The New Year brings new hopes, aspirations and resolutions. It is the time of year when you set your goals for the next year. How many of you are able to actually act on your 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. No matter how many times you’ve fallen behind however, year after year, you never give up. And I say you 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 you to “make it simple.” Yes, set goals that are achievable. Many times, you’re so excited to set a higher benchmark that you often forget what your limitations and soft corners are. So, the most effective way to start out is to make resolutions that are simple and achievable. And once you are actually able to keep up with your promise, the amount of fulfillment and joy it will bring to your life will be immeasurable.
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 an Ayurvedic diet or a vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, vegan, or so-and-so diet. As I already said, keep it simple. Your diet has less to do with what you eat, and more to do with how you eat. Of course, what you eat does matter, but definitely, the way you eat is just as important, although it is often overlooked.
Below are my simple tips for how to eat the Ayurvedic way.
Make An Offering
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, you are the one who is performing the Yagya, the one who uses his or her hand to put the food in their mouth, just like the one who puts the offering into the fire during a Yagya. When you eat, food is what is put to the digestive fire — it is your offering to yourself to sustain your life, and as such, an offering to the divine intelligence responsible for your very existence. So eating is very similar to a Yagya.
To receive the maximum benefit from a Yagya, it’s important to be in a calm state of consciousness. When you are engaged in other activities while eating, when you are distracted from the process of eating that ideally deserves your undivided attention, you do this process a disservice.
While eating, you should be seated in an easy, comfortable position, in a settled, peaceful environment. Be present with your food. In our modern culture of fast food, where you literally may not get a chair to sit in while eating, or may be eating in noisy, crowded malls, or even eating while driving, you are treating yourself, your process of digestion unfairly. Distraction goes against the principle of healthy eating.
Almost every culture entertains the idea of silence, prayer or gratitude before a meal. The reason behind this practice is to encourage you to be settled, peaceful and more present with your food. Not only does this silence encourage your digestive system to secrete juices which will digest your food. Keeping silence while eating also brings awareness to the food. This awareness is very necessary, as you don’t want to miss the taste and quality of food that you are eating, which will bring you strength and vitality to your 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 you food also adds happiness and satisfaction in the process of digestion. So practice the offering of gratitude before a meal.
Being present with your food, not distracted while eating, is very important. You may think that a meal is the best time to have conversation. However this contradicts the Ayurvedic principle of having your attention on your meal and supporting digestion.
When you are sitting in front of food but are actually distracted by a conversation, you are not fully involved in the process of eating. You may not even necessarily know what you are eating, and on a more subtle level neither will your body.
Conscious eating and digestion depend on you. Digestion begins with your mouth. Your saliva is an important part of the digestion process and begins the breakdown of food. When you do not chew food adequately due to distracted eating, you miss an important part of digestion, and your food hits your stomach not fully prepared for the next step in the breakdown process.
Ayurvedic scholars have categorized food into four different groups: Pan (drinkables), Asana (eatables), Bhakshya (chewables) and Lehya (lickables). When you don’t pay attention to what you are eating, the necessary action of eating is ignored, which eventually affects digestion. An added benefit of eating consciously is that it gives your stomach time to communicate with your brain, thus reducing your tendency to overeat. Just remember how important it is for your mind to be involved in the process of any activity or knowledge. Without your mind being involved you cannot learn anything new. Similarly, without mind being involved, you cannot give your best to anything, including eating. Ayurveda encourages minimal conversation and being present with your meal 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 your food while eating, you are distracted and as such do not fully digest your food.
In Ayurveda it is actually considered disrespectful to your food when you are distracted.
How many of you meet friends and socialize during meals? Although I agree it is very important to socialize, it should preferably not be done while eating. Even if you are eating with your family at your 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).
Eat at the right time
You support your digestion during meals when your 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 quantity. This principle aligns you with the strength of the sun during the day. The sun is strongest at noon and your digestive system also is strongest in the middle of the day. Hence, it is ideal to have your biggest meal when your digestive strength is at its best. Having a huge breakfast and late lunch or dinner is not supportive of your digestion. There is an added benefit of having the rest of the active day to support the digestion of your main meal.
Eat the right portions
Ayurvedic texts are specific on the amount of meal portions recommended. Ideally, if you divide the size of your stomach into four parts, you should eat two parts solid, one part liquid and leave one part for moveable space. An exercise that can help with portion control is to keep your portions below your own Anjuli, which is the measurement of quantity made by joining your two palms together.
Stay emotionally healthy
Eat in a relaxed, settled environment. It is highly encouraged that times of emotional turbulence are not paired with time spent eating. When you are overly excited or stressed out, it is not the right time to eat. This affects your production of digestive enzymes and makes it hard to eat in an undistracted manner. Some people find that they overeat or undereat while they are emotionally out of balance. If you find yourself in this situation, it is recommended to eat after you have settled a little bit, not during the peak of emotional turbulence.
Sometimes you may not even realize when you are thirsty. Unconsciously you may drink a lot of water or other liquids with your meals, right before or right after. This is like pouring water on a fire. Drinking a large quantity of water or beverages right before, after or during meals is not supportive of your digestion.
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.”
Honor Your Agni
Last but not least, Ayurveda recommends that you eat according to your Agni. Agni is the digestive fire you all have in your physiology. Based on your dosha constitution and state of dosha balance, the strength of your Agni can be balanced (Sama), irregular (Vishama), dull (Manda) or sharp (Tikshna).
Based on these different states of digestive power, choose the proper quality and quantity of your 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 your attention on not only the quality of food but also how you eat is very important. The new year is a wonderful time to observe your current habits and put your awareness on the beautiful act of eating, because after all: “You are how you 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, 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.