Nourishing Manovaha Srotas
As we conclude our journey through the srotansi, this month we will take a look at how to care for manovaha srotas. The prevalence of mental disorders is staggering, with 26.2% of adult Americans, or 57.7 million people, suffering from a mental disorder in any given year.1 From an Ayurvedic viewpoint, this vast morbidity reflects two things. Firstly, culture-wide deficiencies in diet and lifestyle are leading to impaired agni, the root of both physical and mental health or disease. “Life-span, complexion, strength, health, enthusiasm, corpulence, luster, immunity, energy…all these depend on agni.”2 Secondly, we inhabit a culture whose rajasic and tamasic nature is deleterious to our mental health. As the great English poet William Wordsworth wrote,
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Our consumer culture of getting and spending is inherently rajasic in nature and keeps us incessantly outer-focused as we seek meaning in the biggest, the best, the latest, the newest. Sedentary lifestyles, junk food, recreational drugs, alcohol consumption and the mind-numbing use of television foster tamas in the mind. Under the constant irritation created by rajas and the heavy dullness of tamas, inherent tendencies to mental disorders have fertile ground to flourish.
Manovaha srotas is nourished by sattva. This begins with implementing a sattvic diet.
“Foods that augment lifespan (ayu), purity, strength, health, happiness and cheerfulness, which are tasty and sufficiently oily (snigdha), substantial and agreeable are favoured by the sattvic person.” 3
While Ayurvedic health regimens mentioned in the ancient texts often include non-vegetarian foods, the pursuit of sattva leads us to the yogic vegetarian diet outlined in Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gerhandha Samhita. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and dairy products are the basic food groups comprising the sattvic diet, although fruits and dairy products are considered the most sattvic of all foods.
“Bitter, sour and salty tastes, unripe vegetables, fermented/rotting and oily foods, intoxicating liquors, fish, meat, yoghurt, chick peas, oil-cake, asafoetida (hing), garlic, onion, etc., should not be eaten. Wheat, rice, barley, corn, milk, ghee, natural sugar, butter, honey, dried ginger, snake gourd, the five vegetables, mung beans, pure water, these are very beneficial to those who practice Yoga.” 4
The sattvic diet requires the basic components of sattva— purity and ahimsa (non-violence). In terms of purity, food additives and preservatives, hormones and pesticides should be avoided in a sattvic diet. Many additives are inherently irritating to the brain and create rajasic states of mind. The quest for a non-violent way of eating leads to a vegetarian diet but also calls in question dairy products in light of modern methods of dairy farming. Some resolve this dilemma by adopting a vegan diet, others by being careful about the source of the dairy products they consume. Seeking ahimsa in diet also leads us to consider the environmental cost of our food and the welfare of farm workers and the earth. From this standpoint, local, organic foods would be inherently more sattvic. Additional levels of sattva and enhanced prana can be added to our food by cultivating it using Vedic farming techniques, known nowadays as homatherapy farming.5,6 Our food can be further imbued with sattva by offering the first portion to a picture of a spiritual teacher or form of God.
“Whatever you do, whatever you eat … do it as an offering to Me.” 7
And when all else fails, pray before you eat and consume the food with a sattvic mind.
May the Earth be blessed that bore this food
And may they prosper who grew it.
May the hands be blessed that cooked this meal,
May all grow strong who eat it.
May the hearts and wills of humankind be moved
To feed the hungry of the world,
And may all come to eat the Bread of Life
From Wisdom’s table.8
The sattvic diet is supplemented by use of special sattvic herbs, chief of which are tulsi and brahmi. There can be consumed as teas to enhance sattva and help prevent as well as treat mental illnesses.
Our relationships are the next place to seek to replace rajas and tamas with sattva. The English language is imbued with words of judgment and comparison, promoting a combative state of mind. The speech of ahimsa, on the other hand, is soft and gentle. Sattvic relationships and a sattvic, peaceful home are fostered by respectful, gentle and honest speech, avoiding judgment and insults. Remaining in right relationship means following the four steps of reconciliation whenever conflict occurs:
- Recognition: Recognizing and understanding how our action hurt the other person.
- Repentance: Making an emotional connection with the pain caused.
- Reparation: A concrete act or gift offered in restitution (Native Americans used to give horses to repair relationships).
- Rehabilitation: Steps we take to ensure the action will not recur.
After changing our physical diet, we also need to change our mental diet. Spiritual reading, kirtan, Sanskrit chanting, getting together with friends to discuss topics in Ayurveda and yoga philosophy help create a calm state of mind. Performing Vedic ceremonies such as agnihotra—a brief sunrise and sunset fire ceremony— have been shown to help addictions and develop a positive state of mind.9
“Agnihotra is a Vedic ritual of lighting fire in a copper pyramid pot with use of Mantras at sunrise and sunset time. It is found to have neurophysiological effect on human body and brain. Clinically it produces mental tranquility and reported to have useful adjunct effect on deaddiction.”10
Mantras and Sanskrit chanting also help direct the mind into sattva. Preeminent among these is Gayatri mantra, the mantra of light. “The Gayatri mantra is considered the quintessence of wisdom. Its main focus is on clarity and enlightened perception.”11
One of the little aphorisms I use in clinic is, “Meaning is the best medicine.” Our rajasic addiction to getting and spending and our tamasic addiction to mind-numbing behaviors are manifestations of a great inner emptiness. While psychotropic medications prescribed for a quarter of the population may prevent suicide attempts and mitigate symptoms, they do nothing to address this emptiness. The basic principle of Ayurveda is “hetu viparita chikitsa”—treat the cause. If manovaha srotas lacks its basic nutrition, our genetic tendencies to mental illness are more likely to manifest. A sense of transcendent meaning, as well as a sense of purpose in the relative world, is the essential nutrient for manovaha srotas. In pursuit of this transcendent meaning, daily meditation provides a healthy meal for manovaha srotas. Above all, meditation in the brahmamuhurta, the sacred hour before sunrise, affords a time of sattvic tranquility, which deeply nourishes and transforms. So a basic menu for manovah srotas might include some selection from the following. And while this is a menu for adults, it is important to note that children need to nourish manovaha srotas as well. Encourage children to attend agnihotra and meditate for as many minutes as their age e.g. five minutes for a five year old.12
Menu for Nourishing Mental Health
(You don’t have to do it all! Any segment helps, whatever fits in your life)
- Rise in brahmamuhurta
- Personal hygiene time
- Sunrise agnihotra
- Gayatri mantra
- Sattvic breakfast of fruits and milk
- Daily work done with devotion and tranquility
- Sattvic lunch of grains, vegetables, legumes, ghee
- Walk 1,000 paces
- Daily work done with devotion and tranquility
- Sip Tulsi brahmi tea
- Sunset agnihota
- Meditation or kirtan
- Sattvic dinner (fruits and milk or lunch-type menu)
- Family time (singing, playing, reading aloud, instead of television!)
- Spiritual reading before bed
One of the unique features of Ayurveda is its emphasis on mental health through sattva. Right diet, right relationship, rituals, chanting and meditation form a comprehensive plan for preventative mental health.
- Sharma PV tr, Charak Samhita chi XV 3-4, Chaukhamba Orientalia, Delhi 1994
- Bhagavad Gita 17, 8 author’s translation
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Ch 1, vv 59, 62 as translated in: http://ashtangayogashala.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=110&Itemid=165
- Bhagavad Gita 9, 27 author’s translation
- From my Heart to Yours, Alakananda Devi, Prema Press
- Golechha GR, Sethi IG, Deshpande, Rani U. Agnihotra in the treatment of alcoholism Indian J Psychiatry. 1991 Jan;33(1):20-6.
- Ahuja YD, Gayatri, Gateway to Enlightenment, Timeless Teachings, Raleigh NC, 1999
- Rozman D, Meditating With Children: The Art of Concentration and Centering: A Workbook on New Educational Methods Using Meditation: Integral Yoga Publications (2002) - Paperback - 153 pages - ISBN 0932040527