“When the diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When the diet is correct, medicine is of no need.” – An Ayurvedic proverb
In our rambling family kothi in Amritsar, a grand uncle with a pasty disposition used to have a vaid, an Ayurvedic physician, visit every so often. Usually, the ailment was nothing more than a scratchy throat or a bout of indigestion brought about by indulging in the sweet and savoury delights sold on push carts. As he grew older, the visits were for usually for serious, age-related illnesses, and sometimes to calm his hypochondria-induced stress. My mother, along with a gaggle of children, would wait for the vaid’s visits. He would whip out some decoctions from his potli, bhasmas (incinerated gems and metals) and pishtis (powdered gems and metals), sometimes in gold and silver, leave some instructions on how to consume them. And at the centre of everything the vaid stressed, lay food.
The Science of Tradition
Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old Indian natural healing system, with its roots in Vedic culture, takes a holistic view of the body, mind and spirit, in which a balanced diet is critical. According to Ayurveda (Ayuh means life and Veda means knowledge), all material things are composed of the five elements, earth, air, fire, water and space in different combinations. In the human body, these combinations take different forms or doshas: vata (wind), pitta (bile) and kapha (water), making up a person’s prakruti (nature). It is through anna (diet), and with the help of aushada (medicinal herbs) and vihara (exercises) that the body is kept in balance.
Disease is the result of imbalance of the doshas. According to the Charaka Samhita, the most seminal text on Ayurveda, prevention is the first goal, and it is only once this fails, does one need to resort to cure the disease, holistically. In the modern era, where the emphasis on food is more on its appearance and taste rather than its wholesomeness and the right combinations, a throwback to Ayurveda is more pressing than ever before.
A Living Wisdom
To understand more about Ayurveda in our modern lives, I spoke to Namita Chandra, Health and Wellness guide and Founder of a new age wellness venture that draws on traditions, Yoganama. She believes that good health should not be complicated to achieve, even in the 21st century. Stressful lives, the scourge of ‘busyness’ and unpleasant sensory distractions such as noise, traffic and pollution lead to a depletion of energy and a fall in the quality of life, impacting our health. But there is a way to counteract this, if we take a look at our traditions. “Ayurvedic wisdom can give us the tools to modify our lifestyle and the wisdom to make the right choices, so we can live in harmony with our environment. It is intuitive, logical and very simple. Health is not something that we achieve by use of force or compulsion—but simply by being more aware and mindful, with our body and mind in alignment.”
What role does food play in this equation? Manjit Singh Gill, Corporate Chef, ITC Hotels, a follower of Vedic culinary traditions, is a vegetarian who enjoys cooking meals for himself, according to his prakruti. Gill believes that the physical as well as the metaphysical aspects of food cannot be ignored. He says that the community of chefs and cooks, whether at home or in a luxury hotel, have a great role to play since they are responsible for the digestion, nutrition, metabolism, and even the absorption of nutrients in the body. He explains, “It is a chef’s responsibility to keep our society healthy.”
Going deeper into Ayurveda, according to the late food historian KT Achaya’s A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, the choice of food needs to take into consideration a person’s physical temperament (satvik or serene, rajasic or excitable and tamasic or darkness), the nature of the malady, the season of the year, and the habitat.
Growing up, Ayurveda nudged itself into our lives without us quite realising it. For nasty indigestion we drank ajwain (carom seeds) in hot water. When we had a niggling cold, we brewed up a pot of banafsha. For high fever or joint pains, we drank a cupful of haldi-doodh to quell inflammation, a recipe now neatly usurped by the west. To draw this ancient wisdom into our modern lives, the first step is to understand your prakruti. The easiest way to get a basic understanding is to complete one of the online Ayurveda prakruti/ dosha questionnaires, following this up with a visit to a reputed Ayurveda centre.
The experts echo in unison, we cannot deflect the understanding of ourselves by handing over this responsibility to others. The most important thing is to pay attention. “We need to learn to listen to our body and adapt our lifestyle as per our inherent tendencies, something Ayurveda helps us do effectively and efficiently,” says Chandra. The easiest way to discover what diets work for you is by observation. Keep a life diary, covering foods, sleeping habits, stressful situations and more, to understand how you operate and respond to various dietary and environmental inputs. A champion of an Ayurvedic lifestyle, Gita Ramesh, Joint Managing Director, Kairali Ayurvedic Group and author of The Ayurvedic Cookbook, says the body tells us what is good for us and what is not. We need to respect its innate intelligence and be responsive and listen to it.
A vata type individual may benefit more from a diet of healthy fats or rich foods, whereas the same diet would cause congestion and blockages in a kapha type constitution. “As per Ayurveda, a raw diet may be beneficial for a particular constitution but could make someone else such as a vata type person with severe digestive duress. These are not universal rules that are applicable to everyone equally,” says Chandra.
Building The Gut
Today the conversation about food has shifted internally to rest in the gut, with numerous studies pointing to improperly digested food as the root cause of most diseases. Thus, the lack of agni or digestive fire, which converts food into energy, cannot be ignored. “If food is not digested properly it becomes a toxic, undigested food mass (ama), which then accumulates and ferments in the body,” says Chandra.
You need to be aware of the right food combinations too, something, over the years, has fallen on the wayside as culinary experimentation increases. Ayurvedic physician and professor Vasant Lad’s Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles advises that you should avoid certain food combinations. Such as, eating raw food with cooked foods together or combining fresh food with leftovers. Spices and herbs added to dishes helps food get digested easier. Antidotes such as cardamom in coffee and ghee and black pepper with potatoes helps negate the negative effects of the food. At the same time, melons should never be combined or consumed together with other foods. These incompatible food combinations play havoc with digestion and confuse the body’s intelligence.
Ramesh advises people to consider mealtimes as sacrosanct and put aside the smartphone and newspaper. “One needs to limit the intake of food. Meals should be nutritious, hot, cooked well and not very oily,” she says. Avoid cold water during mealtimes and concentrate on chewing and enjoying the food. She believes this mindfulness needs to be extended to our daily lives, to simple things like planning the day ahead, sleeping on time, and having gratitude, and even self-care. “Why do people think they need to only eat food? Even the skin needs food,” she says, recommending that people should regularly massage their body and hair with oil.
While this might seem overwhelming, Ramesh stresses that the simplest way to make a lifestyle change is to slip into a positive routine and adopting simple habits. Managing stress, regular exercise, an Ayurvedic seasonal routine along with dietary guidelines as per your constitution can help prevent the onset of diseases. It is the only way of living we need to sail through the 21st century.
Featured and first image: Shutterstock.com
Second image courtesy Kairali
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