“All thinking and feeling , all wishes and hopes begin with food” Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin.
This post is dedicated to Myra Lewin from whom I learned pretty much everything I talk about here, and my fellow yoga travelers.
You might find the above quote somewhat exaggerated, but it points to a central role food plays in our lives. You might consider looking beyond food as something coming from the outside that we put into our bodies to help us survive, to give us pleasure, or make us miserable, and to re think the attitude we have towards taking care of our selves. Why do so many diets fail? Most diets are based on taking away what makes us sick or fat or too skinny. We approach the diet with a sense of dread or we examine the ingredients and take a higher dose of what we determine is good. For example, if there are so many vitamins in a carrot, then it should be better when I juice 10 carrots. That’s nonsense.
The ancient art and science of Ayurveda can give us a completely different perspective. Yoga is a spiritual practice (see my post What is Yoga?) and Ayurveda, its sister, is the ancient practice of conscious medicine. It is based on dharmic* principles or natural law. The main concepts are, Prakriti as the ultimate substance of whatever can be perceived in the universe, its un-manifest essence. From this point of view all worlds and all beings are perceived as pure potentials. Prakriti itself is composed of three primary qualities called sattva, rajas and tamas and stand for balance (sattva), motion (rajas) and resistance (tamas). These three qualities are called the gunas; they are intertwined and always in motion and dynamic interaction. This interaction is their essence. When we look at a day we can experience the gunas in action with tamas ruling the night, rajas the transitional periods of sunrise and sunset and sattva the light of day. These dynamics apply to our selves, our culture and to food. If you watch yourself, you can notice when you are in a tamasic, rajasic or sattvic state or moving from one to another. Our culture is predominantly rajasic (multitasking) or tamasic (couch potatoes), only occasionally sattvic (yoga, taiji, meditation, etc). Most fruits, nuts, grains, beans and vegetables are sattvic, but aged cheeses, commercial milk and soy milk, garlic, onions and nightshades, fermented foods and yoghurt that is not freshly made are rajasic. Have you ever noticed that most vegetarian dishes served in a restaurant contain predominantly nightshades, garlic and onions? There is no room to debate garlic here. Tamas foods include processed foods, meat, coffee, alcohol, microwaved foods, leftovers, frozen foods and foods with preservatives. For a more complete list check out my teacher Myra Lewin’s book Freedom in Your Relationship with Food (see below).
Another important element of Ayurveda is the three doshas, which represent the basic functions in everyone and everything. We are all a combination of Vata, Pita and Kapha, which makes up our constitution. To determine your constitution you can take a quiz.
Vata relates to the elements of air and ether, breathing, movement and is creative and flexible when in balance and produces anxiety and fear, when out of balance. It is light, dry cold and airy. A diet of salads and rice cakes will throw the predominantly Vata person even more out of balance.
Pitta relates to fire and water, digestion and transformation and is intelligent. A Pitta person will be able to understand and manifest things, but will be angry when out of balance. Hot peppers are no good for a predominantly Pita person then.
Kapha‘s main elements are water and earth and its qualities are heavy, slow, oily, liquid, cold, dense, soft smooth and sticky. Kapha out of balance produces greed, attachment, hoarding and congestion, while calmness, loving and forgiveness are signs of Kapha in balance.
Ayurveda, not only looks at the quality of the ingredients we consume, but also at the quality of the consumer itself and in addition at the digestive qualities of the food as well as the eater. For example; we might experience bananas as sweet, but from the digestive perspective they are sour, which doesn’t make them go along with milk very well.
Another aspect of Ayurveda’s perspective on food is paying attention to the six tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent. The six tastes also influence the three doshas in different ways. We like to have all the tastes present in our foods. While this is important we can get deeper into the tastes another time. Ayurveda uses many spices according to their cooling, warming, stimulating, digestive, strengthening or gas dispelling attributes.
Another central concept of Ayurveda is that of augmenting and extracting foods, which we generally should balance towards consuming augmenting to extracting foods 60/40 %. Basically, grains and root vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, taro, breadfruit, beets, squash, pumpkins are augmenting while beans and greens are extracting.
This might sound a bit overwhelming, but is meant as food for thought. Besides what we discussed so far, Ayurveda also looks at how we eat. Standing up, in a car, while watching TV or on the computer, or discussing problematic subjects, and eating less than two hours before sleeping are all things that do not help digestion. Taking time, reflecting on where the food comes from, and recognizing the effort and energies that went into your food are all helpful, and especially to slow down and chew well all the way to liquid.
Raw food and gluten are hot topics these days. The idea of eating food in its purest state sounds great of course, but not everyone is able to digest a lot of raw foods. Vata people for example are better off eating apples cooked than raw. From an Ayurvedic perspective raw food is better eaten in the summer or for lunch rather than dinner.
While there are some people that are indeed intolerant to gluten, consider the possibility that this is another plot by the industry to keep you buying processed food. This is the real culprit: we eat too much processed food that is difficult to digest and has been rid of all its mana, prana, chi or life force energy, however you like to put it. Ayurveda examines not only the connection between food and your physical health but also how food affects your mind when we apply tamas, rajas and sattva and how different food influence people in different ways. There is no one solution for all, but different approaches for each person.
Some last points. If you eat predominantly fresh, organic, local foods and cook it your self, touching it with your hands as much as possible and chew it well, you will be much happier. If you watch your self eating and listen to your insides, you will feel a burp coming. Your stomach is giving you a sign to stop eating. Everything you eat after this will not be digested and turns into toxins and eventually dis-ease.
Exactly 5 years ago I took my first silent yoga retreat with Myra Lewin and continued to study with her. At that time Myra published her first book on yoga and subsequently another one called Simple Ayurvedic Recipes. During my own teacher training I assisted Myra and learned cooking from her. Meanwhile I cooked for two more teacher trainings, several retreats and taught an introduction to Ayurvedic cooking workshop. While it took me a while to balance the spices and I am still learning of course, the many people who eat at my table not only like the taste of the food but often say how good they feel afterwards. If we can shift from eating for taste, or to fulfill emotional needs to improve our well being we make some big steps. Ah, before I forget, walk, just take a little walk after eating and you will digest much better. I like to say that cooking is one of the most soul-full activities you can possibly participate in.
*Dharma, Sanskrit, roughly the laws of truth that govern the Universe.
The primary source books for this article are:
David Frawley, Yoga & Ayurveda, Self-Healing and Self-Realization, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI, 2010
Myra Lewin, Freedom in Your Relationship with Food, Synergy Books, Austin, TX, 2009
Myra Lewin, Simple Ayurvedic Recipes, 2011
For more resources and recipes go to http://www.halepule.com/
Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin, Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, Picador, New York, NY