Eating to Support Your Spiritual Practice

posted in: Ayurveda Wisdom | 0

I have been experimenting with “healthy” eating for a great deal of my life, and have been lured into various ways of eating in the name of health – during which I’ve consumed tons of tomatoes and potatoes, raw onions, eggs, cucumbers, gluten and other foods that for which I have allergies, sensitivities or simply aren’t suitable to my mind/body constitution. For example, I later learned that nightshades (e.g. tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, etc.) are believed to lead to stiffness of the body (and could they psychosomatically lead to stiffness of the mind and spirit too?); and alliums (e.g. onions, garlic, leeks, etc.) have scientifically been proven to be aggravating to the mind (what they refer to in Ayurveda as rajasic food). Has this exacerbated the degenerative joint condition I have in my hip. Or led to an agitated mind? Not to mention all the tropical fruits and nuts that are perhaps so good for me but that simply can’t be grown in the northern hemisphere – and because of the adverse affects of food miles (i.e. carbon emissions) or exploitative growing practices, they aren’t so good for anyone else.

As I have delved deeper into yoga and other contemplative practices, I have been increasingly intrigued by the effect of foods on the mind and spirit. I have studied Ayurveda, from which many of my insights are drawn, particularly its concept of “sattva” as it relates to foods. (See posts on Sattvic Food and Food and the Mind and Spirit.)

However, as my husband have spent years experimenting with sattvic eating – known as a Yogic diet or Sattvic diet – we have increasingly realized that Ayurveda’s concept of sattva when limited through the lens of the Hindu culture and the Indian continent is not really ideal for some of us westerners dwelling in the northern hemisphere. I have been increasingly troubled by our use of foods that are not locally grown (i.e. coconuts, papaya) or foods for which I seem to lack the gene or otherwise don’t have the ability to digest (i.e. cows milk and ghee) – the very foods that are so often praised in Ayurveda. Certainly we have our own sattvic food.  And, we can all find substitutes that better support our genetic proclivities.

Last time I was in India (fall of 2008), I had the fortunate opportunity to study under an Ayurvedic doctor in Mysore who like me was interested in nutrition and spiritual practice. She and I sat for hours together in her office – she would read and interpret the ancient Ayurvedic texts which detailed the properties of specific foods and ingredients and I took copious notes. But what’s more, her and I engaged in lengthy discussions about the context of what these texts had to say as applied in modern times and as applied in western culture. This includes the effect of contemporary agricultural practices on the properties of certain foods – for example, back then cow’s milk came from your own or your neighbor’s cow, which was culturally regarded as sacred and certainly had no Bovine Growth Hormone, antibiotics or even psychological toxins from ill-treatment; and back then rice and other grains were held in storage for longer periods which allowed a gradual fermentation process to help with digestion and other beneficial health effects (what the texts specifically refer to as “old rice”), not to mention the thousands of varieties available then but since forever lost to the convenience of monoculture. Furthermore, is the fact that these texts did not mention many foods natively found in the western and northern hemisphere. She encouraged me to explore these issues when I came home and reminded me, in her own way, that a fundamental principle of Ayurveda is ultimately to eat local and seasonal foods that are grown and handled with the most natural processes.

That to me is the essence of Ayurveda.  Directly translated as “the Wisdom of Life”, the wisdom of Ayurveda offers a mandate for each of us to, together and individually, explore and embody foods, ways of cooking and eating and ultimately ways of being that infuse universal principles with the social customs and ecological needs of our specific local community, culture and land as well as the particular mind/body constitution of each individual. These threads of universalism, localism and individualism can weave a web of interconnected health and well-being for all beings and the planet.

With this said, please keep in mind that much of what may be written on the blog is a matter of personal experience, based upon my own personal mind/body constitution. I hope that it will at least inspire you to engage in the experimentation process to explore how certain foods, ways of cooking, eating … and being may (or may not) affect your own mind/body/heart – and that you begin to find the most suitable path for your personal awakening.

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