When I feel the chill of winter near, I start to dream of warm, foamy chocolate; hot toddies; and long, luscious sleep. And this is a good thing. Naturally, the fall and early winter season season beg for more heaviness and warmth in both the foods we eat and in our lifestyle routines. The downside of this season is that it is also a time for overindulgence and strong cravings, especially when we couple the cold weather with the stressors of the holiday rush.
One of my favorite Ayurvedic authors, Dr. Robert Svoboda, says, “If Ayurveda were a religion, Nature would be her god, and overindulgence would be her only sin.” And I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of “sinning.” But the good news is that in the world of Ayurveda, there is no need for guilt and atonement when it comes to working with overindulgence and taming our cravings. In fact, it requires a heavy dose of self-awareness and self-compassion. All of us, to a certain extent, use substances (particularly food) to effect our mood and mind. And according to Ayurveda, when we lack self-awareness, we will actually choose the very foods that will bring us into deeper states of imbalance. Oh my!
So, those of us with more vata will crave energy-boosting sweet tastes for that instant energetic high—and a subsequent energy crash. Similarly, fiery pitta types will typically crave meat and spicy foods that create more heat and intensity in the short-run, but can lead to more internal inflammation over time. Kapha types will lean toward heavy fried foods or sweets—comfort food—that lead to more lethargy and dullness.
So how can we turn our body’s cravings into body wisdom? The first step is awareness. Start to notice the foods that you crave when you feel awesome and balanced. When you feel good, you will probably be choosing foods that make you feel even better! Then, notice the foods you choose when you are sad, angry, exhausted, or just plain stressed out. These are usually the foods that will be more harmful for your constitution. Easy peasy. The foods you crave when you feel great are the ones that fuel you in a good way. The ones you crave when you feel bad, they’re the harmful ones.
There is a really powerful moment in time when we can move from an old pattern (overindulgence with food, shopping, media, sex—anything!) to a new pattern. Once you have connected with self-awareness, notice what you are craving. Take the time to check in and ask yourself, “What do I really need? Would moving in a different direction than my habitual pattern actually allow me to feel better tomorrow?” When we can shift the pattern, we release ourselves from the pains of addiction, and we free up energy to move toward our life goals and our spiritual journey.
How? Well, you can start small. Give a little of the poison. If your body/mind is used to getting a few glasses of wine or a big bowl of ice cream each night, simply taking it away from yourself can be like ripping a bottle out of a baby’s mouth! Try reducing the amount of what you deem to be an addictive or unhealthy substance by one-third each week.
You can also replace the substance with something else. For example, instead of too much alcohol, try a hot ginger-spiced milk and a long, essential-oil infused bath. Your body/mind may not even notice the ol’ swaperoo! Be compassionate with yourself. No one, especially not you, is served through harsh self-judgement. Sometimes we all indulge our unhealthy cravings. If we can indulge with awareness and moderation, the effects are usually quite benign.
So, practice self-compassion when you overindulge in dark chocolate, Facebook, or pizza. Put your hand on your own heart and say silently or aloud, “Oh, look, my darling, you just overindulged in (fill-in-the-blank). You must be really tired (sad, angry, lonely, etc.).”
I have found that the more I connect to this process, the less I actually use substances to shift my moods and energy levels. I also experience tiny miracles popping up all throughout my daily life as self-awareness turns into self-compassion. And who doesn’t need a big ol’ oversized helping of that?
This article was originally published on the Yoga Journal blog on November 7, 2013.