Debunking Myths: The Return to Ayurveda

According to Ayurveda, a natural healing system that has been practiced for thousands of years, one of the best ways to alleviate an imbalance is to remove the cause of it. This is not always an easy task, but when I meet with clients and conduct a personal consult, I ask multiple and varied questions, trying to figure out what habitual patterns may have aggravated a condition. There are many inter-connected aspects when it comes to wellness… and illness. An aggravated dosha can throw off the digestive fire. Bad digestion can cause a weaker mind. All three are closely linked so health is defined as having balanced doshas, digestion and mind.

So let’s look at some normal, All-American-type traditions that can create imbalances to our doshas, digestion and mind. Anyone who grew up in this Melting Pot of a country knows that some things may have gotten lost in translation when it comes to healthy habits.

Myth 1: Nothing tastes better with food than ice water.

One of dining’s worst faux pau’s, ice water extinguishes the digestive fire. It is ideal to sip warm or hot water with meals to aid digestion. Ideally the stomach is half-filled with food, a quarter filled with water and a quarter left empty. It’s best not to drink much an hour before or after a meal. What can aid digestion is sipping ginger tea. Ginger builds digestive strength with its heating quality.

Myth 2: Grazing and small meals all day long are optimal for digestion.

Ayurveda teaches only eat your regularly scheduled meals, which could be 2-4 times a day, or, when you’re truly hungry. One of my amazing teachers put it well in words: “The digestion tract is not a conveyor belt.” If we are constantly putting things in, nothing gets fully digested properly and this leaves “ama” or undigested food in our system. Ama clogs channels and is the cause of many diseases.

If a snack is needed, take it at least two hours post meal. Eat something that is light and easy to digest so it is gone from the stomach by the time of the next meal. Some “emergency snack ideas are (by dosha):
vata: spiced rice porridge, baked spiced apples with ghee and raisins, homemade breads like banana, zucchini or date, avocado or guacamole, miso soup
pitta: fresh fruit, fresh veggie sticks, soaked and peeled almonds, homemade coconut cookies
kapha: kale chips, dried fruit, popcorn, rice cakes, baked spiced apples with cloves

Snacking after dinner is the biggest offense to digestive health. You don’t want to go to bed with a full load in there. Spiced hot milk is a nice right-before-bed treat if you like to have something in your system before hitting the hay. Spice it with turmeric and ghee or cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. Or have some fresh fruit which is easily digested in 20 minutes.

Myth 3: Frozen and canned foods are part of a healthy diet.

While frozen foods can be great to have on hand when fresh produce is unavailable, it shouldn’t be a staple in your diet. If you can’t get the produce fresh, it may mean it is out of season and therefore counters positive seasonal affects on doshas.

These processed foods may also have lesser desired ingredients added to them such as preservatives, sugars and “natural flavors”, all of which are things you don’t want to eat.

The ideal diet consists of organic, whole foods. Think produce and bulk sections at the grocery. Then home cooked and spiced. You’ll enjoy getting reacquainted with your spice cabinet!

Myth 4: Food technology is so smart that it allows us to have any type of produce we want, any time of year, in any location of the world.

In Ayurveda, we adjust our foods and routines to accommodate the season. We add oil and ground ourselves in Autumn, dry out and lighten up in Spring, and chill out in Summer. And in Winter, what about Winter? Early winter is part of vata season, still cold, windy, dry. Late winter is kapha, cold, wet, heavy…exactly like what’s happening here in still rainy and snowy Utah and it’s the end of May!

On this topic of seasonality, you just have to trust that nature is looking out for us. Foods that are in season tend to offer the qualities needed to avoid imbalances during each season. Summer produces cooling, sweeter foods, like watermelon to alleviate pitta and heat. Late Winter/Spring produces light, bitter greens to break up the heaviness and congestion of kapha. Fall/early Winter produces squashes and heavier foods to ground and warm vata. The intelligence of nature to care for its inhabitants is beautiful to work with!

Myth 5: Drink lots of water.

How many times have you been reminded to drink enough water? While drinking enough water is important, guzzling large amounts, especially near mealtime, will extinguish the digestive fire. Water is cool and wet whereas fire is hot and dry.

Having a cup of hot lemon or lime water on an empty stomach in the morning is optimal, and that can be drank quickly. The rest of the day, sip hot beverages or room temperature water. That was not a suggestion to sip coffee! Excessive coffee can cause degeneration.

If it’s summer or you run hot, add cooling flavors to your water – rose, mint, lime, cucumber, cilantro, coriander for a fresh taste.

Invest in a nice thermos to carry your sipable beverages around with you all day!

Myth 6: Don’t waste food, there are people in Africa who are starving.

This is something every midwestern child heard growing up at mealtime. While I full heartedly agree with not wasting food, eating when not hungry is not the answer. Also, children have much better intelligence than adults when it comes to responding to their body’s needs. Well, unless you have treated your child to loads of sweets and treats, then all bets are off. But kids will know when they are full, and they won’t feel hungry if they have constipation (a clog in the digestive system) or have eaten too much already.

As adults, we need to be more in touch with what our digestive systems too. When we go out to eat, there should be no guilt in not finishing a huge plate of food, regardless of how tasty. We need to exhibit self-control so that we don’t over-indulge. Limiting distractions while eating can bring awareness to our body so that we know when we are full. Then any leftovers can be saved for another day or offered to the family pets, although I don’t recommend ever giving them leftover curry (ew).

Ayurvedically, leftovers are considered dulling for the mind. I would recommend avoiding leftover restaurant food (except for pizza, of course) and limiting homemade leftovers to 2-3 days at most.

Myth 7: Smoothies are great meal replacements.

This is always the heartbreaker. The sighs in the room when I announce at workshops that smoothies are not ideal breakfasts are unfathomable! So there are a few problems with this menu item. First, it is cold. Not ideal for weaker digestion, although good for pitta!

Second, it’s raw – fruits, vegetables…nothing is cooked. Ayurveda gives raw food a frowny face for being hard to digest. If there is low digestion, some of the food will be undigested which may start clogging channels. Our meals should be warm, soft and cooked. A simple side salad with a meal is A-OK.

Lastly, it is full of bad food combinations. Some common incompatible foods are:
• fruit + anything = incompatible
• milk + banana or sour fruits or melon = incompatible
• yogurt + milk = incompatible
• yogurt + banana or sour fruits or mango = incompatible
• eggs + milk or cheese = incompatible (just in case some of you Eager Beavers are putting eggs in there!)
• nightshades + yogurt or milk or melon or cucumber = incompatible
So this list greatly limits what might go into your smoothie! There is no “free lunch” in ayurveda!

Myth 8: Carbs are bad for me.

This is one of the hardest things for me to hear, knowing the importance Ayurveda places on grains. Most grains are considered sweet, which in Ayurveda is the taste used for building. All day we expend our tissues and energies to do activities. These need to be replenished so we don’t deplete them.

The best way to nourish is by eating grains. There are grains appropriate for each dosha if there is imbalance. But for healthy people, all whole grains are good choices! If you are looking for something to eat that is light and easy to digest, start with basmati rice. Grains can be heavier and harder to transform into nutrients so a strong digestive fire is needed to “cook” them.

Many people do have intolerances to overly processed grains like wheat, which have been genetically altered. The body is trying to protect itself so it speeds up the digestive tract to get it out of there! Avoid these science projects, but there are still many good grains available.

I would recommend experimenting with some alternative whole grains at Bob’s Red Mill. Experiment! One “alternative” grain that I love is Job’s Tears. A little harder to find but super tasty to cook with. There are grains that are gluten free. Try amaranth, buckwheat, rice, quinoa and sorghum. I can’t wait to hear about your new love for carbs!

Myth 9: No pain, no gain.

Today’s world is one of Ironmans, cross country bike racers, cross-fit junkies and even yogis that hit 2-3 classes a day (not even kidding). While we appreciate your enthusiasm and dedication, this can counter an Ayurvedic lifestyle. Ideally, we want you to just break a sweat and then call it a day. This should be exciting news for all of you who really don’t enjoy working out! Or a prison sentence to those of you who are constantly trying to take a second off your sprint. Exercise can be short, sweet and still effective. Although for the kaphas who can barely get off the couch, breaking a sweat may seem impossible. (I suggest trying hot yoga or dancing!)

So let’s address the vatas who can’t slow down and the pittas who will never give up. Fine, do your crazy trainings. But please take a day off each week to do absolutely nothing. This is your rejuvenation day. Do restore yoga. Do an abhyanga (oil treatment with self-massage). Take the dog for a walk. Drink spiced warm milk. Cook nourishing foods. Do diaphragmatic breathing on your back. Run your legs up the wall and spend 10 minutes indulging in the luxury of such a comfy yoga pose! Your body is trying and trying to accommodate your mind’s desires, so return the favor each week with rest and rejuvenation.

10. Work hard.

I love this myth. I am a hard worker and I push through the day with so many tasks and projects that I literally collapse into my bed each night wondering how “normal” people do it. I have Ayurveda school projects, a full-time design career, 3 dogs to care for and an entire house and yard to maintain! I am constantly overusing my “tyme” card (only Wisconsinites will understand that clever joke!) meaning that I spend more time than I actually have. I think you can all relate to this hectic lifestyle.

In Ayurveda, this is considered atiyoga, or stress, or depletion, and it is one of the main causes of disease. It is important not to overspend resources and to have measure in our lives.

Guilty of not always maintaining this myself, it is important to have a steady daily yoga practice to soothe rajasic (overly active) and stressed minds. This practice may consist of asana, breath work, meditation, chanting, studying scriptures, reading fine literature, journaling, and focusing. Once this practice is established, a feeling of sattva (clarity, creativity and connectedness) may once again emerge.

Having a daily routine can help manage this as well. A dedicated wake, sleep and mealtime schedule can keep us from falling into the pit of bad time management and depletion. Having the self-control to walk away from work when it is time to eat can be a great practice!

In conclusion, you don’t have to be an Ayurveda expert to know what makes you feel good…and remember a satiated stomach contributes to a sattvic soul! Learn to cultivate awareness of your mind and body so you know if a certain food or activity is making you feel better or worse. Go ahead and try it…maybe even try it right now!

If this article resonated with you, and you would like to book an Ayurvedic consult, please contact me and we can schedule an individual session. We will dive into your habitual patterns (good and bad), diet, and lifestyle interests and see where we might begin to make changes. Your personal protocol (think of it as a customized health and wellness plan) could include things like oils, foods, scheduling and yoga.

Ayurveda is my passion, so if you have questions, don’t be afraid to reach out. I want to hear from you!