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By Nadia Marshall
Ayurveda is India’s timeless traditional system of medicine. Although developed more than 5000 years ago, it is based on the fundamental, unchanging laws of nature so remains as relevant today as ever before.
However, Ayurveda is more than a medical system, it is a ‘science of life’, teaching principles and practices that help us live a life of greater depth, health and happiness. Food is at the very heart of this journey. Ayurveda teaches us how to choose, prepare, eat and relate to our food in a way that makes it deeply nourishing to our body, mind and spirit.
Many of the books and cookbooks about Ayurvedic nutrition and cooking that exist tend to scare the ‘new explorer’ of this beautiful science away before they even begin. This has been our personal experience and we have seen it with many clients and friends over the years. Why? Because Ayurveda can get very complicated and confusing. But it doesn’t have to be this way! When starting out on the Ayurvedic path, it is vitally important to take baby steps. You need to get to know yourself a little better and to get to know your food a little better; over time. This is a relationship that cannot be rushed! You also need a simple framework or context to work within, so you know why you are doing what you are doing - but not too much reasoning. Knowledge is a bit like salt in a dish. You want just enough to enhance the other flavours but not so much that it takes over and spoils the dish!
Below is a very brief overview of how we teach ‘eating Ayurvedically’ at our talks, workshops, retreat and in our publications....
Agni & Ama
The first thing you need to understand about Ayurveda is the concept of AGNI. ‘Agni’ is a sanskrit term that refers to our digestive fire and it plays a central role in Ayurveda whether you are eating breakfast or undergoing heart surgery. In every case, in every situation, Agni is at the forefront of a practitioners mind because it is believed that, at the physical level, imbalanced Agni is the root cause of ALL disease.
Agni can have several states. It can be BALANCED (or ‘sama’), or it can be imbalanced. There are three states of imbalanced Agni - SHARP (or ‘tikshna’), DULL (or ‘manda’) and IRREGULAR (or ‘visham’). So how do these imbalanced states feel and what effect do they have in the gut?
If our AGNI is too sharp, we will have an insatiable appetite... but our food will be 'overcooked' in the gut and nothing but charcoal will remain. SHARP AGNI can manifest as things like heartburn, reflux or burning pain after eating.
If our fire is too low or dull, our appetite will also be low... and when we eat, our food won't be cooked properly. If we have DULL AGNI we can eat very little and still gain weight. We may feel heavy, dull and lethargic, especially after eating.
If our fire is variable we may have a raging appetite one minute and no appetite at all the next. We may think we're really hungry but then as soon as we eat something, we feel full and bloated. When we put food on a variable fire, it remains uncooked - some bits may be burnt, other bits remain uncooked. VARIABLE AGNI can manifest as things like bloating, pain, burping and farting.
The undigested food (undercooked or overcooked) that remains from these three imbalanced states of AGNI is toxic to the body. In Ayurveda, it is called AMA.
AMA is a thick, heavy, sticky, mucous-like substance that lines the walls of our digestive tract, hampering our digestion further. However, it is also absorbed into our blood stream and enters the many thousands of channels in our body - channels responsible for carrying nutrients to our cells and wastes away from our cells. These toxins hamper our cellular nutrition and eventually lodge into areas of weakness in our tissues where they cause disturbance of cellular intelligence and the manifestation of disease.
General symptoms of Ama in the body are a thick coating on the tongue in the morning, general fatigue, a lack-lustre of the skin, all of the states of indigestion described above, irregular elimination, fluctuations in energy level, mood and appetite and pain and stiffness in the joints.
Normally the body is capable of eliminating AMA all on its own. However, when the digestive fire is imbalanced and the ‘toxic load’ increases with every meal, the body becomes overwhelmed and the disease process is inevitable. To reverse the process, you need to bring your attention to cultivating balanced AGNI.
Building Balanced Agni & Eliminating Ama
One of the principles or laws of nature Ayurveda teaches is ‘Like Increases Like’. This means that when you expose anything in nature to a certain quality, that quality will be increased. We can use this simple but profound idea to build a strong digestive fire, or balanced AGNI.
Balanced AGNI has the qualities of warm, light and slightly oily. If we want to build balanced AGNI, we simply need to introduce these same qualities through our food and lifestyle practices, regardless of our our constitution. But how do we do this?
As a basic starting point, you need to favour food that is unprocessed - that is, wholefood that hasn’t been processed by food manufacturers and doesn’t come in colourful packets with a list of unrecognisable ingredients.... pretty much anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food! Your body finds it easier to digest wholefoods because they, like your body, are more ‘natural’. They also have a more ‘sattvic’ or peaceful quality to them which has an effect on your mind.
To introduce the quality of ‘WARM’ you simply need to favour predominantly cooked foods, use mild spices in your cooking and sip warm drinks throughout the day. Try starting the day with a ginger, honey and lemon tea - the best way to kick start your AGNI and eliminate AMA in the morning. You also need to avoid excessively HOT foods such as chilli and also COLD foods and drinks (that means pudding and cake is preferable to icecream!).
To introduce the quality of ‘LIGHT’ you need to avoid the excessive consumption of very heavy foods like meat, cheese and eggs and prepare other heavy foods like wheat and milk in a way that makes them lighter. Milk should be consumed cooked with spices and wheat should be eaten as dry roasted chapattis and semolina. You should also favour lighter foods such as those presented in this book - vegetarian soups, daals, rice, porridges, pancakes, breads and so on.
To introduce the ‘SLIGHTLY OILY’ quality you should use a moderate amount of good quality oil in your cooking - including ghee, sunflower oil, sesame oil and olive oil. This will help to ignite the fire in your belly and keep it burning bright. And you should avoid the excessive consumption of dry foods (crackers, baked goods, salads, low fat foods) or overly oily foods (such as deep fried foods).
The quantity of food you eat is also important. Try to avoid over-eating on a regular basis. If you happen to over-eat one meal, simply skip the next meal or have something extra light to help your AGNI recover.
One last thing. Our AGNI is at its strongest in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its highest point. If you can, try to eat your main meal, or your heaviest meal of the day at midday and eat a lighter meal in the evening. Traditional cultures have followed this practice for thousands of years but it has been forgotten in our modern culture. Try and bring it back whenever possible.
But the most important thing is to eat food that has been cooked with love - it is always easier to digest!
**Please Note - if you're suffering from any serious symptoms of indigestion or other pathologies, we'd advise you to go and see an Ayurvedic Practitioner for specific dietary advice individualized for your state of imbalance.**
Agni - the digestive fire.
Ama or Aama - undigested food waste, toxins.
Ojas- the foundation of our immune system and longevity.
Dhatus - the tissues of the body.
Srotas - the channels of the body.
Vata - the air/ether
intelligence in the body.
Pitta- the fire/water
intelligence in the body.
Kapha- the water/earth intelligence in the body.
Sattva- the quality of purity, intelligence, peace and love.
Rajas- the quality of
turbulence and activity.
Tamas- the quality of
dullness, darkness and inertia.
Rasa - the taste of a food (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent)
Virya - second level of digestion (either Heating or Cooling)
Vipaka - third level of digestion, the deep taste of a food (can be Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
Prabhav - the 'special effect' of a food or herb/spice
Rasa - also the name for plasma tissue
Rakta - blood tissue
Mamsa - muscle tissue
Meda - fat tissue
Asthi - bone tissue
Majja - nerve & bone marrow tissue
Shukra - sexual reproductive tissue