Everyday Ayurveda by Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya
Where a person’s life revolves around a daily office or factory workday, the family generally uses dinnertime for gathering and therefore saves elaborate preparations for dinner. Unfortunately, this results in the last meal being the heaviest and often the most unhealthy of the day. After-dinner walks have been replaced by the TV, presuming the family did not already have TV as their main dinner companion. These habits of dinner have unwittingly predisposed many to the lifestyle diseases now plaguing society.
After one of my Ayurveda teachers broke his ankle in the USA and was hospitalized for an extended period, he was nurtured by friends until he could travel. A family of modernized doctors and professionals, they had a typical Western, urban lifestyle. Their hospitality was lavish and he had to adjust to their late meals for his convalescing months.
As soon as he returned home, he began to reinstitute Ayurvedic principles of langhana, non-heavy inputs to the body. He began with dinner 15 minutes earlier every few nights, slowly shifting his late-night hunger back to his healthy earlier dinner time. In the beginning, he was not at all hungry for dinner until 9.30 p.m., but slowly, over a couple of weeks of eating slightly lighter lunches, he found his hunger returning around sunset.
His evening meal became light again. He never mixed grains, choosing rice or wheat, or locally-grown millet. If he chose roti, he would not eat rice. He avoided preparations that mixed cow milk with vegetables. He avoided onion and garlic, as their katu vipaka (pungency), heats up the body. Naturally a non-meat-eater, he added more fresh pulpy vegetables to his lunch so that his desire for heavier textures would be met. He added cumin, turmeric and digestive spices to his food to augment his digestive fire and promote forward flow of food through the system, known as vata anulomana. He stopped eating beans and cauliflower at night, as they cause gas and tend to make the night less calm.
After lunch, he returned to his two tablespoons of homemade yogurt, no commercial versions. Some days, he would have chhaas, yoghurt diluted in water with five spices, to improve digestion and the flow of agni, or buttermilk (takra). He never had yogurt with fruit or other dairy products. Because yogurt is abhishyendi, or channel-clogging, he made sure not to have it early in the morning or late at night, allowing yogurt only half an hour after lunch when his agni was high enough to digest its goodness before it clogged channels.
He slowly removed dessert, which had become a mandatory part of his hosts’ mealtime. As they sipped brandy, he was given something rich and sweet for indulgence: cakes, ice cream, fruits. Fruits are sattvic foods, to be eaten separately when the stomach is empty. Fruit at the end of a meal throws it into the cauldron of food being digested, promoting indigestible portions. He shifted fruit intake only to the beginning of a meal or during late afternoons if he was hungry and avoided mixing citrus fruits with other fruits.
Simplifying food types and eating one course at a time, he realigned food order, preparation and composition to optimize reconstitution of his body, having recently been ill. Fresh vegetables and access to a fresh farmer’s market were a priority every day, chosen by his morning appetite. He chose luscious food and good recipes to promote appetite. Anticipation releases specific digestive enzymes that intensify digestion of that food. Each vegetable was cooked according to traditional preparations and combinations, only with its allocated spices. He never ate leftovers and never used pre-made sauces, which generally contain preservatives or previously ground spices that lose their medicinal oils quickly.
We have three chances each day to medicate ourselves: breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have three chances each day to poison ourselves and our efforts towards health: breakfast, lunch and dinner. The summation of our decisions around our meals can either undo or augment our efforts to heal. Ayurveda emphasizes medications, herbs, detailed guidelines, describing a science oriented around digestive fire, rhythms of the day and the nature and unctuousness of the body. These guidelines discuss the concept of incompatible food combinations that challenge the optimal state of the body. Most traditional Indian recipes never use them. Only more recent dishes, usually influenced by European or Persian cultures, introduced these combinations to Indian cuisine.
In a few weeks, losing the burden of disease that heavy dinner creates, my teacher began feeling light again. He then began to walk and exercise his middle body, working mobility back into his spine, midriff and hips. He increased his pranayama routine before meals to increase agni and monitored his fire, appetite, cravings, bowel movements, sleep cycle, fatigue level and mood.
When his agni normalized, his glow returned, not only due to his physical health, but also because his self-confidence had grown. He had proven his ability to take himself through a trauma, hospitalization and a disoriented environment in a fast-paced location back to the optimal environment for his body. This re-found resilience was his evidence.
The South Asia Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House. bhaswati@post.