I hope that you are enjoying the slow pace of summer and the longer days… I really love when it stays light until 9pm, so I have more time to be outside with friends and family.
This month I heard a talk by the former FDA commissioner, David Kessler. He was speaking about his new book, The End of Overeating, which fascinated me because I have been challenged by unmindful eating, overeating, undereating, binge eating, not eating, and all kind of dysfunctional eating throughout my youth and into my adult life. In his talk, Mr. Kessler spoke about the addictive nature of the foods that are most easily accessible to us in our current culture. Research is now showing that foods with high levels of sugar are physically addictive, increasing the dopamine in our brains each and every time that we eat them. And because eating is survival for us, the addiction can be even more powerful than addiction to drugs and alcohol. Foods with sugar and fat are even more addictive, and the most addictive are those with sugar, fat and salt.
In his talk, Mr. Kessler wondered why, given that sugar, fat and salt have been around forever, people today are more likely to binge eat and weigh more than even 30 years ago. His answer surprised me. He said that the main reason was that these high sugar, fat, and salt foods were readily available all day, every day, and it has become commonplace to eat any time, any place. So any time that we have even the slightest urge to drink or eat, we can indulge it at the corner Starbucks (or wherever) immediately with no social pressure to “wait until dinner.”
Okay, so you may be wondering what does any of this have to do with yoga. Well here’s how I see this relating directly to our yoga practice. First, In the most basic way, the practice of yoga is a practice of caring for ourselves and our bodies. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (one of the first hatha yoga how-to texts) we are advised that overeating is one of the six way to “dissipate” your yoga. Feeling overfull makes practicing asana and meditation more difficult, and eating all day long distracts us from the practice as well.
On a deeper level, yoga is about stilling the mind by coming back to the present moment over and over again. We do this in order to be present with what is without reacting with craving or aversion. When we crave sweet, highly fatty, or salty foods, it’s a chance to practice being present without giving in to the craving. If we know that eating these types of foods will increase our desire for more (remember the ad for potato chips – “nobody can eat just one”?), then when we eat them we keep setting ourselves up for more craving. If we decide that we want to still our minds to move toward a more easeful way of living in the world, then, as the Yoga Sutras suggest we need sustained abhyasa, or disciplined practice.
Yoga Sutra 1.13 & 1.14: Practice is the sustained effort to rest in that stillness. The practice becomes firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time.
As anyone who has eaten a doughnut or other high-fat, sweet food knows, practicing like this is very difficult, and takes a lot of discipline. I have found, over the years, that the more I love and respect myself, the more likely I am to want to take good care of my body, my heart, and my life by making the choice to eat healthier foods. The more we care about ourselves, the easier it is to make the hard choices and resist opening the bag of M&Ms, or whatever our addictive food of choice might be. I saw a sign at the Health Advantage Yoga Studio a few weeks ago that read, “Discipline is remembering what we want.” For me that’s one of the goals of my practice — to be able to remember what I really want in any moment, not what my dopamine receptors tell me to want. To make choices for my own well-being and the well-being of the world with as much consciousness as I can hold in any moment.
We can practice resisting our craving for high-sugar, high-fat foods on our meditation cushion or on our yoga mats. Each time that we notice a sensation in our bodies (tingling, aching, pressure, itching), and are able to feel and watch it before reacting, we are building the mental “muscle” that will allow us to sense and watch our food craving in the same way before reacting by eating something addictive. When we have the sense of deep connection with our bodies, and even the sense of our connection with our ancestors and our future generations, we are in touch with greater love and respect for our bodies, hearts, and lives, which in turn gives us the courage to resist the constant parade of unhealthy food options. And, as a result, we feel healthier with more ease and well-being, and are more likely to want to take loving care of ourselves more often.
And of course it’s always wise to hold our practice with much lightness. If we tighten too much around any practice, we end up back where we started, beating ourselves up and creating more craving and aversion, which is the opposite of where we want to move in our yoga practice. Instead we can move toward more ease and joy by practicing holding our cravings with love and non-reaction. And when we give in to them, which we inevitably will, we simply notice our habit and how we feel as a result, and move on.