Our relationships with what we put into our mouths – and therefore our bodies – is set from a young age. Many of us may be able to trace back some more obvious links (like being drawn to biscuits for comfort because granny dished them out) but some deep-set patterns may reach back to unconscious times, like how we were weaned or even fed milk from a very young age.
‘Good’ nutrition is not simply about what we eat. Tendencies in society to categorise foods as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ gives us ample opportunity to beat ourselves up when we aren’t completely on track. Many find themselves with a fraught relationship with healthy eating, even saying “I know what I should be eating, I just don’t seem to be able to keep it up”. The word should here is problematic – it is healthy to have push-back reaction to be told what to do in this way, even from an inner voice!
When we feel digestive or immune symptoms after eating (like bloating, skin break-outs, gas, pain or fatigue), it can often be difficult to trace back this reaction to a specific food eaten. This is because there are a multitude of factors at play; stress, potential food intolerances, how quickly we ate, time of day, probiotic bacteria levels etc. Often we can struggle to identify what is happening and can then find a fraught relationship with food and eating as we become confused around what suits us. This can set up a stress cycle around food – we need a relaxed nervous system to fully digest and fear around eating can perpetuate digestive issues.
With stress in the mix, appetite can also become skewed – we may want to eat more and crave quick-fix foods (see my article How to Resist Cravings) as the high-energy demands of the stress response shout “fuel up!” Chronic stress can push us in the opposite direction with high stress hormones suppressing appetite and many may find themselves in a confused state between the two ends of the scale; especially if regular eating habits are difficult.
How we eat is as important as what when it comes to our bodies receiving what we push in. When we eat quickly and in stressed situations, we can lose our connection or not even be in the habit of mindfully experiencing and tasting each mouthful. Sitting just to eat and fully chewing each mouthful is the best starting point.
We all have moments where we eat more than usual, but for those who tend to overeating, compulsion around food can be a debilitating condition, leaving feelings of powerlessness and anxiety. What we put in our mouths is one of the few elements of life we can control and when signals of satisfaction and ‘enough’ don’t kick in to create the end of eating, this can leave us with feeling scarily out of control.
When we are first born, we reach for our first food (mother’s milk), with our mouths, which body psychotherapists call the ‘first limb’. From this point we are developing a relationship between our mouths and bellies – when healthy, the signals between receiving at the mouth and satisfaction in the belly are congruent, but we can easily lose that link with difficulty around childhood meal times, not feeling we have enough food or food being used to control.
Overeating is often a numbing response to emotional and psychological pain (often from past trauma), whether this is conscious or unconscious – a disconnect between food entering our mouths and registering in the belly. As with physical pain, the cortisol-lowering effects of yoga are similar to massage. As the limbs rub against each other and the floor, serotonin levels increase and help regulate our experience of pain, reducing following through the impulse to self-medicate through food.
Simple lifestyle changes to help a happy relationship with food
• Eat regular meals with protein for breakfast to regulate blood sugar levels, see the article How to Maintain Mood Levels for advice. This means energy and mood levels can be regulated, helping to reconnect with feelings of true hunger and an inherent sense of satisfaction.
• Buy food when not hungry so you are not making decisions from impulse – make a list and plans for what helps you feel truly nourished.
• Don’t keep food out on the side, if you can see it, you are many more times more likely to eat it. It is natural for us to crave what we know is there – this is not a matter of willpower, we evolved to follow the motivation to seek out food that was much harder to procure.
• Also, don’t keep food in the house you don’t want to eat. So even if there is food in for someone else you live with, try to limit your access to it or ask others to help.
Stress and the reward impulse
Researchers into neuroscience are beginning to understand how a yoga programme can help reduce food preoccupation (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2010: 346–351). A part of the front brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPCF) appears to integrate emotion-related information and translate this into habitual, quick-fix type behaviours. Low VMPFC activity affects decision-making and can result in choices that just satisfy instant want or reward, (like a sugar endorphin rush) with no long-term concern. A recent paper cited, “because yoga encourages mindfulness, positive self-talk, and self-acceptance, which may help increase self-confidence and sense of self, these aspects may engage the VMPFC by encouraging focus on body movements, the breath, and other foci” (Explore, 2012: 118–126).
It is through these (and other) mind-body actions that a regular physical yoga practice, alongside the encompassing spiritual beliefs has shown to increase body satisfaction and improve disordered eating (Eating Disorders, 2009: 273-92).
Yoga practice for appetite regulation
Much of a physical and meditative yoga practice trains us to be able to stay with strong and intense sensations, helping to drop reaction and attachment to these. Fostering the open-mindedness, self-compassion and non-judgment that a mindful practice encompasses, allows us to breathe with the uprise of intensity, allowing release and movement through on the exhalation. This helps us step away from habits of labelling experience as ‘good or bad’, ‘pleasant or unpleasant’ and rather feel in non-critical tones and textures. Exploring this within a yoga practice can help us to bring this attention to thoughts and feelings that may trigger overeating and other temporarily rewarding impulses. We then can have more space and possibility to resist cravings.
It is crucial to maintain this mindful focus and loving-kindness as the ‘union’ that the word yoga means. Those with body dissatisfaction are often attracted to media images of acrobatics performed by dancer-type bodies and a 2011 study identified that those drawn to yoga may be more at risk of eating disorders (International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2011: 276-80). Those students often see yoga as a fitness regime and push themselves to extremes where the possible regulating effects cease to apply.
Positive body image is the foundation to a happy relationship with food. Loving your body doesn’t mean fixing bits you hone in on as ‘wrong’, it is about acceptance for the way you are. There is a danger to yoga being overly dynamic and punitive rather than fostering a compassionate relationship with our bodies. If a yoga class leaves you on a high rather than calm and clear or offers little time for relaxation or breath awareness, move to one where connection and kindness are the guiding factors.
Meditation on movement
This is an example of a kriya (action, effort) used in Kundalini yoga to move energy through the body, detoxify and clarify. The continual movement has a meditative effect that is very effective at engaging mind stories that might be otherwise fixated on cravings and impulses. As the motion is continued for up to three minutes (build up so you don’t add tension to your shoulders), it can move you through the period that a craving has been shown to typically last. Breathe fully into long releasing outbreaths to ensure relaxed face and jaw throughout.
• Sit in easily upright position, on a chair is good for many. Spend a few moments settling into your breath and releasing your shoulders, moving into them if you need.
• Bring your fingertips onto your shoulders and lift your elbows in towards your ears on an inhalation.
• Open your elbows out and extend your arms (just above shoulder height) on the exhalation.
• Feel the motion supported by your belly and side ribs rather than lifting the shoulders.
• Keep this motion following the breath, allowing the exhale right to its end point and stopping to rest if you feel agitation.
Mindful Eating Exercise
Grab a raisin and listen to this meditation on eating sensations with Charlotte. Even if you have done this many times before, this is a new raisin and a new point in time!
Charlotte Watts is a 500 hr trained Senior Yoga Teacher (Yoga Alliance) who teaches classes, workshops and retreats and co-teaches the module for Teaching Yoga for Stress, Burnout and Chronic Fatigue for Yogacampus. She is also an experienced, award-winning Nutritional Therapist and author of many books, her latest is The De-Stress Effect (Hay House 2015). You can read more about her work at her website www.charlottewattshealth.com and sign up for her free Calm Package including a 40 minute Somatic Yoga (grounding, moving meditation) video here.