Food for Thought

Our thoughts fuel our mind just as food fuels our bodies. As a dancer I don’t think one is more important than the other. It is true when they say “you are what you eat” and “what you think you become.”

I have received many messages from young, aspiring dancers asking for advice and I’ve noticed that the messages usually inquire about one or two major topics. A lot have been asking for guidance about maintaining a healthy body for ballet, while many others have been seeking tips on how to overcome self-doubt and rejection, or how to further their careers. As I’ve been answering each of these lovely young dancers one by one, their questions make me reflect for myself as well. Do these two categories converge somewhere? Maybe we are missing a larger underlying issue here that is at play in the worlds of body and mind alike.

These challenges, while common to ballet dancers, are also very real in the lives of many. As a ballerina, I have certainly dealt with the challenges of body image and finding a healthy, balanced diet that works for me. I’ve gone through the equally challenging process of learning how to find my “mental diet”and how to choose my thoughts wisely to help me overcome issues like self-doubt, fear, and craving for approval and validation from others. I am grateful to have the guidance of mentors, family, and friends who continue to provide wisdom and help me through my journey. I have also sought advice from books, articles, and podcasts which have provided me with additional insight and inspiration.

There was, however, a common factor that hadn’t quite clicked for me until after I started receiving those messages from these young dancers. That it all boils down to EMPOWERMENT. Whenever an issue arises for me — whether I am doubting myself, feeling anxious about a performance, nitpicking my body for flaws, or just feeling unmotivated and insecure (because these are still very real challenges) — it is usually because I have forgotten my power. I have neglected my inner power to CHOOSE. When I feel this way, I notice that it is because I have subconsciously placed the ability to change my life outside of myself and found excuses for why I am not as happy as I want to be.

I have learned how valuable it is to discipline the mind just as we discipline our bodies to dance every day. I have also learned how the first and most difficult step one must take towards inner peace is to take their power back. Remember that you are the only person who has the ability to change your life and that your happiness is not dependent on anything or anyone outside of yourself. No amount of success, praise, attention, affirmation will make you happy until you can learn to sit with your own discomfort and still be reminded of your natural inner joy.

Every human possesses that great power to choose joy. Why choose joy? Well, why not? The world has enough unhappiness in it. If we want to make the world a little brighter, we must start with what we bring into it —  how about our best, brightest, most empowered self?

Here is some of food for thought in reclaiming our power:

1. It’s not a “diet” — it is a lifestyle. 

The word “diet” is not my favorite term in describing my daily routine for fueling my body. Diets can be restrictive and tend to control a person when the reality is that a person should be the one in control of their diet. For a long time, I let my “diet” run my life. I could only eat certain foods and was forbidden to eat others. All my power was held by the food I ate and it took up A TON of mental space. I based my diet on what everyone else was eating or not eating, thinking that if a certain diet worked for someone else, it would also work for me. I had this idea that if I followed my diet then my body would look exactly how I wanted it to — but if I messed up and ate something I had told myself I couldn’t eat, then it was all my fault that my body wouldn’t be ideal.

It may sound trivial but it was very real and created a lot of disempowerment and self-deprecation within myself. I lost all sense of authenticity and was focused on trying to be like everyone else. Now, fortunately, things are different. I am the one in charge of my lifestyle. I am free to choose the foods that help fuel me and make me feel good. I am also free to choose to treat myself to foods I enjoy. Food no longer holds my power to create my strongest, leanest, most energized ballet body… I hold that power! And through eating healthy foods and working hard on strengthening my muscles, I practice that power daily. It doesn’t get easier, but I get stronger.

2. Junk food 

Everyone loves a bit of junk food sometimes. Personally, I am a fan of popcorn and chocolate because let’s be real…who isn’t? Food with low nutritional value is not detrimental in small portions although they will certainly have negative effects if we binge on it or eat them every day. This is common knowledge for the food we put in our mouths — but what about what we put in our minds? How about our “junk thoughts”? Why is it that we can spend days binging on low, self-deprecating thoughts? We don’t think twice about chewing and gnawing on thoughts that feel like broken glass in our minds: reliving painful experiences, doubting our abilities, worrying about the future, telling ourselves we are not enough…

I have found myself on that hamster wheel of junk thought many, many times. Junk thoughts are always tempting and they are SUPER addictive! Once you open a bag of junk thoughts, you’re not going to stop until you finish the whole thing. Our minds love to chew on little snacks. The good news is that thanks to places like Trader Joe’s, and maybe with a daily dose of meditation, there are healthier alternatives to all of your favorite junk thoughts! You can change any junk thought your mind is fidgeting with and find a healthier, more productive thought to take its place. Because the mind loves playing with its food, you can’t just take away the French fries without giving it Playdough or crayons to keep it occupied. For instance, when I open the big, old bag of “I am not good enough and why is my technique so bad,” I become aware that a more productive, happier, life-giving use of my mental space could be: “I am working hard to get better and I have the power to learn anything I set my mind to. Stay patient and keep going.”

Like potato chips vs. kale chips, the choice is yours.

3. Listen to your body. 

Our bodies are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They tell us when they are sick, healthy, happy, sad, hot, cold, and so on. Our bodies also tell us what they need. I used to base my daily meals off of a strict system of eating that had little flexibility and no room for change. This system only made me feel stuck and worried. Eventually, I’ve learned that a better system for me is to let my body tell me what it needs. If my body is hungry, eat; If it’s not, don’t. If my body wants a salad, then eat salad. If it needs sugar, have some dark chocolate. I began eating to make my body happy and not miserable. This doesn’t mean I give in to all of its cravings because I also know that cravings and needs are two different things. Instead, I fuel myself to attain a body that is in harmony. I adapt my food to my body and not the other way around. The same can be said for how I also fuel my mind. I listen to my heart. I hear my thoughts clearly but it doesn’t mean I have to let every nasty, harmful, negative thought stick in my mind for it to eat. Thoughts can come and go like cravings. Instead I pick thoughts with high nutritional value that my mind actually needs and can benefit from thinking.

Read an inspiring book, watch a movie, have a heart to heart with a friend. These are all necessities for the mind to function at its highest level without feeling weighed down and sluggish by being neglected or mistreated.

4. The “Ballerina Body”

This term might as well be known as your “friendly neighborhood Unicorn.” So many of us relentlessly pursue the attainment of a “perfect ballet body.” The problem is that this whole idea is entirely subjective. EVERY BODY IS UNIQUE AND DIFFERENT. I was always told that I did not have a ballerina body and I had to work harder to be leaner in order to look longer and less bulky. This became a mindset that affected me for a long time. It always made me feel that I had some major bodily flaw that everyone talked about behind my back. I went through years of going through two extremes: One is trying to have the perfect ballet body and at times eating very, very little in order to do so. The other extreme is rebelling against the “perfect body” and just eating whatever, whenever — not really caring and thinking it would make me happy. I just wanted to be free!

I can tell you now that neither of these extremes EVER made me happy. Trying to be really thin and perfect was not an attainable goal because in my mind I was never enough. Meanwhile, not caring about how I looked also left me feeling unhappy and self-conscious about how my body looked and felt. So, what to do? The answer was BALANCE. Maintaining a balanced mind and a balanced life. I had to know deep in my core that I was beautiful no matter what my body looked like. The next step was that I had to create my own version of a “ballerina body.” What would my best, most beautiful self, look like? More importantly, what would my ideal self feel like? I found a vision for myself that was physically lean and strong. A body with long muscles that could create beautiful lines onstage. A body that was light and tough, with unwavering stamina. A body that could jump high and turn fast. This vision of my body, in all its brilliance, became my new goal and I continue to choose my food and my thoughts wisely to help create my new reality. I choose this body every day.

5. Fuel 

We know that the food we put in our bodies are our fuel. Food gives us life and energy. Isn’t it the same for our thoughts? I have experienced that my thoughts fuel my life. My actions and circumstances are directly influenced by my mind and what I am focusing on. For a long time, I was fueled by seeking attention from others. I spent so much of my time thinking, pondering, and mostly worrying about what everyone else thought of me or what the world thought of me. I needed attention from people around me to validate my existence. I put all my happiness on the reactions of others. If I received applause from an audience or if I was praised for my work, I was happy in feeling special and important. Meanwhile, the opposite was true if I didn’t receive such a response. Accepting praise or validation is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a beautiful thing that we should be grateful for when it is given. The problems arise when attention and reactions from others become the air that we breathe. We start needing a certain kind of attention to fuel us. We crave that attention and use it to drive our lives and sustain our happiness.

I can tell you from experience that our fuel cannot be dependent on something outside of ourselves. Otherwise, more often than not, we will be running on empty. Our lives will feel purposeless and we will begin resenting ourselves for waiting around for someone to pay attention. A more sustainable resource comes from deep within our bones. A fuel that can never run out is the fuel that comes from within. The notion that whether or not anyone is watching or applauding or saying “hey, you’re great!”, you are moving mountains simply because YOU CAN. That you wake up in the morning with nothing but the sun looking down at you with its proud, encouraging smile. That whether everyone notices or no one notices, you are purposely dedicated to becoming your best self because that version of you is what the world deserves. That’s what YOU deserve.

Empowerment is our greatest fuel. It is dependent upon no circumstance or outcome, no reaction or praise. Being empowered is a fuel that comes from our love of life and our love of self. A fuel that could set the whole universe on fire if more people knew about it! So…shhh … don’t tell too many people!

Or do…The power is yours.