The granola is in the bowl, the banana is sliced, and the first bite is at your lips when you realize that you’re not hungry—or that you’d rather have yogurt this morning. So why did you pour milk on those oat clusters without even considering what you wanted? Habit, of course.
You buy chocolates when you’re feeling blue. You shun butter for your baked potato even though your body is crying out for that dab of fat. We’re all creatures of habit, taking the same route to work each day, going to the same yoga class each week, slipping into the same routine of dinner, dishes, bed (or take-out in front of the TV) each evening. The trouble is, we’re often acting without awareness, at odds with the most basic teaching of yoga: Life is infinitely richer when we tap into a conscious awareness of the present moment.
To recognize the unconscious influences on your behavior, it helps to understand the yogic notion of samskara. The Sanskrit word has a host of different translations, but you can think of samskaras as patterns that are reinforced by repetition, the well-worn grooves of thought and behavior that give rise to habits—like preparing your usual breakfast without even checking to see if you’re hungry.
Some of the strongest samskaras are formed around food. Because you eat several times a day, you’ve had countless opportunities to deepen the patterns that determine what, when, where, and how much you eat. You may have even consciously trained yourself to see certain habits as good (like buying whole grain instead of white bread), and others as bad (like eating a cookie). By examining your samskaras, you can stop shopping and eating out of habit and start recognizing what you’re truly hungry for.
Wake Up and Smell the Present
The Buddhist master Nagarjuna, who lived in the second or third century, called samskaras “the traces of deeds done in the past.” The deepest samskaras are created by acting or thinking in the same ways over and over again. So, for example, if every time you argue with your partner, you drown your sorrows in a pint of ice cream, you’re strengthening the samskara of using food to soothe emotional distress. The more often you do it, the more automatic the behavior becomes. After a while, your hand will reach for the ice cream after a fight even if you’re too upset to eat.
Many situations trigger responses to food—whether it’s feeling lonely on hearing the word “Thanksgiving” or thinking “three weeks until my beach vacation.” A food’s flavor, texture, and aroma can also provoke intense emotional, physical, and mental responses, and unconsciously dictate your behavior. Walking past a bakery whose yeasty loaves have just come out of the oven can make you salivate at the thought of a thick, steaming slice of bread slathered with butter, and then cause you anxiety as you consider how quickly that smear of butter goes to your hips. In an instant, you’ve cycled from joy to dread. Instead of considering your hunger level or your body’s need for nutrients, you’ve allowed unconscious thought patterns to dictate whether you reach for a loaf. Rather than be awake to the vivid reality of the food in front of you, and of your hunger in any moment, you instead evaluate the food according to your own fears or society’s abstract notions about carbohydrates or fats.
No More Food Fights
The way to overcome negative food samskaras is to create positive ones, patterns that lead to freedom and eventually replace or reconstruct the patterns that lead to suffering. This is different from the traditional approach of creating a “good” habit to annihilate the “bad” habit. Using the traditional approach, you’d replace the post-argument ice cream binge with a celery stalk binge. Sure, you’d no longer be filling up on fat and sugar, but you’d still be mindlessly turning to food in a time of crisis instead of being present with the argument and your response to it. Even though it might spare you some calories, if your new celery samskara doesn’t perpetuate the ultimate goal of yoga—moksha, freedom from conditioned existence—it’s still considered a negative samskara.
In the yogic approach, you remain awake through the cycle of your habits so you can react to old eating patterns with the insight of the present moment. You can banish even the most dreaded of your habits—mindless midnight munching, losing control at the sight of sweets, eating an entire bag of potato chips—with positive samskaras.
Take Time Out
Anything in your day—a happy or a painful event, the smell of an alluring food, even the dinner bell ringing—can trigger a food samskara, blasting you with an urgent “Must Eat Now!” When it does, hit the pause button and take a moment to consider your habitual response. Say it’s the smell of doughnuts wafting from the conference room. Instead of answering their siren song, wait five minutes. Tune in to your breath to center yourself. Then scan your body for physical signs of hunger: Is your stomach grumbling, do you have a headache, are you having difficulty concentrating? Are you really hungry, or just stressed? Or are you feeling the urge to eat strictly out of reflex? By becoming aware of what’s going on for you right in that moment, you won’t respond habitually.
If it’s stress you’re feeling, you’ll probably feel more satisfied and fulfilled if you deal with what’s causing the stress than if you eat a doughnut. In fact, eating one might cause you more stress. But let’s say you are hungry. Are you hungry for doughnuts or for something else? Listen closely to your body to see if you can tell what nutrients it craves. Maybe you’d prefer protein, or you need to quench your desire for a little fat, or you want something sweet but not a doughnut.
Of course, after you’ve put the doughnut on hold for five minutes, you may discover you still want it. If you do, eat it with awareness; at every bite bring your attention to the flavors and to your physical state so you know exactly when your urge has been satisfied and how the doughnut has made you feel. By pausing and bringing consciousness to your physiological hunger and examining the source of your desire, rather than eating impulsively out of habit, you’re on your way to creating a new, positive samskara.
Look Before You Leap
Before exterminating old habits, it’s good to know what they are. To find out, you need to observe them impartially. Don’t try to intervene, just observe. You may discover that your habit of reading while eating distracts you so you eat long after you’re full. Or you may find that you’re conflicted about whether it’s OK to eat more pasta. Don’t stop yourself, but observe the thought processes: your judgments about how bad carbohydrates are, the nagging feeling that your hunger won’t be satisfied if you don’t have more, your deep gratification as you twirl the last few strands of spaghetti on your fork.
Eat Outside the Box
By observing, you’re pulling old patterns out of the shadows of unconsciousness so you can respond with awareness. Through regular observation, you’ll start to recognize which foods make you feel healthy and satisfied. If, for instance, more pasta makes you feel heavy and sleepy, you’ll discover you want to eat less of it. On the other hand, if you notice that you really are hungry for more, and that an extra serving leaves you feeling satisfied and well balanced, then your consciousness has taught you to trust yourself to know when enough is enough.
If you have any preconceptions about food, they will most certainly get in the way of creating new patterns. For instance, if you go to extremes to avoid all high-fat foods because you think all fats are unhealthy, you’re reinforcing the negative samskara of habitually categorizing foods. In moments when you crave olives, say, but refuse to eat them because of a fear of fats, you’re not honoring what your body needs; you’re just reacting out of habit, even if it’s considered a “good” one. Instead, stock your kitchen with your favorite kind of olives, and the next time you crave one, enjoy it in good conscience, and good consciousness! The feeling of satisfaction that comes from working with your internal guidance system, instead of against it, reinforces the positive samskara.
With a simple shift in perspective, you can create remarkable changes in your eating, health, and well-being and be on the road to freedom.