How do we carry ahimsa (non-violence) deeper into ourselves? How does Ayurveda (the knowledge of life) blend ahimsa into healthier eating habits? How are the doshas (mind/body types) and gunas (the three essential qualities of nature) used in creating a more ahimsic way of life with food?
An earlier blog talked about how ahimsa is practiced in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. These paths all support a vegetarian diet. This level of mindful eating is said to create a more peaceful lifestyle. Some people feel that any food that is eaten must be introduced to the body through the practice of ahimsa. There is a certain sect in Hinduism who will only eat food they have prepared themselves while being in a peaceful state of mind. When they visit others, they bring their own food with them to eat. It is their belief that if the host/hostess prepares food in an angry, nervous or other negative state, then the food itself does not have the peaceful quality necessary to properly digest. You bring into yourself others’ negativity.
We have such an intimate connection with food and our annamayakosha (physical body). ‘Anna’ means food. All of the physical aspects of life come and go, and are consumed by another aspect of external reality. Annamayakosha is the outermost kosha also known as the ‘sheath of food.’ Food provides sustenance for our bodies and minds. This connection with body and nutrition was described in the Taittiriya Upanishad, which says, “Human beings consist of a material body built from the food they eat. Those who care for this body are nourished by the universe itself.”
Sharing food with others helps create a social environment for connecting and feeling wanted. Food is a way to celebrate accomplishments, bring people together during times of grief and a way to help heal the body from disease and injury. Depending on our view of eating, food can be a tool to help us flourish or self-destruct. Anorexia, bulimia, obesity, and other disorders are examples of eating done without practicing ahimsa and can result in permanent, disastrous consequences.
Ayurveda looks into the reasons why eating disorders and digestive problems occur, and suggests certain foods, herbs and spices as ‘medicine’. This type of food combining, using the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, astringent, bitter & pungent) of Ayurveda, helps bring an individual back to optimal health. Some tastes are increased or decreased to help balance each of the three doshas (vata, pitta, kapha). A person who is anxious and has a hard time focusing might use the tastes of sweet, sour and salty to achieve harmony in the digestive tract, especially the colon. This will help get the vata (air & space) dosha calm and feeling nurtured. Foods would include certain grains, beans, yogurt and more salt as a seasoning. A person who is hot-tempered and prone to skin irritations would be steered towards the tastes of bitter, astringent and sweet. Leafy greens, apples, pears, pomegranates and maple syrup. These can help cleanse the liver and cool the body of an unpacified pitta (water & air) dosha. A person who suffers from depression or just can’t get motivated might be instructed to increase the tastes of bitter, astringent and pungent by eating leafy green salads loaded with radishes, ginger and onions. This would be a combination of food that would help pacify an imbalanced kapha (earth & water) dosha.
Energy has three qualities that exist together. They are known as gunas. When energy takes form all three gunas are still present in an object, but one usually dominates the other two. A very pure and fresh diet consists primarily of sattvic foods. These foods nourish and create a state of peacefulness. Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and herbal teas are connected to this guna. Foods that are very hot, bitter, sour or dry are overstimulating to the body and mind and are known a rajasic foods. Rajasic foods include coffee, chocolate, hot peppers and too much salt. Eating on the run is considered rajasic too. Foods that cloud the mind and are not beneficial to nutrition would fall under tamasic foods. Meats, alcohol and fermented foods fit in this category. Overeating is considered a tamasic action. We all have choices to make when eating. Following a balanced diet that doesn’t disrupt body and mind is important in the digestive process.
Blessings or saying grace before eating a meal is a lovely ritual for many people. So often we grab food on the run and forget there is a whole process the body must go through in order to eat, digest and get rid anything we consume. If we are physically, emotionally or mentally distraught then this process slows down; we risk the chance for ama (undigested waste products) to accumulate as toxins inside of us. There is a blessing by Thich Nhat Hanh that raises awareness to the importance of food when mindfully introduced. “In this food I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence.” Ayurveda supports the premise that we should eat to live, not live to eat.
Some years ago I went to a summer fair that had such an assortment of traditional fair foods. The air was rich with greasy scents and the sound of spattering meats being grilled was everywhere. The eyes of hungry fair goers were distracted by a myriad of colorful signs, enticing them to come and nosh. Mouths watered and taste buds stood at attention in anticipation of their next ‘fix’. There were french fries, turkey legs, onion rings and funnel cakes. Trying to decide what to shove into my mouth next was not an easy task. Any decision would turn out to not be in the best interests of my digestive system later.
As I narrowed my selection down to mini deep fried doughnuts or a delectable cream horn, my eyes caught a stand that had plates stacked with some of the loveliest blend of chopped strawberries, pineapple and mangoes I had ever seen. My mouth watered just thinking about how refreshing fruit would be on a hot summer day. The woman running the stand was happy and at ease as she sold me a juicy plate of these offerings. She told me she prepared all of her food with compassion. She explained that mindfulness and the practice of ahimsa was very important to her when choosing, washing, preparing and cooking of the food she sold. My taste buds and entire mouth immediately felt the compassion she had infused in this tasty snack.
The nice thing about using compassion as an ingredient to dishes we prepare is, you never have to worry about adding too much.