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Yoga, Exercise and Mindful Eating: What You Do Determines How You Eat
Like millions of others, you probably find yourself snacking in front of the TV or eating while driving or surfing the web. If you’re multi-tasking while eating you’re less likely to be aware of what you eat or when you’re full. You may even skip meals all together.
This is a phenomenon called mind-less eating. We may eat to satisfy our hunger, for comfort, or out of boredom, but likely have little awareness of how food is affecting our bodies. This is in stark contrast to mindful eating – when we respond to our hunger, fullness, emotions and energy level from a place of awareness.
Since yoga teaches us to be aware of our bodies, minds and emotions, can it also help us to be more mindful eaters? A group of Australian researchers decided to find out.
In a study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, investigators examined the eating behaviors of 159 women recruited from fitness centers, yoga studios, and the community. They were asked to complete a number of questionnaires regarding their exercise behavior, relationship to food, and mindfulness.
Based on their responses, participants were categorized into either a yoga group or a cardio-based exercise group. Those in the yoga group engaged in a variety of types of practice (hatha, Bikram, Ashtanga, Integral, etc.), as did those in the cardio group (running, cycling, dancing, cardio fitness classes, etc.).
Researchers also examined the types of foods eaten (“healthy” and “unhealthy”), body awareness and responsiveness to internal cues, feelings associated with eating, proneness to disordered eating, as well as mindfulness and mindful eating behaviors.
They found that yoga practice was related to healthy and mindful eating and body awareness, and unrelated to eating unhealthy food and disordered eating. Body awareness was identified as central to the relationship between yoga and mindful and disordered eating.
Participation in cardio-based exercise was associated with disordered eating, and not related to overall mindfulness.
This study’s results are consistent with other research that has found that amount of time spent doing yoga is related to greater body awareness, which lends itself to becoming aware of “when, why, and how much [a person] eats.”
The authors concluded that, “body awareness cultivated from yoga participation may help to address disordered eating in clinical populations or those at risk for eating disorders, but may not improve dietary habits in the general population.” Whether struggling with disordered eating or not, these findings suggest that the body awareness that comes with yoga practice can lead to healthier food choices and eating habits.
It is important to note that no cause-effect relationship was established in this study. It is possible that people who practice yoga are more likely to engage in a healthy lifestyle and have a positive body image than those who do not. Future studies will need to tease apart these questions.
The yamas and niyamas (ethical practices) of yoga teach us of the importance of nonviolence, truthfulness, non-excess, self-discipline and other factors that influence our daily choices and activities. These principles translate to all aspects of our lives including our relationships with our bodies, as well as what we eat and how. This can only serve to make the experience of living more satisfying.
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, author, yoga and mindfulness expert and creator ofBREATHE: 7 Skills for Mindful Relationships. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com