Rotating on its spit, the glistening döner kebab beckoned as I awaited the next train from Budapest to Munich. With one down I ordered an extra for the trip, blissfully unaware of the food pathogens it harbored. This marked the first of four violent bouts of food poisoning I experienced while studying abroad, resulting in a compromised ability to digest many foods.
In subsequent years, I sought tirelessly (and in vain) to heal my gut using various diets and experts; from gluten-free and low-carb to low-fat and vegan, I tried them all. Finally, over the course of six years practicing yoga and adopting Ayurvedic eating principles, I grew aware of the energetic effects of food on my mental, emotional, and physical health. Initially, this was revolutionary; foods were not good or bad, per se, but rather rich or deficient in prana (life force) and other properties that could heal or generate imbalance. Ayurveda taught me to notice how food mediated the interface between my multidimensional self (koshas) and environment.
Yet I also made an interesting discovery: Like any diet or system, Ayurveda can be used to substitute for the wisdom of your body, calcifying your rigidity rather than fostering greater adaptability. Of course, this needn’t be so; any well-trained practitioner will note that Ayurveda is infinitely flexible. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And many of us in the west have a long history with dieting and tend to view food in moral rather than medicinal terms, tendencies we bring to bear with Ayurveda.
My initial experiences with Ayurveda were thus characterized by the same zeal evidenced with former diets; obsessing over food lists, do’s and dont’s. Initially Ayurveda may feel so exciting that we over-identify and fuse with its maxims. As with any other identity, there may be a sense of relief that Ayurvedic theory seems to “get” us; our temperament, imbalances, even bowel movements!
Yet something precious is also lost when we abandon our inner compass and invest external systems with absolute faith. We can become so rigid in our identification with the Ayurvedic worldview that we lose the moment and our witness, ultimately exhibiting the same patterns with Ayurveda that characterize other domains of our lives. Over time, this can actually strengthen our samskara rather than facilitate liberation. Put another way, our expectations—another term for samskara—can prevent us from experiencing the present moment fully.
For example, my early interpretations of Ayurveda transformed a minor lifelong aversion of spicy foods into intense avoidance. As a pitta, I refused to touch even mildly spiced cuisine for fear of exploding into flames. A trip to South Korea several years ago divested me of this belief; I fell in love with their spicy delicacies despite my fiery constitution, the pace of travel, and the sweltering temperatures. Indeed, Ayurveda counsels that any food can be enjoyed in the right circumstances (e.g., when not under stress). While my fears had transformed this sensible principle into a blanket prohibition, Ayurveda conceptualizes no food as strictly off limits. Beyond Ayurveda, listening to and honoring subsequent bodily (not mental!) cravings can restore balance.
Case in point. Another decade-long dietary verboten strengthened by Ayurveda: Fried foods. When one summer on Cape Cod I finally (joyfully!) indulged my longing for a basket of fried oysters, intense cravings for prana-rich fresh fruits and vegetables subsequently emerged—homeostatic, organic, and instinctual longings from my body to restore balance.
Ideally Ayurvedic knowledge is integrated with present-moment awareness and embodied wisdom. Breathing and sensing, we ask of ourselves what food will be of greatest nourishment given our inner and outer weather systems, an approach wholly aligned with Ayurveda’s fundamentally-contextual spirit. Yet it’s important to remain aware of your relationship to Ayurveda. Are you placing yourself in a dietary identity box and inadvertently strengthening your bondage, rather than using it as a springboard for greater awareness—and ultimate freedom from dietary expectations/samskaras/beliefs?
This is Part 2 of our series on intuitive eating. Read Part 1 here.