“Somebody described it as a culinary spa experience,” Vicky Richardson says of her first ever Mindful Dinners event. “That was a great little quote.”
When she launches into an account of the dining experience she has created, the attendee’s description seems fitting.
The dinner combines meditation and breathing exercises with giant Tibetan singing bowls, a spiced tea ceremony, five seasonally-inspired courses and a cacao ceremony to end.
Through it all, former primary school teacher Vicky, who has retrained as a nutritionist, shares details about the food being eaten and how it benefits the gut, providing nutrition information and recipes in an ebook after the evening has come to a close.
“I’ve created an experience where I’m teaching people how to benefit their gut health, their nutrition and their wellbeing,” the 49-year-old says.
“But rather than just telling them it, I’ve actually created an immersive environment where they experience what I’m teaching about.”
The idea for the event stemmed from Vicky’s own health experiences, which also sparked her change in career.
She saw a doctor with symptoms similar to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a condition which affects the digestive system and can cause stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.
Several tests and procedures including biopsies - taking tissue samples from her body - ruled out any “serious illness”, she explains.
But Vicky found herself in a position where she wasn’t sure what to do next or how to manage her symptoms.
“Other people have experienced this too where they have IBS type symptoms and have examinations and procedures and likewise find out it’s nothing really serious,” she says, “and there’s a limit to what the NHS can do for you then.
“They’re fantastic at finding, catching and hopefully curing you from worst case scenarios but then there’s this whole group of people who have really debilitating symptoms and what do you do with that? I felt really strongly that I wanted to investigate what I could so that was the beginning of the health journey for me.”
Vicky, who lives in the village of Great Ouseburn in North Yorkshire began to explore how different foods could nourish or destroy gut health and how meditation and mindfulness could improve symptoms.
Doing so took her down a path that not only helped to relieve her of debilitating symptoms - “I got my quality of life back” - but also saw her retrain in nutrition therapy, “realising the science of nutrition was complicated yet fascinating”. Her Master’s dissertation focused on mindful eating.
“I was really fascinated by the link between something that seems abstract like your thoughts and how calm you may or may not be and whether that can really impact your body.
“Before I did the degree I thought these things were almost separate - your head could be calm and it wasn’t really connected to what went on in your body. But very quickly I realised there’s a lot of scientific research on this…
“There’s very strong links between how stressed you are and meditative practice and relief from IBS symptoms.”
Mindful Dinners was formed last year, with Vicky wanting to tie in what she had learnt in her research with meditative and mindful practices she had embraced herself, in order to support others with gut health.
“The opposite of mindful eating is mindless eating and we probably all do it,” she says. “Sat at your computer rushing to meet a deadline or get through your workload.”
The focus of Vicky’s events are instead on mindful eating and the sessions start with breathing exercises, Tibetan singing bowls and guided meditation to help people de-stress and enable the body to “prioritise” digestion.
“If you eat when you’re in that ‘fight or flight’ state, your body isn’t ready to receive the food and actually can’t really digest it very well,” she explains.
She calls the opposite the ‘rest and digest’ state. “There’s such a strong link between stress and IBS and gut disorders because your whole digestive tract is lined with nerve endings that respond to stress hormones.
“It makes total sense that if you’re not releasing these stress hormones, you can actually digest food better.”
After the relaxation activities, Vicky hosts a tea ceremony and diners create a spiced tea together. The meal then follows.
“All of the courses are designed to have elements in them that benefit gut health in different ways,” Vicky explains.
“So I talk through what the dish is going to be and share with people how it benefits gut health.”
To finish, there’s a cacao ceremony, a calming ritual focused around a cacao drink.
“It’s hot chocolate but if you went to heaven, it would be what you’d get there,” Vicky says. “It’s quite thick and incredibly luxurious and delicious.
“It’s amazing watching people drink it because everybody smiles. I’ve never seen anybody drink it and not break out into a huge grin.”
Vicky held the first Mindful Dinners event in Great Ouseburn in September last year.
The next event, on May 7, is taking place at Bellwood Hall, a country estate on the edge of Ripon.
Reflecting on the events, she says: “I really wanted to create spaces where people feel safe and calm, are treated to delicious healthy food and can learn about how best to nourish themselves.”