13 March 2014

Meditating Your Way to Healthy Digestion

In my previous post, I described 4 ways that yoga can support your nutrition and weight loss goals. Here, I'll offer some advice about how a mindful meal meditation might move you along in these endeavors as well.

About Meditation & Mindfulness

Meditation is essentially a practice in training one's mind, so it can be done anywhere, using anything as a point of focus. Applying meditative techniques when moving throughout one's day can be thought of as mindfulness. Since we eat at least 2-3 times a day, meal times are a natural opportunity for meditation, using food as our focus.

A Mindful Mealtime Meditation to Try

Light some candles, dim the lights, maybe put on some relaxing background music. Ensure there are no potential distractions, nothing within reach to multitask with. Then, sit down at a table in front of your plate, and take a moment to connect with your meal. Look down at your food, noticing the different colors and textures, as well as the arrangement of the food. You might like to use a simple statement, like, "I eat this food to be healthy and happy, to care for and nourish my body." This prepares your body for a relaxed eating experience.

Take only enough food as will comfortably fit on your utensil. Notice the first contact of the food with your tongue. See if you can identify the flavors: sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and so on. Notice how the food changes form as you chew it slowly. To help you focus on this, it may be helpful for you to place your utensils (or food, if it's hand-held) back down on your plate between bites. If you get distracted or find yourself hurrying, simply notice, take a deep breath and start again.

When your plate is empty, observe that. Bring your attention to your belly, and notice that you are nourished and satisfied.

Note: A nice book for bringing meditation into your daily life is Making Space by Thich Nhat Hanh, from which some of these concepts were adapted.

Why This Matters

In Inside Tract, Mullen et al. state that “mindful eating is one of the most important techniques you can use [to improve your frame of mind and prepare yourself for excellent digestion].” In Digestive Wellness, Lipski posits that "focus[ing]...awareness of the favors in each bite...can dramatically enhance [people's] total digestive function more completely than can enzymes, bitters, or other digestive supplements."

Why? Because eating mindfully and with presence not only activates the relaxation response, but also initiates the first phase in the digestive process, called the cephalic phase. Cephalic means "of the head", and it's how the brain registers that the body is about to receive a meal. It's how the brain knows to "turn on" digestion by doing things like releasing enzymes and activating stomach acids, as two examples. When we don't pay attention to our food as we eat it, we bypass this phase, meaning:
  • our digestive capacity (i.e. ability to break down, process, and assimilate nutrients from the food) is hampered by 40-60%
  • we are more likely to overeat because we are not aware that we are full
  • our digestive system has to work harder overall, which can result in issues like gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and over time, more serious ones like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Note: Why Being Mindful Matters is a nice, readable article on this topic.

05 March 2014

4 Simple Ways Yoga Can Support Your Nutrition & Weight Loss Goals

Here are 4 ways that taking up even a basic yoga practice can support your nutrition and weight loss goals:
  1. Deeper breathing. One of the fundamental concepts in any practice of yoga is its focus on coordinating breath with movement.

    Try this: sit or stand with your spine tall and long. Close your eyes and observe how you feel physically and mentally. When you feel ready, inhale as you reach your arms out to your sides with your palms up, through shoulder height and then up to the sky, where the palms turn to face each other. Then flip your palms out and exhale as you reverse the movement, bringing the arms and hands back down to your sides. How was it to coordinate your breath with the movement of your arms? Just notice. Repeat this a few times, seeing if you can slow the movements of your arms, thereby lengthening your breath.

    Why this matters: Slowing down the breath helps to calm the body, reducing the effects of chronic stress and inducing a relaxation response. When the body is in relaxation response, digestion improves, nutrients are better assimilated, and toxins are more easily released. Bringing this deep breathing off the yoga mat and into our daily lives helps us become more present to what is happening now, so we learn to pay closer attention to our food as we're eating. In other words, we become aware of the colors, textures, tastes and sensations that naturally encourage our bodies to metabolize food as part of the cephalic phase, leading to natural appetite regulation (not to mention, actual enjoyment of our food!).

  2. Increased body awareness. How were you able to "notice your breath" in point one? Well, there's a part of you called the "wisdom body" or "witness consciousness" in yoga, which has the ability to observe what you're doing, thinking and feeling. In the practice of yoga postures (asanas), instructors encourage their students to "listen" to their bodies--for example, to notice areas of tightness, where there may be more space to move, how to improve their alignment by feeling the body, etc.

    Try this: For one day, set an alarm to alert you every 30 or 60 minutes. (Here's a chime I like, if you happen to work at a computer.) When you hear the alarm, pause what you are doing, close your eyes and pick a word to describe how you're feeling emotionally (e.g.: happy, sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, etc.) Don't think too hard about it, just go with your first, best guess. Then, scan your body for sensations, starting at the crown of your head. Move your focused attention all around your face. Notice the areas around the eyes, the jaw. Feel your neck and shoulders. Scan down your arms to your wrists and hands. Observe the body all around the torso, front and back, along the spine, up and down. Connect your mind to your hips, moving your attention down your legs to your toes, first one side and then the other. Where are you tightening your muscles? Are there any places that feel "uneven" between the right and left sides? Is anything pinchy? Repeat the scan, this time making small adjustments--see if you can relax the tight areas, balance the uneven ones, or tweak your posture to feel better. When you're finished, call to mind a word describe your emotional state. Maybe it's the same one as before, or perhaps a new one. Whatever comes up is perfectly OK. Now continue with what you were doing until the next alarm, when you will repeat this process. See if you can discover places in the body you favor, or whether new areas of your body grab your attention.

    Why this matters: Increasing body awareness has many benefits for nutrition and weight loss. Much like the breath, our body does a lot for us without our needing to attend to it. But in today's busy world, we often "dis-embody"--meaning we tune out important signals, such as when we're hungry, when we're tired, when we're feeling full, when we're holding a shape that's causing muscular stress (e.g. sitting with poor posture), and when we're feeling upset. Dis-embodiment often lead us to overeat and binge eat, since both are "unconscious" activities that are really serving as distractions from difficult emotions and inducing relaxation (which we might find in other methods more supportive of our weight loss goals). By receiving our bodies' signals about when we're naturally hungry, we improve our eating rhythm (i.e. have more regular times of day when we nourish ourselves with food). This reduces the likelihood of us getting ravenous, eating too fast and too much. We also benefit from better regulation of blood sugar and energy throughout the day.

  3. Yoga postures help improve digestion. Arranging the physical body in different shapes offers your internal organs a gentle massage, including the ones involved in digestion and metabolism regulation.

    Try these:
    Seated forward fold, wide-legged standing forward fold with twist, half lord of the fishes pose, cobra pose, bridge pose (or supported bridge). See also Best Yoga Poses for Digestion.

    Why it matters: Yoga postures (asanas) help improve blood and oxygen flow to the digestive organs, are stimulating to the digestive tract, and help to regulate the thyroid gland2 "which is important for not only digestive function, but also the nervous system, reproductive system, respiratory system and metabolism regulation.3"Yoga has also been known to help with chronic digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea, bloating and gas4. A healthy, optimally working digestive tract is critical to meeting any nutritional and weight loss goals. If your system isn't working properly, your efforts will be in vain.

  4. More compassion and self acceptance. Yoga isn't just about physical postures and breathing. It's "a progressive process of replacing our unconscious thought patterns and behavior with new, more beneficial patterns that are helpful towards a better life1." Yoga provides a way for students to experiment with different class styles and instructors until we find some that suit us. It invites us into a safe space where we can explore letting go of our egos, going only as far in a posture as we can in that moment, regardless of what we may have done before or what we hoped we could do. Yoga encourages us to surrender competition with self and others, and to accept that this body is what we have to work with right now.

    Try this: Wearing something form fitting that allows you to really see your body, strike a simple yoga pose in front of a mirror. (Mountain pose is the easiest one to start.) With your eyes open, notice what comes up for you as you sustain the pose for a comfortable time. Are you holding your breath? What are you thinking? Are you worried about doing it perfectly? Are you involved in an internal dialog about a part of your body that you wish looked different? Are you comparing yourself to a photo of someone else in the posture? Do you want to look away? See if you can simply notice these thoughts as they pop up in your mind. Practice accepting whatever comes up for you. If it's helpful, you can imagine putting the thought into a "thought bubble" (like you see in cartoons) and allowing it to float away.

    Why this matters: Finding a style of yoga that you enjoy can replace the punishing exercise that you may do solely for the sake of calorie burning. (Note that over-exercise and exercise one doesn't like can contribute to the stress response, therefore defeating our best intentions at improved metabolism and weight loss.) Yoga's focus on acceptance and self-love can also help improve body image issues for those of us who struggle here. As Marc David says, "acceptance moves energy". Meaning, when we become more aware of our self-criticisms, self-judgements, and ways we habitually cause "self-induced hate stress", we can figuratively and then literally "lighten up". If you're someone who constantly beats yourself up over losing that last 5-10 pounds, or feel impatient at your progress if you have a lot of weight to lose, this refined view of the situation may be just what you need to not just let go of body weight or fat, but also toxic beliefs about yourself and the importance of these things in the grander context of your life.
Notice that I've said nothing about what food you actually eat. ;-)