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The practice of sacred eating

Fall 2003

by Alison Shore Gaines

Do you ever eat for reasons other than simply to feed your body? Most of us do. We eat to celebrate special occasions, to connect with others, to help us think better or to stop worrying. We eat because we're triggered by an enticing gourmet pizza in a television ad or a photo of double-chocolate-chip-macadamia-nut cookies. Show me a human experience and there will be an eating ritual associated with it.

In our culture, we have the dilemma of an over-abundance of food. A few years back, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that 60% of all deaths were caused by diet-related diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. Many peasant cultures around the world experience better health and greater longevity than we do.

Part of this is nutrition; certainly what we eat impacts our health. But most of us know at least the basics of eating healthfully (eat your spinach, chocolate is not a food group, etc.). So what's really going on? Why are we eating ourselves to death?

How we eat is as essential as what we eat. Most of us use food to some degree to cope with stress and emotion and to nourish deeper hungers—a longing for refuge, sensuality or intimacy, the yearning to know ourselves as sacred.

How we eat reflects how we live. When I accumulate layers of undigested tensions, thoughts and emotions throughout the day and then eat before integrating, I'm ingesting all that chaotic data. I'm not fully present and miss out on the sensuality and satisfaction of my meal. By the time I've plowed through my first serving, I'm going for seconds so that I can actually experience the food on my plate. I've noticed that food tastes best when my palate is clear and my belly is empty, but not uncomfortably hungry. If there's no real edge of hunger to be satisfied, then I keep grazing and end up feeling full but unfulfilled. Sound familiar?

By developing a practice of slowing down, breathing deeply, attuning to all the senses and chewing fully, we can heal our relationship with food and with ourselves. Every time we eat, we have an opportunity to enter a compassionate, sensual, satisfying meditation that enhances well-being on all levels. Try the 10-step Sacred Eating Meditation below. It may not be practical in our busy lives to take all of our meals in meditation, but we can aim for once a day or three times a week. Whether we're eating amid the loving chaos of family, at lunch with colleagues or (yes, I still occasionally do this) on the run at the wheel of a car, it's still possible to be simultaneously aware of breathing, chewing, savoring, receiving and digesting. Meanwhile, we become more relaxed, more focused and better listeners. May we all be at peace, savoring all of our meals and all of our days.

The 10-Step Sacred Eating Meditation

  1. Create sacred space. Whether you place flowers on the table and light an elegant candle or simply arrange your food artfully on your plastic cafeteria plate, serve yourself as though you matter.
  2. Breathe. Begin with five deep, slow breaths.
  3. Attune to your body. Scan your physical body. Where are you holding tension? Relax and let go.
  4. Attune to thoughts and emotions. Acknowledge active issues and intentionally place them aside for now, to be handled at another time.
  5. Create a prayer, gratitude or intention for this meal.
  6. Attune to your senses. Before taking the first mouthful, contemplate the colors, shapes, textures, aromas and temperature of your food.
  7. Take your first mouthful, close your eyes, savor and chew thoroughly. Chewing fully aids digestion, alkalizes the food and adapts it to your body chemistry, slows you down and helps you feel satisfied with less food. To focus your mind, repeat your prayer or count the chews. Each mouthful is an experience in itself. Are you still breathing?
  8. Receive each swallow consciously. Acknowledge digestion. Acknowledge receiving. So often we receive without absorbing—?from food, from relationships, from spirit.
  9. Pause often throughout your meal to breathe and tune into your belly. When the belly feels satisfied, notice if there is part of you wanting more food. With compassion, notice what you need. If you need comfort, take great comfort from the next morsel; if you crave sensual enjoyment, receive every nuance of sensuality. When we're not aware of or compassionate with our needs, we become split from an essential part of ourselves, leading to compulsive behavior. Through compassion and connection with the whole self, we heal ourselves and our lives.
  10. Digest. Sit back, breathe and acknowledge digestion, enhancing satisfaction and well-being. Consciously sending oxygen to the belly helps us relax after a meal, digest and assimilate better and receive nourishment on all levels.

Alison Shore Gaines, senior faculty and director of fasting programs at Kripalu Center, is a nutrition consultant, lifestyle educator and yoga teacher. She conducts workshops on sacred eating, purification retreats and Holistic Lifestyle professional trainings around the country and maintains a private practice in Lee, Mass. Contact her at 413-243-3455 or

Complete list of articles by this author:

YOGA IN EVERY BITE: The practice of sacred eating

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