She's the need to curl up in a warm bed and have a nap when you're dog tired... instead of continuing to push through a work project that drains your soul.
She's the strange dream that wakes you in the dark with a burning desire to make love to your mate.
She's the hunch that points out envy lying like cold grease behind a warm smile, or heartbreak behind a mean facade. She gives pictures of what lies beneath the motives, ideas, actions, and words of others.
She's the fire that tells you when to dance crazily, and the nudging towards hibernation; when to explore and push forward, and when to pull your energy inwards.
She's your intuition, your sensitivity to cycles, your physical directives and gut hunches, your inner knowing. She's your Inner Wild Woman... which when followed, causes choices to turn out well. And when she's ignored or suppressed, our choices often turn out poorly, even disastrously.
For women who have buried her deep under the trappings of dieting or body dissatisfaction, hunger and fullness attunement is a first step towards learning to listen to and trust the inner Wild Woman once again.
Why Hunger & fullness attunement?
Whether you've been yoyo dieting for years, have a full blown eating disorder, or just want to get to the end of your work day without feeling hangry and exhausted... learning to listen to your body's hunger and fullness cues is for you.
Attuned eating occurs when you are in touch with and trust your body's signals of hunger, fullness and satisfaction, and you are able to use those signals to successfully manage your eating. Attuned eating (often called intuitive eating, or mindful eating or the non-diet approach), generally allows your body to reach and maintain the most natural, healthy, and comfortable weight for you.
But unbeknownst to many people, the benefits of honouring your body's hunger and fullness cues extend beyond just having a well-nourished body, stable weight, and a better relationship with food. Far beyond.
WARNING: This is where things are going to get a little magical, menstrual, and witchy!
Attuned eating can teach us about our deepest desires. For women in particular, I've found that this kind of work can be a catalyst for reconnecting us with the most powerful tool in our womanly belt - our INTUITION.
And it can sensitise us to the potent wisdom and magic of our NATURAL CYCLES - those of our physical bodies, those of our psyches, and those of the natural world of which we are all a part.
In short, attuned eating in general - and hunger-fullness training in particular - is a doorway through which we can step into greater self-knowledge and self-acceptance. This can only propel us forward in reaching our full potential and empowerment as human beings - empowerment of self and of our communities.
Hunger, fullness & other messages from the inner wild woman
For people who have been trapped in diet mentality, people who are recovering from an eating disorder (e.g. bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder), or are otherwise working on improving their relationship with food and their bodies, hunger and fullness attunement is usually a fundamental part of their healing journey - sometimes early in the piece, and sometimes much later (as in the case of people suffering from anorexia nervosa).
But hunger and fullness training is much more than hunger scales, body scans, or taking 10 minutes to mindfully eat a sultana! Whilst these are some tools you or your dietitian may use when you first learn to listen to your body's eating cues, with time and ongoing practise something else often begins to happen apart from physical body attunement.
It's the same thing that can happen with any embodied practice, be it yoga, dance, Vipassana meditation, martial arts, bushwalking, etc.
What happens as we increasingly listen to our bodies and act on its cues, is that we learn to trust our physical bodies, its cycles, its desires, its directives.
Furthermore, becoming comfortable with and relying on our internal physical cues puts us in touch with a deep instinctual part of ourselves, what author Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls the inner Wild Woman. This is the part of a woman that, in the case of long term dieting / disordered eating, has usually been shut up in a stuffy basement for so long we have forgotten she exists at all.
Intuitive eating, Intuitive everything
To really accept and embrace your hunger, and to honour and celebrate your fullness - both in the physical sense and the spiritual sense - we need to develop two crucial things:
- A sharp sense of intuition, and a comfortableness with using it regularly, and
- Acceptance of the natural cycles of life. Cycles such as: Life/death/rebirth. Peak creativity/dormancy. Activity/stillness. Night/day. The phases of your menstrual cycle. Light/dark. Seasonal cycles. Lunar cycles. Hunger/fullness is just another of these natural cycles.
Let's start with intuition. How do we shift from rule-based eating (and living) to intuitive eating; towards instinctual, connected, authentic living? And why people are so scared of doing so?
Entering the dark: moving from rules to instinct
Rules that try to override natural bodily functions and cycles are disruptive at best, and dangerous at worst.
Even advice as seemingly benign as "eat six small meals a day to keep your metabolism high" (invariably given as part of misguided weight loss advice) can create distress and separate us from our ability to eat intuitively, if it doesn't also coincide with our natural hunger and fullness cycles.
Unfortunately, many of us have been groomed to be obedient of external rules and untrusting of our bodies - this is especially the case for women.
We're fed countless diet rules from a young age. "Eat all your vegetables if you want any dessert." "Clear your plate." "Lollies are bad for you." "Apples are good for you." And as as we get older, "Paleo/vegan/whatever is the way our bodies were meant to eat." "Lean is healthy/acceptable/successful." "Don't eat after 6pm." "Sugar is toxic." Ad nauseum.
Moving from diet rules to intuitive eating can feel like stepping from light into darkness. Many people are so disconnected from their intuition that it has become something feared. Common responses from clients when first introducing the concept of intuitive eating are:
"If I stop dieting, I'll gain 1000 kilos!"
"I will eat everything in sight if I don't have food rules to keep me in check."
"I can't trust myself around food."
Such fears reflect an unfamiliarity with, and distrust of our bodies and are signs our instincts have been suppressed. If this describes you, perhaps it is time to move away from the flat, flickering, fluorescent (and biology-disrupting) light of diets and into the dark, mysterious, fertile and deeply enriching world of eating - and living - more intuitively.
The moon of long nights
The Moon of Long Nights arrives in early winter as the days grow shorter and the winter solstice approaches. The winter solstice is also known as Midwinter, or Yule. In Australia this special event falls on June 21st, marking the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year.
This lunar cycle holds the darkest night of the year, and the darkest time of the year. The word solstice is derived from the Latin words sol meaning "sun" and sistere meaning "to stand still". Solstice is therefore the perfect time to slow down, observe the beauty of the season... and reflect on our inner landscape.
Our modern western culture is not very comfortable with darkness. Darkness is a symbol of ignorance, danger, death, depression, and even evil - hardly flattering connotations!
Even some eastern philosophies - which traditionally view light and dark as equally meaningful and sacred - have been reframed by westerners to interpret darkness as negative. Take yoga for instance. Read a typical modern yogi's blog and you'll see multiple references to "stepping into the light of consciousness and out of the darkness of ignorance," and countless connotations of "love and light".
We have developed multiple technologies to dispel the darkness, beginning with the lightbulb and progressing through to the modern day where rare is the individual who is not exposed to light after sundown, given the prevalence of screens, phones, TVs, and laptops which are often used late into the night. Minimal regard is given to how this excessive light exposure impacts on our circadian rhythms, our health.
Intentional light exposure can exert all manner of hormonal and reproductive changes in chickens and horses, keeping them ovulating, laying, or breeding for longer for human profit. So it's not far fetched to imagine that light affects humans in ways we may be unaware of.
Darkness, intuition, the feminine, & the Body
Along with fearing darkness, our culture is also not very comfortable with or respectful of all the other yin aspects: the feminine (although that is slowly changing), intuition, recessive/nurturing qualities (as opposed to the strong/assertive nature of yang), and of course, the body.
Darkness is a good analogy for how western post-industrial society sees the body and its intuitions, its instincts: like darkness, it fears the body. It is not to be trusted. The body, with its instincts, complex and intricate processes we still only understand the basics of, is something that needs to be vigilantly watched, controlled, reined in, tamed.
When it comes to the body and its instincts - for food, for sex, for rest - we have been taught that, at best, the body is inaccurate in its demands, and at worst, that it is untrustworthy and even dangerously misleading.
Perhaps partly because of this attitude, this lack of reverence for the innate wisdom and power of our bodies, we do not respect nor love them nearly enough. We demand or wish them to be, look, feel a different way, the "right" way. We sacrifice them for other goals. We adopt restrictive diets, unnatural postures, uncomfortable clothes, or painful surgery to force them into the image of our vanity. We ignore our bodies' true needs.
So it follows on that we have also been taught not to trust our bodies' natural cues of hunger and fullness, its cues for certain foods at the exact times when it needs them.
Your body: a beaten dog that stays loyal
Abuse that is commonly re-labelled as a "lifestyle transformation" or a "wellness journey." Or even, a "spiritual journey." Sigh!
Let's take restrictive dieting and over-exercise, behaviours I see to different extents in the majority of my female clients. If you ignore your body's hunger cues in order to stick to a diet or diet rules, e.g. you underfeed or malnourish your body through dieting, it will at first make small sacrifices, doing its best to minimise the harm done to its smooth functioning.
It will slow your metabolism, reduce your body temperature, skip or stop menstrual cycles, make you feel tired to lessen the chances you'll go for a run... all in an effort to adapt to the reduced amount of energy available to it.
For many people, your body may also increase it's set point weight to minimise the chances of you dying from such a famine (diet) should it happen again. So even though you're eating less and you may initially lose a small amount of weight, over time you gain more weight. Usually when this happens, the dieter ramps up their food restriction and exercise, which further slows their metabolism... and on it goes.
Eventually, when the body can no longer accommodate for the continued high demands on it, longer term damage is done: infertility, thyroid disease, digestive issues such as IBS or dysbiosis from slowed peristalsis, depression and anxiety, and other psychiatric issues.
Another example: if you eventually binge on sugary foods - a normal response to the above restrictive diet, or a response to over-tiredness - your pancreas will happily exhaust itself to protect you from the effects of too much sugar in your bloodstream at one time. The body always chooses a lesser harm over a greater.
No matter how much we starve, torture, tire out, over-work, over-train, under-rest, ignore and overwhelm our bodies, they always look out for us, trying to mop up the damage, fighting to keep us alive.
Your body is like a loyal dog that has been beaten, that keeps coming back to sit at your feet anyway.
So how do we undo this damage? How do we begin to heed and honour the cries of the body, rather than stifle them and punish our bodies? As I mentioned earlier, to really accept and embrace your hunger and fullness - both in the physical sense and the spiritual sense - we need to develop two things:
- A sharp sense of intuition, and a comfortableness with using it regularly, and
- Acceptance of the natural cycles of life.
1. sharpen your intuition
Some of the tools I commonly use with my clients for hunger-fullness training include:
- Hunger-fullness scales
- Body scans
- Mindful eating meditations
- Books, such as the classic Intuitive Eating
But I invite you to go further than hunger-fullness attunement. Whilst intuitive eating work may carry a person through the bigger doorway of intuitive living, the following tools can help you to develop a greater sense of trust in your body and your intuition:
- Automatic writing or auto-journalling with your "higher self" - I have found this to be very useful in making some big life decisions
- Getting clear on what you truly desire. Not what others have told you you should want. Not just the options that are presented to you. You may have to quest a little bit (or a lot) to find or create the things you want. I mean what you really, REALLY want to do, be, have. Write it out. Refer to and refine it regularly. Action it.
- Meditation, yoga, dance, walking in nature, ocean swimming... any embodied practice that clears your head and connects you with your body. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to meditate or do yoga to connect with yourself - find an activity that you enjoy and look forward to, and try to incorporate it on a weekly basis to start with, gradually increasing as you feel able to.
- Letting go of people in your life who criticise your desires and douse your passions. These are the soul-crumblers, the people who doubt your ability and sensibility and tell you so. If you can't let them go entirely, at least minimise your contact with them. We may not be able to choose family, but friends and lovers - be ruthlessly exclusive with those who try to extinguish your light. Life is too short.
- Reading anything by Clarissa Pinkola Estes: Women Who Run with the Wolves, and The Dangerous Old Woman, are both captivating and visionary resources for women.
2. embrace your cyclical nature
We can learn to move with the natural cycles of our bodies, and of the seasons - both of nature, and of our lives. This involves accepting that the only thing that stays the same, is change.
Learning to be comfortable with change is part of skillful living. Another way of describing this is psychological flexibility, and it can be developed through various mindfulness practices and the modern systems that have adopted them, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Such practices can help us to understand that everything is in flux, and often, follows a cycle.
Getting to know and appreciate the cycles of your physical body is a crucial part of awakening the inner wild woman. Cycles include such as menstrual, hunger/fullness, sleep/wakefulness, activity/rest.
Getting to know and appreciate the cycles of your psyche is also important. Our emotions are always in flux. We have creative peaks and dormancy. Periods of high intellectual performance and inertia.
Finally there are the many cycles of nature, which are a reflection of our inner cycles. Following the moon's cycles can be very restorative to some women - regular exposure to waxing and waning moonlight has even been known to regulate ovulation and menstrual irregularities.
wild woman: what she isn't, what she is
It must be said that the Wild Woman archetype is not akin to the ra-ra sparkly "inner yogi goddess" that forms part of the widely marketed Sexy Successful Spiritual Woman Ideal - what I see as a branch off of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand as writer Kelly Diels describes it. That is a fake movement that seemingly serves the individual, and always serves the business tactician set on creating an empire for herself, rather than something that truly lifts up all women or creates meaningful social change. More about that in my next blog!
The Wild Woman is ancient. She carries everything a woman needs to know. Generations of women before us have embraced and known her by different names. She has always been by our side, waiting for us to connect again. So how do we live from the inner Wild Woman? I leave you with a quote from my favourite author on this topic.
"How does one make a decision? One knows. La Que Saba (the inner Wild Woman) knows. Ask within for her advice. She is the Mother of the Ages. Nothing surprises her. She has seen it all... We all know in los ovarios (our ovaries) when it is time for life, when it is time for death. We might try to fool ourselves for various reasons, but we know."
- Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves