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Ayurveda: Internalize Cooking and Spiritualize Eating

by Dr Sanjay Parva(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 96 - February 2004

Introduction

Food is culture, someone has said, and if we believe Confucius, then food is everything, particularly since it is meant to be eaten. He once remarked: "Eating is the utmost important part of life."

In India, selection of food and culinary wisdom is said to be centuries old and believed to have evolved from Vedas. What is very strange to note is that Vedas provides you with a common sense approach to your eating? Very easy to incorporate into your lives, it keeps healthy living as an aim while giving delightful tips on better cooking, and even better eating.

Since India is a diverse country and the cultures seem to be changing as you move from one place to another, Ayurvedic guidelines on food befit all these different groups of people who dress differently, live in different habitats, believe in different religions, have different climates and speak different languages. What, however, binds them all, is the level of penetration food has attained into their lives and the reverent passion with which they select, cook or serve food. Owing to its Vedic influence, food, in a sense, attains a spiritual dimension here with the perfection of a sophisticated art.

Family get-together
Family get-together

Beauty of Integrating Cooking into Spiritual and Daily Life

Cooking is a personal affair in as much as it is a social act too. If you cook for yourself, you develop a sense of belonging for and with the food. If you cook for others in the family, friends or guests, you extend the belonging to all of them. There are some strains of love and compassion at work. As a cook, there are certain internal changes going on within you that you desire should be reflected in the food you cook, and someone else eats. Anything that involves love is spirituality. Such link is possibly missing when you go for a dinner at a fast food joint. The food prepared here has a commercial value and intent, and that is why it is fast. The food prepared at home has – and should have if it doesn't have – a spiritual value and intent. In the former case you try to satiate your metabolic hunger, in the later case you actually satiate your mind too, with or without your conscious knowledge.

Spirituality does not necessarily require a lifestyle devoted to religious practices such as going to the church or temple, making offerings, saying prayers, and so on. Cooking offers an ideal, everyday and priceless opportunity to be spiritual. You satisfy both your personal and your social obligations. As someone who cooks for the family and friends, a sense of spirituality is bound to influence your daily activities. You begin a day with a spiritual outlook, which is derived from cooking, and whatever you do the rest of the day becomes an extension of a spiritual practice you started in the morning. The outlook lingers on till the next dawn and grows and continues day by day.

Cooking demands the purity of mind, called sattva in the Ayurvedic parlance. Sattva infuses mindfulness, awareness and love in us, and helps us keep ourselves engrossed in cooking or whatever we do that has far-reaching social influences. If we are not present in what we do, then it is very difficult for us to be spiritually engaged, and cooking becomes like any other day-to-day mundane job in which we lack insight. It becomes a sensory impression driven in a compulsive way, and full of negative emotions.

Negative emotions do not yield you a delightful and delicious meal, and thus deprive you and those you serve of attributes as happiness, harmony, mental and physical well-being, and transmission of the Vedic wisdom on food.

The emotional factor is very crucial in the way in which you cook, how you feel during serving and how you feel after you have eaten the food. Emotions are certainly as fundamental as anything about us can be. There is also an undeniably powerful link between our biology and our emotions. When we deny the food that unique and exquisite emotional factor, we actually deprive food the very essence of spirituality, taste and healthful wisdom. Wisdom is derived from the ability to recognize when our emotional responses are appropriate.

Food is worshipped and offered to God before it is consumed during a number of religious rituals and ceremonies in India
Food is worshipped and offered to God before it is consumed
during a number of religious rituals and ceremonies in India

Health through Cooking

Vedas not only explain the techniques of healthy vegetarian cooking but also the art of eating, which nourishes both the soul, the body and mind. There is a strong Vedic philosophy behind the vegetarian cooking drawn from religious and ethnic backgrounds and recently even corroborated by modern science. Vedas are replete with details on which utensils should be used for cooking, dishes that go well together, and everything else you might need to know about preparing, serving, and eating a sattvic meal. When you study Vedas, you start relishing the vastness of Vedic cooking not only because of its richness but also because of its close proximity to the forces of nature.

Two authors Marlise Binetti-Kupper and Katriona Forrester in their excellent Transformations Through Cooking say: "In cooking, that means taking whatever is given and using fire, water, time, seasoning (the five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent or "hot"), oil, cutting styles, and pressure to change its qualities, to enhance or to contrast its original character.

"Visually, in the serving bowls and on our plates we can sense and judge when the magic has worked. We see it in the colour, variety, and textures (crunchy, soft, chewy, etc.)."

Ayurvedic Principles on Cooking and Eating

To promote your health through the food you eat, says Ayurveda, you have to internalize the process of cooking and spiritualize your eating. Cook as if you are cooking for yourself in a hungry state and eat as if you are beginning to meditate. You should be tranquil and have perfect mind-body coordination in both the states.

A balanced mind helps digestion and, even more, a spiritual mood. According to the Ksema-kuntuhala, a Vedic cookbook from the 2nd century AD, a pleasant atmosphere and a good mood are as important to proper digestion as the quality of the food. "Food is a divine gift, so cook it, serve it, and eat it in a spirit of joyful reverence," says Adiraja Dasa, a Krishna devotee, who got interested in Oriental religion and exotic cooking after a masters degree from New York University.

What distinguishes Vedic cooking from other types of cooking is the cook's spiritual consciousness, his awareness that he is preparing an offering for God. "Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform – do that as an offering to Me," speaks Lord Krishna to Arjuna, in the Bhagavad Gita. Vedas believe that the God deserves the first offering of an eatable – vegetarian (sattvic) only and not non-vegetarian (tamasic) – that He has bestowed upon a human being. Ayurveda suggests sattvic food as the one which purifies the mind and satiates the body.

Ayurveda and Good Digestion

Ayurveda suggests that the process of cooking is intricately linked to the process of digestion. You should cook what you are capable of digesting. That is why, apart from recommending an eating sequence, it also recommends dosha-specific foods. The focus should not be on how much you eat, but what you should eat and how you should eat, so that the nutrients derived from the food reach the desired levels in your metabolic system.

The process of eating is something reverent and important for the development of consciousness as well as our physical health. When we sit down to eat our stomach is in a relaxed posture and our awareness is on the taste, texture, and smell of the food. This will greatly improve the digestion. Thanks to the current stressed lifestyles most of us stand, walk, or drive our way through a meal, which deprives our bodies of an uplifting and settled environment in order to process and absorb the nutrients from our meals.

When we run through our food the way we run through a quick telephone call, what we stimulate is our urgency to eat something and not the need for stimulating the agni, or our digestive fire. This way the act of eating which should be life-giving, lacks any life.

Balancing your agni is the key to making or marring health. We all are driven by this power called agni, a sort of constant fire burning within our bodies and minds and essential for kindling all the biological processes of life. Just as the fire transforms a metal into a molten mass so does agni transform the food we consume into a substance that fuels and recharges our bodies and minds every day. The fundamental function of agni is to promote digestion. Your appearance, body temperature, immunity levels, awareness, understanding, intelligence, energy, and overall health depend on the agni. Agni, not only breaks down food substances, but also neutralizes toxins, bacteria, and viruses strolling through, and ready to attack, our bodies. Proper food helps agni fortify ourselves.

There are thirteen forms of agni, the most important of which is jatharagni, which regulates and contributes a part of itself to the other agnis. The other twelve agnis are the dhatagnis (7) and the bhutagnis (5), which are related to the tissues and the five subtle elements, respectively. The dhatagnis regulate the physiological processes in each of the seven tissues, while the bhutagnis regulate the further digestion and assimilation of the pancha mahabhuta contained in the ingested foods. Agnis, if not doused, result in body and mind dysfunctions, and if doused with wrong foods or their combinations, again prove detrimental to the human metabolism.

Good digestion is also directly linked to the power of agni you have and the food you consume to use it. If you have tiksnagni (sharp agni), you will have strong digestion, circulation, and immunity – typical attributes of a pitta constitution. You need pitta-pacifying foods every now and then.

If you have mandagni (mild agni), you will have slower digestion, low appetite, cravings for heavy or sweet foods, and a tendency to carry excess body weight – typical attributes of a kapha constitutions. You would need anything but kapha-aggravating food.

If you have visamagni (irregular agni), you will have irregular appetite, and intense periods of hunger and lack of interest in food at the same time, bloating, gas, constipation, or abdominal discomfort – typical attributes of a vata constitution. You will need vata-pacifying foods, and you may need to watch out for some nervous system disorders.

If you have samagni (regular or balanced agni), you are a blessed person. You will have normal appetite, satisfaction surrounding meals, normal bowel movements, endurance, good comprehension, mental clarity, and emotional stability. You have been probably on Ayurvedic meals. Carry on!

Importance of the Tastes

1. Food is for the body; taste is for the soul. Eating is not a pleasure if the food you eat lacks taste. The very taste and smell of food triggers the release of certain chemicals in the body that prepare it to accept and subsequently digest the same. Ayurveda seems to have understood this thousands of years ago. According to Ayurveda, each taste imparts a specific action on the metabolic process within our bodies, and thus becomes a crucial factor in attaining perfect health.

Ayurvedically speaking, the food we eat can be one or all of six rasas or tastes:

1. Sweet
2. Bitter
3. Sour
4. Pungent
5. Salty
6. Astringent

Each taste has a given quality and exhibits a specific action on a particular guna, which again are six in number namely:

1. Heavy
2. Light
3. Dry
4. Oily
5. Hot
6. Cold

The qualities and taste of food, which are best for a specific dosha, will be those that help to counteract the qualities of that dosha. For example, vata is dry, cold, and irregular by nature, so foods that balance vata should be moist and warming. It is advisable to have all tastes incorporated in just one meal for better health. Since different places have different foods available, selecting tastes is a matter of common sense. The action of doshas in the body is dependent upon the time of day. Understanding this helps you plan the best times for meals to keep your dosha in balance. The ability to taste is so crucial to the act of eating that when we can't taste our food we just don't have the desire to eat as much as we usually do.

Time to Eat

While tastes influence doshas, predominance of doshas, is dependent on the time of the day. Clear understanding of all these entities helps you select and eat food properly.

The functioning of our body is governed by three doshas, which are kapha, pitta and vata. Each dosha is dominant at a specific time of the day. Generally 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. is considered to be kapha time, which means kapha is at its peak during this time. So what suits a kapha-constitution person early in the morning may not be good for a vata- or a pitta-constitution person. While a kapha person can have a light beverage, a vata person would need a nourishing breakfast, and a pitta person a light breakfast.

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is pitta time and ideal for lunch for all types of constitutions. Pitta-dominant people would need a heavy lunch, vata persons a small meal and kapha persons a light meal.

2 PM to 6 PM is vata time. Pitta people would need something to get going and take care of their agni, vata people something to balance vata and kapha people simply a hot drink.

Towards the evening between 6 PM to 10 PM the body's digestive fire is on a decline and that is why light food is advised, preferably two hours before bedtime.

Depending on your body constitution, you have to be time-specific in whatever you eat. Eating a heavy lunch after your pitta (or agni) phase is over would only mean an unperceivable damage to your health, which manifests in the form of a disease later. You keep wondering what went wrong presuming you always had good, tasty food to eat. The best way to avoid health problems is to follow Nature's prescription of suitable times to eat. Our body reacts to the Nature's sequence of events. It may sound intriguing, but our agni is the strongest when the sun is strongest between 12 and 2 PM. Agni, which is related to fire, is associated with the Sun. Ayurveda recommends that lunch be the largest meal of the day since that is the time the digestive agni is at its crest. As the sun goes down so does our agni.

The Role of Mind

Just as our health is influenced by the state of our mind, so is our digestion. Ayurveda believes that when we are eating, we should just be eating and doing nothing else. It is essential to be 'one with our food.' You should quieten your mind and calm the body when you approach each meal. This acts as a thanksgiving to the God who provided you with the same. Food should be approached with reverence and not haste. Haste or wandering thoughts during eating impairs the processes of digestion. To be calm and composed helps you increase the chewing time of food, which synchronizes properly with the rest of your digestive processes. You feel good when you give eating its due and honourable time. Feeling good itself is a step towards being healthy.

Occasional Fasting for Better Health

Reverence for food doesn't only mean eating it or cooking with a spiritual bent of mind. It also means fasting. When you fast, someone else gets his share to eat. Fasting has been one of many religious rituals among Indian Hindus on account of its sacred spiritual admonition and also its highly therapeutic, yet not widely appreciated value. Ayurveda recommends fasting for enhancing your spiritual recourse to life and your faith, besides acting as a natural, drugless detoxification therapy. It makes your agni stronger, clears your body channels of ama or accumulated toxic substances and heightens the clarity of your mind.

Fasting, however, should be well planned, say once a week or once every two weeks. Fasting forms an integral part of the fivefold Ayurvedic massage therapy called panchakarma with a view to cleansing the body before the actual medicated detoxification begins. Fasting, it is said, gives you a chance to look inside you and thus make you internally focused.

Cleansing Khichadi Recipe Khichadi is a simple, easily digested stew that can prepare the body for cleansing. Khichadi is considered very light and is suitable for those who are recuperating from an illness or preparing to detoxify or starting off from a day-long fast.

Ingredients

• 1 part brown basmati rice, soaked for at least 1/2 hour and drained;
• 1 part mung beans, soaked in water for at least 1 hour and drained;
• 1 part vegetables, such as green beans, carrots, spinach and other green vegetables;
• 6 parts water

1. Heat ghee (clarified butter) or olive oil in a pan over moderate heat;
2. Add cumin or coriander seeds;
3. Then add chopped ginger and saute until golden brown;
4. Stir in 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder, 1/4 tsp. of black pepper powder, and 1 bay leaf;
5. Add mung (lentil) beans, water, leafy vegetables of your choice, and rice;
6. Cook for about an hour;
7. When the beans are completely soft, add a pinch of salt;
8. Serve this dish with ghee and chopped fresh coriander leaves.

Wisdom Words on Cooking and Eating

1. Master the art of cooking and spiritualize your eating;
2. Eat at fixed times to synchronize your body's enzymatic reactions with the intake of food;
3. Eat in a pleasant atmosphere to be one with your food;
4. Combine foods wisely to avoid foods having temperaments contrary to each other (hot and cold foods);
5. Share prasada (offerings) with others: food is God's gift and hence should be shared;
6. Be clean in your thoughts and food habits;
7. Eat moderately to avoid temptations and exert self-control;
8. Don't pour water on the fire of digestion: to avoid disturbing your digestive power (jatharagni);
9. Don't waste food. Food is God's gift and thus should not be wasted;
10. Try an occasional fast to get rid of toxic assimilation in your systems.

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About Dr Sanjay Parva

Dr Sanjay Parva is a medico-marketing strategist with medical content development and visualization as his special field of interest. He has been writing extensively on Ayurvedic and holistic healing through the last ten years. He has nearly 5000 pieces on health, and health issues, published through various syndicated agencies and newspapers in India and abroad. He was part of the University of Rochester – Media Lab Asia researcher team for Rapid Assessment Procedure (RAP) in 2002, a path-breaking digital initiative that sought to provide in-time Ayurvedic help to people in the remote Indian villages. He has been previously associated with Asian Journal of Paediatric Practice, Asian Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Asian Journal of Clinical Cardiology, The Asian Journal of Diabetology, Medinews and The Journal of Renal Sciences. Dr Parva spearheads the Health Division of the Washington-based company IndiaHQ Solutions, Inc www.indiahq.com. His weekly series of holistic and mind-body articles, Healthy Musings, can be read at www.curehq.com He can be reached on Tel: 001 425 996 6700; sanjay@indiahq.com

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