This article presents some psychological observations on food consumption from the perspective of a practitioner of Integral Yoga. If you are looking for guidance on nutritional aspects, there are other pages on the web which may provide that information.
Our consciousness is locked up in habits (repeating thoughts, desires, impulses, food habits, etc) and has created this complex personality we call “ME”. Part of the process of Yoga is to break those habits and unlock the energy so it can be redeployed to go inward. This is traditionally referred to the practice of detachment whereby one learns to separate Purusha (Being or Spirit) and Prakriti (Becoming or Energy).
One of the habits which must be broken is the desire to consume without control. Overeating can be said to be a deformation of the desire for love. We want to be full and happy but unfortunately, we keep filling ourselves with food and end up contracting all kinds of diseases. The desire for love gets deformed into the desire for satiety. The true way to be happy is to fill ourselves with Divine Bliss but in order to do that one must first gain control over, among other things, the desire to consume recklessly.
From a psychological perspective, one may identify three ways of eating:
- Way of the Glutton: This is where the person fully expresses his/her desire and indulges in food whenever and wherever possible.
- Way of the Epicure: The person reforms the desire for food and begins to consume it as an art form. A great deal of effort is expended into distinguishing between various cuisines and what is good for the palate, etc. This may be fine in itself but it is not the path of the Yogi.
- Way of the Ascetic: The ascetic suppresses desire for food and rejects flavour and taste as part of a harsh disciple. This just defers the actual problem because the rejected desires remain repressed in the subconscient and emerge later in moments of unconsciousness.
Sri Aurobindo & the Mother advised another way of food consumption which is neither of the above; it may be called the Way of Equality (Samata) where one eats consciously without surrendering or repressing the desire for food. This is aligned with the dictum of the Gita 6:16 (“naty-asnatas ’tu yogo ’sti na caikantam anasnatah na cati-svapna-silasya jagrato naiva carjuna” One who eats or sleeps too much or too little cannot become a Yogi).
In this method, one recognizes that food is necessary only for nourishment but not for indulgence. One does not admit to a rigid system rules regarding food consumption (i.e. eat only carrots or legumes, and so on) but tries to follow a system of psychological observation to separate and liberate the desire for food from the act of eating. Why are rigid rules not needed? Because the practice of Integral Yoga leads to a greater consciousness (AKA change of consciousness) so at each stage, one must discard old principles and adopt new ones which are consistent with the changed consciousness.
These are some of my practical observations on how to gain greater consciousness over the act of eating:
- Eat alone : Eating with a bunch of people immerses you into the herd mentality, where you become unconscious, start talking and lose awareness of what is being eaten.
- Eat in silence : This increases consciousness of the various parts of our body (throat, stomach, tongue) while are we consuming food. Consequently, one is able to stop eating at the right point.
- Reject food which is hot, spicy, pungent food (Rajasic): This provides temporary stimulation of the senses, heats the blood as well as the mind but is not conducive to Yoga because it decreases calmness and enervates the inner mind.
- Reject food which is stale, rotten or ill-cooked (Tamasic): This includes soft drinks, street food and fast food. It provides temporary relaxation to the senses but degrades the functioning of the mind.
- Eat food which is easy to digest : One must observe and consume only the foods that are easy to digest; the actual selection may differ based on the individual constitution. One must determine which food brings energy and which food depletes energy. If we feel heavy after eating and lose energy in digestion, then we have no alertness left for contemplation.
- Eat a little less: This creates more energy, alertness and consciousness within the body and helps meditation.
- Eat only when you are hungry and not just because it is lunchtime: This is necessary because in Yoga, the habits which we have nursed since birth have to be broken. We must start living more by the Light from Above and less by reason and even much less by impulse or habit.
- Abandon the notion of favorite food: Learn to eat everything with equality. In terms of consciousness, a favorite food is equivalent to a habit recorded in the subconscient. All such habits have to be ultimately discarded.
- Avoid fasting : This increases strain on the nervous system and works against the practice of Yoga, which requires a robust physical body that can retain the power and light which inundates the body during meditation. The need for food begins to decrease at later stages of Yogic life as explained here — Man does not live by bread alone
- Avoid snacking/noshing : This is again an unconscious act where the mind is inattentive to the quality and quantity of food being consumed. Snacking must be avoided because goal of Yoga is to do all activities consciously and therefore, all such unconscious actions must be discarded.
- If you are hungry, do not eat immediately: Learn to enforce a time gap between the impulse to eat and the corresponding act of eating. This leads to an awareness of the pangs of hunger which ripple through the body at eating time. One should observe that hunger triggers multiple reactions within the being:
- The mouth begins to salivate as it awaits food.
- The stomach muscles start to contract and demand action.
- The face and the throat may strain in anticipation.
- The body begins to feel a little weak and starts to sweat.
Watch yourself when this happens without succumbing to the desire to eat! Gradually, try to extend this time gap from a few minutes to (say) half-an-hour until you have gained complete consciousness over the impulse to eat. It is these little battles of detachment which must be won before one can proclaim a complete victory and regain full self-control over eating.
In later stages of Yogic development, one observes few more things:
- The teeth have a mechanical habit of gnashing when food is denied. This is because the muscles in the face have been habituated to the specific movement of eating since childhood.
- As one grows in consciousness, one perceives that the food is imbued with the vibrations of the cook. Food which felt tasty or spicy before suddenly begins to smells bad if the person who cooked the food is not spiritual in nature.