The New Year brings new hopes, aspirations and resolutions. It is the time of the year when we set our goals to achieve for the next year. How many of us are able to actually act on our plans? Be it the promise to hit the gym every single day or make a schedule to socialize more often, even the best promise-keepers may find it hard to keep up with New Year’s resolutions. However, no matter how many times we’ve fallen behind, year after year, we never give up. And I say we shouldn’t! After all, the new year is all about starting new habits (good ones) and committing to the activities that lead to a more positive life — all leading in the direction of better health and happiness.
When thinking about resolutions for the new year, I encourage: "make it simple." Yes, let’s set goals that are achievable. Many times, we are so excited to set a higher benchmark that we often forget what our limitations and soft corners are. So, the most effective way to start out is to make resolutions that are simple and achievable. And, once we are actually able to keep up with our promise, think about the amount of fulfillment and joy it will bring to our lives.
I’ll offer one simple resolution to start the new year: bring attention to your diet.
Don’t get the impression that I’m now going to write a lengthy article about a dosha-specific diet, or a vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, vegan, or so-and-so diet. As I already said, keep it simple. Our diets have less to do with what we eat, and more to do with how we eat. Of course, what we eat matters, but definitely, the way we eat is just as important, although it is often overlooked.
Below are my simple tips for how we eat, the Ayurvedic way:
• Eating is a Yagya: Ayurveda puts food and the act of eating in a highly-valued category. It is considered as sacred as performing a Yagya (a Vedic ceremony of offering). The Vedic texts indicate that the whole process of eating is not at all different from a Yagya. As the eater, we are the one who is performing the Yagya, the one who uses his hand to put the food in his mouth, just like the one who puts the offering into the fire during a Yagya. When we eat, food is what is put to the digestive fire — it is our offering to ourselves to sustain our lives, and as such, an offering to the divine intelligence responsible for our very existence. So, it is very similar to a Yagya.
To receive the maximum benefit from a Yagya, we want to be in a calm state of consciousness. When we are engaged in other activities while eating, when we are distracted from the process of eating that ideally deserves our undivided attention, we do this process a disservice. While eating, we should be seated in an easy, comfortable position, in a settled, peaceful environment, and be present with our food. In our modern culture of fast food, where we literally may not get a chair to sit in while eating, or we may be eating in noisy, crowded malls, or even eating while driving, we are treating ourselves, our process of digestion unfairly — distraction goes against the principle of healthy eating. We see almost every culture entertain the idea of silence, prayer, or gratitude before a meal. The reason behind this practice is to encourage us to be settled, peaceful and more present with our food. Not only does this silence encourage our digestive system to secrete juices which will digest our food, but also keeping silence while eating brings our awareness to our food. This awareness is very necessary, as we don’t want to miss the taste and quality of food that we are eating, which will bring strength and vitality to our physiology. Those that eat consciously find that they more thoroughly chew their food, eat more slowly (avoiding overeating) and tend to not take in foods that taste inappropriate for their bodies. In addition, paying gratitude to Mother Nature for providing us the food we are eating also adds happiness and satisfaction in the process of digestion. So, we are encouraged to practice the offering of gratitude before a meal.
• Be with the food: Being present with our food, not distracted while eating, is very important. We may think that a meal is the best time to have conversations. However, this contradicts the Ayurvedic principle of having our attention with our meal and supporting digestion. When we are sitting in front of food but we are actually distracted by a conversation, we are not fully involved in the process of eating. We may not even necessarily know what we are eating, and on a more subtle level neither will our body. Conscious eating and digestion depend on us. Digestion begins with our mouth. Our saliva is an important part of the digestion process and begins the breakdown of food. When we do not chew food adequately due to distracted eating, we miss an important part of digestion, and our food hits our stomach not fully prepared for the next step in the breakdown process. Ayurvedic scholars have categorized food in four different groups: Pan (drinkables), Asana (eatables), Bhakshya (chewables) and Lehya (lickables). When we don’t pay attention to what we are eating, the desired action of eating is ignored, which eventually affects digestion. An added benefit of eating consciously is that it gives our stomach time to communicate with our brain, thus reducing our tendency to overeat. Just remember how important it is for our mind to be involved in the process of any activity or knowledge. Without our mind being involved, we cannot learn anything new. Similarly, without mind being involved, one cannot give our best to anything, including eating. Ayurveda entertains the idea of silence and being with the food while eating.
It isn’t uncommon to have a meeting or lecture during lunch that ends with indigestion. In these situations, by not being fully present with our food while eating, we are distracted and as such we do not fully digest our food.
In Ayurveda it is actually considered disrespectful to our food when we are distracted.
How many of us meet friends and socialize during our meals? Although I agree it is very important to socialize, it should preferably not be done while eating. Even if we are eating with our family at our own dining table, serious discussions, unpleasant news and talks should be minimized, allowing everyone to focus on eating. Mealtime conversation could be about how good the food has turned out, or how well it was cooked (honoring the chef).
• Eating at the right time: We support our digestion during meals when our digestive capacity is at its best. The age-old concept of "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" could be revised, because Ayurveda considers every meal equally important! Having said that, Ayurvedic dietary principles suggest taking lunch as the main meal of the day, with breakfast and dinner smaller in comparison. This principle aligns us with the strength of the sun during the day. The sun is strongest at noon, and our digestive system also is strongest in the middle of the day. Hence, it is ideal to have our biggest meal when our digestive strength is at its best. Having a huge breakfast and late lunch or dinner is not supportive of our digestion. There is an added benefit of having the rest of the active day to support the digestion of our main meal.
• Eating the right portions: Ayurvedic texts are specific on the amount of meal portions recommended. Ideally, if we divide the size of our stomach into four parts, we should eat two parts solid, one part liquid and leave one part for moveable space. An exercise that can help us with portion control is to keep our portions below our own Anjuli, which is the measurement of quantity made by joining our two palms together.
• Eating and emotions: Eat in a relaxed, settled environment. It is highly encouraged that times of emotional turbulence are not paired with time spent eating. When we are overly excited or stressed out, it is not the right time to eat, as it affects our production of digestive enzymes and makes it hard for us to eat in an undistracted manner. Some people find that they overeat or under eat while they are emotionally out of balance. If we find ourselves in this situation, it is recommended to eat after we have settled a little bit, not during the peak of emotional turbulence.
• Drinking while eating: At times, we may not even realize when we are thirsty. So, unconsciously, we may drink a lot of water or other liquids with our meals, right before, or right after. This is like pouring water on a fire. Drinking a large quantity of water/drinks right before, after or during meals is not supportive of our digestion. However, sipping small amounts of room-temperature or warm water in between bites is very good for digestion. A quote that I often share with my clients says: "Water is bhesaj (medicine) for Ajirna (indigestion); it gives strength if taken after digestion, is nectar if sipped between bites, and poison at the end of the meal."
• Eat according to Agni: Last but not least, Ayurveda recommends that we eat according to our Agni. Agni is the digestive fire we all have in our physiology. Based on our dosha constitution and state of dosha balance, the strength of our Agni can be balanced (Sama), irregular (Vishama), dull (Manda) or sharp (Tikshna). Based on these different states of digestive power, we want to choose the proper quality and quantity of our food. Those who have sharp Agni can favor foods with heavy qualities, whereas those with slow, sluggish digestion should favor well-cooked, easy-to-digest, light food. However, the quality of heaviness and lightness also depends on the quantity. Heavy foods can be lighter if taken in a small amount, and light food can be heavier if taken in an excessive amount. Thus, consideration of quantity weighed against quality, including dosha-balancing qualities, is equally important while eating.
Food (aahara) is one among the three sub-pillars of health. So, putting our attention on not only the quality of food but also how we eat is very important. The new year is a wonderful time to observe our current habits and put our awareness on the beautiful act of eating, because after all: "We are how we eat."
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Dr. Dinesh Gyawali is a Vaidya and Ayurvedic Physician with extensive knowledge of herbology. He studied Ayurvedic medicine and surgery at the Institute of Medicine at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal, and worked at various private and government clinics in Nepal. He has a Master’s Degree in Medical Anthropology from Tribhuvan University, and a post-graduate diploma in Social Health and Counseling from Macquarie University, Australia. He is working on his PhD in Physiology and Health from Maharishi University of Management (MUM). Dr. Gyawali currently resides in Fairfield, Iowa and offers Ayurvedic consultations at the Integrative Health Clinic at MUM.
The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.