Digestion in Ayurveda is called Agni or the digestive ‘fire’. Agni is considered of utmost importance. If working well, it gives good health. If digestion malfunctions, it gives rise to ‘ama’ or toxins, which can and do contribute to the cause of ill health, along with unresolved trauma, among other key factors. Critical to good digestion is to know when to eat, how much to eat and how to eat.
How you treat digestion is very important. What you eat is important, but even the best foods are of little value if you cannot digest them. Ayurveda places great emphasis on your awareness of, and attention to, your digestion.
Your Past Conditioning
When you were young you were probably pressurised to eat at a certain time, irrespective of your hunger, and to ‘clean your plate’ and you may have learnt to eat as a reward or eat to be sociable. If so, you may now be out of touch with your body’s needs for food and be eating out of habit, or for emotional reasons.
A New Way ~ learning to tune in to your digestion
The only true reason for eating is physical hunger, though in our modern society we eat a lot for pleasure, enjoyment and social celebrations too. In order to be more sensitive and aware of your body’s signals however, no matter why you’re eating, the following exercise is very useful, to help avoid unnecessary eating and over-indulgence.
You must first start to feel your stomach. Allow yourself to get hungry by delaying eating. When hungry, put your attention in the area of your stomach and notice what you feel. You may not feel anything or you may be aware of an emptiness, a true hunger in this space. At this point, have a meal. After the meal, place your attention on your stomach again. You should now notice a significant contrast. From these two extreme spaces of contrast, with considered and intuitive practice, you can learn the difference between an empty stomach (when hungry) and a full stomach (when satiated).
Going Forwards ~ stages of digestion
From now on, make a point of always checking your stomach before and after eating. As you do this over the coming days and weeks you’ll become aware of your ‘hunger level’.
Your stomach has two functions – to hold food after a meal and to begin digesting. As your stomach digests, it slowly empties. After a meal your stomach should be no more than three-quarters full, leaving room for churning the food and for digestive juices to do their job with optimal function.
Two hours later your stomach may be half full and after another few hours, it will be quarter full. A quarter full is the point at which your stomach has finished digesting the previous meal and is now just emptying. So it’s only now the stomach is truly ready to digest again. It is at this point that it sends us signals of hunger.
So many of us (myself included at one point) are eating far too much between meals, snacking and grazing, eating little and often, believing it’s a good thing to do. Whereas in actual fact, it’s just sending confusing signals to the digestive system, because it then doesn’t know what stage it’s at within the whole digestive process. As a result, we then begin to see all kinds of digestive issues showing up in their early stages and if subtle enough and left undetected, they become worse over time, until chronic and more of an issue to undo and heal.
Tuning In ~ fulfilled or filled full…?
However, if you continue to check your stomach, by putting your attention in that area of the body, you become more aware. You begin to recognise when your stomach is full, three-quarters full, half full, quarter full or empty. As you do so you will become more and more tuned in and even be able to predict your hunger. When you feel half full it will be up to two hours before you will feel hungry. When quarter full, you will shortly feel an appetite.
For good digestion, it is most important to eat when hungry. If you eat before true hunger arises you’re expecting your stomach to finish digesting the previous meal and yet, at the same time, to start digesting a new meal. This upsets digestion. The second most important lesson is to stop eating when three-quarters full. Overeating leaves no room for churning and digestive juices and so digestion is compromised. It is like putting too much coal on the fire. A simple question to remember after the meal is: are you fulfilled or are you filled full? ‘Fulfilled’ feels good. ‘Filled full’ is a heavy discomfort in the stomach and a general feeling of dullness and lethargy.
If you truly tune in and listen to your stomach you will over time develop better-eating habits. Gradually you will tend to eat at the right time, when hungry, and eat the right amount. At this point, you will learn from listening to your stomach the amount you should eat for breakfast which satisfies but leaves you hungry for lunch, which should be the main meal of the day, eaten around 12pm to 1 pm because this is when digestion is at its strongest. Then you will eat appropriately at lunch to leave you with a hunger for your lighter evening meal, ideally eaten by 7 pm. Only if hungry should you snack between meals.
Another important consideration for digestion is the way you eat. Ayurveda considers it essential to sit and relax. Only when you relax can your body concentrate on digestion. Therefore do not watch TV, read a newspaper, book or magazine or even scroll through a screen while eating. Also do not eat if you’re having an argument or have become emotional. The best scenario is gentle company enjoying a meal together or else eating quietly on your own.
Lastly, make sure you’re also eating appropriately for your constitution, for you as a unique and individual being. Eating foods which do not suit you and your individual make-up, no matter how healthy they may have been labelled, will not support a healthy digestive system and ultimately feed your mind and body fully if they’re not the right foods for you. So make sure you’ve done your research and are not just following the latest celebrity trend.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Having lived most of my life with food sensitivities and intolerances, I’ve been there, done that and done a lot of research and training…e.g. raw foods are not for most people despite what mass media may say, especially if you already have issues like constipation, insomnia, anxiety or dry skin. Similarly, spicy, hot, acidic foods are not much use to someone with reflux, skeletal aches and pains or skin issues like eczema. Or if you struggle with deep depression, lethargy and obesity, foods like mushrooms are not going to help you. I could write a whole other blog post on this…and perhaps I will soon. For now though, just remember, there is not a one-size-fits-all remedy. We all have to do our own research and find what works for us.
If you would like some extra help and guidance, do get in touch, where we can discuss your specific needs and make an individual plan to suit you.
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