WN29 Learning Ayurveda through Diet

A passing comment “why don’t we give up chocolate for lent” turned into a deeper look into diet. I’d was reading on Ayurveda at Christmas, and found it interesting. But, the volume terminology and things to consider was overwhelming. It didn’t turn into behavioural change. This time around, I started with the practical, picking up some cookbooks and taking it from there.

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian approach to, with 2000 year old canonical texts. But it’s also a living tradition. The culture includes interpretation, commentaries and validating the written with the experiential. Its origins may be close to that of Tantra. Where Tantra is a narrow path, Ayurveda is open to all.

It contains a detailed understanding of anatomy. And maps relationships between different systems within the body. It’s a full medical practice. It also favours lifestyle choices and dietary considerations as preventative. It considers a healthy body ailment free. A blocked nose or aching joints would receive simple suggestions including dietary changes. Ayurveda considers all chronic conditions to have small starting points. These are addressable before they incubate. Only if untreated, will they spread or move through the body.

What’s good for you might not be for me

The principles of Ayurveda are universal, but the practice is very situational.

Each person has a Prakruti, or nature, that is unique and irreducible. Much of the attributions and descriptions refer to the three doshas; vata, pitta, and kapha. These are described as thought, action, and substance. Or, as catabolic, metabolic and anabolic. As well as many other correspondences.

Almost everyone has the expression of one dosha or two more than the others. These basic types neatly divide people into categories, but this is only a starting point.

I’m a vata type, which means I’m tall and thin. I’ve got comments like “how can you eat that? You’re so thin.” It’s that very quality that means I can handle some sweet and heavy foods without putting on weight.

Living with, and sharing meals, with a pitta type has shown me which foods I’d naturally avoided and why. Pittas are defined by their strong ability to digest almost anything. In fact, the advice is to rein back on ginger and other digestion aids. After reintroducing beans and cheese, my corollary is “how can you eat that without getting gassy?”

Foods and activities are balancing or aggravating for one or more of the doshas. Don’t avoid things that can aggravate your primary dosha, but perhaps have less. The aim is to have a diet and meals that keeps the doshas balanced. Your predominant dosha defines your disposition and will be easier to aggravate.

Aggravated vata can leave you spacey, pitta angry, and kapha lethargic.

You are what you digest

“You are what you eat” is a common enough phrase. It’s better than “calories in, calories out”. Ayurveda takes it one step further; you are what you digest. Which includes not just your doshic balance from your prakruti, but how you are this very moment.

Agni is foundational to this process. Agni means fire in Sanskrit, and your digestive fire is a quality to nurture. Agni is the capacity to digest, and like a fire it can be smothered with too much food, or doused with too much liquid. Certain spices will increase your Agni over time. Dense foods, and foods served cold, are naturally harder to digest.

Your stomach is the seat of Agni. Food needs digesting before being incorporated into your tissues. The build-up of blockages, called Ama, in your body can get in the way of digestion and assimilation. There’s no direct translation for Ama. One source suggested cholesterol as an example. Plaque builds up, and veins lose their elasticity, stopping nutrients getting into your tissues.

The white coating on the tongue is a visible sources of Ama. You can also have a buildup of Ama in your digestive tract. Having a good amount of fibre, as well as not overeating can help reduce this.

Overall, this advice leads to favouring lighter foods. Which means less meat, eggs and cheese (especially hard cheese). And having them at lunch, when Agni is strongest.

Milk, ghee (clarified butter) and fresh yoghurt can be good, depending on the condition of the cows. Ayurveda finds a lot wrong with industrially farmed dairy. Taking calves away sours the mother’s milk. Then homogenisation and pasteurisation makes it tamasic. Raw milk, boiled with ginger on the day of consumption, and making yoghurt fresh, is the recommendation. I haven’t gone this far.

The right amount of the right food

Ayurveda recommends having smaller meals, at fixed times. And, to only eat when hungry. Then, eat to two thirds full; a third solids, a third liquids, leaving one third air in your stomach. Enough to stimulate digestion, without slowing it. One source suggested burping as a signal of being full. There’s something to that, even if it’s having the presence and body awareness while eating.

There are other suggestions for what to do when eating to ensure you actually digest it. Things like eating in silence, at a moderate pace, not eating when angry. Think of a time when you’ve been with friends and family, and when food came the conversation stopped. Good food can do that. Body and mind both giving attention to food and digestion. You’ll digest food better than mindlessly eating in front of the TV.

Foods that leave you peaceful and alert are sattvic. Energising foods are rajastic. Draining foods are tamasic, and recommended for no one. Compare the diet of a saint and a king and you’ll get some idea of which foods are sattvic and which are rajastic.

Advice biases towards a sattvic diet, partly due to who is writing the advice. But, a rajastic life can be a fine way to live. A rajastic meal may be recommended for soldier or a king before battle. But, too much rajastic food can leave your scattered and violent.

Tastes

There are three phases of digestion, the first being taste.

Taste is quite literal. Ayurveda defines six tastes. Things taste sweet, sour, or salty, and they can also be bitter, astringent, and pungent. These tastes affect you when they hit the stomach. A good meal will cover all six.

Taste is an evocative word for the intent. Consider how good the first bite tastes when we are ravenous. And, that when we are full a meal can become tasteless. Our senses are letting us know what we need.

Sweet, sour and salty foods balance vata and can aggravate kapha. The remaining tastes balance kapha and can aggravate vata. Pitta falls somewhere in the middle. Sweet, bitter and astringent balance pitta, and pungent, sour and salty are aggravating.

There’s a push-pull interplay between all the ingredients in a meal. Which is why the advice isn’t to avoid foods entirely. Everyone around the table may have the same foods, but the proportions and needs will differ.

Foods then have digestive and post-digestive effects, which are also expressed as tastes. What we ate a meal or two ago affects our current needs. Spices are for their digestive effects, not only their taste. There are also effects that fall outside this model.

There are tables for ingredients’ tastes, doshic effects and recommendations.

What did I change?

We succeeded with no chocolate over lent! We did eat less meat, and more vegetarian meals. As well as having more root vegetables instead of grains.

I stopped intermittent fasting (i.e. Skipping breakfast on purpose). Instead, I had porridge, or banana bread. Something small and light. Food is grounding for vata, so eating earlier helps.

We’ve also (mostly) been having dinner earlier. I’ve been avoiding snacking after dinner, or having a large second portion. With a mid-afternoon snack of yoghurt (warmed to room temperature), or nuts before it. And I’ve been eating more fruit here and there.

We’ve experimented with more recipes. And had no ready meals. This has been good! As well as the baking, we’ve been making soups. Noodle soup has become a regular part of our roster.

Book recommendations

Eat, Taste, Heal is the one book I’d recommend to get started. (Even with that title.) The first half of the book gives a decent introduction to Ayurveda for diet. The concepts build nicely, and there’s reference tables. It’s well edited and the recipes actually look good, without being too complicated.

Any vegetarian cookbook will get you most of the way to a sattvic diet, by avoiding meat. As long as you’re gentle with the cheese and eggs.

For a technical understanding, Vasant Lad‘s books are good. I’m only now venturing into that territory. The first book I read was by Robert Svoboda, and that was a good overview, if dense. Their Youtube channel has short introductions.

What next?

Well, I’m more emotionally balanced and alert than when I started, but I am still feeling a bit scattered. Part of that is the pressure and uncertainty that comes with house hunting at this very moment. The market is moving fast!

But, the path’s life-long, right? There are specific, non-food suggestions to balance the doshas I’d like to explore. I’d like to build out an exercise routine, again. I’ve fallen off the wagon here too. The daily routine advice may guide my approach.

And, taking walks in the sun, now there’s more of it. More time in nature would definitely be nice.