“You are what you eat,” sighed my mother, eyeing dubiously as I lovingly dismantled my favorite after school snack, Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, purchased with my paper route earnings. These words echoed in my mind when, during recent attendance at a meditation retreat, lunch and dinner on the same day comprised heavily spiced and salted ethnic cuisine. Following dinner, in contrast to previous nights, the meditation hall was filled with rustling, sighs, and the clamor of ups and downs to use the restroom. That night, I dreamt of ferocious sharks and forest fires. These observations are consistent with Ayurveda’s prediction that rajasic foods heighten irritability and restlessness.
Ayurvedic principles can support you in beginning to notice how foods and behaviors differentially affect your energy and unique constitution, a process that initially entails a learning curve. Yet Ayurveda does not represent absolute truth; as a cultural system, it is fallible like any other.
Ayurveda originated in the sociocultural and historical context of India, evolving over thousands of years from empirical observations of how various factors, including diet, affected mental and physical health. As a humoral system of medicine, Ayurveda stands alongside a multitude of folk and indigenous medical systems spanning the continents. Aside from Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda is probably the best-known and codified whole system of medicine known to the west.
These systems share in common broad beliefs in the moral and medicinal values of food; where they diverge is in the specific expression of these properties. For instance, a food designated “hot” in one cultural context can be deemed “cold” by another, sometimes even within the same village. One scholar notes, “[Humoral medicine] is a marvelously flexible instrument that can be manipulated to give almost any desired result…the point is not that the system is perfectly consistent, but that it always provides an explanation that is deemed acceptable.”
An Ayurvedic practitioner once told me that the beauty of Ayurveda resides in this flexibility, and shared the tale of a man with cancer who went to India and visited five Ayurvedic doctors. Each provided a different treatment, and yet each was equally effective. Western science states that if a system is non-falsifiable—that is, if you cannot debunk its tenets, similar to creationism, astrology, or Freudianism—it is without merit. Yet millions who ascribe to these beliefs and experience healing would stringently disagree.
At its best, Ayurveda is a portal to intuitive eating, a flexible, instinctual relationship to food that transcends beliefs and systems, drawing directly on embodied experience. But when we bring the same mindset to Ayurveda as we have to Western diets and other systems, privileging its tenets over our body’s intelligence, we outsource our dietary agency, neglecting the wisdom of our body and heart-mind.
The resulting rigidity around food can then circumscribe our experience, compounding the cultural tyranny of mind over body and potentially worsening dietary choices. Neglecting to adapt Ayurveda’s guidelines or recognize its limitations short-changes the rich evolution this system has undergone across millennia, and the plethora of diverse food-related beliefs and practices spanning the globe.
In Part 2 we will explore ways in which Ayurvedic guidelines and yoga practice can promote intuitive eating.