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The Chronic Illness Guru and Its Restraints

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

As a person with health concerns, I know the importance of denying myself. But I also know the importance of comfort. Both are necessary. Sometimes though, it can be hard to distinguish between when enough is enough of either.

I was diagnosed 13 years ago with an "incurable" form of leukemia called chronic lymphatic leukemia (CLL). Over the years of my journey with CLL, I have worked ceaselessly on my diet. The medicine designed to kill cancer cells has also killed my gut flora. It has altered my food tolerance, digestion and metabolism, among other things. This has not kept me eating cardboard or denying myself the pleasures in life, but it has helped me to see that I can not just seek pleasure alone. At some point, I have to (over and over again) face the realities of life in the body: the body requires balance in order to live.

The yamas, five ethical restraints, are the first steps on the eight-fold path of yoga. We often overlook these practices and head straight to asana, or postures, but not without fault. Though many just want to move the body, it does less good to move without first having purpose. Though we come to the practice through many different doors for many different reasons, we will not truly be in the building until we meet the yamas (and the niyamas, or observances, for that matter).

Somehow all of the yamas, though not specifically about food, can be seen in light of our intake, and that includes our food, too, certainly.

When I struggle to bring myself out of my flesh, and the candy bowl of jelly beans, the spirit of the yamas helps to remind me that the sweets need to be balanced with the bitter, the hot with the cold, the dry with the wet, the light with the dark.... Using these five tenants, I am able to balance my intake and bring my body face to face with equilibrium once again.

Here is how I used the yamas to address my food. Though again, you can use them to consider how you interact with all your surroundings, let's make them practical and look at how we can apply these ideas to our food.

  1. Ahimsa is non-violence in thought, speech and deed. Before you make any meal, consider why you want it. Everything has an impact. The impact may be positive or negative, but this is where you can decide how to be more loving to your body. Instead of choosing what you really don't need, you can see it for what it is. You can see it for the need that it is attempting to fill. Are you hungry or are you emotional? How can you show non-violence with your food choices?

  2. Satya means the truth. Don't lie to yourself about your food. If it is not healthy, tell yourself that. Read the labels. Look up the ingredients if you do not know what they are (which probably also means they are not "good"). But pay attention to the truth, and then be discerning about what is revealed when the truth is made known. How often are you eating out? Tell yourself the truth and see how you might do that less. How much are you eating junk food? Tell yourself the truth and see how much less you can entertain it. In many cases, you don't have to completely surrender the things you enjoy once you put having them into perspective.

  3. Asteya is non-stealing. If you feed yourself coffee, at some point the fake energy that you siphoned will wear off, and you will be left tired, needing another cup of joe. If you are typically tired and coffee is your remedy, maybe you can go to sleep earlier or drink some green tea instead so that the caffeine crash won't be as dramatic. I don't mean to pick on coffee, but it is an easy target. There are many other things like this though. Some things fill us up but have no nutritional value, essentially stealing space from something healthier. Fried foods or chips taste good and make us feel full if we eat enough of them. Instead, try baking instead of frying, or consider other healthy alternatives that will provide the crunch or salt that your body is wanting. Keep these on hand, so you have them instead of going directly to the fillers.

  4. Brahmacharya means sense control, continence, or sexual abstinence. Though brahmacharya is mostly observed with regard to sex, I think of it in terms of physical pleasure. If what we find pleasure in appears to be our only guide, our food, and thus our body will suffer. For this I like to consider fasting. The practice of fasting is one I share with all people who want to get a handle on their food. (Please consult your doctor about this as I am not one, and there are some people who this will not work for given their pre-existing conditions.) But for everyone else, intermittent fasting, or a consistent fasting and eating schedule can become a great ally. I must also mention how fasting aids in deeper spiritual connection and can help you to be choosier with your food when you decide to take your next bite.

  5. Aparigraha is non-accumulation or non-greediness. Don't take the biggest plate and then stack it full of everything. Try a smaller plate or small servings, or both. Try one helping instead of two. Some people invest in scales to weigh their food even. I don't go this far personally, but for some people it helps meter the amount going in. Furthermore, slow down when you are eating. This is hard for me, I must say. But your body will not feel full if you scarf your food down quickly. Give your brain a chance to catch up and register what just went down. If you are still hungry after your first helping, in most cases, you can always get more. This way you will not waste food, and you will have had enough to be satisfied but not stuffed.

We need our bodies to accomplish the tasks that are before us on the road to enlightenment. If you are practicing the physical aspects of yoga, but neglecting the yamas and niyamas, pause all the movement for a moment to see how you might live in closer harmony with yourself and your surroundings.

I am not too strict with my diet though I do have restraints that I keep. You can however find me having a slice of pie and ice cream (yup, both) and a cup of coffee. For, a lot of what I have learned from my chronic illness guru is that if I deny myself every pleasure, I can not say that I have fully lived. And life is too short for that sentiment.

In Harmony,


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