your own inner wisdom and knowing about what is right for you, because you know yourself better than anybody else ever will, and your body is the place you have to live, so take care of it.