Ayurveda and Nutrition

It is clear that Ayurveda is becoming increasingly popular in the complementary health field in the west. Articles are cropping up in yoga magazines, even mainstream newspapers. There is a plethora of books available offering modern insight into this ancient life-wisdom. Many authors of Ayurvedic texts, such as Deepak Chopra, are winning acclaim from mainstream society.

Having been interested in Ayurveda for several years now, and having experienced its positive effects in my own life, it gives me pleasure to know that it is reaching more and more people.

Ayurveda offers a holistic approach to nutrition. It recognises that each of us has a unique 'constitution', and that our quality of health is determined by our response to everything we receive - both consciously and unconsciously - and everything we do in daily life. Everything from the food we eat to the weather we experience, the company we keep to our outlook on life, what we do for a living to how we exercise... all these things contribute to our state of health.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Ayurveda teaches us to become responsible for our own well-being. It does this by offering a universal model by which to understand our own nature and the nature of the environment which we inhabit, and it explains how to balance the energies of both to bring about well-being. This knowledge allows us to adopt supportive habits to enable us to get back into balance and achieve our maximum potential in terms of a healthy mind, body and spirit.

An important principle of Ayurveda is that the majority of common diseases, especially chronic illnesses and auto-immune conditions, are caused by poor nutrition and these are considered to originate, physically at least, in the digestive system. Therefore to neglect digestive complaints - even persistent minor ones - is to ignore the body's own warning mechanism that problems are afoot.

In order to achieve good health, we must consider all our experiences as 'food', which in turn must be transformed (digested) into substances that nourish us on all levels. It is our capacity for this transformation that is key: if we fail to properly transform what we receive - be it food, our response to a crowded environment, a criticism, a gesture of love - then this will form undigested matter, toxic residues, emotional blocks, etc.

This transformational principle, called 'Agni', is central to the Ayurvedic system. On a metabolic level, Agni refers to the enzymatic function that plays a pivotal role in the assimilation of foods we eat. No matter what our own particular condition, we must focus on repairing and maintaining a balanced enzymatic function through the proper use of diet, lifestyle, etc.

Dietary advice generally revolves around the following key principles: know your constitution and capacity for food (this in turn dictates what foods are best for you and in what amounts), when they should be eaten and in what order they should be eaten; know how your food should be prepared, including the appropriate spices to antidote foods which would normally present problems for your constitution; respect the act of eating; develop a healthy mental attitude towards food; only eat when you are hungry and don't eat more than you need; adopt lifestyle habits that support your constitution.

In most cases, a gradual transition from your current habits to new habits is most effective. Sudden changes, radical diet plans etc, are likely to fail as we are rarely able to change a lifetime's worth of 'bad' habits overnight.

In Ayurveda, nutritional principles tie in with the fundamental principles of creation, which pervade the whole of reality. Ultimately, by realising that everything - the entire manifest universe - is the result of a complex interplay of these energies, we must treat the individual as being influenced by the whole universe, as well as influencing the whole universe.

The word 'Ayurveda' is Sanskrit and means 'science of life' or 'life wisdom'. In practical terms, Ayurveda enables us live our life to the maximum of our potential happiness in terms of physical, mental and emotional health. For many of us, this alone may seem like a good enough reason to develop an interest in Ayurveda! However, the ultimate purpose of Ayurveda is to show us the best possible place from which to explore our internal reality - Consciousness. It is really not possible to separate Ayurveda from Yoga in this respect, as both are ultimately concerned with the same end, namely to be 'at one' with our true nature: Consciousness.

In my own life, Ayurveda has given me a framework by which to understand and relate all of my experiences - everything from physical and mental health to relationships and metaphysical contemplation. This framework rings true and feels instinctively right. Having been exploring and practising Ayurveda for 3 years now, I am healthier and happier than I have ever been.

Written by Alex Duncan

Alex Duncan, Ayurvedic Educator, lives in the South of France where he runs The Sun Centre a small family retreat offering consultations and various Ayurveda & Yoga workshops and retreats. He also provides a remote consultation service. Alex is teaching the two year Frawley™ Ayurveda program at the European Institute of Vedic Studies in France, where he originally trained with Atreya Smith.