Am I Hungry!

Tapping the source of our hunger frees us from its pull and shows the direction for higher, creative living.

Hunger implies emptiness and the desire to find fullness, not only on the physical level but on the emotional, mental and spiritual levels as well. Hunger commences when we are only a few hours out of the womb. We experience separation from our source, our mother, and hunger for her food and her comforting presence.

Hunger originates in the search for fulfilment, happiness and completion, but in the outside world it takes many forms. Some seek to satisfy it through food, others through work, sports or leisure. Whatever external activity is performed, it has at its base the deep hunger for reunion with the higher self, for the return to our true nature, peace and bliss. It is a hunger for the permanent cessation of all hunger.

Physical hunger

Hunger is a sign of good health, and its absence is a symptom of disease, particularly of the gastrointestinal tract, Hunger signals the brain that food is required. It has 3 components:

  1. Appetite refers to food preference which the physiologist Gannon has summarized as that which "arises from the experience of previous pleasures; a wishing, longing or yearning for something especially desirable". We are hungry for those things we like and their very thought, sight, smell or taste elicits copious secretions of saliva and gastric juice, whereas just the opposite occurs for those things we do not like. When the sense of smell is destroyed, the appetite is reduced or lost. Genetic factors also appear to play a part, for example, lions do not eat bananas and monkeys do not cat meat. Appetite, therefore, determines what we eat. It is linked to swadhisthana chakra, the pleasure centre.
  2. Hunger pangs determine when and how much we eat. They are commonly described as a disagreeable ache or gnawing sensation in the upper central abdomen. They are believed by some to be caused by contractions of the empty stomach though this has not yet been proved. The point at which hunger is satisfied by taking food into the body depends to a large extent on social customs and appetite. This aspect of hunger is related to manipura chakra and the digestive fire.
  3. Hunger drive is said to be a deeper phenomenon than hunger pangs, and may be instinctive. Some authorities say that it results from cellular consciousness seeking to replenish a diminishing nutritional supply. It appears to be linked with energy expenditure, the body demanding food for survival; perhaps at subconscious or unconscious levels. It still exists even when the nervous, connections from the stomach to the brain are cut and the contractions of the stomach, associated with hunger pangs, cease. It is also present when the stomach is cut out. This deep hunger drive appears to be linked with mooladhara chakra, the centre for self-preservation.

These 3 factors work concurrently, creating a deep urge to eat, to take nourishment, to survive. This signals the brain and stimulates the stomach to contract, causing the feeling of gnawing emptiness called 'hunger'. This feeling is strongest on an empty stomach and disappears with the ingestion of food. It is temporarily stopped by sham chewing or swallowing, smoking and drinking alcohol, and by tightening the belt. Strong emotions also quickly abolish them. Appetite determines what we eat to tone down the hunger, but this is often influenced by other factors. For example, sexual suppression leads many people to overeat sweet foods.

Within us the mechanisms exist which tell us exactly how much we need to eat and when to stop. Rats who eat a diet diluted with cellulose or kaolin will increase their intake to Maintain a constant caloric intake and weight.*1 A dehydrated dog will at once replace its fluid loss up to the threshold of diuresis (loss through the kidney).*2 Therefore the body appears to be able to sensitively and accurately measure its intake. This has 2 apparent stages - the first is a temporary one, perhaps mediated by the psychological satisfaction of taking in, and the second is the permanent phase of satiation registered by the satiety centre in the hypothalamus.

Awareness is an important factor in separating physical hunger from mental hunger. By developing awareness we can become sensitive to our inner body signals and needs. Then we can avoid overindulgence by stopping at the point of satiation, and eating for the body and not for the mind. For some people this may require patience and mindfulness as food habits are not so easy to change. However, this is an excellent means of eradicating such conditions as obesity, dyspepsia and other digestive problems which often arise because of habitual overindulgence. Awareness is the key to controlling hunger.

Mental hanger

When you desire something and think about it for some time, it becomes a mental hunger or a craving. Such hunger is more than just the need for food, it is the desire to fill in the vacuum which we have created in our lives. Graving is an unconscious mechanism to compensate for deep insecurity, to satisfy the desire for sensual pleasure, or to compensate for lack of power or unrequited love.

When we crave we approach the world from a sense of self-centeredness. We are aware of the things in the world purely from our own subjective point of view. It is obvious that this approach is totally unrealistic and if we take it to its logical conclusion, it can only end in suffering through the frustration of our desires. Tension is thus produced and the body becomes unbalanced, diseased, weak and prone to indigestion.

The obvious antidote to this form of suffering is to try to attain a more selfless, objective view. Yoga and a meditative attitude of awareness will help to accomplish this. Instead of seeing everything with an attitude of grasping and taking, we learn to give, and find that only in this way can we truly gain. Then our hunger is satisfied and we turn inwards in our search for fulfilment rather than out.

The yogic approach

In yogic terminology, when hunger is tainted with desire, it is called a klesha. The 5 kleshas are the root of all suffering and pain. In the Patanjali Yoga Sutras it states:

"Ignorance, I feeling (ego), liking (desire), disliking (aversion), and fear of death are the pains." (II :3)

The objects of pleasure cause the mind to run after them. When we overindulge in pleasure we suffer disease. This is a universal law that binds us to the lower levels of consciousness. For example, if we overeat, we suffer from indigestion. Pleasure and pain originate in ignorance (avidya), and they are the prime motivating forces in man, existing at the roots of our being.

Most people eat as soon as they feel the slightest hunger, in an effort to avoid pain. A yogi, however, has developed the willpower to feel hunger without having to satisfy it immediately. He waits and allows the digestive fire to increase, and when he is really hungry he eats. The yogi is aware of hunger pangs, but like all other sensations, he sees their temporary nature and never allows them to control him. He sees hunger as a healthy form of suffering, far better than the suffering which results from overindulgence, and with this mental attitude he can actually enjoy his hunger.

The yogi eats neither out of boredom nor as a compulsive and repetitive habit. He eats to live and does not live to eat. At a certain level of yogic achievement, hunger ceases completely and even food is not required to maintain the body. This occurs when the individual consciousness has merged with the supreme. It is fulfilment of hunger at the spiritual level.

Bow and arrow technique

Before reaching this stage, however, the yogi must first become aware of physical hunger and see how it affects the body-mind. Then he can transmute and sublimate his hunger for worldly things into a hunger, a deep desire for spiritual life and inner knowledge. A good exercise for this is the bow and arrow technique which stretches our desire to the limit, thereby forcing us to break through into hitherto unexplored realms. By using the things of the world we can effectively eliminate their influence on us in the same way as we use a thorn to remove a thorn. The method is that of alternating attachment and detachment.

  • Phase 1: the drawing of the bow - Initially we try to detach ourselves from the things we like, desire or crave. Depending on the environment this is practiced in, as well as on the guru, as much as possible of the variety and spice are removed from the diet. For a period of 1 to 3 months, we exist on a bland, monotonous diet. In this time many desires, cravings, thoughts of all descriptions and excuses to break the discipline will arise. If we manage to last the time allotted, however, we will experience many new feelings and states of consciousness. During this time the practice of antar mouna is used to allow the impurities of the mind to surface and be eliminated without our involvement.
  • Phase 2: releasing, the arrow - When the allotted time is over, we feast to our heart's content on all those things we have been craving. This indulgence is harmless, even if it does cause a little digestive upset for a day or two afterwards. During this indulgence we really enjoy the objects of craving, and at the same time we usually find that these things are not actually worth all the tine and energy we spent craving for them. In this phase we experience the futility of trying to satisfy the senses through the sense objects. Satisfaction is not to be found in this start of activity. One experience of this kind is usually enough to start off a chain reaction and prompt us to search for higher, spiritual things. Thus drawing the bow and releasing the arrow leads anatomatically to the next phase.
  • Phase 3: Striking the target - We may not hit the bull's eye and reach the ultimate desire-free state the first time but at least our consciousness has been turned in the right direction. We have been aimed towards the higher goal. Daring this phase, a guru is necessary to steer us clear of the pitfalls and to aim our arrow towards the right target. He provides as with the fight by which to aim our shots and gives techniques to smooth our journey. In this way we gradually eliminate our desires and purify our minds.

If you want to try this technique for yourself, start by cutting down on all snacks, sweets and highly processed foods. Take 2 simple meals each day, consisting of 3 or 4 basic items which are not changed from meal to meal. If this is too difficult then stop all food and drink with sugar for a week to a month, or stop all salt.

If you lack the discipline for this also, then the ashram environment is the best alternative. It is interesting to note that this technique can be applied to any aspect of your life - such, is the versatility of tantra, the science of stretching and liberating.

Hunger sadhana

In order to achieve an objective balanced view of hunger, it is necessary to become progressively less involved and entangled with habitual cravings and desires. This can best be achieved gradually with the help of yogic in techniques.

  • 1. For decreasing hunger: probably the best technique is bhujangini mudra in which air is taken into the stomach until it is completely fall, and then the air is belched out. This reduces the feeling of emptiness within by stimulating the satiety centre in the brain. Use it anytime you feel hunger coming on and try to hunt your
    food intake in this way. Other useful techniques include:
    • Asanas: Vajrasana (before meals), shavasana (with breath awareness), shashankasana.
    • Pranayama: Bhramari, sheetkari.
    • Meditation: Any meditation technique.
  • 2. For increasing hunger the best techniques are:
    • Hatha yoga: Shankaprakashalana, kunjal and neti, agnisara and nauli.
    • Asanas: Pawanmuktasana part II, surya namaskara, paschimottanasana, bhujangasana, shalabhasana, dhanurasana, ardha matsyendrasana.
    • Pranayama: Bhastrika, ujjayi.
    • Mudras and bandhas: Tadagi mudra, maha mudra, maha bheda mudra.

Karma yoga is one of the best ways to increase the digestive fire, especially if it takes the form of hard, physical work.

Bhakti yoga also increases the hunger, especially for spiritual things.

Gyana yoga reduces physical hunger by reducing the passions of the mind, and increases spiritual hunger.


*1. E. F. Adolph, Amer. J. Physiol., 151 : 110-125, 1947.

*2. R. T. Bellows & W.P. van Wagenen, Amer. J. Physiol., 126: 13-19, 1939.