Eating may be one of the most intimate things we do. We take nourishment from outside our bodies and put it into our bodies — a seemingly simple act that both sustains us and enables us to thrive. And we do it multiple times every day.
For any number of reasons, however, many of us have a less-than-healthy relationship with food. We may not think about food and the act of eating any more than we think about putting fuel into our cars. Yet learning to eat mindfully is a powerful way to bring increased awareness and joy — and, yes, intimacy — into our lives.
The word “yoga” means “to yoke” or “to join together,” which is the ultimate description of an intimate relationship. In our yoga-teacher training, we require students to have one “yoga meal” each day, during which they slow down and observe their habit patterns in eating. They discover that these routines often reflect other behaviors in their lives. Eating fast, for example, may reflect a more general state of agitation and perhaps a tendency to rush throughout the day.
Eating mindfully changes the way you engage with the world. Teacher-training students who practice this say it’s one of their most challenging lessons — and the most life-changing. After all, how you do anything is how you do everything.
Keep It Real
Following even one of these principles may be a significant departure from your regular eating habits, but it’s worth the effort. Try one principle at a time. Try it at one meal a day. You don’t have to be perfect. If you find yourself talking with food in your mouth, for example, make a mental note of the habit and start again.
As you experience each yoga meal, notice how the act of eating awakens your capacity to feel. When you open yourself to eating more mindfully, you open the door to a more intimate understanding of your body and mind.
There’s a hidden strength in this vulnerability. Such openness ultimately enables you to rely on your own intuition — not just in healthy eating but in many other areas of your life. Trust the flow of your breath and sensations, and soon you’ll be able to count on your body to tell you what it needs.
A Yoga Meal: Eight Principles
A yoga meal is more about how you eat than what you eat. It’s about connecting more deeply with all your senses and signals, as well as with the food on your plate. Challenge yourself to follow these guidelines while eating your next meal.
1. Breathe. A yoga meal is characterized by a sense of relaxation and attention. When you breathe slowly and deeply, you consciously send a message to your body and mind that they can be at ease — a necessary precondition for breaking habit patterns. As you explore the other principles of yogic eating, let your breath be a friend and guide.
2. Remain seated. When you make a strong commitment to sitting while you eat, you are more able to move into stillness and become aware of all the subtle sensations that arise in the act of eating. A caveat: Don’t eat while sitting in your car!
3. Eliminate distractions. There is a famous Zen proverb that says, “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Set aside books and newspapers, turn off the television and radio, and put away your phone, laptop, and other devices. This allows you to focus on the food in front of you — its color, temperature, texture, taste. It frees your attention and opens all your senses so you can fully experience the acts of chewing and swallowing. It enables you to tune in to your sense of satiety and observe how it changes as you eat.
4. Rightsize it. Place no more than the equivalent of two handfuls of food on your plate at any one time. After you finish eating that amount, wait a few minutes and notice if you’re really hungry before going for seconds.
5. Slow down. Take a bite, chew, swallow — and then wait a moment before taking another bite. Your body needs time to determine whether it’s had enough and to send the message that it’s full. When you eat too quickly, you often end up eating too much, which can lead to discomfort and regret.
6. Swallow Before you Speak. Have you ever felt obliged to reply to someone while you’re still chewing, or to gulp down a mouthful to keep the conversation moving? Swallowing first gives you more time for a thoughtful response. You’ll also model mindful eating to those around you, communicating the importance of paying attention to your meal. Plus, it’s good manners.
7. Save room. Leave your stomach one-third to one-fourth empty to allow ample space for digestion; If you’ve left enough room, you should be able to breathe deeply without discomfort. Well known for their longevity, the Okinawan people of Japan embrace a similar principle called hara hachi bu, in which they eat to only 80 percent capacity. It’s important to give yourself time and space to notice — and not override — your body’s signals.
8. Rest and digest. This last principle refers to the interval between meals: When your yoga meal ends, be done with eating. Allow time for your meal to fully digest and for your body to feel an actual sense of hunger before sitting down to eat another meal. Learn to listen to your body’s cues.