Fundamentals of Ayurvedic nutrition
In ancient Indian culture, yoga was an esoteric path reserved for those with spiritual interests in leaving society to pursue enlightenment, while Ayurveda (ayu=life, daily living; veda=knowledge) was the medical science designed to bring each and every person to their optimal health on all levels: mind, body, heart.
Like yoga, Ayurvedic knowledge has evolved over the past couple thousand years, and is still very much alive and beneficial to us today. The perspective is based on the five elements of space/ether, air, fire, water, and earth, through which we can understand not only our bodies and minds but also the food we eat.
According to Ayurveda, there are three main doshas, or elemental types of bodies:
— Vata (ether+air): Vata type people are often thin, have dry skin, have variable appetites and prefer sweet foods and hot drinks. They are creative, active, restless, quick to understand things, quick to spend money, and prone to fear and anxiety. They like change and excitement.
— Pitta (fire+water): Pitta type people typically have an average sized body frame, healthy metabolisms, and enjoy large meals and cool weather. They are aggressive and intelligent, sleep soundly, and are prone to irritation, anger, and violence.
— Kapha (water+earth): Kapha type people are heavy in the body, large and lustrous in the eyes, have oily skin and do not like to be active. They are slow, calm, steady, good at saving money and prone to greed and attachment.
It’s possible to be mainly one dosha, or a combination of two, and some rare people are a perfect balance of all three (tridoshic). There are many simple online quizzes to help you determine your dosha. None of them are ‘better’ than any of the others; each dosha has positive and negative attributes that can be balanced through self-awareness and diet.
Once you know your dosha, you are ready to eat your way into your very own yoga body. Ayurveda teaches diet as a way of balancing our natural physique, and because this medical science considers calm mind and positive emotions to be a part of a healthy body, you will not only enjoy the changes in your body but also in your mind and perspective.
— Vata types are already airy, and need foods that increase heat and groundedness. Because they tend to be thin, vata types can eat with liberty.
Eat well: sweet fruit, all spices, all oils, and cooked: vegetables, grains, lentils
Eat little: nuts, seeds, dried fruit, raw vegetables
— Pitta types are already heated and have great digestion, so benefit from larger, regularly spaced out meals that are cooling or not too spicy.
Eat well: sweet fruit, vegetables, cooked grains, legumes
Eat less: nuts, spices, lentils
— Kapha types have the slowest metabolism so should avoid heavy, sticky, sweet foods and stick to light, airy foods like raw salads. Because they tend to hold weight, their diet is the “healthiest”:
Eat well: dried fruit, pungent and bitter vegetables, raw greens
Eat no: nuts, oils, sweeteners, salt
For a full list of specific foods to eat and avoid according to your dosha, check this out.
(NB: I have been eating more or less along these guidelines for several years, and find it helpful to not only consider the specific foods recommended by Ayurveda, but also to consider what foods are in season, locally grown, and available organic. When eating in restaurants, consider the qualities of the meal choices in these categories: grounding/airy; soupy/dry; cooked/raw, and then choose the meal that best balances your dosha.)
Eat for the Season
According to Ayurveda, each season has qualities that can be balanced through the food we eat. And if we take into account our doshas, we will have a good idea of the kinds of foods that will best nourish our unique body for each season.
The warmest months of the year are governed by Pitta, the elements of fire and earth. Too much heat in the body creates conditions such as ulcers and anger. To bring balance to our bodies, we need to increase the light and cooling qualities of the foods we eat.
These months of transition are governed by Vata, the elements of air and ether that herald change. Vata is also the element that governs the mind, and so when we are out of balance in Fall (and in Spring), we can feel confused and anxious. Eating to balance Vata will not only help our bodies feel grounded and nourished, but also help our minds feel calm and steady during this season of change. To do this, eat less raw, airy foods and more warm, grounding foods.
The coldest months of the year are governed by Kapha, the elements of water/ice and earth, which make us feel heavy and send us in search of warmth and comfort. This is the best time of the year to eat heavier foods, but to stay at your best weight while eating oils and potatoes, you can:
— Take hot baths
— Give yourself oil massages for skin and scalp
— Practice backbends, handstands, and other invigorating yoga postures
Another season governed by Vata, the elements of air and ether. The body, like nature, will be transitioning from Kapha’s heavy coldness into Pitta’s heat, and it is best to eat foods that support this transition. See what is locally available; Pitta and Kapha types will likely enjoy raw greens and Vata types will enjoy lightly cooked spring vegetables.
Due to evolutionary hardwiring, our bodies and minds are innately worried about famine, meaning that we want to eat as much as possible at every meal, because we evolved in times of variable food availability. But today, most of us have regular access to high quality food, so we need to remember: we can always eat again later when we are hungry.
It can be liberating to forget your standard images of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Limiting our bellies to certain foods for certain times (eggs are breakfast! lunch should always be at noon!) limits our ability to nourish ourselves in the moment. And when we look to change our bodies, we must also change our minds.
Food for Thought
Our eating habits are often deeply ingrained and contextually driven, so in order to change our body (in both health and appearance), we first need to examine our habits. It’s important to consider why we eat: for energy, balance and nourishment, rather than for entertainment, celebration, or emotional support. So when we are making our daily food choices, we need to remember that we eat to support the body. When we need to soothe and strengthen the mind, Ayurveda recommends meditation as mental nourishment.
Tradition vs. Trend
It is interesting to note that although Ayurveda is the nutritional science that has been developing alongside yoga for the past 2500 years, there is no mention of Vegan, Dairy-free, or Gluten-free in the dietary guidelines. In fact, Ayurveda recommends dairy for all doshas, and meat is recommended for those who are very weak or over exerting themselves, though it is heavy in the digestive system and becomes quickly toxic.
It is important to consider the ways dairy and meat production has become heavily industrialized. The Ayurvedic understanding is that we take on the qualities of our foods. Dr. Robert E. Svoboda, Ayurvedic doctor, writes, “The more the violence involved in the collection of our food, the greater the violence in our lives.” Today’s vegan and vegetarian yogis are practicing ahimsa, nonviolence towards other living beings.
East + West
The Ayurvedic perspective is thought-provoking for those of us more accustomed to Western medicine and nutritional advice/trends. For example, Ayurveda considers your personality, habitual behaviors, and reactions to stress as a part of your health. In contrast, Western medicine typically limits ‘disease’ to physiological ailments; ‘mental health’ becomes a concern only when it causes “clinically significant distress” (DSM-V). According to the Ayurvedic perspective, “health is order; disease is disorder” and through deep understanding of the body, we can heal ourselves to establish order (Dr. Vasant Lad; Ayurveda, 1984). Ayurvedic health includes active digestive force (agni), calm mind, and positive emotions.
Today, we have the opportunity to consider many perspectives of health. Drawing upon difference disciplines will help us find our own unique balance of health, which may include balanced mind, excellent digestion, loving feelings, and yes, even a svelte yoga body.