A Kripalu Intern’s Guide to Mindful Eating and Surviving the Dining Hall

by Kat Olson

Living and practicing yoga in Boston for five years before accepting a yearlong internship with the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in November 2012, the two things I heard most often about this yoga haven were “the Berkshires are so beautiful” and “the food at Kripalu is amazing.” Now, three months into my internship, I can personally attest to both statements.

Kripalu is situated in a lovely dip between the rolling Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, overlooking a picturesque lake. And in my opinion, the Dining Hall is just as picturesque as the outdoor scenery. It seats close to 300 people beneath a ceiling that is two stories high. Every day, steamy, creamy, hearty soups; bright, crisp, fresh veggies; savory grains; and mouthwatering seasonal dishes welcome guests into the Kripalu eating experience. And that’s just the main buffet line! There’s also the Buddha Bar, offering a variety of simply prepared choices, and the Sandwich Bar, where you can design your own panini with organic lunch meat or vegetarian ingredients.

I learned within my first couple of weeks here that a skillful grace is required to mindfully navigate the fabulous array of mealtime choices. Part of my experience at Kripalu has included an introduction to Ayurveda, accompanied by the body awareness that surrounds the Kripalu Yoga tradition. Last month, I scheduled a two-hour Ayurvedic consultation with Erin, who works with the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. We looked closely at my habits, body, behaviors, and food choices, and Erin outlined a new routine for me based on my Ayurvedic constitution (pitta-vata). While she included some specific dos and don’ts for achieving optimal health and balance, she made it clear that, above all, I should be willing to participate in the experiment of eating. That is, if I’m deeply craving a food that I know is disruptive to my constitution, I should feel free to go for it and simply notice what happens. If the food truly is “bad” for me, I will eventually be conditioned to not crave it by its adverse effects.

So began the rise of my mealtime awareness practice. I considered the sensations in my body and patterns in my mind that surround eating. Hunger, cravings, satiation, aversions, and reactions all play a part in the eating experience. I learned to consider food’s effects not just while I was eating, but throughout the whole day. When was my digestion functioning? When was I feeling an energy crash? When did I feel heavy in the pit of my gut? When did I feel light and active? When did my mind get cloudy? Then I traced these reflections back to what I had eaten—or not eaten—earlier in the day and the day before, trying to find connections.

I also began to notice non-nutritional aspects of my eating. For example, at the end of each day, when I thought back to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the whole process of selecting and eating my food was a blur. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken longer than 10 to 15 minutes to eat a meal, and often I couldn’t recall what I’d actually eaten. Rather than chewing each bite 30 times—a number that’s often recommended by experts—I typically chew less than five times, frequently overstuff myself past the safe marker of 80 percent full, and sometimes go back for seconds or thirds without making a conscious decision to eat more.

Enough was enough! After some research, I created a list of mindful eating practices that fit my body and lifestyle, and resolved to add them to my routine. Here are some that may work for you:

  • Center yourself before entering the Dining Hall (or restaurant, or kitchen). Pause, close your eyes, breathe, and relax.
  • Move slowly through the Dining Hall (or read the menu slowly), and remain calm. Notice if you tend to get irritable maneuvering the Dining Hall or waiting for your server.
  • Use a small spoon for soups, or chopsticks. (At Kripalu, chopsticks are available at the Buddha Bar.) This requires you to interact with your food, and generally inhibits careless eating.
  • Put your utensil down between bites.
  • Chew each bite up to 30 times, and, most importantly, notice how long it takes each bite to become almost liquid in the mouth. Digestion begins in the mouth—why not give your body a good head start?
  • Close your eyes when chewing. Pay attention to the sensations. What does it taste like? What does it feel like? What other qualities can you sense?
  • Take five breaths between each bite, or between every few bites, noticing how you feel after swallowing. Do you feel nourished? Joyful? Full? What do you want to choose for your next bite?
  • Aim to spend at least 20 minutes eating your meal. Time yourself without using any mindfulness techniques to observe your natural eating habits. Then use these or any other techniques to explore how it feels to extend the time spent with your food.
  • Sit comfortably for five minutes after eating. Continue to breathe and observe what’s around you and any immediate effects of what you just ate.
  • Be thankful for your meal after you’ve finished.

For breakfast on my first official day of mindful eating, I took 30 minutes to eat one banana. It was torturous. At lunch, eating a bowl of soup and a small helping of veggies and tofu took almost an hour. Contrary to ruining my enjoyment of eating, this experience has yielded some interesting observations: I noticed myself reaching for my chopsticks or spoon before I’d finished chewing the previous bite. I noticed how I actually did prefer some foods over others when I took the time to really experience each bite, even when I thought I liked it all pretty much equally. I noticed that when I anticipated eating slowly and mindfully, my perception of portions changed.

As I practice relating to my food this way, I’m beginning to think about it differently. Instead of experiencing eating as a source of shallow pleasure or as a defense mechanism, I’m recognizing it as a nourishing, healing practice. I encourage you to give mindful eating a try. You may not have a silent space to dine with your eyes closed at every meal, but don’t be afraid to say, “I’m thinking about what I want,” when your friends ask why you’re standing in line at Panera with your eyes closed, taking long, deep breaths.

Kat Olson earned her 200-hour yoga teacher certification from Thailand’s Vikasa Yoga, and holds a 30-hour certificate from YogaHope’s Trauma Informed Mind-Body program in Boston.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.