10/07/2012 11:09 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2012

A Reinvented Meal: First Course -- Relaxation

Whereas a mindless meal begins with turning on the TV and zoning out, the mindful meal is a total body-mind self-care event that begins with a first course of relaxation. There are several good reasons for using relaxation as the first course:

  • Relaxation is restorative, grounding, and centering
  • It facilitates digestion
  • It aids in stress management to help prevent emotional overeating
  • It primes the sense of smell, which leverages maximum enjoyment and facilitates fullness
  • Preloading with smell and flavor prior to eating facilitates satiety, or fullness
  • Breath-focused relaxation can help promote awareness of fullness, which helps prevent overeating
  • Relaxation provides a reality check through the rediscovery of your physical or bodily dimension

The Best-Kept Relaxation Secret

If I were to ask, "When is the best time to relax?" you'd probably say, "When you're feeling stressed."

True, that would be the best time to intervene with relaxation. But when is the best time to utilize relaxation in all its calming potency? The answer might surprise you: right before you eat. You see, the classic yoga technique of abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, known as pranayama, works best when you have maximum diaphragmatic control, and that occurs when your stomach is empty.

Patanjali, an ancient yogi who "codified" the subtleties of pranayama, noted the importance of practicing pranayama prior to meals. I'm sure you've noticed how sometimes you feel short of breath after overeating, and maybe even how your breathing becomes a bit labored after eating just a moderate amount.

Some of this is purely mechanical. The distention of the stomach competes with the working of the diaphragm, a horizontal muscle located between the chest cavity and the stomach cavity. But some of it is biochemical. Soviet physician-scientist Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, a student of breath and yoga now renowned for his asthma control method, explains that digestion of food by the body's cells is a kind of "inner breathing" that has the effect of intensifying the overall respiration rate of the organism, leading to hyperventilation and shortness of breath, and that this occurs after eating moderately, let alone after overeating.

So just like you wouldn't go swimming on a full stomach, it doesn't make sense to practice diaphragmatic breathing on a full or even half-full stomach. Sure, any relaxation is better than nothing, but why not take advantage of the perfect window of opportunity for relaxation, which happens to be right before the meal? This timing, then, is the best-kept secret of relaxation training. A couple of times a day, when your stomach is almost fully empty, you are perfectly positioned to tap the maximum relaxation benefits from practicing some simple relaxation steps for a few minutes.

In addition to providing a dose of restorative relaxation, performing a brief abdominal breathing exercise two or three times a day before you eat is a great way to develop a well-timed stress management routine. After all, while we may struggle to set aside time for stress management, we hardly ever forget to eat. One way or another, we find time for nutritional self-maintenance on a daily basis. So anchoring your relaxation to the basic self-maintenance behavior of eating assures that you won't forget to remember to relax.

Allow yourself to begin to think of eating as relaxation and of relaxation as the first course of every meal. Fundamentally, both air intake and food intake are metabolic import-export activities. Each new breath, just like each new bite, forces out waste products. Ponder this miraculous circularity: to exhale, you have to inhale, and to vacate your bowels you have to fill them (no intake means no peristalsis, which means no bowel movement).

Inaugurate the New Routine

Any project of change begins with a first step. Sometimes the first step is huge: You drive across town and plunk down five grand on a hot tub. But sometimes the first step is very small: You go get a screwdriver. The first step of reinventing your eating life is of the latter kind -- small, easy, effortless. Starting with your very next meal, have some air for your first course. Let this small step inaugurate your new meal routine.

If you only have enough patience for one mindful breath, so be it -- for now. The amount of air you consciously serve yourself doesn't matter at this point, nor does the technique you use. What does matter is that you start cultivating a habit of filling up on air right before you eat. Wherever you are in time, there is a meal looming on your horizon -- maybe in a minute, maybe in a few hours, maybe tomorrow morning. Start your next meal with wide-open lungs, and remind yourself: first a lungful, then a mindful, and only then a mouthful. Reconnect with your body through breath (Course 1), then reconnect with yourself through a moment of mindful self-awareness (Course 2), and then -- and only then -- reconnect with the world at large through mindful, conscious eating (Course 3).

Be well, fellow mind.

Share your mindful eating moments at Mindful Eating Tracker

For more ideas on mindful eating read Pavel Somov's blog Sapience

Adapted from Reinventing the Meal: How Mindfulness Can Help You Slow Down, Savor the Moment and Reconnect With the Ritual of Eating (Somov, September 2012)

For more by Pavel Somov, Ph.D., click here.

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