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Yin, Yang and the Power of Food

A holistic cooking class helped this author understand the difference between the good life and a meaningful life. 

Mom’s African-American mantra for me was, “Get your college degree and you’ll live a good life, not a life of struggle.” So I went to college and, after graduation, got myself a corporate job that paid nearly three times her single-mother’s wage. I thought life would be easy. Since I was ten and Dad slithered out of his responsibilities, I was determined to create my own good life without his help.

My image of that “good life” was a classic corporate job complete with morning health club workouts alongside other businesspeople, while learning how to do yoga.

In my mind, the good life also meant learning to prepare impressive gourmet meals with fancy creams, wines, and sauces—so I enrolled in a cooking school. To my surprise, the class where I ultimately landed focused not on gourmet extravagances but on clean eating. Far from rich sauces, the instructor taught us to incorporate simple whole grains, beans, tofu, tempeh, sea vegetables, and fermented foods, while integrating a variety of whole vegetables, roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds. Most importantly the instructor emphasized eliminating sugar and processed foods.

I diligently followed class instructions, learning to build meals from scratch. Dinners included black bean stew over brown rice, pressed cabbage salad, sautéed collard greens, and hijiki. Dessert options included gourmet-baked apples without added sugar.

Just Go on and Be Happy

There I was, living the Essence magazine version of The Mary Tyler Moore show. I was a 23-year-old working woman–a corporate manager prioritizing career over marriage and family. One day while bus commuting home from cooking class I found myself staring at my Coach purse, my wet mahogany boots and matching burgundy gloves when the “ding” from the stop-request bell transported me back to a scene from my childhood.

I am five years old. My father comes home from being out late. The door slams and just like the “ding” that started the Ali-Frazier fight I’d seen on TV, I hear a ding inside my head signaling that the fight in my house is gearing up. All night I hear Dad beating Mom. The next day I see her black eye peeking out from behind her dark sunglasses.

Tears crowded my eyes. As the bus approached my stop I pulled the cord—hard. “Ding!” Inside my head I yelled, “STOP I want to get off!”

In my apartment I cried as I heard Mom’s voice ringing inside my head:  “What are you crying for? I was the one who suffered all those beatings. Girl, you’re not one of these single, black mothers raising babies. Just go on and be happy.”

I cried even harder and began to experience a full-blown revelation.

Un-numbing the Past

I realized that I was experiencing the full power of a whole-foods diet and my new way of eating. I was detoxing and having flashbacks in the same way addicts and alcoholics do during withdrawal. The non-consumption of processed foods and sugar was unearthing a horrible past.

As I continued my holistic health lifestyle classes, our teacher explained the Taoist Yin/Yang food chart. To put it simply, every food, yoga pose, and experience can be placed on this chart. Yin is an expression of contraction. Yang is an expression of expansion. My childhood environment had made my mind and body deeply contractive and I naturally sought foods—notably sugar—to push me in the opposite direction to feel centered again. It made profound sense.

Unknowingly, sugar made me feel normal, balancing my exposure to poverty and domestic violence, numbing the pain. (My siblings managed their pain more extremely, with drugs and alcohol.)  Applying the Yin/Yang chart to my food, yoga, and life experiences, I centered on foods in the middle of the chart and practiced yoga poses that healthfully allowed me to release sad memories. This way, I was able to integrate my painful past into a powerful non-numbing present moment expression.

Moving More Gently

By learning the basic energetics of contraction and expansion, I came to understand how all elements feed in one direction or another. As an African-American woman in transition, I was especially grateful at being able to use this chart to help navigate life’s terrain. Now I experience moving through the world more gently, examining what foods and yoga poses bring me closer to my centered, authentic self.

Following the Yin/Yang chart, I’ve better learned how to heal from past intergenerational trauma. I was eventually able to ask my father about why he was an abuser. He answered that he had witnessed his father (my grandfather) abuse his mother (my grandmother). He talked at length about being an oppressed black man in America. Unwittingly, me and my siblings had entered into a succession of (ashamed) victims of previous victims.

The Yin/Yang chart has taught me how to eat foods and practice yoga poses that better prepare me for today’s struggles, helping me define the distinction between a meaningful life versus a good life, as Mom aspired for me. How serendipitous that in my quest to outgrow the trappings of a disadvantaged youth, I signed up for a status-promising gourmet cooking class only to find myself actually learning my greatest holistic lesson about upward mobility in a different context—that the power of food can create a healthier balance from childhood traumas.

Now to use Mom’s words, I can more easily say to myself, “Girl, you’d better go on and be happy”.

Saeeda Hafiz is a Bay Area yoga teacher, holistic health educator and author. She works at San Francisco Unified School District sharing her wellness knowledge with diverse groups. Learn more at saeedahafiz.com.

This essay was adapted from her book  The Healing: One Woman’s Journey from Poverty to Inner Riches. Order a signed copy by clicking on the link above. BYTA members can receive a 50% off using the promo code BYTA. 

To hear more from Saeeda Hafiz, watch BOOKS & BRUNCH with BYTA.

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