Nutrition and Mindfulness
by Melina Meza
From your own experience of yoga, you are probably well aware of the tremendous impact that an asana practice can have on your body. Like yoga, food creates specific alchemical changes in your body and has the power to both nourish and transform your unique being. Food has the magical power to become the foundation the body. It can build or reduce your physical weight and shape, depending on the amount of calories you consume. Different foods can stimulate or calm the adrenal glands, speed up the mind and heart rate, or cleanse the colon and gastrointestinal tract.
In the same vein, yoga is also transformative to the body and mind. The physical body will change depending on whether you are practicing “power yoga,” “yin yoga,” or some other style, and the mind can either be relaxed through deep breathing or, for example, stimulated with breath retention or right-nostril breathing. Cleansing of the body occurs with deep twisting and practicing Uddiyana (Upward Abdominal lift) or Nauli (a cleansing practice for the abdominal organs). Practicing the asana Mayurasana (Peacock) can help reduce inflammation or stagnation in the organs or digestive tract.
To start with, it is important to find out what nutrition or nourishment means to each of us and apply mindfulness. In general, the more mindful you are when you eat, the more you relish and savor your foods and the more satiated you will feel with less. Also, if you pay attention to your body when eating rather than rushing around multitasking, the more likely you are to avoid overeating or making poor food choices. As unique beings with different genes, conditioning, expectations, hopes, fears, and agendas around our health, there is no single food, diet, or pill that will make you healthy. There are so many contradicting messages around what’s healthy and what’s not these days, it’s hard to trust yourself. Yet if you focus in, you can hear and see the warning signs that your body and mind give about imbalances or illnesses, similar to how your car dashboard features a flashing red light when you are running low on gas or oil. If you choose to ignore these signals, the problems will persist and potentially lead to undesirable health issues down the road.
You might wonder,“How will I know what the right amount of food to consume or yoga to practice is?” One way to think about your nutrition and yoga choices is in terms of sustainability, which means eat and practice just the right amount to fuel your svadharma (life’s purpose), so you can share your gifts, hear your calling, and do work in this life that comes from your heart. With too much food in your belly, it’s easy to lose motivation; without enough food, it’s hard to maintain focus or stamina to get through one day, let alone answer your heart’s calling. Alternately, not enough asana will make the body slow, stiff, and sluggish. By learning to sequence mindfulness into your daily routine, you will discover a sustainable middle path, which encourages smooth rolling transitions from one activity to the next, and requires less fuel, calories, or muscular effort. At the end of the day, you are left with a feeling of santosha (contentment).
I’ve been deeply inspired in my daily life by the very first sutra in the classic text called the Yoga Sutras. The arrangement in which the sutras are placed is related to their significance, so the very first word in the first yoga sutra is central to what Westerners call “yoga.” The whole sutra is atha yogaanusasanam (here begins the practice of yoga). One way to look at the first word—atha—in relationship to this section is to translate it as now, also referred to as the moment-to-moment, or being in sequence. This simple word, atha, echoes the basic wisdom often forgotten in today’s society—that in order to feel whole and connected, you must be present. Right here, right now. Yet where do we spend most of our life? Somewhere in between the past and future.
What would happen if we started weaving this wisdom into our daily life and approach to eating? Would our health improve? I believe it would. This first step is perhaps the most important on this journey, because it brings your attention to what you are doing in the moment, no matter what you are doing. How can we ever understand or feel the benefit of a well-prepared meal, restorative or vigorous yoga practice, healthy relationship, parenting moment, work event, or any life experience if we are distracted with emails and text messaging, or if we are busy fantasizing about some time other than right now?
One translation of the word “mindfulness” means to pay attention or take care in everything you do. Mindfulness and atha have a lot in common, as they both remind us that now is the prime time to pay attention to life and take nothing for granted. They both graciously steer the waxing and waning mind towards one goal, one task versus many. After all, can your energy really go more than one place at a time?
Mindfulness or atha can be used as a mantra to be repeated throughout the day when you are at work or engaged in various activities such as yoga, meditation, walking, cooking, or listening to a friend. Repeating this mantra throughout your day will help remind you to stay present and awake, right here and now. What would it be like to wake up to each moment’s sensual offerings and accept that moment as enough? I bet time would slow down and allow you to feel a sense of dropping into a more intimate place with yourself and the world around you.
What if eating became a part of your meditation practice? Whether you eat three square meals a day or numerous smaller meals, eating food is something every human must do to survive. To maintain healthy tissues and organs, it’s essential to eat the right foods everyday. This is a great place to consider sequencing mindfulness (or atha) into your daily routine. Savor how your food tastes and smells, pay attention to how well your body digests it, and tune in to how much you need to satisfy your hunger.
In our busy society, many of us engage in mindless eating—we might be busy driving, typing at the computer, watching the TV or a movie, reading the paper, or discussing politics while hanging out with friends. Each of these scenarios requires a certain amount of energy output—energy that is pulled away from the digestive and metabolic functions occurring within. There is a classic saying, “Where your mind goes, your energy will follow.” So, why not focus on eating when eating to prepare your digestive organs to process the nutrients?
If we were to apply mindfulness to eating, we would start by choosing a special, clean place to eat each meal, free of clutter and distractions. I believe it is valuable to choose a specific comfortable seat just for eating—like you would do for meditation—other than your couch, desk, bed, or car. This is one very important way to promote conscious eating; it can also prevent overeating.
Consider the classic behavior patterns demonstrated in Pavlov’s famous experiments where he identified the power of conditioned reflex. If your mind associates eating in your desk chair, car seat, and/or couch, then every time you approach these places—even if you aren’t hungry—you may be unconsciously training yourself to experience hunger there. Conscious, mindful eating promotes efficient digestion and metabolism, so you’ll have more energy at the end of the day, week, and year to do your life’s work. When you take the same special seat over and over again to eat, you’ll remember that eating is first and foremost a ritual for nourishment, not primarily a reward, comfort source, or habit.
By eating in a quiet seat, you also give your body the opportunity to stop vibrating from the day, calm the sense organs, indulge in a few deep breaths, and drop into a moment of appreciation for the delicious food you are about to consume. The food you eat, after all, will soon become you.
Your body is talking—are you listening?
In Ayurveda, they say, “What is food for one man is poison for another.” For example, garlic, tomatoes, nuts, and legumes are considered healthy, wholesome food. But if your body lacks the enzymes to digest these foods, they become ama (toxins or obstructions that block the flow of energy to your organs) and will quickly send out a signal to alert you that something is not going well in the transformation from food to nourishment. This signal may come in the form of indigestion, gas, bloating, or sleepiness.
How can you approach food as your ally and teacher? What is important is that you keep track of the foods that generate body signals and avoid them as often as possible, rather than tolerate them and assume it is normal to belch, feel heartburn, or become lethargic after eating. The mindfulness you apply here may save you a food allergy test or a trip to the doctor, nutritionist, or pharmacy. The more often you pay attention to your body’s subtle (or not so subtle) natural response before and after eating, the more effectively you will become your own nutrition expert on what is appropriate food or nourishment for you. True healing begins with awareness of self, first and foremost, to discover how we function best, and with awareness comes responsibility.
Digestion and slowing down
How often do you put down your fork or spoon, sandwich or burrito, between bites? It’s a simple but important practice in mindful eating, as it allows you to savor your food and ensure that you are chewing—and therefore digesting—well.
Do you know what the first step is in the digestive process? Believe it or not, it happens before you even taste your food. Just by smelling that homemade apple pie or thinking about how delicious that ripe tomato is going to be, you start salivating—and the digestive process begins, preparing for that first scrumptious bite. Food is your fuel, and its nutrients give your cells what they need to operate. But before it can feed the cells, it must be digested into small enough pieces for your body to absorb.
Nutritionists often suggest that you learn how to slow down and “drink your food and chew your liquids” to promote the first, very important stage of digestion, which begins in your mouth. Thorough mastication helps brake down proteins into amino acids, starches into simple sugars, and fats into fatty acids and glycerol. The water in your food and drink is also absorbed into the bloodstream to provide the body with the fluid it needs. So another way you can sequence mindfulness into your eating is to slow down and chew your food.
The ideal circumstances for efficient digestion would go a little like this: You begin preparation of your meal with your family by going out to your own garden and picking fresh vegetables. You see the fresh food and the vibrant colors, and completely appreciate all the time and effort that has gone into growing it. The appreciation would be not limited to yourself and your family who tended the garden, but of course also to Nature—for the plants’ efforts and the miracle of the sun, the soil, and the seed all coming together to create this beautiful food. You bless the food first and then eat the food over thoughtful conversation, or listening to music that is conducive to good digestion.
Does anyone eat like this today? Roughly 40 percent of Americans eat breakfast in their car. If you eat breakfast in your car, take lunch at your desk, or eat when you feel stressed, then you are in fight or flight mode. The brain perceives danger in an ancient way, thinking that you are facing a life or death situation. Blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rate all increase in anticipation of needing to soon fight for your life. Does this seem like a good time to digest a sandwich or breakfast burrito? Of course not, and your body agrees. So, it shuts down the production of gastric acid and digestive enzymes and sends the blood from the stomach to the skeletal muscles, further inhibiting digestion.
Being in a constant state of stress, or even just stressed out when eating, creates a poor environment for digestion. As a result, food stays in the stomach longer and creates ama, which may express itself in cramps, bloating, lethargy, flatulence, or acid reflux. When any or all of these systems are expressed, a person will often be living in a state of dukkha (bad internal space) rather than sukkha (good internal space), resulting in a constant state of reduced energy.
A holistic view of the human body recognizes that its functioning is affected by a variety of factors, both internal and external, such as food, drink, exercise, emotions, and stress.
This holistic viewpoint is not a new one. In fact, it has been around since the dawn of time. Throughout most of history, human beings have eaten what the earth, in their immediate environment, provided. Meals were prepared simply, according to traditional methods: roasted over a fire, eaten fresh, smoked, dried, or fermented. On the whole, one was grateful for what one had. All this has changed in our current times. We live in sophisticated places and can enjoy modern transportation to bring us bounty from anywhere in the world. You can eat watermelon in December and oranges in June. Part of the solution might be to simply return to earlier times by choosing healthy, local, seasonal, whole foods that benefit your body.
Eating locally and in season, listening to the cues your body offers about which foods help you thrive and which make you ill, slowing down so you can really enjoy your food in a quiet, undisturbed setting, and finding reverence in the foods you eat will aid your digestion, give you more energy, and reward you with feelings of peace and satisfaction—and a healthy, happier you.
Questions for reflection on Nutrition and Mindfulness:
What is your definition of nutrition?
Are you well nourished?
If so, what factors co-exist to produce the feeling of nourishment?
If not, what is missing in your daily practices?
How can you improve your eating rituals?
Are you mindful when eating?