From an Ayurvedic perspective, all dis-ease begins in the gut. We could peel the onion back another layer and say that all dis-ease begins in the mind, the non physical realm, where our thoughts and emotions influence all of the micro choices we make each day that are either feeding our wellness or our imbalance. Our choices have a profound impact on our digestion, and therefore, our overall health. When working with an Ayurvedic Practitioner or Health Counselor, most often you will begin your work together by bringing your Agni back into balance. Agni is a Sanskrit word that means ‘digestive fire.’ The state of your Agni dictates how well you are able to digest and assimilate both your food and your life experiences. If your Agni is out balance, you could be eating the healthiest food in the world, taking all the herbal supplements, and yet you won’t be able to properly breakdown and assimilate these nutrients; and in fact, an imbalanced Agni can lead to a build up of Ama (Sanskrit for undigested food, toxicity) within the system that can lead to a plethora of issues.
So, as I am sure most of you already know that what you eat has a direct impact on your health, most of you probably didn’t know that how you eat is just as important, if not more. While Ayurveda does go into depth about what to eat for your specific dosha and different times of year, in this blog post I will be focusing more on the how to eat, and I will be sharing practical ways to bring more conscious awareness to your relationship with nourishment.
Ayurvedic philosophy goes into great detail about Samprapti, which is the process of disease. There are six stages to this disease process, and it isn’t until stage five that dis-ease becomes fully manifest. This is the stage where a doctor can finally use medical terminology to describe your experience (ie. eczema, IBS, diabetes, PCOS), and it’s usually at this stage that we are finally motivated to take action. So if dis-ease isn’t fully manifest until the fifth stage of Samprapti, what is happening during the four stages before it? Again, it comes back to this idea that dis-ease begins in the gut. In stages one through four of the dis-ease process, imbalance starts to accumulate in the digestive system, symptoms begin to occur, and if the imbalance is not corrected, it will eventually move out of the digestive system and spread throughout the body until it finds a weak spot to land. When I first learned about Samprapti, I felt so empowered by this information because it means that there is plenty of opportunity to listen to how our bodies are communicating with us through our symptoms and to make the necessary changes before dis-ease has the chance to take root. Every single one of us has had digestive issues at some point in time. The problem is, so many of these symptoms are written off as ‘normal’ so we continue doing the things that are driving our imbalance.
Some common signs that your digestion might be off are:
Gas and bloating
Lethargy after eating
Lack of appetite
Coating on the tongue
Acid reflux or heartburn
Inflammation of the GI tract (ulcerative colitis, gastritis)
General feelings of heaviness or lethargy
If any of these symptoms sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. While I do want to mention that these symptoms can also be caused by what you are eating (food intolerance, improper food combination, etc) the practices I am going to share below are a powerful place to start. Cultivating a conscious relationship with nourishment, shifting your body into a parasympathetic state where it can properly digest your food, and living in tune with the rhythms of Nature, can not only improve your digestion, but they can transform your life.
Blessing your meals with your presence.
One of the simplest ways to improve your digestion is through your quality of presence, developing a conscious relationship with the experience of nourishing yourself. Geneen Roth says “your relationship with food is a reflection of your relationship with God.” When I first heard this, it struck me deep, and caused me to take a good hard look at how I was engaging with my food. I was (and sometimes still am) the type of person who rushed through meals, often eating in front of the television or on the go. It was very seldom that I sat down with my meal in total presence. I was often rushing, and almost always distracted. I started to see how the way I related to food was a reflection of the way I engaged with other aspects of my life.
So many of us eat our meals while distracted. We eat breakfast in the car on the way to work, lunch in a hurry so we can get on to the next task, and dinner in front of the television. These distractions come in many, many forms, but they all keep us in an sympathetic nervous system state where our digestion is not working optimally, and they block us from receiving the deeper nourishment that can only come from presence.
Here are a few suggestions on ways that you can bring more present moment awareness to your relationship with food:
Digestion begins at the thought of food. When you start to give conscious awareness to the meal you want to prepare yourself or the order you just put in with your server, your stomach will start producing the acids and enzymes that are needed to break down the specific types of food you are going to be eating. Also, having a clear mind as you begin to chop your veggies or grill your chicken allows you the space to take a moment to cultivate a sense of gratitude for the meal you are preparing. This puts your energetic body into a receptive state where it is open to receiving nourishment, which ultimately helps with digestion.
Take three breaths before eating. When you take a moment to pause before gobbling your meal down, you allow yourself to land in the present moment and to shift into a state of calm. This lets your body know that you are safe and that it can rest in a parasympathetic nervous system state. Your body can only properly digest food when you are in this parasympathetic state. When you are in a sympathetic state, your body is more worried about ‘running from that tiger’ than it is about digesting your food. This causes poor assimilation of nutrients and a build up of ama within your system. So, before you eat your next meal, take a couple breaths to arrive fully in the here and now, and remind yourself that you are worthy of being deeply nourished.
Eat without distraction. This one sounds simple but it is definitely not easy. We have so many ways to get distracted these days; TV, text messages, social media, work calls, children screaming, etc etc. When we are distracted it becomes very easy to not chew our food enough or to overeat. Both of these things can wreak havoc on digestion. Using our teeth to macerate our food is one the first steps of digestion and it makes the stomach’s job way easier when we chew our bites fully. It is also one of the only parts of digestion that we have conscious control over. When we overeat, we put more food into our body than the Agni can break down and assimilate; this leads to all sorts of digestive symptoms, malnourishment, and a build up of ama within the body.
Stop eating after the first burp. Our bodies are so amazing and intelligent and they are constantly communicating with us, if only we can become present enough to really listen. When the Agni can no longer take on any more food and the stomach is about ⅔ full, it will release a gas bubble that will come out in the form of a burp. Yes, you read that correctly, a burp! This is your body's super sexy way of letting you know it's time to put down the fork and stop eating. We only notice this burp when we are fully present and our body is in a parasympathetic state. Try this out with your next meal….do your best to eat without distractions and honor the first burp by setting down the fork when your body says it's had enough.
SLOW DOWN. We live in such a fast paced culture and so many of us are rushing through our days just trying to get it all done. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are three opportunities we get each day to slow down and be present. When we take our time cooking and eating, the whole process becomes a sensorial experience of joy and love. The sizzle of bacon or the smell of onions grilling starts to stimulate the gastric juices. The assortment of colorful veggies brings ‘color’ to one's spirit. The medicinal components of herbs are activated by your capacity to register their taste. When we slow down and take our time, we are nourished by something much deeper than just the micro and macro nutrients of our food. The entire experience becomes a vessel for nourishment, bringing about a sense of joy and contentment. One way to notice how fast you gobble down your food is to focus on chewing each bite fully, and not putting another bite into your mouth until the one before it has reached your stomach. If you find this to be hard to put into practice, try setting your fork down after eating a bite and not picking it back up until you are ready to take your next bite.
Eating with the rhythm of Nature.
In Ayurveda we honor Nature as Teacher, and see ourselves as a reflection of her. By studying Nature, you start to see that her nature is cyclical. Winter gives way to spring. Night gives way to day. Nature is constantly shifting and changing forms, shedding and regenerating. When we view ourselves as intimately connected to and part of Nature rather than separate from it, we can begin to dance our way to wellness, by living in sync with the rhythm of Nature.
Here are a few practical ways to incorporate a rhythmic routine into your day:
Eat at regular meal times. Our bodies are historical systems and they thrive on routine. When you eat at normal meal times every day, your body starts to fine tune this process. If your body knows that every morning at 9am you eat a bowl of oatmeal, it will automatically start preparing your digestive system to receive this meal. Do your best to eat your breakfast, lunch, and dinner around the same times every day with at least three hours between each meal. If you are one of those people who doesn’t get hungry for breakfast or only eats when you are hungry, this could be caused more by your habits rather than what is actually best for you. Pick general meal times that you feel you can commit to and then if your appetite isn’t strong when that meal time approaches, try having a small snack or some herbal tea to start training your body to know that this is the time you eat.
Eat your largest meal at midday. Like I said earlier, Nature is one of our greatest teachers. We can find clues about how to find balance within ourselves by observing how she ebbs and flows. In Ayurveda, we eat our largest meal at midday because this is when the sun is highest and brightest in the sky. You can think of the Sun as the Agni of the cosmos. We want to time our meals when the sun's Agni is strongest because our individual Agni is a reflection of the Sun’s.
Eat your last meal before the Sun goes down. This practice piggybacks on the point I was making in the last practice. You want to eat your last meal while the Sun’s Agni is still strong that way you are harnessing the fire power of Nature itself! It is a good practice to eat your last meal at least 3 hours before going to bed. This ensures that your digestive system is free of food before sleep when your liver starts to do some of its most important detoxification processes. When you go to sleep with a full belly, your liver is stuck finishing the digestive process instead of working on its primary roles.
Eat with the seasons. Ayurveda puts a lot of importance on the qualities of food and experiences. Let’s take winter for example. Qualitatively speaking, winter is very Kaphic in nature. It is cold, heavy, and slow. The way we pacify these qualities is with warm, well spiced meals, and stimulating exercise (among others). If you eat too many foods that are cold and heavy, such as ice cream, in this season you can create an accumulation of these qualities of cold and heavy that can lead to imbalance. So, we keep ourselves in balance by eating with the seasons. This topic could (and will) have a blog post all of its own, but for now, it can be something you simply start to just consider. What does your body crave during each season? Does your body digest a raw salad the same in the summer as it does in the winter? One simple way to eat with the seasons is to get your booty to your local farmers market. There are so many benefits to this such as supporting your local economy, nourishing yourself with food that is rich in prana, and it will help you to start familiarizing yourself with what foods are in season at different times of year.
Speaking from personal experience, I know this information can feel overwhelming if you try to integrate it all at once. What I recommend is to start with 1-2 of these practices and do them until they feel natural and automatic, and only then consider adding another practice. Also know that a lot of your ‘stuff’ will come up on your journey towards a conscious relationship with nourishment. Like I said earlier, food is so much more than just micro and macro nutrients. It is also our relationship with our worth, our culture, our ancestral lineage, our childhood conditioning, our trauma, our pleasure, etc etc. My hope is that you discover things about yourself that you were not aware of before, that you are compassionate with yourself through the process, and that these teachings help you to both transform your digestion and your life!