Dear Yoga Student,
Last night I had the pleasure of chatting to the lovely Vanessa Alves about Winter Nutrition for the Winter Resilience Course. We spoke about how we can increase our immunity through the winter by choosing nourishing foods and the right supplements to support our immune systems.
Joy of Eating
I love Vanessa’s take on nutrition. For her, it’s not about banning ourselves from certain foods, but instead taking care to nourish ourselves well around 80% of the time. This leaves the other 20% for foods that stimulate feelings of delight, joy, and fun. Perhaps such foods (and drinks) have cultural or family significance or somehow or other, they feed our soul. Life is here for enjoying after all!
Finding a Path Through the Mountains of Junk Food
This middle path helps us to stay kind and connected to all parts of ourselves as we navigate our way around the profusion of processed junk food, a vast array of alcoholic beverages and the plain old sugar and fat-filled homemade foods that we tend to encounter more of at this time of year.
An Ancient Yoga Model from the Upanishads
Yoga philosophy enables us to increase our understanding of and connection to all parts of ourselves. This process enables us to better understand where our desires and motivations to eat these foods come from. The model of the koshas originates in the ancient text of the Taittirya Upanishad, specifically, the chapter is called Ananda Valli. Like so much yogic knowledge it is truly timeless and highly applicable to the dilemmas (large and small) that we face today.
How Our Five Layers of Being Inform Our Decision to Eat Chocolate (or Not)!
The Ananda Valli asserts that knowing one’s Self is the path to freedom from all concerns, fears and to a positive state of blissful living. Using this model to help us understand the underlying motivations for eating or not eating chocolate can help us to understand this yoga philosophy on a very practical level.
The first kosha is the annamayakosha, the food layer. It is the outer visible layer, made of blood, muscles, skin and other tissues. This part of us will say “eat the chocolate” if we are hungry or our blood sugar is low. The concern of the food body is to keep the physical body going. Food is the fuel and the building blocks of the food body. If energy levels are low, or nutrients are needed to repair or maintain the body the answer is yes (chocolate contains magnesium and other minerals as well as ample energy). If there is a feeling of being satiated, the food body will say no.
The second kosha is the pranamayakosha, the breath/energy layer. This system by which prana is distributed throughout the body and energy field. Generally, this part of us will not have a strong sense about eating chocolate. However, if we take the time to breathe, connect within and consider, the energy body will let us know intuitively whether or not to partake. The pranamayakosha will be able to sense how our energy will be affected by eating the chocolate and present a sensible answer. This is a great skill to master! Kinesiologists use it in their practice. Manomayakosha
The third body is the manomayakosha, the mental layer. It will say, “eat the chocolate” if you feel obliged to do so to appear polite. Or if you think to yourself ” I haven’t tried that particular chocolate, and I’m curious to see if what it tastes like”. Manomayakosha is the part of us that keeps us safe and helps us to progress in life. This layer is sometimes translated as the emotional layer. If we sense emotions arising from the breath/energy layer, that are untended by our breath and awareness, they move to the subconscious mental layer). We might unconsciously placate these untended emotions with food, which is known as stress-eating.
The fourth body is vijñãnamayakosha the wisdom layer. It will choose to eat or not eat the chocolate for reasons to do with an inner knowing of what is the right thing to do in the moment. There is no need to consider or check-in, the wisdom is firmly established from the repeated study and application of yoga philosophy in everyday life. If we are vacillating or deliberating as we attempt to access this wisdom we are in the manomayakosha.
The fifth body is the anandamayakosha, the bliss layer. This is the innermost layer, closest to Atman the Eternal Self or our Soul and is characterised by joy, tranquillity and pure bliss. This layer does not depend on externalities (such as chocolate) to feel good. This bliss layer is nourished by spiritual practice, loving-kindness, gratitude, heart centred awareness and practices which cultivate peace and a sense of oneness and interconnectedness with all that is.
Nourishing the Bliss Body
The fact is, we can create a similar (but much more short-lived) feeling of contentment and bliss by eating chocolate. Concurrent with the feeling of joy of eating chocolate is a spike in the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. There are all manner of things we can consume that sharply increase our dopamine levels (e.g. food, sex, drugs, shopping, gaming, social media, even listening to music that we love… )
Nothing wrong with these things, we are here to enjoy life.
…Or Nourishing Our Dopamine Receptors?
However if we are unconsciously looking to nourish our bliss body by frequently pursuing these activities then could end up with addictive tendencies. It is well known that the way out of addiction, is to embrace spiritual practice, to cultivate a conscious connection to a Higher Power or with the living vibration that may be perceived within all of Nature.
Yoga Nidra and Guided Relaxation Practices Increase Base Level Dopamine
Research has shown that Yoga Nidra and guided meditation increases base level dopamine levels. Activities that spike dopamine (such as eating chocolate, if you like it) create a chocolate seeking habit as the dopamine drops and the body looks for more of that chocolate bliss. However, activities that increase the base level of dopamine will help us to truly nourish the soul, by creating a cushioning effect so when our dopamine goes up with chocolate joy, it won’t crash back down so far and leave us in a slump.
Enjoyment of the Senses
My current belief is that both chocolate and meditation are good for the soul! We are here to savour, explore and enjoy as well as to learn, develop and grow spiritually. Indulging in sensory pleasure is a wonderful part of life. So look for opportunities to nourish your soul through music, dancing, relaxation, meditation, Yoga Nidra, being in nature, chatting to friends, caring for others and generally sharing love and goodwill. Yet do allow yourselves some indulgent treats and sensory pleasures, at least 20% of the time. Enjoy!!