Yoga of eating: Taste

frutas y verduras/ fruits and veggies

As the title of this blog indicates, Yoga is being fully present. In other words, real Yoga is not about being a good contortionist but about living consciously, which can be interpreted as immersing ourselves fully in the flow of life. The flow of life is predicated on eating, because eating provides nutrients to our physical bodies. As a Yogi or Yogini, it is important that we are aware that having food to eat is a luxury not enjoyed by many people in the world.
Sadly, the number of people in the world who are hungry continues growing. And even in wealthy countries like the U.S. –where obesity is a serious epidemic– hunger still affects almost 12% of the population. In my opinion, as Yogis or Yoginis, it is our responsibility to help
however we can. And also, it is our responsibility to relate to food in a conscious, life-affirming manner.

A couple of years back, while attending a Yoga workshop, one of the presenters, Dr. Gurleen Grewal, talking about nutrition and food in Ayurveda, asked a simple question, when should we swallow the food we are chewing?

The faces of the people attending the workshop showed signs of puzzlement indicating that we might not have a clear and logical answer. We offered various answers but nobody produced the answer Dr. Grewal expected: we swallow our food when its taste is gone.
These words really resonated with me. I love eating and trying different types of food but I was not sure that I was ever mindful enough in my eating to keep chewing my food until it had lost its entire flavor. Over the next few days I set my intention to observe carefully my eating habits. I was shocked to notice my lack of attention to the act of eating, it just seemed that I was eating mechanically. For instance, quite often I filled up a fork and directed it towards my mouth when I was just starting to chew my food! In many cases it was clear that I was eating without immersing myself into the experience. I was disappointed to find out my lack of awareness in my eating because it made me feel like I was not really honoring the food I was privileged enough to have.
I decided to try to make the change from eating mechanically to eating consciously. The results were immediately favorable as many flavors I had not taken the time to savor before, started to emerge and become noticeable. Another immediate effect was realizing very easily when I had eaten enough. It was also clear that some foods that I ate were not that enjoyable or beneficial. In addition, it was clear that masticating more thoroughly seemed to have beneficial effects on my digestion. As I think about the numerous effects of this simple change in my way of eating, I find a parallel between my actions then and the practice of Yoga, we pause, observe attentively, notice what we are doing and its effects, then we act in a way that is life-affirming and not mechanical and finally we observe the effects of our actions. I have to say that it is not always easy or even possible to be attentive to what we do, but it does help us participate more actively in our own lives.

By taking the time to honor the food we eat, we can appreciate all the love, work, effort and resources involved in growing, harvesting and cooking our food. The tastes, aromas, textures and colors of the food we eat are the result of the intricate dance of life. When we eat consciously, besides enjoying the myriad tastes, aromas and textures, we are celebrating the deep link we have to the food sources and to the dance of life.

Over the past couple of years, I have talked to many relatives and friends about this “Yoga of eating”, eating mindfully, chewing our food until it looses its flavor. I have found that many people, including self-proclaimed food lovers, (unless they are part of the slow food movement ) are not mindful of how they eat. Making a simple and free-of-cost change to our pace of eating challenges our deep seated habits. As such, it requires our focused attention, and this is what Yoga is all about: integrating our actions and establishing a connection between ourselves and the world.

he “Yoga of eating” beckons us to establish a meaningful connection with our food. This, in my opinion, is a transformational step that can have profound impact on what we eat and how we eat it, with effects that range from the individual level (such as health and nutrition) to societal levels including the economy, the environment and public health. At the individual level, making this change can help us relax and enjoy our food more while opening our sensitivity to taste, showing us the foods that best agree with us, improving our digestion, helping us realize when to stop eating, and perhaps making us grateful for having food on our table.

There are numerous resources that can help in the process of thinking and learning more about our own relationship with food. For instance, you can learn about specific aspects of eating and chewing, in the classic treatise from the 19th century, The Physiology of Taste, written by Brillat Savarin, where numerous aspects of taste are explored in painstaking detail. You may find interesting to learn about The Great Masticator, Horace Fletcher ,
and his dogmatic approach to eating. Or, you might prefer the clarity of Fisher and Fisk’s work on mastication , or Dr. Kennedy’s clear explanations of common food myths. You might also enjoy reading on Ayurvedic tips for good digestion, or learning about the relationships between our food choices and social, political and economic practices, like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

Eating, like any Yoga practice, if done mindfully is a simple act that can be transformed by our conscious awareness.

I hope that you enjoy thoroughly the taste of your next meal.

Namaste.

Yoga is a practice

Sembrados de arroz en Bali

Thinking about Yoga as a practice, and what that really means, seems like a good starting point to do Yoga.

How is Yoga a practice? At the first level, Yoga is a practice because Yoga is something we do, in other words Yoga is an action or series of actions that we perform. However, performing an action only once or once in a while does not constitute a practice. A practice is something that happens consistently. As we repeat an action or series of actions mindfully and intelligently over time, we, almost inevitably, sharpen the skills involved. As a result, we start developing the necessary knowledge and sensitivity to deepen our understanding of those actions. This is certainly true in Yoga. I feel it is important to emphasize that the practice is not mechanical, if it is mechanical it is not Yoga anymore, because the mind is not involved in the process, in other words, we are not fully present. When we are fully present in the practice, our awareness of the actions of our mind, body and breath moves from the gross toward the subtle. For example, we start noticing the brief pause between inhalation and exhalation, or we start feeling groups of muscles moving instead of feeling only the movement of a limb as a whole. Keep in mind, that at least in my experience, this process is slow and gradual, like most natural processes.

At the second level, Yoga is a practice because it consists of specific practical steps involved in performing its actions. In my opinion, there are three distinct practical steps in Yoga practice:

  • First, we pay full attention to our initial conditions so we can make intelligent decisions to perform the action that is appropriate to our circumstances and needs.
  • Second, we focus our attention on perceiving and processing the continuous feedback we receive from breath, body and mind as we engage in the chosen action.
  • Third, once the action is completed, we observe the results on our breath, body and mind.

These three practical steps operate at the micro level of the practice, for example when we are going to practice child’s pose we first observe the state of body, breath and mind. Then we gradually move into the pose, stopping at the first sign of resistance (physical, mental or related to breathing). According to the feedback we receive, we decide, moment by moment, how long we will stay in the pose. Whenever we are ready, we return to the initial position observing the effects of the pose on breath, body and mind. Following these steps helps us develop awareness of the effects of our actions on body, mind and breath.

These practical steps also operate at the macro level of the practice, so we observe how we feel and then we decide what type of practice(s) to perform, at what level of intensity, and for how long, and then we notice the effect of the practice. This idea is related to the notion that Yoga is a personal activity and thus it should be tailored to our needs. For instance, some days we wake up full of energy and feeling ready to accomplish many tasks. Other days, we might wake up with very little energy. The type of practice we chose for each day should be tailored to how we feel and what we need so that we feel energized, relaxed and balanced after we practice.

At the third level, Yoga is a practice in the sense of a rehearsal. From this perspective, Yoga practice becomes a safe space where we can explore, observe, feel and act as is most appropriate, so that when we find ourselves in a similar situation in our lives we can flow into the most appropriate actions with ease. For instance, some Yoga poses might make us feel terrified. As a result our muscles might tense up, our breath might get short and fast and our minds may fail to think clearly. We can use our breath, inhaling deeply and making our exhalation soft and long, to calm down so we can prepare to practice the pose under appropriate guidance. Perhaps, learning to use the breath to help us calm down can be useful when we find ourselves in a situation that we find terrifying, like speaking in public or going to the dentist. Partly the idea of Yoga practice as a rehearsal comes from Erich Schiffmann, a teacher I admire and find very inspirational. You can see a short video of him talking about The Mat as a practice for Life .

If you already practice Yoga, I hope the idea of Yoga as practice makes sense to you and may help to enrich your way of doing Yoga. And if you are interested in starting to practice, I hope this idea will help you prepare to receive the benefits from doing Yoga. Your comments are welcome.

Namaste