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.) 

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