Eating your way through the holidays, with a little help from Ayurveda

When I saw the new holiday KFC commercial the other night, I realized it sort of represents everything that’s wrong about how Americans eat. In it, a man sits between two women who are gossiping obnoxiously and loudly. “Find some peace this holiday,” the narrator says, as the man reaches for fried chicken, hands a piece to each of the women, and sits back and enjoys one himself, content that he is able to eat in silence. In the next scene, this same man is sitting in between two fighting children. He gives a cookie to each kid, which works like a charm — a pacifier to lull them into stillness. At the end of the commercial, which is for the chain’s “Festive Feast,” KFC’s tag line, “Today tastes so good,” comes on.

Pretty apt, I think. Today might taste good, but what about tomorrow? Eating as a coping mechanism (I’ve been there) eventually creates another lifestyle problem we have to cope with (I’ve been there too, resulting in some serious acid reflux).

There’s no shortage of examinations of how fat people have become, and the holiday season is a perfect time to reflect on our eating habits, because I think it all comes out — eating badly for social reasons (holiday get-togethers), eating badly for emotional reasons (depression, anxiety, etc.), eating badly for practical reasons (no time), and on and on.

Aparna Khanolkar did a podcast a few years ago on how to eat stress-free during the holidays, based on an Ayurvedic diet. Listen to it here.

I did an Ayurvedic cleanse in the fall followed by a consultation to work on my particular issues. In the weeks since, I’ve reprogrammed how I eat. Below are a few snapshots of how my eating habits have changed.

Dinner now: It’s after hours as I start to write this post at my office desk. I knew I would be staying late today, so I packed a meal instead of waiting to get home to eat (even though there’s a delicious holiday loaf of cherry walnut sourdough bread at home that I would love to pick at). In the Ayurvedic system, it’s advised to eat earlier in the day, when our digestion is stronger, so I cooked some rainbow chard and packed up some of my go-to white bean hummus.

Dinner then: I used to eat as late as 10 p.m. I learned along the way that eating that late was one of the factors that prevented me from getting up at 5:30 a.m. to practice yoga.


Chocolate now: Our office is littered with boxes of chocolate sent in by clients and friends (believe me, I’m not complaining about this). I love chocolate, and although I’ve cut down substantially over the past year, I still enjoy it. After I finished my dinner just now, I treated myself to a few pieces from a popular local chocolatier.

Chocolate then: Last year around this time, I was snacking on a piece here and a piece there as the day went on. But a habit I picked up during the fall cleanse was to not snack; if I’m going to eat sweets, I try to roll it up into a meal rather than snack in between meals.

Why? Ayurveda expert Dr. Vasant Lad answers that question in a MindBodyGreen interview:

Q: Some dietitians advise to eat small meals every 2-3 hours to keep metabolism high and to prevent blood sugar from plummeting. Ayurveda says that snacking is not healthy and advises to stick to 3 complete meals a day. Why is snacking bad according to Ayurveda?

A: The reason is very simple. For example if you are cooking kicheri (Basmati rice and lentils), you take some rice, lentils, and put them in the water to boil. But then instead of letting kicheri cook, as soon as the water starts boiling you add more rice and more lentils, and then again in 5 minutes you add more raw ingredients. If you keep doing this over and over again, kicheri will never be cooked. It is a good analogy to think about when we think about digestion – our internal cooking. Agni ( gastric fire) has to be strong to digest food. Three meals a day: a light breakfast, lunch as the main meal; and a light dinner allow for an easy digestion process. Constant munching might lead to overload on the digestive fire (agni) and slow it down. As a result, the food will not be digested properly and you will get a heavy bloated feeling in the stomach.

People who’s digestion is overtaxed often have a white buttery coating on the tongue. It is a sign of toxins in the body. Another sign is unclear foggy mind and bad breath. Ayurveda says that constant munching builds up toxins (AMA) in the body. Eating before a prior meal is digested will slow down Agni, weaken metabolism, and will lead to weight gain. This why Ayurveda says that three meals a day is ideal for a healthy digestion and proper assimilation of nutrients. This Ayurvedic approach to diet and lifestyle is very basic but it creates radical and profound changes in the body, mind and consciousness.


Coffee now: I don’t. Well, OK, I mostly don’t. I allow myself a few ounces of coffee once every couple of weeks.

Coffee then: My coffee consumption has varied over the years. At my worst, I was probably drinking two to three cups a day. It’s been a little hard to say no to coffee all the time, especially during this time of year, when it feels dark all the time, when I’m naturally more tired, and when coffee shops bust out with tempting flavors that involve peppermint and white chocolate.


Eating out now: I really enjoy eating out, and so far this holiday season, it seems I’ve been eating out quite a bit, thanks to a mix of work meetings, holiday parties and chances to meet up with friends. I’ve noticed, though, that eating out too many meals in a row does leave me feeling a little heavier and a little less energetic overall, probably because I’m in less control of what I consume.

Eating out then: The more the merrier.


To take us out, how about a little Gorillaz? It’s hard not to think about the misshapen world of processed food when I listen to “Superfast Jellyfish”:

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lowering the ugh factor: 7 things I’ve done for my digestive system

Photo of ginger via london_lime's Flickr photostreamToday’s mail brought the regular round of advertising circulars. Ponderosa Steakhouse’s unlimited sirloin steak and shrimp offer on weekends. Applebee’s new — NEW! — blackened chicken penne and Bourbon Street chicken and shrimp. Jet’s Pizza.

Eh, eh and eh. None of it is at all appetizing.

(OK, full disclosure: the pizza is still kind of appealing.) The larger point is, the longer I practice Ashtanga consistently, the harder it is for me to eat out. Like many teenagers, I developed a taste for awful fast food in high school — the Mexican pizza at Taco Bell, the fish sandwich at McDonald’s, the curly fries at Arby’s. While my eating habits have improved — slowly — over the years, I have terrible proclivities compared with the yogis I know. I don’t like juicing. I have zero desire to eat raw food. And so on.

Over the past year or so, however, what’s been exciting for me is that I’ve been craving better food, even if I haven’t necessarily been eating better food.

Is it possible that I’ve been retraining my cravings? I hope so (pizza cravings notwithstanding).

Now the big challenge is making it happen: Craving better food and then converting that craving into action by actually eating better food. This is hard because it would require that I spend more time acquiring and preparing food. In my current kitchen calculus, if it takes four steps, it’s on the time-consuming side. And I consider tearing off the packaging to be one step. I know, I know  . . .

It’s not just a matter of principle for me. I really need to eat better, because it’s been affecting how I feel. This past December, after my tests for celiac problems came back negative, I devoted a blog post discussing that ugh feeling plaguing my digestive system. A follow-up blog post listed some great suggestions shared with me.

I’m cautiously happy to report that I’ve been feeling better over the past few months. Here are some steps I’ve taken — thanks the advice of a range of people and, in one ironic case, a fast-food delivery joint — since December:

  • Practiced nauli more consistently in the morning.
  • Started taking probiotics (one capsule daily).
  • Dramatically reduced my coffee intake — down to about one or two cups a week at this point. (I’ve substituted this habit with a pomegranate oolong tea latte from Biggby in the mornings. While this is an improvement, it’s also expensive to do this several times a week, so I have to wean myself off this soon too.)
  • When possible, switching from cow’s milk and soy milk to almond milk. (Looking back, soy milk never sat all that well with me. But I had this idea that it was healthier. Almond milk rocks! Who knew.)
  • Started ditching bread and wraps as much as possible for lunch (hello, sandwiches held together with large Romaine lettuce leaves!).
  • Began to eat a little bit of shaved ginger sprinkled with cayenne before dinner.
  • Started eating smaller dinners.

I’ll elaborate on three of these.

Nauli

Here is what Lisa Walford has written about nauli:

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that Nauli stimulates the digestive fire, thereby removing toxins, indigestion, and constipation. It is considered a Shat Karma, which is an internal cleansing to aid with excess phlegm, mucus, or fat.

If you don’t practice yoga, I know nauli looks crazy. But trust me — it’s not painful. I think it feels pretty good when you’re done — it’s hard to explain, but I sort of feel as if I’ve stirred the pot and prevented stagnation.

Started ditching bread and wraps as much as possible for lunch

This has made a huge difference to how I feel during all afternoon on a workday — and I’m as surprised as anyone to say that I got the idea from a fast food place. A freaky fast fast food place, in fact — Jimmy John’s Unwich. It’s a regular sandwich, except it’s got leaves of lettuce holding it together rather than a wrap or bread. I’ve been packing my own lunches with my own lettuce-wrapped creations, including breakfast sandwiches. They’re delicious, and I don’t feel heavy or bloated afterward.

Began to eat a little bit of shaved ginger sprinkled with cayenne before dinner.

This is an Ayurvedic thing. I don’t know anything about Ayurveda, but this is what the California College of Ayurveda says about poor digestion:

The symptoms of poor digestion include excessive gas, constipation, diarrhea, burping, burning, vomiting, indigestion, bloating and pain. In various forms, Western medicine has given them names such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, colitis and pancreatitis among many others. Through the eyes of Ayurveda, the practitioner comes to an understanding of the cause through examining one’s lifestyle. Faulty eating practices are the number one culprit, poor food choices and poor food combing are next in line. Together they make up the major causes of digestive disease.

Why ginger and cayenne? According to this same site:

Kledaka Kapha [subdosha governing the protective secretions which line mucous membranes] can also be too high. When this occurs it suppresses the agni resulting in slow digestion and possible nausea. This condition results from too many heavy, sweet foods and is best treated with the category of herbs called dipanas which increase agni and diminish kledaka. This includes the Indian herbs chitrak and the Ayurvedic formula trikatu as well as common pungents such as ginger and cayenne pepper.

Interested in learning more? I am too. You can start by following the Jangalikayamane blog and reading “How Jedi Knights Should Eat” from the AY:A2 blog. Here’s a juicy excerpt from that blog post, which several yogis I know have welcomed not only for its ideas, but for its perfect timing in their lives:

In any case, those years of “research” and strict food rules did teach me a lot, and did render my digestive fire extremely strong and healthy. Luckily, I kept coming to my mat every day without a break, so gradually I started understanding surrender. Now that I’m more interested in radical acceptance of my own social, temporal, and environmental contexts, and of my own desires, it is easier to nest my eating habits not only my body’s energy economy, but also in the context of personal and environmental relationships.

Had I been more in contact with my own wisdom in those days, my relationship with food would have balanced discipline with contemplation. Turns out that the Ayurvedic approach to eating does just this. The way I’ve been learning it, Ayurveda is not a set of fixes or healing strategies. It’s a holographic map of the whole web of manifest reality. The Ayurvedic approach to eating isn’t an arcane prescription for fixing one’s doshas; it’s a set of practices for becoming conscious of the inner and outer webs of our being.

You don’t even have to study it. Just imagine. What if you showed up to your hunger, and your food, the way you show up to our yoga room and to your physical practice? So… you’d put time and awareness in to getting the conditions right. Do a gratitude ritual. Care about where the recipe and the ingredients come from. Practice in silence, and in excellent company. Breathe. Act with clear, loving attention. Regard strong thought and emotional patterns with a bit of cool skepticism. Take a long finishing sequence to absorb the benefits.

Quick fix? Yeah right. Not in ashtanga and not in eating. This practice teaches us that our bodies are vehicles for past and future choices. Love the rough spots into fluidity, day by day, and let the painful stuff get easier. Recognize that especially deep patterns got there as a result of grasping and repetition, and we don’t get out of them for free.

The yoga thing is about action and observation, and finding that these two are not separate. Action can be luminously conscious. Takes practice.

So, how about applying that “99 percent practice, 1 percent theory” concept to food?

(Photo credit: “Ginger” via london_lime’s Flickr photostream.) 

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.