Dana Leigh Lyons is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and eating coach, with a unique practice rooted in holistic medicine, real food, and mindfulness.
In this interview, Dana tells us about her daily routines and how they help her feel open and free, as well as how she strives to weave a spiritual practice all throughout her days, how she shifted her eating habits to meet her body’s specific needs, and how she embraces her introversion. Dana also talks about the work she does with her clients to break eating patterns that don’t serve them and offers her thoughts on the concept on intuitive eating. So much wisdom in this one!
— Is routine important to you or do you like things to be more open and free?
Both! I thrive on routine, and it brings me a sense of openness and freedom. I love having consistent, simple, supportive schedules and systems in place for my home life, coaching business and spiritual practice. Everything flows more smoothly that way.
I embrace routines and systems that are relevant and “alive.” If they start feeling stale, weighty or no longer supportive, I do an audit and rigorous edit. Similarly, if I start feeling stressed, anxious, rushed or claustrophobic in my home or work life, reassessing and modifying my routines is the first step.
Rather than cling to a structure because “it’s the structure,” I edit, tidy and play with new possibilities. Doing so is actually fun for me! I love this stuff! Always, always, always though, I embrace simplicity, spaciousness and ease.
— What do your mornings look like? If they differ from day to day, describe your ideal morning.
Ideally, I wake without an alarm, rising when sunlight creeps through my dark curtains. (If that doesn’t do the trick, my two siamese cats happily assist!) Then I take some herbs with with water, followed by a cold shower or quick plunge in a nearby glacier-fed lake or ice-cold, mountain stream. I continue this practice even during snowy Canadian winters—the rush is incomparable!
Next comes the “5 Tibetans,” a yogic breath and movement practice that takes me 13 minutes or so. During warmer months, I do this on a porch looking out at mountains, lake and sky. I love opening and closing each day with this expansive view and perspective. Feeling connected to Nature and the Universe means everything to me.
Then, I get back into bed with a stovetop espresso or tea (plus a cat or two). I make my morning brew “bulletproof style,” blended with a teaspoon of coconut oil and grass-fed collagen powder.
During my beloved beverage-in-bed time, I check email, play around on my business’s social media accounts, and perhaps do some creative work (blog writing, for instance). This is slow, quiet time that I savour. It’s for “fun” tasks rather than administrative work, and sets the mood for the day.
Around 9am or so, I leave bed again—for real this time—and either take a long walk on a mountain trail or practice yoga, whether at home or the local studio. After that comes my first meal, around noon-ish. Once that’s through, the afternoon is full-on coaching and/or teaching. (Alongside my coaching business, I’m an instructor at the local Chinese Medicine college.)
— Do you have any bedtime rituals that help you sleep well?
I end each day with another yoga practice, oftentimes accompanied by a dharma talk by my primary teacher, Gil Fronsdal. This marks the start of slowing down…and transitioning out of work mode.
Next comes dinner, which I savour super-duper slowly, usually while reading “fun stuff” online (including your blog!). I never work during or after dinner — this is hugely important to my sleep quality.
Following dinner, I return to my porch to spend a few minutes stretching while gazing at the mountain tree-line and nighttime sky. Then I (ideally) read a novel or (more than I’d like) watch Netflix in bed before falling asleep. Currently, I’m hooked on “The 100.” It’s a stellar story full of badass women with enviable eye makeup.
During evening hours, I also keep my house very dark and (aside from Netflix;) stay off computer and phone screens after dinner. My self-prescribed bedtime is 10pm, but this is a work in progress. That said, I always have lights out by eleven—getting enough sleep is probably THE biggest determinant of my mood, happiness level, and sense of optimism.
— Do you have any kind of mindfulness practice?
Yes! Mindfulness is a practice I weave throughout my whole day and whole life. I’m continuously noticing, noticing again…noticing again.
The heart of my spiritual practice is Taoism and yoga. Part of this involves meditative movement and breath practice at the start and end of each day (oftentimes during the day as well). But the practice, including mindfulness, goes way beyond that.
I’m certainly not perfect in this regard! That’s part of the point: Returning again and again…recognizing that there’s always another layer and place of heightened sensitivity.
I make a conscious effort to bring the practice “alive” in daily life…and to let it guide my way in this world, both internally and in relationship. It’s also a pivotal part of my work when coaching clients. In this way, they help me stay in integrity and walk my talk.
— Describe your typical or ideal meal for each of these:
My meals and way of eating shift with changes in season, lifestyle, and time of life. As a Chinese Medicine doctor and eating coach, this is what I teach clients and what I practice myself.
For ten years, in my 20s and early 30s, I was vegetarian and sometimes vegan. Thereafter, my body was needing animal protein. Currently, at age 43, I eat mostly vegetarian paleo-primal. For me, this means tons of veggies, lots of eggs, lots of healthy fats, minimal dairy, minimal fruit, and no grains/legumes/added sugars. I also eat fish once a week or so, and grass-fed burgers about once month.
Breakfast – I practice intermittent fasting, skipping breakfast other than a bulletproof coffee or tea blended with coconut oil and collagen powder. This isn’t for everyone, but I thrive on it. It brings me sustained energy and heightened focus.
Lunch – Right now, in summertime, I eat an avocado surrounded by loads of veggies and perhaps a handful of local, in-season fruit (blueberries are my favourite!). I usually add a few walnuts, a generous spoon of tahini, and something fermented (such as a homemade pickle from our local farmer’s market or fermented, “living” mustard). To up the super-food and interest factor, I often add sprinkles of spirulina, maca powder, cinnamon, and/or hemp seeds. Then I drizzle extra virgin olive oil atop everything.
The end result is a beautiful, colourful, nutrient-dense bowl that truly = my comfort food! I’m a creature of habit with meals, and eat versions of this Every Single Day. Lately, I’ve been pairing it with dark roasted yerba maté prepared in a stovetop espresso maker and blended with a spoonful of chaga mushroom powder.
Snack – I don’t snack (like, ever). Eating plenty of healthy fats and adequate protein keeps me totally satiated and ensured of sustained energy between meals. It also lets my system digest and rest.
Dinner – As with lunch, my dinners are simple, easy and colourful. Even though I’m an eating coach, I don’t really know how to cook! Plus, I honestly prefer super-simple, nutrient-dense, delicious bowls of goodness made with fresh, quality ingredients.
My typical summertime dinner is an omelette of local eggs sautéed in grass-fed butter, ghee or coconut oil. Once a week, I sub out the eggs for fresh, wild fish. I sauté veggies and blueberries alongside, plus add fresh raw veggies to my bowl as well. Avocado makes a regular appearance here too (sometimes I think I’ll turn into one!), along with a small square of hard, raw cheese. Dessert is a square of 90% dark chocolate, sometimes with a spoonful of raw, local honey spiked with cinnamon.
— Do you do caffeine and in what form? If not, what is your drink of choice in the morning?
I make a weak stovetop espresso most mornings, blending it with coconut oil and collagen. Other mornings I’ll switch out the coffee for tea or matcha.
If I drink coffee, that’s the only one of the day. Later on, it doesn’t feel good for my body or mind. I’m far more generous with tea, and have some version of it most lunchtimes.
Occasionally, I’ll have a late-afternoon tea as well. More commonly, I drink water or herbal infusions after lunch. My fridge contains a collection of mason jars I’ve prepared with lemon + mint water, various Chinese herbs, and such.
— Do you have a sweet tooth and do you take any measures to keep it in check?
Used to! In my 20s, I was a full-on sugar addict—would eat dessert and cereal three meals a day despite feeling exhausted and awful.
Since going paleo-primal in my 30s, sugar addiction’s been a thing of the past. Getting sufficient protein and fat is essential for me. So is avoiding grains, excess fruit and added sugars.
I do indulge in a fun, after-dinner dessert Fridays and Saturdays. Most times, it’s still grain-free and paleo-primal. I savour each bite without guilt…but don’t feel good in body or mind if I eat treats more regularly. My 90% dark chocolate is perfect!
— Are there any particular supplements, herbs, or tinctures/tonics that you take regularly and find to be helpful with your energy level and general wellness?
As a Chinese Medicine doctor, I adjust my herbs and supplements regularly, depending on what’s going on in my body and life. Rather than focus on single herbs, our formulas typically combine a number of herbs in artful combination—addressing the individual’s whole body-mind pattern or constellation of symptoms.
I love using tinctures but also have various jars of decocted raw herbs in the fridge, so they’re ready to go. Typically, they are taken warm or at room temperature. My go-to’s this time of year focus on clearing heat and calming the mind. A simple one for folks to try is chrysanthemum and mint.
— Do you exercise and do you have a particular exercise routine that you repeat weekly?
Back in my 20s, when I was a sugar-and-carb addict, I was also addicted to over-exercise. I ran at least an hour a day, even when it wasn’t supporting my health and wellness.
These days, movement is an essential part of my life. Difference is, now it’s profoundly supportive and nourishing. I practice yoga twice daily (or more), take long walks on mountain trails, and take short swims in the lake and stream. I move lots…but nothing particularly strenuous and nothing that stresses my body or mind.
— Do you find exercise to be pleasurable, torturous or perhaps a little of both? How do you put yourself in the right mindset in order to keep up with it?
These days, I love it! Rather than compartmentalize it as “exercise,” I just embrace moving my body and how delicious that feels. Aside from physical benefits, it’s truly the best stress reliever I know.
— What is your idea of beauty – external, internal or both?
Beauty is everywhere! So much! I’m drawn to raw, complicated, real, kind.
— What is your skincare approach – face and body?
As with all parts of my life, I embrace simple + healthy. I spend scant time on skincare when it comes to products…but tons of time on skincare if you consider the whole picture of nourishing food, movement and lifestyle.
— Are there any foods, herbs or supplements you find to be helpful to your skin/hair/general glow?
The number one thing is getting enough sleep and eating a diet of real, whole food featuring abundant veggies, healthy fat and sufficient protein. Also getting plenty of water and minimizing caffeine, sugar and alcohol. Avocados and coconut oil are excellent for skin health, as is wild-caught salmon.
Adding collagen powder to my coffee and tea also makes a difference for skin, hair and nails. Once in a while, I’ll add skin-nourishing herbal formulas to my regime as well.
— Do you have any beauty tips/tricks you’ve found to be especially useful throughout the years?
Stick to the natural stuff! At 43, I’ve only recently started wearing a tiny bit of eyeliner, always from natural brands with relatively clean ingredients. Most of my life I’ve been makeup free, and I’ve always used oils on my skin rather than complicated lotions and potions.
Skin is incredibly porous, and I generally avoid slathering things on my body I wouldn’t eat. That said, once a while I like to play with something new :). I gravitate towards oils or serums with simple, minimal ingredients and no artificial fragrances or colours. Current crush: The Ordinary.
— Do you practice any consistent routines in order to avoid stress?
Pretty much every routine in my life is designed to decrease stress and increase ease. This gets to the heart of why I love routine so much!
A meditative yoga practice involving movement, breath and mindfulness is essential at the start and close of each day. Also walks in nature. And NEVER working or rushing during meals.
I also weave in “mantras” and other practices. These change over time, but lately I’ve been paying close attention to whatever takes me out of a place of ease — using ease as an inner reference point and teacher.
I’ve also been looking at the “track record” of things. Certain things — including stress, anger and rushing — have a 100-percent failure rate when it comes to being helpful for outcomes. Their track record sucks.
Other things — including ease, gratitude, nourishing meals, and connection to body and breath — have a 100-percent success rate. Regardless of outcomes, they NEVER make things worse and can ONLY make them better.
— Do you strive to maintain a healthy work/life balance or do those things overlap for you? What is your approach?
This is an ongoing place of practice for me, particularly in running my own business. A current focus is healing my relationship with time—specifically, inviting in greater spaciousness and ease amidst a very full schedule.
I have a painful addiction to perfectionism and am VERY good at getting lots done. In some ways, this makes my business a success. In others, it interferes with manifesting the Big Picture. There needs to be space for things to come in.
I’m not saying I want to get less done! But I am in the midst of redesigning my schedule and building in more open spaces.
— What do you consider to be the single most important change you’ve made to your routine or lifestyle in terms of wellness?
The top thing is embracing my introversion and prioritizing alone time. I’m an introvert to the extreme who extroverts for a living.
I love my work! But I also need an abundance of solitude and silence—even more than most introverts I know. Having this allows me to connect with and give to others, including my partner and my clients.
Having my own business and designing a schedule that feeds my body, mind and soul is part of this. So is declaring sovereignty over non-negotiable parts of my schedule, such as yoga practice and slow, non-working meals.
I’m super-passionate about this. Cool thing is, I’m working with a number of my coaching clients to do the same: helping them declare sovereignty over parts of their lives and design schedules that support that.
— What was your path to becoming both a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and an Eating Coach? How do you weave Oriental Medicine into your current practice?
I began eating paleo-primal in my 30s, while studying medicine. Before that, I spent 10 years on a nutrient-poor diet—even when it no longer served my body or mind. (As I mentioned, at 43, I currently eat plant-forward paleo-primal—yes, you can do both!)
Getting honest about my eating patterns was painful. It was also a key piece in my healing and shaped my practice as a doctor and a coach.
It took a health crisis in my 20s for me to face how my own eating needed to change. This filled me with compassion for others on a similar path. It also created a strong desire to ease the way, providing the sort of knowledge, skills and support I could have used.
In changing my relationship with food, I changed my health, body and life. I know the combination of holistic medicine, real-food eating and mindfulness works…and I’m passionate about sharing it.
In my work as a coach, I weave together three core elements: Chinese Medicine, real food and minimalism. I do so using a method that meets people where they are and is rooted in curiosity, mindfulness and compassion.
— You work with clients on overcoming eating addiction and sugar addiction. What are the most common triggers/reasons that you see for these behavioral patterns and how do you begin to help your clients overcome them?
Food is more than just food, and eating patterns go way beyond what’s on our plate. They are intimately intertwined with beliefs about self, others and the world. They affect every part of us…and every relationship in our lives. That’s why the stakes are so high when it comes to changing unhelpful or addictive eating patterns.
Rather than just prescribe “food rules,” I help clients explore the roots of their patterns and how they’re playing out at present. I also give them clear, doable action steps and reflective practices (what I like to call “Yang homework” + “Yin homework”).
My work with eating addictions — and eating patterns generally — revolves around three circles. One involves eating from Fear of Not Enough. One involves eating (or not eating) from Fear of Too Much. One holds True Self.
As a coach and doctor, I help people spend more time in the True Self circle, where eating is for nourishment and natural enjoyment. THIS is intuitive eating. (For those interested, I offer a free ebook on Eating Addiction on my site: http://alchemisteating.com/).
— Speaking of intuitive eating, do you see this as a realistic or sustainable approach?
Here’s the thing. True “intuitive eating” is fantastic. So is “eating for pleasure” and “self-care.” Problem comes when we use those phrases to justify patterns and behaviours that make us feel awful — that will always make us feel awful. One hundred percent! That is NOT self-care or self-love.
True intuitive eating comes from a place of knowing our body’s true wants and needs. What will make us feel good in the moment…and later, as we’re falling asleep that night. What will feed larger and bigger pleasures — ones far more “worth it” than a moment in the mouth.
When caught in an addictive or otherwise unhealthy cycle with eating, tapping into this place is impossible. Good news is, eating real, whole food with minimal sugar can lift us out of such cycles. With time and consistency, this makes true intuitive eating possible.
Eating healthy really isn’t complicated: When we eat a real-food diet, the body and mind feel better. What’s more, it’s delicious!
— You cite minimalism as one of the pillars of healthy and balanced living, can you elaborate on this for us?
In life, belongings and food, I choose simpler but better. This brings ease…and space for what I really want. Simplicity and quality anchor me…and are the heart of my coaching practice.
Fun and Inspiration
— What is something you are particularly excited about at the moment?
I’m excited about and for my coaching clients! I truly love my work, and the best part is seeing changes unfold for the amazing clients in my life. I am blessed and grateful for our connection and to be part of their path.
— What do you do to unwind or treat yourself?
Each and every lunch and dinner, I go impossibly slow, savouring every bite and reading something pleasurable and fun. This is non-negotiable, as is daily yoga practice and an abundance of alone time.
— A book/song to feed the soul:
Book – Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, by David Whyte
Song/Album – Billie Holiday speaks to me, body and soul.
— Is there anyone you would like to hear from next in this interview series?
Photos by Bobbi Barbarich // This post contains Amazon Affiliate Links