Emotional eating is a daily problem for many, many people, most don’t even know they do it. Combining the philosophies of Chinese medicine and yoga, it stands to reason that emotional eating can be helped using the ideals and teachings of the yamas and niyamas
How Does Yoga Relate to Emotional Eating?
In Chinese medicine (acupuncture), each organ is “in charge” of a positive and a negative emotion. Our stomach and spleen hold thoughtfulness, pensiveness, obsession, and worry. They are responsible not only for digesting your foods as they enter the body and being the primary sorting “rooms,” but also all for digesting exterior information, thoughts, and emotions.
Acupuncturists note that when we stay awake at night mulling and obsessing over the details of our lives--chewing each piece of information without swallowing or digesting it--we are displaying a stomach or spleen deficiency pattern that also prevents us from digesting our foods effectively.
Coincidentally, in yogic philosophy we do the same thing. Ancient scriptures describe chewing thoughts over and over again with the mana mind--“chewing mind,” “mulling mind,” “monkey mind”... we’ve all heard these terms in class.
This observation has been made throughout the ages in various forms--modern, integrative, alternative, and age-old medicine. As a result, we spend a lot of time working on diets and cleanses (saucha), and finding comfort in the uncomfortable hungry moments (tapas, discipline) to prevent overindulgence and its inherent misery. But it’s not all about restriction; there is more!
How Can You Use Yoga to Prevent Emotional Eating?
There are a few steps you can take towards healing your emotional eating (or in traditional Chinese medicine, your spleen and stomach!) and creating healthier eating habits.
1. Ahimsa (self-love and non judgement)
Make pleasure a priority in your life. Giving your body other ways to experience deep pleasure will provide you with other options when you crave that feel-good factor. For example, always wear soft fabrics and comfortable clothes. Make your evenings luxurious with bubble baths or new soothing shower gels and a soft sponge. Gift yourself a new plush pillow or a reading nook in your home or office. Get a beautiful bunch of flowers for your desk.
2. Svadhyaya (self-study and observation)
Start to write down what you eat and when. Note what is happening around you when you reach for foods. This type of food journaling isn’t about counting calories, it is about noticing your trends. It actually works in two ways.
First, it brings awareness to your eating habits. Just like everything else in yoga, once you become aware of something it is much, much easier to begin changing it.
Second, you will start to notice trends in when you eat. Do you eat when your boss is around, or when you’re bored at home? Do you snack at your desk instead of getting up and taking a quick break outside? Do you eat at certain times out of habit instead of hunger, like when you know you have a 10-minute drive to your next client? Do you grab that same candy bar at the register when you’re purchasing groceries, even if you just ate or are about to cook dinner?
Habits like these need breaking. Once you are aware of your eating habits, you can begin to tame some of them. Take on one at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed.
If you have noticed that you eat when you are overwhelmed with emotion (frustration, joy, sadness, or anger), consider open-ended journaling about those feelings. Just keep writing and writing before you reach for the food. Sometimes working through that emotion can help alleviate it. If it runs deeper, consider bringing in a professional therapist to help you build better coping practices.
3. Santosha (contentment)
Feeling satiated and content can help curb cravings. If you eat when you’re bored then give your hands something else to do; write down three things you feel lucky to have or be a part of. Three things that bring you contentment.
You can also try drinking water in these moments to mimic that satiated, satisfied feeling. Add raspberries or cucumbers to your water to make it feel special. Hydration is always good, after all!
An ancient option would be to do oceanic breathing when the food pang hits. Just 30–60 seconds of deep, smooth breathing through your nose can leave you feeling blissful and content. Thank you oxygen, but also thank you lungs for being the ruler of inspiration and peace in Chinese medicine! (Side note: In Chinese medicine, the more you practice deep breathing the easier it is to work through stress, grief, and sadness in your life.)
4. Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion to a higher power: you)
If you notice that you are stress eating in very specific situations (job, relationship, time of year), consider changing that situation. This might very well be a drastic change, but clearly you are unhappy in that realm of your life. You live once. That’s it. So find situations that make you more happy than stressed, and place the emphasis there instead.
Yoga accepts any and all religious and non-religious belief systems, which means that a devotion to a higher power basically is about being committed to that which you believe--it is about honoring yourself for what you believe to be true. If your body is ever telling you something is wrong, honor that, listen to it, and rectify the situation. The greatest gift your yoga practice has to offer is the ability to listen to your body and mind.
This is just a few ideas on how to use yoga to curb emotional eating. Once you have initiated a new routine it usually only takes a few weeks for your body and brain to see it as a permanent and natural way of acting, so get past the hard part and start thriving!
Good luck, and remember to honor your body.
Image Credit: Tie Simpson