Thursday, May 5, 2011

Eating Disorders~ an inside-out yogic understanding

Eating disorders are more common then most people realize. What's more, there are more to them then most people think. It is a very complex web of experiences and karmic influences that create this very profound suffering that effects millions of people.

If people who eat when they are not actually hungry, but for psychological/emotional reasons instead, are counted as well as those who don't eat when they are hungry, then there are thousands more people affected by disordered eating then most counts reflect. We will take a look at the details of how disordered eating is not a "defect" or "being crazy", but more an ignorance to certain factors and unskillful reactions to various experiences.

It is undeniable that there is a powerful cultural bias toward thinness as a standard of beauty. And thinness, as long as its achieved and maintained naturally and without strain is very healthy. Yet, the the kind of thin depicted in magazines is rare (1-3% of the population) and even airbrushed to look thinner. It's art, not fact.

So why do we obsess over extreme thiness? We'll see many factors that cause a strong urge to avoid eating or a desire to be lighter. But the primary root that makes it so easy to obsess about lightness is the root desire- the urge to realize oneness of being, enlightenment. We all have an innate urge to be light, as a form of freedom, because light (energy) is our essence.

First, we cannot speak to this issue without addressing obesity in the West. It is not because we are a bunch of lazy slobs that so many people are becoming obese. It is true that we are less active then we used to be, but that is due in a large part to how stressed we are- stress fatigues us and makes us reticent to exercise. Yet, exercising reduces the effects of stress, but people are just waking up to that fact on a wider scale. Obesity is mainly due to some very unethical practices in the food industry.

Evolutionarily-speaking, our bodies have strong instincts to keep us alive in natural, wild circumstances. Although humans haven't been wild for around 10,000 years, the instincts of nearly a million years of evolution are very strong. In nature, we would need to eat whenever food is available, because there is no telling when we would eat next. When we eat high fat or high sugar foods, which are calorie-dense (pack more calories per bite) the satiety response is delayed, we literaly don't get the same signal to know we are full that we'd get with less dense foods. In nature, high fat or high sugar food sources are
few and far between.

Modern humans, who are far less active, have constant access to food and need less energy, still have the same response to high sugar and high fat foods. The food industry knows this. Many processed foods contain high fructose corn syrup- an unnatural sweetener that is more dense then regular sugar. High fat, high sugar foods are the bulk of what lines the shelves in the grocery stores. HFCS is in everything from soda to bread. To put it simply, the low nutrition, high calorie food offered to people sabotages their insticts, ruining their natural guide of when to eat-their appetite.

If eating whole, natural foods we can trust our appetite to tell us when to eat and when to stop. However, modern food, if it can be called that, throws off the mechanism for appetite by messing up the insulin response and creating extreme highs and lows. This creates two situations for average people eating a modern Western diet- trust your sabotaged appetite and get fat and sick, or distrust your appetite and stay thin, but also feel sick and stressed- eating disorders.

There are other factors that play into the obesity/eating disorder paradigm. One of which is stress. We live in a time when being under stress is a constant in many people's lives. That stress creates a constant hurried impulse, an inability to slow-down to a natural pace. Instinctively we crave balance, even if are addicted to imbalance. People who are addicted to the adrenaline of rushing or are constantly under duress may only slow down when they are about to collapse. Having a too-full belly is the only time when some people stop, or it sort of forces them to stop. Both the act of eating and the resulting lethargy bring them to a calmer, more present state. This is when eating is being used as a form of relaxation, and it is not a healthy situation.

So many people are overweight, and clearly it is not healthy. Not only physically, but mentally and energetically as well. Energetically/spiritually-speaking, overweight creates an oppresive heaviness that makes expanding the consciousness difficult. If we think of ourselves as primarily spirits/souls on a physical trip, we can think of the body as a physical manifestation of the soul. The heaviness of the body itself can sometimes be difficult and feel restricting to those who are very sensitive, so any non-essential weight can feel like heavy baggage.

To be aware of this and feel it is one thing, but to be unaware of this and feel it is very challenging. This has a lot to do with eating disorders- it is in a large part due to sensitive body awareness without the mental or spiritual experience or understanding to consciously realize the actual root of the suffering. The root of the suffering remains hidden, and mistaking body for whole self, the war on suffering becomes the war on the body and the war on the self.

For the sensitive, gastric upset causes a lot of bloating and pain, a sense of being huge and lots of discomfort. It can be debilitating, because every meal can set off hours of sharp pain, bloating or gas that makes one feel uncomfortable, socially and personally. Much of this stems from unmindful eating. If we chew very slowly and thoroughly, until our food is liquidy, we can avoid this kind of experience. We have to breathe deeply, and make sure that we are not rushing or feeling anxious when we eat. If we slow down to feel the breath, body and savor each bite we are on our way to better digestion and more comfort. We must also focus only on eating when we eat- not the phone or newspaper.

Until we have the awareness that the way we eat effects the way we digest and the way we feel, this can set up a very difficult cycle. If after every single meal one feels painful gassy bloating or other very negative sensations, one begins to dislike eating, associating it only with the pain that follows. Then we avoid eating, or feel full because of the bloating. Then we wait until we are overly hungry to finally eat- usually eating too fast, too much or not chewing nearly well enough, causing the problem to begin again.

In this situation we begin to distrust our appetite. We distrust that eating is healthy. We feel so puffy, tender, painfully distended all the time, that we distrust and dislike our body. This makes healthy eating very challenging. This makes happiness and self-confidence very challenging as well.

In addition, when we don't utilize proper posture we increase the normal feeling of pressure in our abdomen to nearly 200-250%. This too inhibits healthy digestion, exacerbates bloating and creates a feeling of being bigger than one actually is.

Our lack of trust in ourselves and our fear of becoming heavy can lead to obsessive calorie counting. If we eat truly healthy foods we should never need to count calories. Counting calories is not needed, and can become very frustrating and exhausting. It is like a modern disease as well, certainly it was never needed before, nor is it needed now. We can learn to eat right and trust our appetite and instincts again.

Being in constant mental, emotional and physical turmoil wears a person down and disconnects them from their Essence. Consistent suffering without the right support leads to a broken down self-image, deep feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness, and lots of frustration and confusion. There are often other factors that contribute to these negative self-views that will keep a person addicted to self-defeating or punishing life choices. These negative feelings keep a person mired in an eating disorder, be it eating too much or not nearly enough. The pain can feel safe because its familiar, change and the unknown can be very scary.

So what can we eat to begin trusting the appetite again? How can we heal such deep wounds within oneself to begin feeling worthy of nourishment and love again?

Whole, plant foods, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, vegetables and fruits, and some whole grain flours/noodles, are a very clean burning fuel. Animal foods leave unhealthy 'residues', cholesterol, plaque in the arteries, and the plaque of meat in the colon. The way the body utilizes the energy of plant and animal foods is different. Plant foods do not accumulate unhealthy stores of fat on the body, but as soon as animal products are added to the diet, excess calories are stored as unneeded body fat. Processed foods, such as white flour, regular pastas, commercial chips, breads, cereals and crackers also are a poor source of fuel. They are terrible for the energy, they aren't good for the teeth and they lead to bloating, constipation and the resulting energy crash can really adversely effect mood and self-image. Reading ,The China Study by T. Colin Campbell sheds a lot of light on the difference between plant and animal foods for fuel. If eating only plant foods, mostly whole ones, we can trust our appetite and actually eat more calories then the average omnivore, without gaining any fat at all. We will need these extra calories, because eating only plant foods speeds up the metabolism. Trying a whole-food vegan lifestyle for one month can show the difference. If one feels the actual impact, it is more profound then just hearing another's words. It certainly won't hurt to try!

Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet is crucial for ideal health, energy and longevity. Besides a change in diet, how one actually eats makes a huge difference, as was mentioned above. A relaxing environment; slow, mindful chewing; enjoy peace, the meal and those sharing it and NOT working or splitting the attention while eating are simple but very important tips to try seriously as well.

Regular practice of Yoga and meditation is another very profound and transformative experience that is highly recommended for those with any form of disordered eating. The Yoga asanas (poses) stimulate balance throughout the mind and body. The exertion and using of excess energies and the encouragement of relaxation greatly helps those that under-eat or have traditional eating disorders. The movement and encouragment of the flow of energy stimulates circulation, which help those with excess weight.

In conjunction with Yoga asanas, practicing mindfulness, or present-moment awareness, helps access deeper peace and equinimity, and provides lots of insight into the roots of suffering. It enables one to stop and make conscious choices and to see how choices and habits began, by watching experiences openly. Practicing 1 hour each day will have amazing impact on well-being, harmony and peace.

Off the mat, mindfulness can be practiced all-day everyday to continue the process of expanding consciousness. With the tool of mindfulness one can begin to witness the energies rise and fall, come and go, expand and contract without allowing them to govern the actions, thoughts and outlook. This loosens the grip of paralyzing fears, debilitating self-hatred, deep frustrations, guilts and helps to alleviate pain. We can begin to free ourselves from suffering as it occurs and we can cease to create suffering in the first place.

The work may take years, but with practice of these basic techniques, relief can begin instantly. As soon as we choose to end suffering, much of the misery disappears. Then it is a matter of renewing our determination to become free and to have peace by practicing each and everyday, without judgement. Drop by drop we can free ourselves from the habits that created so much suffering within ourselves and our world. We can begin to trust ourselves again!

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