Finding Freedom with Food: A Q&A with Geneen Roth

Kripalu presenter Geneen Roth is a writer and teacher whose work uses compulsive behaviors as a path to the inner universe. Her books include the number-one New York Times best-seller, Women, Food and God and Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money. We asked her about what disconnects us from our bodies, what people experience in her programs, and how to take the first step toward changing our eating behaviors.

How did you start on the path of guiding people toward a more peaceful relationship with food and their bodies?

One reason was my own fraught relationship with my body—my disconnection from it and objectification of it. I always thought my body was too big for what I imagined it should be, or what I imagined the culture thought it should be. The size of my body and my self-worth became inextricably linked. It was quite painful. I felt worthless, like a failure.­

This state of being is endemic in our culture. People feel discomfort verging on self-loathing about their bodies. They don’t really own or live in these bodies. They’re not feeling what it’s like to be inside their body, they have no awareness of what that’s like. Most people live in our minds. We think we are our minds.

What disconnects us from our bodies?

What disconnects us from our bodies is not being kind or respectful of them. We don’t know how to nurture and honor them. When our bodies are tired, they need rest. When they’re hungry, they need food. When they’re not hungry, they don’t need more food.

There’s an elemental disconnection. When we get bored or feel any kind of discomfort, we do whatever we can to stop feeling. For many people, the most effective way to stop feeling is eating—eating sugar in particular—in order to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings and have a pleasurable sensory experience. There is research on how sugar is more addictive than cocaine, because of the dopamine rush it gives us.

We use food to comfort ourselves, because we don’t know other ways to do that. We don’t know how to treat the “soft animal of your body,” as the poet Mary Oliver puts it [in her poem "Wild Geese."]

How do we know when we’re eating for emotional reasons, not just to take care of our physical needs?

It’s very simple: When a body is hungry, it needs food. If you’re eating when you’re not hungry, and you’re not stopping when you’ve had enough, then you’re using food for reasons not having anything to do with the body. You’re using food as a drug, or to change the channel in your mind, so to speak.

What’s the first step toward changing that behavior?

The first step actually has nothing to do with food. The first step is to use your senses. Most people are walking through the world like ghosts—they’re looking at their phones and not noticing what’s right in front of them. There is a lack of presence. We’re not where we are, we’re in these imaginary worlds of e-mail and Instagram and Twitter. Is it any wonder that we’re disconnected from our body when we’re eating?

Start using your senses to land in your body. See what you’re looking at, hear what you’re listening to, feel your feet on the floor, feel your butt in the chair, tell yourself to breathe—many times a day. Come back into your body, come back into your home. Our bodies are vehicles for living, and we’re missing it.

People come to me often because they want to lose weight. The truth is that losing weight is the easy part—they’ve lost it 20 or 30 times, or at least two or three times. It’s not complicated. The real practice is to come back to the body, to live in the body, to experience what you’re already experiencing. When you’re living in your body, when you’re showing up in your body, that’s when you can tune in and sense what it needs and if you’re really hungry.

How has the culture around dieting and body acceptance changed since you began doing this work more than three decades ago?

Since the time I wrote my first book in 1982, I really don’t see much change. Obesity has increased since I began writing. There’s a lot of lip service paid to intuitive eating, natural weight, anti-dieting, etc. The lingo has changed and dieting is now seen as a negative, but people are still mostly concerned with how to lose weight. They think their lives will be better if they are thinner.

On the other hand, I am hugely heartened by seeing the progress of the people I work with over a period of years, who get it that it’s not just changing their weight, it’s about changing their orientation to life and how they feel about their lives. They understand that there’s more to it than getting to their goal weight.

What happens in your programs?

I give people eating guidelines and steps to freedom with food—eat when you’re hungry, eat sitting down, eat in a calm environment, etc. If you follow them, you will lose weight. But, when you’re given any steps or guidelines or program, what comes up first is all the reasons not to follow them—all the reasons you eat when you’re not hungry, or don’t eat when you’re hungry. And that’s what needs to be dealt with.

In a program, people have each other as support. Half of it is knowing that you’re not alone. We hear each other’s stories, we approach one another with radical kindness—no shame, no blame, no punishment. It’s an atmosphere of support and love. I give them practices to do during the time we’re together, we divide up into small groups, we look at why we keep ourselves from eating the way our body wants and needs us to. Most people know what their body wants and needs, but they don’t want to give up food as comfort. It’s important for people to understand that they don’t lack willpower, that there are emotional reasons for the way they eat.

Many of us have this crazy aunt in the attic, the voice you hear constantly telling you that you’re not good enough, blaming and shaming you. People use food to push that voice away. When we become aware of who we are without that crazy aunt or uncle, that’s when we wake up to the spiritual dimension of ourselves. At our core, all of us have that same spiritual essence, and when we learn how to stop judging and comparing ourselves, we can begin to feel and experience that essence.

Find out about upcoming programs with Geneen Roth.

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