How to Eat Like a Yogi: An Introduction to Ayurvedic Nutrition
An Ayurvedic diet revolves around a person’s body type, their temperament, their lifestyle and the food they grew up eating. In his book, Yogiplate, acclaimed chef and yoga teacher, Radhavallabha Das teaches us how to eat according to our doshas and gunas, and how Sattvic food not only nourishes our body and mind, but also our soul.
Ayurveda uses two fundamental concepts to understand a person’s nature:
Tri-doṣa or the three ‘building blocks’ that can sustain as well as damage life forms.
Tri-guṇa or the three ‘modes/types’ of nature that develop our personality.
Triguṇas influence our psyche, which shapes our behavioural traits, while tridoṣa is generally responsible for the physical characteristics. Tridoṣa builds and helps the functioning of a healthy, strong body, whereas triguṇa influences our likes and dislikes. So, in a sense, tridoṣa is responsible for the hardware (the body) while triguṇa is responsible for the software (the mind). All of these play an important role in designing our diet, which is a major source of our nourishment.
Tri-doṣa: The Three Building Blocks
Let’s try to understand the tridoṣa, the building blocks. The Sanskrit word tri means three and the word doṣa means faults. Yes, the three building blocks are termed faulty. Duṣyanti iti doṣa: to be more precise, the impact is faulty. It is strange, but what sustains our material body can also kill it. Now, one may ask why the faulty (killing) side of these building blocks and not the sustaining quality is the essence. It is called tridoṣa or three faults instead of tristhiti or three sustainers because ultimately, these building blocks are successful as destroyers of the body rather than sustaining it. It is not a pessimistic view, my dear readers. Rather, it is an indicator of reality to warn us how much care we need to take to keep our bodies and minds healthy. When these doṣas are in balance, we relish good health, but when the doṣas are agitated and go out of balance, they start destroying the body.
One may wonder, how can something that is destructive by nature sustain life? This is how Ācārya Vāgabhaṭa, one of the greatest Ayurvedic preceptors, describes doṣas: ‘Suppose we leave a piece of bread unattended. After a day or two, some fungus will start to develop on it. Anybody who eats it will become sick as the bread has turned toxic. But after another day or two, we will observe some worms on the bread! In fact, the worms thrive on that rotting bread. How so?’ Vāgabhaṭa explains that while certain combinations can sustain one form of life, they can be poisonous for another. Similarly, although kapha, pitta and vāta are poisonous in nature, in a certain balanced combination, they sustain life. This balance is the key to good health. The moment this balance gets disturbed, these very doṣas that build one’s body will notoriously destroy it, like a rising ocean swallows up a ship. For example, imbalanced kapha produces a lot of mucus and can potentially make it tough to breathe. Imbalanced pitta causes excess heat, resulting in acidity or heartburn and is generally associated with high fever. Imbalanced vāta is the cause of pain in the body and is also known to cause restlessness.
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An important aspect of diet, according to Ayurveda, is not to disturb this balance. Disturbing it is like waking up a sleeping tiger. Our diet should respect this balance while also nourishing the doṣas. So, it’s important to understand the nature of our body as well as the nature of food, and accordingly match them. What are these three faults—kapha, pitta and vāta—that Ayurveda is speaking about? It is difficult to translate each of them to a single English word as their description may need volumes. So, we will not translate the meaning and rather take them as they are and try to understand them.
Ayurveda considers that everything is made up of five basic elements, similar to what Aristotle believed. These are earth, water, air, fire and ether. These are described in Ayurveda as panca mahābhūta, meaning the five great elements. These elements combine in different ways to create tridoṣa, the building blocks of life systems.
Tri-Guṇa: Understanding Your Personality
The Sanskrit word guṇa literally means quality, virtue, excellence or traits. Another meaning of guṇa is rope. Triguṇa or three qualities of nature, which are all-pervasive, weave (like ropes do) the behavioural traits in us and thus shape our likes and dislikes. These three guṇas, the strings of mother nature, are subtle and classified as sattva, meaning goodness, rajas referring to passion and tamas meaning ignorance. These three modes are the source of panca mahābhūta (five basic elements) and the tri-doṣas which are made from panca mahābhūta. Just like numerous stunning paintings can be created using three primary colours, these three guṇas weave a unique masterpiece of personality in each human being.
As long as one stays within their nature, one is comfortable, like the spider in its own cobweb. A spider puts a little sticky gum at strategic points in its web, unknown even to other spiders, intending to catch a prey and to safeguard its prey from other spiders. So, we never see two spiders in the same cobweb. Similarly, when one tries to adopt a different nature, unexpected problems will multiply and lead to entanglement.
It is crucial to recognise our nature and stay within those boundaries, albeit there is no limit to expanding the boundaries of your particular net.
Related Story: The Science Behind a Sattvic Diet
Not just humans, but all creatures consist of three qualities, in space as well as time. During creation, one of these qualities may manifest more. The entire living world is made up of these bundles of sattva, rajas and tamas. Take for example ‘time’. Early morning manifests sattva or goodness.
Since we are also made up of sattva, rajas and tamas, time in the early morning hours inspires sattva or goodness in us. This results in a sense of peace and calmness in the early morning hours. We are forgiving, grateful, patient and hopeful for the day. All good qualities naturally manifest in this time frame.
In the same way, daytime is in the mode of passion or raja guṇa. In these hours, we scheme, plan, perform and achieve. To push ourselves to work, we need passion. And the daytime inspires the passion in us to do so. Night hours are tāmasic, a time when everything is naturally dark and causes ignorance. And time inspires the tamas in us during the night hours, causing sleep. Sleep causes us to forget ourselves, to the point that whether one is a man or woman. Isn’t that a blessing in disguise?
At this point, we can propose two rules:
The entire nature is built of sattva, rajas and tamas, including us.
When we expose ourselves to a certain quality of nature, then that nature in us gets a boost.
Just as anything else, food can also be sāttvic, rājasic or tāmasic. Ayurveda recommends always eating sāttvic food. Why so? Ayurveda declares that of these three guṇas, sattva or goodness, as the very term suggests, is the purest (but not perfect). Rajas or passion and tamas or ignorance are impure and cause diseases or bad health.
Published with the permission of Nicholas Rixon, Editor, Yogiplate (2021, Penguin Random House)
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