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So there I was, on a Sunday afternoon, sitting downstairs in a seminar room at the local museum alongside the friend I’d dragged to a six week course on Auyrvedic Cooking. How do museums and cooking classes come together? The cultural / anthropological /religious aspect was my supposition. (I was right!) I must admit I did expect to catch sight of an oven, a hot plate or two, exotic ingredients, an array of delicious foods, and the chance to graze to my fill. After all wasn’t Ayurveda part of the East Indian culture and I do love Indian food! But no, this was not to be until the last session. More of that later!

Within the first few minutes I became aware that I was being exposed not only to a way of cooking, but to religious tenets, the ways of life, and the underling the techniques that governed Ayurveda. Ayurvedic cooking is just one aspect of the beliefs around diet according to the Vedic practices of the Hindus. Feeling much as I had when I’d first encountered Yogic meditation (and that’s another story and another experience, suffice to say I was within a hair’s breadth from running off and joining an ashram in India) I became fascinated and frequently confused by the complex system of knowledge, requirements, and food as it related to body constitutional types for the three doshas. Some food is eaten at certain seasons, for specific reasons, and some is only eaten by certain types. As I said, Ayurveda is derived from Vedic principles. The Vedas are the ancient Hindu Sanskrit texts or sciptures from India. Holistic by intent, ayurveda is an alternative medical tradition (one of the worlds oldest) that is firmly rooted in the preventative aspects of personal health and well-being. The next six weeks proved to be interesting, although somewhat bemusing, as I attempted to relate this to my own beliefs and practices. (That translates into food choices. As a dedicated carnivore, I’m partial to medium rare steak and lamb roasts along with Thai and Indian curries, Vietnamese soups etc.) What was I doing here? Broadening my horizons and pursuing another facet of life for starters! Natural remedies, massage, diet and meditation, alongside natural laws and knowledge are hinge points for harmony and balance in restoring health and maintaining health for this discipline.

In Ayurveda, food is not only that which nourishes and sustains you, but it has medicinal value. What you eat is vital. The phrase, ‘you are what you eat,’ takes on a fuller meaning as you understand that to eat the right foods according to your constitutional type is fundamentally a spiritual practice under pining your well being. The whole person and their relationship to the environment are basic to this alternative medicine therapy. This translates as a commitment to eating specific foods, developing beneficial lifestyle habits, and to use special ayurvedic medicine (herbal based) and certain other herbs according to your constitutional type. Food is medicine. We need to eat in ways that don’t harm ourselves or the planet, to bring a balance to all things. The refrain of ‘diet as an important practice,’ is a song that rings out across many alternative medicine practices, a commonality that cuts across cultural traditions, albeit in different ways. In these days of mad cow disease, the mercury chain in fish, hormones in chickens, and avian flu concerns, I should be turning towards different food sources, unless I know the sources are correctly certified as organic (no tricks of labeling please!). Oh, did I mention that the ayurvedic diet is basically vegetarian.

Let’s return to my early experiences of the concept of Ayurveda and things ayurvedic. The first hurdle was to understand the ideas and terminology. Words like prana, Prakriti, doshas, and charaka were spoken of. I was feeling a tad disoriented. Let’s see if I can address some of this with my very sketchy beginner’s point of view.The Lord Brama is said to have given the ayurvedic tradition to Dhanvantari, the physician to the Hindu gods. Ayurveda had six branches of medicine, founded by the disciples of the sage Punarvasu Ātreya (as early as 1000 BC). One of the oldest and most central ancient texts is the samhita by his disciple Agnivesha. Charaka is said to have later reworked these texts to form the Charaka Samhita. (about 200-300 BC). The word ‘collection’ is an approximate meaning for the Sanskrit word ‘samhita.’ The Charaka Samhita has eight major divisions or disciplines within the overall ayurvedic medical tradition.

Prana comes from the Sanskrit word for breath and is to do with the life force and energy of the creation. It is a central concept in Ayurveda and meditation. Cooked food should have more prana, be undercooked rather than overcooked.

What is Prakriti? Prakriti or Prakrti is a person’s unique constitution—that which we are born with. The Prakriti is informed or influences by the three doshas.

What on earth (or even under the sky) are doshas? Doshas have to do with the elements of Ether or Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth.The three constitutional types are Vata, Pitta and Kapha. We have mixes of all these but one tends to be more predominant. If a person is a Vatta type they are more aligned with Ether and Air. The Pitta type is aligned with Fire and Water, and the Kapha constitutional type to Water and Earth.

Your dosha type determines the type of illnesses you are more prone to. A Vatta tends to be prone to illnesses like constipation, insomnia, joint diseases and nervous disorders. Pitta illnesses tend to be in the areas of the kidneys, diarrhea and indigestion, and inflammations. A Kapha’s illness tendencies might have more to do with congestion, sinus problems, weight and overall sluggishness. Some people have two doshas in ascendancy. Your dosha can be affected by your time of life, that is, whether your at the beginning of life or later. The seasons and the lunar calendar are also influencing factors on your dosha.

Your predominant dosha can influence the types of food you should eat and the time of day to eat. Whether or not you should have dairy foods, how soon before going to sleep you should eat, when you’re high and low energy periods are, and a myriad of other factors. However, once you understand what your basic constitution and condition is the ayurveda percepts empower your use of nutrition and diet as both a healing and illness prevention treatment. To some extent (I dare say adherents believe to the fullest extent), you are in charge of not only your own healing potential, but your total health.Doshas are not negative attributes. Your individual dosha is actually a very positive quality. It can be likened to a precious gift that you can choose to work for you in terms of your health. So what are the positive attributes? Vatta types tend to be creative, flexible and quick and able to adapt to change. Pitta’s can be fiery, energetic and strong willed. Kapha’s are calm, strong and have endurance abilities. As your dosha fluctuates according to the environment, diet practices keep the negative and positive aspects in a state of balance. One basic ayurvedic dish is Kichadis. Kichadis are central to nutritional healing. They are a basic food used in cleansing. They are easily digested and metabolized. According to your docha’s warming or cooling needs different herbs and spices are added. The basic ingredients for all Kichadis are basmati rice, and Dahl.

Herbs are an integral part of ayurvedic medicine. They are used to help balance the body’s physical, spiritual, mental and emotional well being. They activate and aid digestion and the absorption of nutrients. Various herbs and spices cool or heat the body as needed. Cinnamon warms and aids digestion. Coriander is cooling and soothing.For healing to be achieved, a person needs to be predisposed towards a positive outcome.  Attitude counts, or is there an answer somewhere in between?

Our last session was a cookery lesson in the kitchen of a nearby health food store. It was everything I’d expected on the first day, but now I had some understanding of the whys and wherefores. The array of spices and herbs, the mix of fruits—Jackfruit and Sugar Apples, and the dishes cooked were inviting, tasty and nutritious. Fresh fruits are eaten at the beginning of the meal. We were treated to Squash soup, Sweet and Sour Tofu, other culinary delights, followed by halva and tea

Was I going to embark on this alternative medicine tradition? For six weeks after the cooking demonstration I made variations of the Kichadis. This is a tip of the iceberg introduction to Ayurveda, and whilst I’m a self confessed carnivore, I can incorporate some things from this tradition into my health regime. I am sold on Kichadis so I can cook that regularly. Oh, and I learnt that I should take yogurt slightly sweetened (naturally with unrefined sugars). I use a dash of maple syrup. I did buy ayurvedic herbal toothpaste, but I had to give that a big miss, I couldn’t stand the taste! Maybe I need to stop thinking and just commit to some sort of healthy lifestyle!