Essay about: What are the most important principles of Ayurveda concerning diet & lifestyle which are key to complete health and well being?
Ayurveda Principles of Diet & Lifestyle
The course called “Ayurveda Principles of Diet and Lifestyle” is all about the knowledge you need to manage your health, prevent disease and regulate weight problems. Although it is impossible to give a short summary that deals with it all, I will try and explain the most important issues here in a way that is understandable to beginners and advanced Ayurveda practitioners alike.
Prevent illness, heal the sick and preserve life
Ayurveda is the power of nature that cures disease and promotes health. Doctors themselves cannot cure diseases. They can only act to assist nature’s healing efforts.
By following the Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle you can prevent diseases and become immune to them and manage your health effectively. In the first place Ayurveda is all about prevention and not about managing diseases. This is why it is not about prescriptions that treat symptoms of a particular disease but about a diet and lifestyle that will make it less likely you will be prone to one of the common Western diseases and assist nature’s effort to stay and become healthy as much as possible. In line with this most of these diet and lifestyle regulations can be used and are often effective as a treatment as well but that is only a secundairy aim of Ayurveda.
The bottom line is simple. A balanced diet based on plant foods, that respects seasons, environments and the individual eating them leads to good health. It is an illusion to think that you can be healthy, happy and contented without cooking and eating real food. The timeless message of both Ayurvedic diet and Ayurvedic lifestyle is more important than ever because ever since industrialization we eat a diet and live a lifestyle further away from what is good for us than ever before. At the same time proper eating and living no longer come from our communities and family. We will have to invest in this knowledge and practise it individually.
Ayurveda is a holistic system
Ayurveda looks at the body, mind and spirit as a whole. While Western medicine is based around specialistic bits and pieces while no one is taking an overview. Ayurveda is based on the principles of 5 elements: Air, ether, fire, water and earth. These 5 elements make up all other systems within Ayurveda. According to Ayurvedic philosophy, the entire cosmos is an interplay of the energies of these 5 elements. Ayurveda groups these 5 elements into 3 basic types of energy or functional principles that are present in everybody and everything: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. The 3 humors, the 3 Doshas with different attributes each. In short these forces of energy are:
- Vata – The Air & Ether element – Which is the force of movement and is responsible for moving things around in the body
- Pitta – The Fire & Water element – Which is the force of transformation is responsible for digestion
- Kapha – The Water & Earth element – Which is the binding force takes care of moisture and is our sexual power, strength, stability and sustenance. Kapha governs emotions.
Basically there are two types of Doshas.
- Prakriti – Our true nature – It is what we are born with and it never changes
- Vikriti – The state of the Doshas at the time of examination or the aggravation of the Doshas
Ayurveda states that the Doshas should be in balance for good health. Together with the tissues and the waste products sweat, urine and faeces.
Aggravated Doshas are the cause of disease
When the Doshas are no longer balanced and are aggravated they are the cause of disease. Disease is nothing more than the manifestation of aggravated Doshas. There are a lot of things that influence the current status of the Doshas. For example the seasons, the time of the day, different periods in our lives, lifestyle habits, food eaten etc. That is why it is so important to mind these factors carefully. Fortunately aggravated Doshas can be treated by opposite qualities. For example aggravated Pitta can become more balanced by eating cold foods. Not in temperature but in nature. Also Kapha is cold, Kapha is aggravated in winter, so in winter we should eat warm foods more than ever.
Food as medicine
Because food is made out of the five elements too, it can be used to either increase or pacify the Doshas. The force of movement is Vata. The force of transformation is Pitta. And the binding force is Kapha. Vata, Pitta and Kapha affect the body because it is the imbalance of these forces which cause disease. Depending on the Dosha the following diet tips should be taken into account:
- Eat 3 to 4 light meals a day at regular times with gaps of at least two hours between meals
- Use light spices and a little salt for prime digestion
- Avoid Fast Food, Junk Food and Left-Over Food
- Drink plenty of liquids. Avoid soft drinks and carbonated beverages
- Avoid eating when nervous, anxious, agitated, afraid, immersed in deep thoughts or distracted
- Do not skip meals. Over-eating is worse
Tastes for Vata
- Attributes of Vata: Cold, light, dry and mobile
- Vata will be reduced by eating: Sweet, sour, salty
- Vata will be increased by eating: Bitter, astringent, pungent
- Eat three meals a day at regular times leaving at least a four-hour gap between two consecutive meals.
- Eat the main meal or a good sized meal at midday
- Avoid late-night eating
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are best eaten as evening snacks
- Drink liquid moderately but more after exercise
Tastes for Pitta
- Attributes of Pitta: Hot and sharp
- Pitta will be reduced by eating: Sweet, astringent, bitter
- Pitta will be increased by eating: Sour, salty, pungent
- Eat twice a day. At midday and early evening with at least five to six hours between meals
- Take only tea or juice for breakfast
- Favor warm, light, spicy food for better digestion
- Food should be as dry as possible, cooked without much water
- Eat when hungry, drink when thirsty. Don’t drink too much
Tastes for Kapha
- Attributes of Kapha: Cold, heavy, moist, slow
- Kapha will be reduced by eating: Pungent, bitter, astringent
- Kapha will be increased by eating: Sour, salty and sweet
Food pacifies or aggravates the Doshas. It either balances or disbalances you. The famous Ayurvedic proverb ‘If diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. If diet is correct, medicine is of no need.’, says it all. We need to make sure we consume the right food for our constitution.
Agni – The digestive fire
The force of transformation in digestion is Agni or the digestive fire. Agni is responsible for the transformation of food, metabolism and the burning of energy in the body. It is the fire element. It is light, dry, subtle, rough, hot, sharp and slightly oily. Agni is vital to life. Every living being has fire. Disease is fire. A negative fire of course which fights against the fire of health. Inadequate or too much Agni is the cause of disease because fire or pitta is responsible for the digestion of food. But not only food, it is also responsible for the digestion of thoughts and experiences.
Agni is the main force of life. Without Agni, life is not possible And if you worship Agni, you will be blessed with perfect health. If Agni is optimal, someone’s immune system is healthy. When Agni becomes slow a person’s health deteriorates. Agni is radiant energy. In the body it manifests as body temperature, digestive enzymes, amino acids and all metabolic activities.
The thirteen different types of Agni defined in Ayurveda
There are different types of Agni. The digestive fire of food imparts its energy to the whole body. This is the main Agni. The waste product from this transformation is stool. Also, each of the five elements has a specific Agni too. One for air, one for ether, one for fire, one for water and one for earth. They reside in the liver. These Agni are necessary for building the related tissues (Dhatus) in the body and if their function is impaired tissues will not be formed properly. There are seven tissues described and each has its own Agni which is responsible for the proper formation of that tissue.
The three states Agni can be in
The state of Agni is crucial to obtaining optimum health. The Agni can be in three states in pitta it is high (Tikshna Agni), the sharp Agni, low in Kapha (Manda Agni), the dull and slow Agni, and variable in Vata (Vishama Agni), the irregular Agni. while a balanced state is optimum. Heat is carried to other parts of the body by Vata. If there is too much it can cause skin diseases like psoriasis, inflammation and bleeding and in digestion there will be hyperacidity.
Ama – The toxin created in the transformation of food
When the fire is burning too low, food is not digested properly and creates a toxic material called Ama. Ama is carried around the body by Vata and gets trapped in the joints and causes arthritis, cholesterol and plaques. It also works the other way around. Many factors, such as detrimental lifestyle, diet, bad food combining and repressed emotions can cause the bodily doshas to become aggravated. This then disturbs the Agni with the result food cannot be digested properly. The undigested food turns into a morbid, sticky substance called Ama. These toxins can be deeply rooted in the tissues. Cleansing of the colon will not address Ama in the rest of the body. There is more work to be done.
Bad eating habits are determined by taste instead of knowledge
One of the big differences between people today and our ancestors is that our eating habits are now determined by taste (and commercials) instead of the knowledge of what is good for us and the effect it has on our body. We do not listen to our body’s anymore. This is the cause of many diseases and it makes us tired and prone to all kinds of issues. Ama is created by:
- Eating continously
- Not experiencing hunger first
- Drinking water and cold beverages while eating
- Eating processed foods
- Unhealthy preparation of food (Microwaving e.g.)
- Eating meat which is hard to digest
- And much more…
What we should be doing instead is focussing on ‘creating’ Ojas, the pure essence of all bodily tissue.
Ojas – The pure essence of all bodily tissues
Ojas is a subtle form of Kapha which is the essence of the tissues. It governs immunity, energy resources and strength. Ojas is the essence of the tissues (Dhatus), of food, impressions and thoughts. Ojas on an inner level gives calmness, support and nourishment to high levels of consciousness. Ojas can be equated to the fluence of life
- Low Ojas causes anxiety and mental fatique
- Ojas will be depleted by excess exercise and sexual activity
- Anger, greed, envy and pride deplete Ojas as well
As we can see there is a close correlation between the physical and mental aspects in us.
The Role of the Mind
Since Ayurveda is a holistic scientific health system that takes body, mind and soul into consideration, we need to understand the role of the mind. The Vedas considered the Solar Plexus in the abdomen to be the main site of the mind. This is why we say that intelligence is in every part of the body.
Prana – The Life Force
Prana is the life force which has the qualities of air and space (Vata) and is the main driving energy of the body. Prana is in the body, the mind and influences our spiritual nature and really cannot be separated in its function as the body, mind and spirit are interconnected.
Prana is the life force coming into the body through the breath or through inhalation. Breathing is the most important thing we do in life. We can survive without water. We can survive a long time without food. But we can only survive a minute or two without air.
Prana is a very important concept to understand in ayurveda. It is the keystone to physical and mental health and spiritual growth. It is the force behind everything we do. Particularly in the decisions we make about what and how we eat.
Because Prana is in all living things, it is through the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables that Prana from plants comes into us as energy. If a plant is old, frozen or altered in any way, it may have some nutrition, but it will not have Prana. If fruits and vegetables are artificially ripened they will not have the same value as a natural plant.
When used properly Prana will bring the right spiritual direction and will determine inspiration, positiveness and connect us to our inner self. It is through prana that we consciously connect to subtle sources of energy within us which govern the mind. What we eat, the air we breath and the way we breath is vital to optimum health.
The ego is our sense of identification. The ego has three qualities called the gunas. By now, as a reader, you should be able to recognise the three doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha while reading about the three Gunas. These are:
- Sattva – the quality of purity
- Rajas – the quality of action
- Tamas – the quality of resistance to action or inertia
In ayurveda we use the Gunas as a means to assess the quality of the mind. They are tendencies towards action not the action itself. For example, Sattva Guṇa is the tendency towards purity but it is not purity itself. Similarly, Rajas is the force which tends to create action but is not action itself.
The word Sattva is a sanskrit word which means balance, order and purity. It is the principle of intelligence which brings about balance. The Sattva quality of the mind creates virtue, purity, goodness and harmony.
The word Rajas means change, movement, activity and turbulence. It causes self motivation, gives power, wealth and recognition. The Rajas quality is ambition, selfishness, egoism, pleasure and stimulation seeking. It is the force of passion. It is the force of action which causes imbalance in the mind resulting in emotional pain and suffering.
The word Tamas means darkness and obscurity. It is the quality of inertia, lethargy and dullness. It can cause decay and disintegration. It is the principle of materialism, unconsciousness and greed. The Tamas quality is destruction. At the same time Tamas is the force of gravity which holds everything in place.
The Tendencies of the Mind
The mind is the most difficult thing to keep under control. More so than our body. The mind, like the body, has certain tendencies. When you understand them you will have the tools to keep it under control:
- The Senses who are the instruments of the mind that make us experience the 5 elements. The Manas, the Ayurvedic concept of the human mind.
- The Ego or our sense of identification, or self image and gives ownership of our emotions as in “I like this” and “I am that“ etc. It is not who we really are.
- Chitta is where all experiences and impressions are stored.The Chitta or subconscious mind is our deep seated memory and is where all life’s impressions are stored. Chitta is the bridge between the mind and the soul and it is through the subconscious mind that we connect to cosmic consciousness and our inner self. Chitta is very important to sanity because it functions properly in a Sattvic state of mind, but in Rajas and Tamas its functions are disturbed.
- Buddhi is the discriminating mind. This is our intelligence. It is the rational part of the mind which allows us to judge, doubt and process information before its stored in the memory. It allows us to understand and discriminate between truth and falsehood, good and bad. It gives us values and principles and allows us to be objective in our judgement.
Mental aspects of eating habits
Our mental attitude has a huge influence on our health. Instead of going against our best interests we should behave in a way that benefits us. This goes for both lifestyle habits and eating habits. It is principle of Ayurveda we should not forget while eating. It is why bad company at the dinner table or eating while having disturbing thoughts.
Routines are vitally important
Routines are important to turn a healthy diet and lifestyle into a habit. We tend to do all the wrong things. Eating in front of the TV for example is not good for our health. So is eating while the stomach is still full and your Agni – your digestive fire – is low. There is nothing more important than protecting your health. It is what you should do every day by taking on the best routines possible. Ayurveda is full of advice on this and will make it so much easier for you to sustain.
The most common Ayurvedic Lifestyle Tips
Basically, Ayurveda is all about living a natural lifestyle. It is because we have not been taught how to anymore we need help. Ayurveda can be of great help. It teaches you to live a lifestyle closer to your body’s needs:
- Why not to suppress natural urges like sneezing, urination, defecation, vomiting etc.
- How to develop sleeping habits that will rejuvenate the body and restore strength
- What type of daily excercising is good for your body, mind and soul
- What type of Ayurvedic treatment in the form of Panchakarma (Detoxification), Ayurvedic massages, Diet and Lifestyle changes, herbal treatment e.g. is good for you
Yoga and Meditation should not be underestimated
It is very important to connect with the lifeforces within. That way you will reach higher levels of consiousness. Yoga and Meditation are one of the best ways to achieve this. It improves stamina and immunity. Yoga improves the overall bodyfunctions like digestion, circulation and mobility. Particularly in combination with a good diet and proper sleep, physical health and mental well-being will improve.
A lot can be said about cooking the Ayurvedic way. Still, the number of Ayurvedic Cookbooks is low. It is a lot more complicated than it might seem at first sight. A few important things to remember are:
- Every ingredient is either increasing or decreasing your Dosha – Pick your ingredients wisely and mind the combinations you eat
- You should learn to eat according to your Metabolic Capacity, eat foods that are easily digested by you – That balances your Agni
- Become aware of the negative aspects of environmental problems in the food chain and try and avoid them. They are having a major effect on your health
The basic way to eat an Ayurvedic meal is to cook at home, add digestive spices and keep it simple.
Ayurveda is the truth
Although you might hear contraditory information about diet and lifestyle, only Ayurveda, the science of nature, is the truth. Research shows us again and again that this is so. For example, a book called How not to die is packed with researches and conclusions derived from this that are in line with what Ayruveda has been telling us for over 5000 years. It is as nature intended it to be.
It is a way of life
There is no beginning and no end. Ayurveda is a way of life and it will never stop. Our habits either generate lifeforce or they don’t.
While studying the subject of Ayurveda and Nutrition, the follow books were of great value to me:
- Textbook of Ayurveda. Volume 1, 2 & 3 – Vasant Lad M.A.Sc.
- Ayurvedic Nutrition – Vaidya Atreya Smith
- The Ayurvedic Cookbook – Amadea Morningstar & Urmila Desai
- The Hot Belly Diet – Suhas G. Kshirsagar
- Ayurveda en Voeding – Vaidya Etienne Premdani
- The Ayurvedic Vegan Kitchen – Talya Lutzker
- Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution – Dr. Robert Svoboda
- How not to die – Michael Greger MD
- The China Study – T. Colin Campbell