Love Begins in the Body: An Interview with Wellness Practitioner Sonali Sadequee
She calls herself your “self-love advocate,” but Atlanta-based nutrition and wellness lifestyle coach Sonali Sadequee found her niche the hard way. Immersed in activism for peace while organizing with survivors of violence against women and children, she experienced the cycle of burn out rooted in the inability to truly care for one’s personal health. “We bring our trauma into the movements for justice and peace, and we re-traumatize each other,” Sadequee notes. “The only way to disrupt and free ourselves from this pattern is to get conscious about how we care for ourselves and each other. We are interdependent and, therefore, collective care is also important. When we are dedicated in caring for ourselves and each other, we support our collective resiliency and thus our ability to sustain and grow as our movement work needs us to.”
This truth became real in her own life not a moment too soon. In 2006, her younger brother Shifa (who had traveled to their parents’ homeland of Bangladesh to wed) was abducted by the CIA, then removed to the United States where he was held in solitary confinement for more than three years. He spent 23 hours a day in lock down, in a tiny cell with a solid door with a small rectangular opening. He was eventually charged with making a false statement to the FBI (which was dismissed once trial began) and supporting an organization that was given a terrorist designation after his apprehension (not before). Sadequee’s family remains convinced of his innocence, sharing that Shifa is a gentle young man who volunteered for social justice events with Men Stopping Violence. He was encouraged to take a plea deal that required him to testify against other Muslims ensnared in similar charges in exchange for a shortened sentence. He refused.
Grappling with her brother’s abduction and solitary confinement, islamophobia, and the challenges of organizing with survivors of violence against women required Sadequee to live every day with a level of grief and trauma that could only be counteracted by prioritizing health and wellness practices. “For me, healing is not a choice,” she notes. “It’s a mandatory practice. If I don’t care for myself, I will get sick, depressed, and question life anxiously. I have to take care of myself daily, or I can’t show up for life. I’m not willing to neglect my own wellness.”
For all of the spiritual and cultural talk about loving oneself, many of us lack practices that make love real in our daily lives. Sadequee gets specific. She begins with what we put into our bodies. “Loving ourselves is not consuming or doing things that kill us slowly,” she observes. “Loving-up ourselves means that we give ourselves and each other high quality nourishment in the form of food, time, relationships, and movement. As your self-care and wholeness advocate, I am someone who compassionately holds you accountable to loving yourself in the best ways possible for your sustainability. I equip you with the tools and skills to love-up yourself. When this makes sense to you, you are better equipped to support and love another and your community even better!”
First, Sadequee recommends a plant-strong eating regimen as proposed by the China Study, the largest nutrition study conducted in the history of modern medicine. With a proliferation of fad diets related to everything from blood type to food allergens and paleo ancestry, Sadequee insists plant-strong eating withstands the scrutiny of research. “As a nation, our current context is dealing with a chronic disease epidemic” including diabetes, auto-immune diseases, soaring rates of cancer, high cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as rising Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, depression and anxiety. A plant-strong regimen is high in nutrients and fiber, the oft-missing links in American eating. Sadequee recommends focusing less on what one should cut out and more on adding in the critical nutrients needed to rebuild health. Additionally, she notes, when one truly eats a plant-strong diet, portion control becomes less significant. “Alkalizing, oxygenating, and detoxifying plant-foods help to cleanse the body, regulate blood sugar levels, get rid of excess hormones and cholesterol, and bring a body to its ideal weight balance. Plants possess anti-inflammatory healing properties lacking in meat, dairy, and processed starches,” Sadequee explains.
She clarifies that it’s not losing weight that cures the body and mind of its ailments. “Beauty exists in every shape when we define true beauty as loving ourselves with integrity and respect. Regardless of size or trauma, we must create resources for our own care. It feels important to get clear about how we love ourselves to move beyond coping and reacting to actually thriving in our highest potential. It’s not about what you should or should not do,” she insists, “it’s about making gradual and consistent choices that support your body and your ability to feel the wellness that is possible for you.”
Most clients arrive at Sadequee’s doorstep in need of a lifestyle overhaul based on a diagnosis or an untenable schedule of medications overwhelming them with side-effects they can no longer manage. Recently, she worked with an elder woman of color who was diagnosed with pre-diabetes. Two weeks into coaching with Sadequee, the woman attended a weekend cooking workshop and testified to the changes already taking place: her blood sugar levels decreased from 400 to 170 and her episodes of neuropathy had vanished. Just as significant, she felt lighter, energized, and far happier than her usual depressed exhaustion. More than anything, Sadequee loves the way her work offers a window into healing. She watches her clients begin to feel better, shed their confusion, and take charge of their health and feel empowered and inspired in their wellness journey. “They feel clear and confident about how to better love themselves,” she notes.
Not only are Americans sicker today with chronic conditions, many use food as a means to self-soothe or medicate in order to combat the basic, low-level trauma with which we all live. In a time of mass-shootings, the rising rhetoric of hatred, and the violence currently meted out by police brutality and ICE round-ups, we attempt to cope with oppressive systems and institutions by seeking pleasure and satiation through food and drink. Is a change of lifestyle truly realistic? Is it compassionate, or does it impose, as Barbara Ehrenrich’s new book suggests, another tyranny of consumption through an industry of wellness?
Sadequee believes major lifestyle changes are possible because she witnesses such transformation in her clients every day. Before that, however, she learned it for herself. As a Muslim, Sadequee encountered the sacred discipline of fasting by observing Ramadan. Through fasting, she learned to withstand hunger pangs and to master the impulse to consume. During the breaking of the fast after sundown, however, she noticed keenly the effects of the first foods to pass her lips. Both in Bangladesh and America, she notes, the usual traditional foods served to break the fast are often fried, heavy, and decadent. It is not unusual, then, for Muslims to gain weight during Ramadan or experience acid reflux, weakened immune systems, or the notorious food coma after feasting. “The Quaran teaches that Ramadan is a month of cleansing to spiritually purify our hearts and life patterns that are not serving our highest self and best health. It’s an opportunity to undo and reverse bad habits, so we can connect more with the divine guidance. Ramadan is an opportunity to experience greater connection with all of humanity, especially people who don’t have an abundance of food in a lifestyle of depravation,” Sadequee explains. It comes as no surprise to her that neuro-science has proven it takes 21-42 days to reset the mind-body to new patterns. The ancient traditions of both Ramadan (30 days) and Lent (40 days) provide annual ways to reset and restore the health of the spirit and body. To embody the true teachings of Ramadan, Sadequee however, breaks the fast with certain alkalizing foods that facilitate more efficient cleansing.
Sadequee’s wellness coaching moves beyond nutrition and into the arenas of self-inquiry, self-awareness, and healing of the body-mind-spirit connection through her instruction in Yoga for Trauma Transformation classes. This somatic awareness yoga class supports the nervous system by inviting practitioners to interocept -tune in to the sensations of the body, the thoughts of the mind, and the emotions of the heart. In so doing, it forges new neuro-pathways, and neurological expansion. Whether due to childhood trauma, political and systemic violence, or simply the newfound addiction to social media and cell phones, Sadequee claims most of us have lost touch with ourselves in society. However, with such an interoceptive yoga practice, neuroplasticity is facilitated, which allows us to reverse these habits, so we can shift from functional survival toward healing, thriving lives. “To reverse the shame imparted on us from the outer world,” Sadequee notes, “we have to get super-rooted in our own self and clear away stuff that is not for us to carry. When we tap into the deeper inner-resources, it’s possible to infuse our lives with healing and live from a place of love and wisdom-filled intuition, our inner resources.”
After the shocking loss of the recent deaths from suicide of well-known creatives Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, Sadequee’s insistence on wellness as an essential practice reminds us—each one of us is vulnerable to the despair, trauma, and depression. How we care for one another in times like these matters. How we love ourselves must move beyond rhetoric into the journey of healing and wellness.
To learn more about nutrition and wellness coach Sonali Sadequee and connect with this self-love advocate, visit her at www.sustainable-wellness.com.