I recently saw a documentary about Ray Hunt, a “horse whisperer,” who tames and trains horses through gentleness instead of forced submission. Ray was renowned for “breaking in” the most difficult horses other people had given up on, to their great surprise and bewilderment. He spread his counter-intuitive but powerful method by leading workshops to horse-trainers far and wide across America.
The strange thing is, if you listen deeply to what Ray is saying, and substitute “breaking in the horse” for “losing weight and keeping it off,” then some enlightening parallels will instantly pop out at you. As you let the teachings of Ray sink in, allow yourself to wonder, if breaking in a horse can be done without brutality, couldn’t losing weight can be done the same way? Couldn’t weight loss be accomplished without the experience of deprivation and punishment via food or calorie restriction?
While looking to a horse whisperer for weight loss secrets may seem a bit bizarre, I promise you, there’s gold in this stable. Now imagine that your body is a horse and your mind is a rider and join me on this ride.
Weight Loss Secret #1
Your Body is a Living, Breathing Animal
When Ray Hunt first changed his training style from from brutal to gentle, he made a powerful statement that readily applies to dieting. “What I was overlooking was that the horse I was working with, was a living, breathing, feeling, decision-making animal. [Before,] I thought, if the horse didn’t like my decision, too bad. I didn’t think the horse was entitled to an opinion. He was just meant to do as I said.”
Consider the experience of going on a diet. Your mind educates itself and decides that you need to intake fewer calories than you burn, then assigns rules and regulations to what the body about what it can and can not eat. In this paradigm, the body is not entitled to an opinion. It’s not expected to “like” the diet, it’s only expected to obey.
For example, if your body doesn’t enjoy calorie restriction, too bad. Or if your body doesn’t feel like getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to go the gym, you guessed it, too bad. And if your body doesn’t feel like giving up ice cream, or chocolate or wine, that’s definitely, too darn bad. As far as diets go, the mind is a dictator not to be questioned.
By forgetting to take into consideration that the body is a “living, breathing, feeling, decision-making animal,” the overweight body assumes the status of “lesser than” beside the mind and something tragic occurs–listening stops.
When listening stops, even if your body is speaking out loud and clear, (which it usually does,) you can’t hear what it’s saying! True listening only happens in the company of equals, and unless the mind holds the body as its equal, listening is out of the question. For example, if you think you’re better than me, you can’t truly listen to me, and also the inverse, if you think you’re worse than me, you also can’t listen to me!
“I look back and see how rude, crude and misunderstanding I was to the animal. I now realize, he’s equal. He’s no better than me, he’s no worse than me. We’re equal,” say’s Ray.
If you brand your body as unlovable as it is right now, deem it “not good enough,” or call it an overweight loser that needs to be “fixed,” then all messages your body communicates to you will necessarily fall on deaf ears. Your mind will miss out on your body’s wisdom. This invaluable natural resource–the body’s instinctive know-how for natural weight loss–will be left untapped. When it puffs itself up as “better than,” the mind squanders its intimate access to the cues and guidance that your body, your beloved horse, is trying to give you all day long.
Can you recall, from real life experience, how infuriating it can feel to not be listened to? It’s annoying, stressful and disheartening right? This leads us on to the second secret…
Weight Loss Secret #2
The Body Automatically Protects Itself When Threatened
The instinct of a horse (much like your body) is to protect itself when threatened. Stress activates the “flight or flight” response in all animals, a reaction designed to mobilize energy and power for self-protection. To a horse this might look like violently bucking off a rider, but for 85% of humans, the most predictable form of self-protection is the tendency to gain weight.
Although it’s easy for the mind to perceive unwanted weight on your body as a barrier and an obstacle to what you want, from the body’s perspective weight is a well-intended protection mechanism! Excess weight is literally padding. It’s a shield that insulates us from stressors, making us bigger and more resilient to danger. In addition, weight offers more than mere physical padding, weight can act as a defense tactic by lowering expectations placed upon of you. Often weight is unconsciously used to deflect attention from the opposite sex and keep the silent terror of intimacy at bay.
Ray, our horse-whisperer, makes an observation about self-protection that offers insight to anyone wanting to lose weight: “The part that I was lacking within myself, when I began training horses, was the understanding that mother nature put into the animal the instinct that says ‘you have to protect yourself.’ It comes automatically. The horse doesn’t have to think about it. You need to break in a horse in a way that the animal doesn’t feel like it needs to protect itself. And once that instinct for self preservation is out of there, the horse will be willing to trust you until the end of the world.”
Let’s apply this to weight loss. Just as the horse will instinctively revolt under stress, so too, the body knows to protect itself through weight gain when under stress. In fact, any weight loss strategy, no matter how sensible it appears to the mind, that is stressful to implement (e.g. portion-control, dieting, punishing exercise regimes) are counter-productive by nature. Simply put, stressful weight loss strategies trigger the body’s self-protection instinct, inhibiting the very thing they set out to accomplish–lasting weight loss.
We must learn to lose weight in a way that your body, your animal, feels safe, not under threat and therefore pushed into a physiological state of self-protection. When you treat your body as an equal partner, its voice and its wisdom starts coming through the inner PA system, loud and clear. And when the body feels heard and acknowledged, it’s no longer threatened, and only then and not before, does the self-protection strategy of holding on to extra weight become obsolete.
A great example of this was my client Mary Ann who had moved to New York City from the South. She found herself living on one of Manhattan’s noisiest streets, working for a volatile boss who was angelic one day and tyrannical the next, leaving her walking on eggshells. Mary Ann’s comfort soon became quiet time home alone with comfort food, and it wasn’t long before her too-tight pants made her aware of the consequences.
Her first strategy was so skip lunch to reduce calories and commit to a 6 day a week cardio regime at the gym. She was effectively eating less and burning more, yet any weight loss advances made vanished within days, and she felt trapped between the urge for comfort and the urge for control, with neither offering what she really wanted–fitting into her old clothes and feeling good in her skin.
It was at this point that she came to see me and through our conversations realized that both her lifestyle and her weight loss tactics were incredibly stressful, it was no wonder she had gained extra weight for ‘protection,’ and no wonder it was now a struggle to bid that weight goodbye. Her body felt under attack from all angles and was doing whatever it could to insulate itself!
This realization propelled her to redesign her weight loss approach. First, she concluded her job was setting the whole cycle in motion, and mapped out a 3-month job-exit strategy for herself. Secondly, she started frequenting the steam room at the gym more than the treadmill for the pure pleasure and relaxation of it, and then found some dance classes that made her feel feminine, beautiful and in touch with her body in a positive way. In no time at all her pants were loose and to this day, she reports to me that she’s still losing weight without giving it a second thought.
And that leads us on to the third secret…making weight loss FUN.
Weight Loss Secret #3
Make Weight Loss Fun For Your Body
One of Ray’s students described his own transformation: “I’ve learned that the horse is not the object, it’s the objective. The objective is to be in harmony with the horse. It became a new challenge for me to get into harmony with the horse. I wanted it to be as fun for the horse as it was going to be for me.”
What if you took the same approach to your body? What if you turned the weight loss game on its head and rewrote the rules? What if coming into harmony with your animal, became your primary objective, allowing weight loss to emerge as a natural by-product?
It’s a subtle yet profound shift. How could you make weight loss as fun for your body as it will be for you? Starting from this perspective–holding curiosity and respect for your body’s likes and dislikes–uncovers all kinds of wonderful information.
If you are on the lookout for ways to make the process fun for both horse and rider, you’ll be amazed the pleasures you discover.
When I was first losing weight, and tuning into the messages from my body, I discovered my body loved an early dinner followed by an evening bike ride. I also realized it liked to have two breakfasts, one shortly after getting up, and another in the mid-morning. As winter rolled around I noticed my body didn’t find bike riding so fun anymore and it’s interest shifted to indoor exercise such as belly dancing!
By asking my body’s opinion, by seeking a solution that would be fun for all parts of me and by refusing to buy in to deprivation or militant workouts, the results came easily and they’ve endured without stress, and with much pleasure, for years now.
Paradoxically, despite fears that too much pleasure will be our downfall when it comes to weight loss, pleasure is a direct catalyst for the body’s ‘relaxation response,’ the state in which fat burning occurs. Unlike the ‘stress response,’ where weight is hoarded for protection, the relaxation response allows the body to feel safe and at peace, therefore metabolically able to let go of stored weight, previously maintained for protection.
Stop for a moment, put a hand on your chest and take stock. Do you feel your heart beat? Do you feel the flow of your breath? It’s the animal within you. It’s the mammal, the warm-blooded furry creature that is your very own body.
Just as Ray Hunt, horse-whisperer and master of communication tamed the most difficult of horses into gentle respectful compliance. You can attend to your body as an equal partner in your life and lovingly let go of all unnecessary protective weight.
The very same techniques that Ray has used with horses, for jaw-dropping success, can be applied as sophisticated strategies for weight loss. Treat your body as a living, breathing animal, employ weight loss strategies that don’t trigger your body to protect itself further, and make weight loss as fun for your body as it is for you.
No longer invisible, forgotten and unimportant, your body–thrilled to be released from the harness of blame and constraint–becomes easier to tame and will trust you until the end of the world.
“Turning Loose” by Ray Hunt, Master of Communication. www.rayhunt.com