It is almost noon and you are so hungry that you will eat just about anything. You have an important meeting at 12:30 so don't have too much time for lunch. The bagel you ate at your desk this morning while prepping for the meeting was not really enough. After a quick trip to the food court, you grab a sandwich, and eat while walking back to the office. Ugh, you feel awful and your stomach hurts.
Sound familiar? This was a typical experience for me back in the days of my corporate job in NYC. 90% of the time, I ate while working at my desk, walking down the street, or during a meeting. Over the years my digestion pretty much stopped working. Overnight, my stomach bloated as if I were pregnant so I went to a variety of doctors. They tested me for everything ranging from ovarian cancer to celiac's disease. All I got was the typical "You have IBS, take some probiotics" diagnosis.
From "Fight or Flight" to "Rest and Digest"
Since leaving my NYC life, I have had the chance to dive deeper into yoga and meditation. Slowing down has helped me to realize that most of my digestive problems were related to the state of my mind while eating. I lived in a constant state of stress, which meant my body was operating full-time in 'fight or flight' mode. When this happens, it is quite challenging to digest, assimilate, and eliminate not only food, but also life. Just a little bit of science to help understand my point.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the functions of our organs such as the heart, stomach, and intestines. There are two parts of the ANS -- the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is the peaceful one and called "rest and digest." This is activated when we are relaxed such as after a gentle yoga class or while listening to calming music. The sympathetic nervous system is the stressful one and called "fight or flight."
When we eat, we must be in the "rest and digest" mode so the body can do its thing and digest our food. However, these days most of us live in "fight or flight." This means that our body perceives most things as an emergency; therefore, hormones are released to help us escape the "danger." Anger, stress, excessive worrying, negative thoughts, and toxic relationships are just a few examples of situations that trigger a "fight or flight" response.
An Ashram Kitchen
When I went to India for my yoga teacher training in 2014, we had some days of silence. No talking, no eye contact, and this meant eating in silence. It was a bit strange for me and uncomfortable. I simply made eye contact with my plate. The silence forced me to actually notice the taste of the food. I started to pay attention to chewing my food and I was more aware when I was full.
Last fall, I spent some time at the Isha Institute of Inner-Sciences in McMinnville, TN. When you stay at an ashram, it is typical to volunteer to help out with the many chores. I went to the kitchen and witnessed a miracle. While calming music played in the background, 20 to 30 volunteers prepped the food. The event was quite large, so each day two meals were prepared for 1600 people. Everyday the food was prepared in time, the cooks were calm, there was no yelling in the kitchen, and the taste of the food was absolutely amazing.
The biggest miracle was that my digestion worked perfectly fine. This never happens when I travel. The type of food I ate was similar to the vegetarian food I normally eat at home. The difference was the ritual around preparing, cooking, serving, and eating the food. The positive energy from the cooks and the volunteers created a positive environment in the kitchen. This was transferred while serving the food to the very hungry people who either ate in silence or in small groups while sitting outside in nature.
How to Create Your Own Ritual
Since my time at the Isha Institute, I incorporated a lot of what I experienced into my daily eating ritual and my digestive challenges have tremendously improved. Here are some tips that might help you.
1. Set the environment in your kitchen and play some relaxing music or a favorite mantra.
2. When you start to prepare the food, do it with joy and gratitude. The food did not just appear in your kitchen. A lot of effort went into getting the food from the farm to your kitchen.
3. Be in a positive mood. The mood that you are in while preparing and cooking the food influences the energy of the food.
4. When it is time to eat, turn off the TV, move away from your computer, get rid of the iPhone, and simply be with your plate. If you are at work, then find at least 20 minutes to step away from your desk and to focus on only eating.
5. Start by saying a prayer or something to show your appreciation. For example, 'Thank you for this plate of food. May it be welcomed into my body, digested, assimilated and eliminated.'
6. Eat at the same time everyday. Breakfast by 8:30am, lunch between noon and 1pm and dinner by 7:30pm. If you need a snack then wait at least three hours after your meal.
7. Practice mindful eating by smelling your food first, take one bite, set your fork down, and chew at least 25 times.
8. Become comfortable with eating in silence with no distractions. If you are eating with other people, then keep the conversations positive.
9. Don't throw away food. Only take the amount of food that you will eat or if you took too much have leftovers the next day.