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The Yoga of Food: Slow and Mindful Eating

"When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”

- Zen Proverb

When we talk about healthy eating the first thing that usually comes to mind is what we eat. Are we vegetarians, pescatarians, vegans? How many calories are we taking in? Is our food organic, locally-grown, pesticide-free? While these are, without a doubt, important and nuanced questions, I’d like to take a moment to put aside the “what” and discuss the “how” of eating. Specifically, the “how fast" and "how mindfully."

As a compulsive speed eater, I’ve always experienced difficulty learning to slow down. However, as my speed eating caught up to me as chronic acid reflux, I realized that my yoga needed to extend off the mat and onto the dinner table. I realized I needed to eat both slowly and mindfully. But before we talk about how to slow down, let’s briefly touch on why it’s important.

A recent research project conducted over the course of 5-years at Hiroshima University, confirmed that eating quickly actually increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, which is defined as the existence of three of more risk factors (such as obesity, high fasting blood sugar, or high triglycerides) that lead to heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. In the study, fast eaters had double the risk of developing metabolic syndrome as normal eaters, and five times the risk as slow eaters. The bottom line here is that when we eat quickly we overeat and our bodies can’t effectively process the food. Whether this leads to occasional heartburn or serious weight gain, it makes trying to slow down, even just a bit, worth the extra time. Luckily, some of the same practices and approaches to yoga asana can help in this respect.

Listen to the body

Firstly, we know that when practicing yoga, we must cultivate awareness of the body. Where is there tightness? Where is there discomfort? We can do the same thing when eating. Listen to internal cues. When am I getting hungry? How is this type of food making me feel? When is my stomach telling me I’m full? Is the mind’s desire for food in alignment with the body? Simply taking time to listen, without distraction, can provide us with all the information we need to make better (and slower) choices.

I’ve found that many of our eating habits (both in terms of when and how fast we eat) are determined by the mind, not the body. We’re told that we need to eat at certain times and in certain quantities, and these expectations cause us to perceive hunger. They then lead to ravenous, fast, and mindless consumption. Experimenting with intermittent fasting demonstrated to me how often my hunger and desire to inhale food comes from a mental rather than physical hunger. While it’s very important to eat a healthy number of calories each day (and I am not suggesting otherwise) it can be quite freeing to understand which of our eating habits originate from physical needs and which come from mental preconceptions. If you’re interested in using fasting as a tool to better understand the mind-body connection (and learning about some of our cultural misconceptions about eating), I recommend The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung.

Take a moment to presence before eating

At the family home of our resident Yoga Human, Izzy, everyone holds hands and takes a collective breath together before each meal. Just like at the start of a yoga class, taking a breath together brings people into the physical space and prepares them to consume their food mindfully. Presencing before a meal will also help avoid excessive distractions while eating. If your attention is pulled away, whether it’s by other responsibilities, entertainment, or fatigue, it becomes very difficult to tune into our bodily sensations. This may lead you to miss out on the experience of eating (or inhale your plate without thinking twice).

“When I eat an apple, am I really enjoying eating it? Or am I so preoccupied with other thoughts that I miss the delights that the apple offers me?...The first thing is to give your undivided attention to eating the apple…Most of the time, we barely look at the apple we are eating. We grab it, take a bite, chew it quickly, and then swallow…When you chew, know what you are chewing. Chew slowly and completely, twenty to thirty times for each bite…savoring the taste of the apple and its nourishment, immersing yourself in the experience 100 percent.”

- Thich Nhat Hanh

Dedicate time

Lastly, set aside some specific time for eating. When we begin a yoga practice or meditation, we often start by committing a certain amount of time to the yoga practice so that we’re able to leave our preoccupations and distractions in the outside world, even if just temporarily. We may say, “for the next 60-minutes, I’ll be here on my mat.” This can be done for eating too. We can tell ourselves, “I recognize whatever is distracting me, and I put it aside.” Eating deserves and requires our full attention.

These are just three easy approaches to slow down and eat more mindfully. So whether it’s to avoid disease or simply reduce food intake (which has been strongly correlated with speed of consumption), we should all feel empowered to control the “how” of our eating as much as we can control the “what.”

How do you bring mindfulness into your eating habits? We’d love to hear what you think in the comments section!

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