I did some modeling during while during my graduate school program. Because a person can appear chubbier on photo than in real person, models tend to be much skinnier than a regular person. Even Though I was not a professional model, I would have to do everything in order to maintain an ideal body weight. In order to keep track of my weight, I remember weighing myself and measuring my waist were the first routine every morning.
When I noticed my weight was higher than my set standard, for that day, I would have a highly restricted diet – being careful of the calorie intake of anything I put into my mouth; reducing the portion of the meal significantly, as well as adding extra time to my exercise routine. On the other hand, if I noticed my weight was lower than the ideal, then it would be the day that I could eat whatever I wanted. I would indulge myself into all kinds of sweets ranging from cheese cakes to ice-cream, and take the exercise program easy.
I thought by watching my weight daily and adjusting my diet accordingly, I had a good control of my body image and health. After three years of modeling, I developed the habit of weighing my body along and adjusting with the “flexible” diet. Little did I realize this habit became an indicator for me to feel secured about my sense of self. I remember I would become very anxious about my body weight every time I travel to place where I could not have a weight!
So this habit of weight myself continued for another four to fives years. Until I started teaching yoga, (I already had this weighing routine for about a decade!!), one day my colleague and I were lounging in the teacher’s room talking about our body image, our diets, etc. When I told my friend about my secret routine, she was surprised how attached I was! (I was so obsessed that I did not see that as an obsession!) She told me she used to weigh herself, and slowly she lost the regularity of the routine and she had not weighed herself for a long time and yet she noticed she lost more weight when she did not weight herself. I was very skeptical about her experience, “how could you lose more weight without even knowing how heavy you are?” Then she encouraged me to try. Being curious and skeptical, I anxiously tried to only weigh myself once every three days, and then once a week to gradually once a month. I could see how hard it was to let go of this small routine, worrying that my weight would go out of control as soon as I stopped watching.
Because I was very conscious of what I eat and how I exercise (so that I do not gain weight), I started to pay attention to the kinds of food I eat, the way I eat it, and the frequency. My friend was right – my weight maintained stable, I noticed my eating habits and my exercise routine became more stable as well. Interestingly, I noticed the stress I used to feel about maintaining my weight started to dissipate, and I started to enjoy eating more; I stopped abusing my body with junk food one day and fasting the other day; I became freer and happier.
Since then, I started to be mindful of the food I eat, but also enjoyed the dessert and ice-cream that I ate without feeling guilty. I noticed I continue to stay healthy without gaining any pounds.
This personal experience showed me that mindfulness can help us maintain our health. Living in a society full of abundance, most of us eat not because we need to eat, but because we want to eat. Even when we are hungry, we have the need to fulfill our hunger, but we have the choice to pick which kinds of food we want to eat. Many of us use food as a mean to reduce our emotional discomfort and stress. Most of the times our mouths are eating but our minds are doing something else: we eat with our eyes glued to the television, iPhones, engaging in mindless conversations. Because we live such a busy life with countless unfinished projects, eating properly becomes one of the lowest priority and we use only a few minutes to finish our lunch or we simply choose to skip the meal. A lot of time we eat so quickly that when we realized we were full, we already overate and then we started to have indigestion.
When we eat mindlessly, it is easy for us to ingest all our worries and extra calories into our system. When we start to introduce a mindful practice to the way we look at our food, you might be surprised how it can transform you.
First we can look at how our body, mind, and emotions have an influence to our food choice. Again, as I mentioned earlier, we don’t only eat when we are hungry, most of the time we eat because of the emotional hunger or we eat just because of peer pressure (especially within the Chinese culture). I notice I would crave desserts about 5 days before my menstruation; I tend to grab coffee when I am bored or stressed; I tend to order desserts when I feel happy or sad. If we do not pay attention to these subtle emotional shifts, it is easy for our waistline to be controlled by our emotions. Next time, when you noticed you have an urge to open a bag of chips, or order a piece of cake, or to reach for the chocolate ice-cream, stop, take a few breaths, and then check in with yourself:
• How does my physical body feel now? (e.g. stomach, shoulders, head, etc.)
• Am I truly hungry?
• What are my thoughts now? (e.g. I just need to grab the ice-cream, it tastes so good…)
• How is my emotional state now? (i.e. excited, depressed, lonely, etc.)
• Why do I want to eat this now? What is the real reason? Am I trying to divert my focus to eating so that I could avoid experiencing my emotional state now?
Depending on the strength of our mindfulness, sometimes we might notice we don’t need to the comfort food to feel better. Rather, having a cup of tea, or taking a short walk might be more effective ways to allow our minds calm down. Other times, our emotions might be more powerful than our seeds of mindfulness. Even though we know it is better to stay away from comfort foods because it is ineffective to calm ourselves, we still reach out for the box of cookies (and finish it). It is okay. It takes time for our mindfulness to become strong. There is no failing when it comes to a mindfulness practice; it is only a matter of coming and and trying again.
If we happen to “surrender” to the junk food and we know we have emotions coming up and yet we are still having a piece of chocolate cake in front of us, then it is time to eat mindfully:
1. Smell. Before we put the food into our mouth, just notice what the smell is like
2. Eat slowly. After we take the spoon full of food into our mouth, we put our utensils down and being fully present to the food we have in our mouth
3. Notice the taste, the texture of the food, how we chew our mouthful of food, and notice any changes in the taste and texture
4. Notice how the body feels as we eat, and notice how our emotions change as we are eating
5. Chew our food until it is completely grounded and watery, then we swallow slowly, being aware of the feeling of the food coming down our throat
6. If possible, stop as soon as we feel full and satisfied
7. Notice how we feel as we finish; observe what the sense of satisfaction is like
8. Check in with the sensations of our body, thinking, and emotions 30 mins after, 1 hour after, 4 hours after, and 8 hours after. Noticed any shifts, and whether the shifts are positive, neutral (not good nor bad), or negative
Eating mindfully does not mean to forbidden any specific types of food, rather, to be consciously aware of our food choice and their effect on our bodies. Slowly, with training, we learn to listen to our bodies and trust our bodies to have the ability to find the optimal balance for our needs. Everyone is born with a different body type, different genetics, and so our natural weight or natural shape would be different; some have a leaner bodies, some more lanky, some more muscular, while others might be slightly rounded. Instead of judging our body for how it looks on the outside, we can learn to look into the interdependent nature of how the shape of our bodies have to do with everything else around us – our ancestors, our diet, our culture, our exercise routine, our emotions, and work, as well as our family commitments.
At the end of the day, even the most conscious yogi would not be able to escape sickness, old age, and dying. Our main practice is to learn to be consciously aware of the linkage between our action and our thoughts and emotions, the shape of the body is only the bi-product of the practice.
Here is a short gatha written by Thich Nhat Hanh to practice mindful eating:
The Five contemplation
May we enjoy our meal in mindfulness, establishing ourselves in the present moment so that we can be aware of the food in front of us and of the community surrounding us. We eat in such a way that makes peace, joy, brotherhood and sisterhood possible during the whole time of eating.
1. This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard work.
2. May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
3. May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.
4. May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet and reverse the process of global warming.
5. We accept this food so that we may nurture our sisterhood and brotherhood, strengthen our sangha and nourish our ideal of serving all beings.
Next time you are about to take a bite of your favorite cheese cake or your healthy meal, see if you can you breathe, remember the gatha, smile, and enjoy each bite.