Chris Howell teaches her Nourishment of Yoga program in Ashland. - Bob Pennell

Yoga for the Belly

Sometime in her early 20s, Avril Betoushana decided she'd never subject herself to another diet.

"I would just become more obsessed," says the 36-year-old Ashland resident. "Even if you're being a total health fanatic, you're not necessarily enjoying your food."

Her obsessions were only reinforced, says Betoushana, while working in a Los Angeles-area cardiac catheterization lab with its constant discourse about fats and cholesterol. She succumbed to a craving for meat during pregnancy despite years of being a vegetarian. But it wasn't until Betoushana took a local yoga workshop that combines the Eastern discipline with nutritional counseling that she could appreciate the process of cooking and consuming meat.

"I would call it an awareness because you can leave the class and you don't have to do anything; you just look at food differently."

The concept of food versus nourishment is the basis of Chris Howell's Nourishment of Yoga program. The 36-year-old psychologist, certified nutrition counselor and yoga instructor developed the workshop about two years ago when she started recognizing the overlap between seemingly separate aspects of her professional practice.

"It's almost like one thing leads to the next," says Howell. "The more yoga you do, the healthier you want to eat."

Howell's dietary doctrine calls for a healthy array of "primary" foods — relationships, community, spirituality and other nourishing aspects of life — supported by actual sustenance, considered "secondary foods." Knowing which foods to consume is a matter of knowing one's own nutritional needs, physical constitution and how those factors relate to the seasons, while making time for listening to the body.

"There's no one diet," says Howell, citing the influences of culture, ethnicity, even blood type. "Your body's always seeking balance."

Balance is among Howell's workshop topics, which also include energy, cravings, detoxification and restoration. The most recent series ran for five Saturdays in May at Ashland Yoga Center for a cost of $45 or a per-class fee of $12. The next series most likely will be held at Ashland's Hidden Springs Wellness Center, says Howell.

Enrolling in the whole series with about a half-dozen other participants last year at Ashland's Inward Bound Wellness, Betoushana says she found plenty to differentiate Howell's program from other yoga classes.

"These were interesting poses," she says. "The day we discussed balance in your diet, we did all balancing poses."

Participant Liz Alrick, 27, previously had taken yoga from Howell but appreciated the "postures that go with your diet," which she'd never encountered in more than a decade of studying yoga. The Ashland resident also gained insight into seasonal eating through Howell's explanations of ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine that's been practiced in India for about 5,000 years.

"I realize I'm eating a lot more kale after my workshop with Chris," says Alrick, adding that the dark, leafy greens that bridge all seasons are versatile and fill her up.

Harboring a fiery constitution according to the tenets of ayurveda, Alrick learned from Howell how certain foods affect her innate energy. Sweet potatoes and yams, which Alrick already favored for their nutritional profile, also make her feel nurtured and calm. Workshop participants can feel reassured, she adds, that Howell evaluates their diets free of judgment.

"She has a really good ability to accept and make you feel safe," says Alrick. "When it comes to the psychology of food ... she's been through a lot and understands a lot."

Before she counseled clients with eating disorders, Howell was intimately familiar with self-esteem and body-image conflicts that can taint one's relationship with food. She developed an eating disorder over years of studying and performing ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance. Yoga furnished Howell's first opportunity to evaluate her body without a studio mirror.

"I was always really, really hard on myself," says Howell. "All of a sudden, I didn't feel that anymore.

"I actually moved for the first time in my life and felt good about it."

Yet yoga remained on the periphery of Howell's life before she left her job as a family-crisis therapist and attended a retreat at Massachusetts' Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. By volunteering, Howell extended her stay to four months, during which she met some Ashland residents who persuaded her to relocate West in 2007. In Ashland, Howell's counseling clients benefit from her masters degree in psychology with emphasis in holistic studies and her certification from Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City.

Many of her clients who suffer depression and anxiety progress after making lifestyle changes alone, Howell says. Yoga also assists the at-risk teens Howell teaches at Lithia Springs Residential Home and recovering addicts in the Integrative Recovery Therapy program hosted at Kolpia Counseling Services and Inward Bound.

"You build up people's self-esteem," she says.

Building a local community for healing with yoga and similar philosophies is the goal of Southern Oregon Mind-Body Outreach Project, a new nonprofit group Howell founded with fellow yoga instructors Laura Winslow, Adam Holtey, Kelly Birch and Joshua Masters. The organization is holding fundraisers and writing grants to bring yoga to clients of local mental-health and social-service agencies. For more information, see the website www.somindbodyoutreach.org or call Winslow at 541-210-1952.

For more information on Nourishment of Yoga or Howell's counseling practice, Sacred Nourishment, see the website www.sacrednourishment.wordpress.com or call 541-778-7081.

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