My colleague, JL Fields, food whisperer and cookbook author, likes to say ‘anything you can eat, I can eat vegan’.
Cheers to that. And let me add, ‘anything you can do, I can do vegan’ – meaning that I can pursue any interest that intrigues me, even if does not has a vegan history.
One of these, for me, is ayurveda, the healing and health-promotion system from India that grew up alongside yoga and is recognized today by the World Health Organization as a viable healthcare system.
Ayruveda means ‘the science of long life’. It sees the body in relation to nature and to our total being, spiritual as well as physical. This is holistic health with a 5,000-year headstart.
While ayurvedic physicians have a sophisticated diagnostic and treatment repertoire, ayurveda is also a self-health practice anyone can use to live more in harmony with nature – with the rhythms of the day, the seasons, the phases of our lives, and the unique nature that each of us has as an individual body/mind/spirit amalgam.
Part of this involves diet, and ayurveda focuses on digestion. I once went to an ayurvedic physician who gave me a customized list of foods to avoid that included raw greens, cabbage-family vegetables, and most legumes.
I was nonplussed. “But these are so healthy,” I argued. “No food is healthy,” she replied, “unless you can digest it.”
Her plan was that I would stay away from those items for a 30-day period, then bring them back in small quantities at first, well-cooked, and perhaps seasoned with a little avocado or sesame oil and spices such as ginger and fennel, long known as digestive aids. The result of following her suggestions, dietary and otherwise, was stunning. I didn’t know how far away I’d come from feeling great until I started to feel amazing.
The one recommendation she gave me that I did not heed was to include some dairy in my diet, primarily in the form of ghee, clairified butter, revered in Indian tradition as food, medicine, and a sacred substance used in religious observances.
According to Talya Lutzker in The Ayurvedic Vegan Kitchen: “Cow’s milk is worshipped in India, where it is considered the most complete and sattvic [balanced, pure] food in traditional ayurvedic medicine. However, for every milk-based food that traditional ayurveda reveres, there is a more than adequate, whole-food vegan alternative that will have the same effect….”
So, in just the way that I can take a dance class without leather ballet shoes, or go on safari and take pictures instead of lives, I can live ayurvedically and substitute natural, non-dairy milks and cheeses, avocado, raw almonds, and raw tahini for dairy milk, cheese, butter, and the like. In this way, I can experience the benefits of ayurveda without harming anybody.
Dinacharya: Ayurvedic Daily Routine
An excellent way to experience the positive effects of ayurveda is to start with dinacharya, daily routine.
The rationale behind this is that our bodies have their circadian rhythm, and the day itself goes through cycles that affect us all. When we cooperate with these, we get a sort of tailwind that helps us along. It is said in ayurveda that the day begins the night before, so…
- Be in bed by 10 pm and rise around 6 a.m. to take advantage of nature’s energies that will assist you in both falling asleep at night and awakening with enthusiasm for the day ahead
- Upon arising, gently scrape your tongue with a silver or stainless steel tongue scraper to remove ama, metabolic debris, which has accumulated overnight on the tongue
- Drink 8 to 10 ounces of warm or hot water with a bit of lemon juice to encourage a morning bowel movement
- Learn some classic yoga poses, as well as a few yogic breathing practices, and practice these every day
- Meditate in the morning and, ideally, in the late afternoon or early evening, as well
- Have a modest breakfast before 8:30 a.m.
- Hydrate through the day with herbal teas and water (warm or room temperature, never iced), and when possible, enjoy your biggest meal at high noon; this is when your agni, digestive fire, is hottest
- Eat a light dinner at least three hours prior to your bedtime
- To feel satisfied and well nourished, get all six tastes — sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, sour, and astringent (this is the clean taste you notice in potatoes, beans, cabbage, berries, green apples) — in both the midday and evening meal. If you’re unsure you’ve included all of them, use chutney as a condiment; it’s designed to have all six tastes
- Wind down in your last waking hour: turn off electronics, read or engage in sweet conversation, and massage a few drops of essential oil of lavender into the soles of your feet to promote restful sleep.
The 3 Doshas: Ayurveda’s Guide to Who You Are
Many ayurvedic suggestions, including all those above, apply across the board; others are specific to one’s body type, or dosha.
There are three doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Almost everyone is predominately one or two of these; rarely, someone is tri-doshic, with almost identical amounts of each dosha.
The pattern codified for you at conception is perfect for you. What happens, however, is that we stress ourselves with the wrong food (or too much food), too little sleep (or sleeping at the wrong hours), too much work or exercise (or too little exercise), and emotional stresses of various kinds. This causes one of more doshas to increase within us, leading to imbalance, the precursor to disease.
Determine your dosha
There are quizes all over the Internet to determine your dosha. The best one found is this one on the Deepak Chopra website. Once you know which dosha(s) predominate, you can customize your self-care.
If you’re a combination, cater to the most prevalent one. While healthy living practices are good for everyone, learning your dosha makeup and how to tweak certain foods and habits can help you improve your own health and understand the physical and emotional quirks of those closest to you.
Vata people tend to be active, to run cold, and stay on the thin side. When in balance, they’re creative and curious; when out of balance, they’re likely to be frightened, nervous, or ‘spaced out’.
Vata ills include digestive and nervous disorders and osteoarthritis. Since Vata tends to be stimulated already, caffeine can put them over the edge. And an iced coffee for this cold dosha would push them even further out of balance. On the other hand, a steamy herbal chai made with almond milk (in ayurveda, almonds are a specific for Vata) would be very comforting. Keeping warm and hydrated, staying out of drafts, avoiding upsetting and violent images are good tips for Vata types.
At mealtimes, warm, soothing, easily digestible foods – long-simmered soups and stews, freshly baked bread, oatmeal, and the traditional Indian porridge, kitchari, based on rice, split mung beans, and spices including ginger, cumin, fennel, coriander, and turmeric – are all balancing for this dosha. Iconic Vatas: Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Barack Obama.
Pitta folks are apt to be mid-sized, muscular, and the ones in the room asking if someone can open a window. In balance, Pittas are strong and dependable; they’re quick, strategic thinkers with unparalleled executive ability.
Out of balance, they can be angry, rude, and opinionated, and can develop inflammation-based conditions from skin rashes to acid reflex and ulcers. Since Pitta is hot and excitable by nature, a spicy Mexican meal with a few shots of tequila isn’t a great choice.
However, Pitta can try all the new vegan ice-cream flavors and stay as balanced as can be. Pitta stays happy when purposeful and passionate life is balanced with enough rest, and regular meals that minimizes hot spices and include an abundance of sweet, juicy fruits – melons, figs, oranges, mangos. Pittas to picture: John Kennedy, Jack Nicholson, Jennifer Aniston.
Kapha types tend to be a bit round and a little fleshy, although they lack the voracious appetite of an unbalanced Pitta or the tendency to snack mindlessly as would a Vata who’s trying to ground herself. Kapha is a connoisseur of relaxation and will get it whenever possible. Therefore, this person would do well with a bike ride or a hike on the weekend, while jittery Vata or pissed-off Pita might do well with a spa day or meditation retreat.
Since it can be hard for Kapha to get going in the morning, ayurveda relaxes its general discouragement of caffeine and allows coffee for Kaphas; they can use the boost. Because Kapha is slow-moving energy, people in whom it predominates are slow to become ill, although an out-of-balance Kapha is prone to respiratory infections, with or without lung involvement, and to obesity-related disorders.
Kept in balance with light, high-fiber foods, and warming whole grains paired with fresh vegetables and spices, Kapha is apt to remain healthy — and generous, kind, and good-natured — well into old age. Some Kaphas we recognize: Dr. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and J.Lo.
For me, the proof is in the proverbial pudding. When I follow the simple suggestions for overall health and the specifics for my type (I’m a Vata/Pitta), I feel better and can do more. And since I have a lot to do, I’m sticking with what enables me to do that.
Victoria Moran will be hosting a Zoom retreat, Acing Age with Ayurveda September 26 and 27, 2020.