When I was twelve, I was bullied for having scrawny, little chicken legs. I was stick thin, to the point where I looked sick and was often asked if I struggled with anorexia or bulimia.
I have always had a complicated relationship with food.
I did have an eating disorder, but not the one you’d think.
In the 1980’s my grandmother went to rehab for a binge eating disorder. She’d drive to the local strip of fast food restaurants, get something from every single take out window and when she finished all of the burgers and fries, she’d get an entire pie and eat it, alone, in her car.
Binging was talked about in my family, but I was completely unaware that I was doing it. Perhaps if I had shown the normal physical symptoms, I would have known sooner, but the truth is my metabolism moved through the excessive amounts of food so quickly that my body wouldn’t absorb any of it. I was malnourished, anemic and had extreme thyroid dysfunction. By the time I was 15, my hair started falling out and my menstruation cycles were so intense, I would sometimes bleed, profusely, for up to 21 days straight.
There was something wrong with my “Agni’. Metabolism is one of the functions of Agni. I burnt through everything I ate too quickly, and found myself chronically insatiated.
In Ayurveda, Agni doesn’t just refer to the fire in your stomach, transforming the foods you eat into energy. It refers to your fire for life. It’s your hunger for knowledge, experience and most of all, love. Having too much fire in the body could mean digesting food so quickly that you can’t absorb anything at all. It can also be indicated by feeling unsatisfied by life or the inability to digest and process emotions.
Ayurveda says that your ability to digest is related to all of your senses, not just taste. In this context, food is not only the oatmeal you have for breakfast, but also the visual stimulation you take in through electronic screens. Food is the feeling of a hand caressing your cheek and the smell of seaweed when you go to the beach. You are constantly trying to digest all of the sensory information you take in, assimilate, absorb, and eliminate it.
This is a massive endeavor when you consider that your senses are taking in roughly 11 million pieces of data per second in a culture that bombards you with thousands of subliminal messages through advertisements and media each day. There’s simply no way for you to process everything that’s happening.
So what happens when you throw a lot of dirt on a fire? You smother the embers until it gets so weak that eventually it burns out.
It explains why my inability to process led me to seek satiation in boxes of chocolate chip cookies. It explains why I could never eat enough to feel a sense of belonging. I could never eat enough to feel love.
The answer for me, was turning my relationship with food and eating into a sacred, ceremonial experience that nourished and calmed all of my senses.
What does that look like?
- Purchasing the highest quality, ethically sourced ingredients.
- Cooking for yourself as much as you can.
- Making sure your head is clear and that you’re cooking intentionally and with mindfulness.
- Creating visually stimulating meals with lots of color.
- Setting the table.
- Praying and cultivating a feeling of gratitude before you eat.
- Putting the fork down between bites.
- Actually TASTING your food.
- Stopping just before you feel full.
It’s easier said than done. The starting place for me was being able to make and sip my morning drink intentionally. Most days it’s a glass of warm lemon water or Chyawanprash with almond milk. The Chyawanprash is especially helpful because it uses a combination of herbs and ghee. This helps keep your nervous system relaxed and mind focused so you can sustain intentionality all day long, and Ghee strengthens Agni. Weaving awareness into the rest of your meals is easier with this simple foundation to your day.
By slowing down enough to bring consciousness into my most basic survival instinct, I began to see my choice in everything I digested. I weeded out the technology and relationships in my life that were not nourishing me. I spent more time in nature to break free from the overstimulation of city life. Eventually, I became completely filled by the love I learned to give myself.
Written by Alex Nashton
Yoga + Mindfulness Synergized with Neuroscience