One Simple Act That Turns Food Into Medicine
Last Spring I went out to California for a women’s gathering in the redwoods, and I took a 3-hour class with a great herbalist. She shared herbalism with us in the Wise Woman Way. Instead of handouts and lectures, we spent 3 hours with 3 cups of tea. And it was one of the most profound information downloads I’ve ever experienced. I learned more than I ever had about those herbs —which were already familiar to me in some ways—by using all of my senses and taking my time.
The Wise Woman Way of herbalism is all about finding your allies in healing. The role of the healer in this tradition is mostly as facilitator, guiding your relationship and experiences with the herbs as you navigate what works best for you. She does not give you the answers and the remedy, but educates you in the ways to find those for yourself.
I thought, why can’t I do this with Ayurveda? When I began to study Ayurveda, I immediately knew I was in the right place—I found that I was discovering a language for truths I had known all along. Learning the structure of Ayurveda gave me a framework from which to categorize my discoveries.
Find Your Food Allies
Often when we learn about an Ayurvedic diet, we’re given our predominant dosha and a food list. Though on the surface this feels straightforward and practical (let’s say it satisfies the pitta in us all), it immediately brings us into the “good” or “bad” mentality. If a food is on the avoid list, it is “bad.” If it is on the favor side, it is “good.”
While I certainly believe this kind of information is helpful, and I share food lists with my students, it’s so important not to take them as the gospel truth. If you have ever looked at a few food lists anyway, you’ll find plenty of discrepancies. We are all individuals—there may be a billion vata-pitta constitutions out there, but the same ol’ food list is not going to feel right for all of them.
Are You Coping or Healing?
In Ayurveda, every food can be considered medicine, neutral, or poison, depending on how it affects agni, or our digestive capacity.
For example, before I even knew the words yoga or Ayurveda, I knew that cold drinks made me feel ill, especially when I drank them with my meals. I had made this discovery on my own, but it wasn’t until I began studying that I learned about the concept of agni. Personal experience became much more potent when I had the science to back it up.
When we are in a healing state of being, the body is in a state of regeneration and repair. When we take in substances through the senses, which are medicinal, or even neutral, the body can function in this state of healing. When we take in foods that are not ideal for us, or if we take in too much for our agni to process, we are in effect, taking in something poisonous to our wellbeing. In order for the body to manage what has been thrown at it, we move out of the healing, regenerative state, and into a coping space—which may turn into a degenerative state over time.
The piece that is so often missing, alongside the food lists, is the practice of mindfulness. And mindfulness may sound simple, but in my experience, it’s the hardest part.
Creating a Gratitude Ritual
Eating more slowly can help you become aware of your food allies—or discover those that are not. Here are a few suggestions:
- Take 3 deep breaths into your abdomen before beginning to eat.
- Look at your food, notice the gunas, the colors, the textures and smells.
- Visualize each ingredient in your food in it’s natural habitat.
- Give thanks for all the hands and the time it took to get those ingredients and this meal onto your plate.
- Between each bite, put down your fork or spoon. This will help you chew and eat more slowly.
- Light a candle at your table at the start of each meal.
Having a gratitude ritual before meals helps you slow down, and slowing down most likely means you’ll remember what you ate and be able to associate later feelings or sensations with your food choices. You can’t get this sort of information from a book!