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Connecting Your Food Choices with Your Digestion

Excerpt from What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen (copyright Rizzoli, 2017)

As long as you are in a human body, you’ve got to deal with the building blocks of all creation, which the ancients defined as space, air, fire, water, and earth, the five physical elements that manifest in the body in different ways. For example, Ayurveda holds that our tissue layers and bones have a great amount of earth, the body fluids represent water, the metabolism is a manifestation of fire, and all movement in the body is carried out by air. In a poetic sense, the human body is earth, water, fire, and air moving through channels of space.

When discussing body-mind constitutions, Ayurveda lists the combinations (aka doshas) of these elements like this:

space + air = Vata
fire + a little water = Pitta
water + earth = Kapha

Every individual has these combinations in different proportions—that’s one reason each person is unique—and the proportions can go up or down depending on the season or surrounding circumstances. Some people are more airy (Vata), some are more fiery (Pitta), and others more earthy (Kapha). This is why one food or herb cannot be good or bad for everyone—it may be good or balancing for one, but toxic and aggravating for another. Or an herb may be good for you in this season but may not work for you in another.

Figuring out your constitution takes a lot more than answering a “dosha quiz”—you need an expert Ayurvedic doctor to read your pulse. But knowing your constitution is not enough to stay healthy; you also need to know what your imbalance is. During my studies of contemporary Ayurveda, I often felt confused: if I have a Vata-Pitta body type but one day I feel very heavy and congested (Kapha imbalance)—what am I supposed to eat then? I was never sure how to resolve the complexity of eating according to my constitution while at the same time addressing seemingly opposing imbalances. I struggled with similar contradictions until I started studying the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda tradition, which made it clear and very practical for me: eat seasonally, according to the strength of my digestion and how I feel overall today. This is why I decided to group the recipes in this book according to season and give variations for each recipe based on digestion so that you can cook healthy food even if you have no knowledge of Ayurveda.

We live in a world of polarities—for every positive charge there is a negative, for every feminine aspect there is a masculine, for every up there is a down. According to the same principle, every element has energy, and every energy has its own particular assets, or vitality-enhancing qualities, as well as challenges, which can cause weakness or disease. With Ayurveda, we can strengthen the assets and diminish the challenges of each element.

You really don’t have to know about all the concepts and categories of Ayurvedic science in order to prepare healthful meals according to your needs. If you want to use this wisdom in your kitchen, think about these three words related to how you feel: Airy, Fiery, or Earthy. Then, as you get used to understanding food in terms of its qualities (coming in the next section, “A New Relationship with Food: Qualities over Quantity,”) selecting foods that balance you will become second nature.

The charts below outline some common manifestations of our Airy, Fiery, and Earthy qualities, color-coded in their transformation from attributes to mild imbalances to serious challenges. Before turning to the recipes and choosing meals, ask yourself: Do I feel more Airy, Fiery, or Earthy today? The recipes have information about working with each of the three aspects.

The Airy

Think about what air is like: cold, dry, and light, moving quickly all over the place.

Air supports all motion, catabolism (breaking down of molecules to release energy), and elimination; it helps you perceive touch and makes your mind fast and quick to grasp knowledge. Through your Airy nature you uplift others with your divine lightness and angelic presence.

When aggravated, the same energy of air can throw you off. Are you feeling overly active, nervous, cold? Do you experience Airy type digestive problems: bloating, gas, burping, constipation? Does your mind race, and do you feel like you don’t have time to fully process your thoughts, desires, and feelings? Another mark of too much air is experiencing the “colder” emotions: fear, worry, anxiety. When your airs move too fast, you rush into everything you do; your life seems “up in the air.”

Airy qualities are also accentuated in fall-winter and during the elder stage of life.

Cooler body temperature
Drier skin and hair
Irregular meals
Sensitive stomach
Light sleeper
Bursts of energy
Loves change
Easily excited

Mild Imbalances
Unwanted weight loss
Cold hands and feet
Scaly skin, dandruff
Irregular appetite
Gas, hiccups, bloating
Scary/active dreams
Absentminded, scattered
Mood swings
Low stamina, fatigue
Unsteady, frivolous
Bothered by noise and smell
Insecure, fearful

Catches cold easily
Wrinkles, dry eczema
Loss of appetite
Chronic constipation
Worn down
Can’t materialize ideas
Short-term depression
Chronic fatigue
Panic attacks
Nervous breakdown

The variations for Airy digestion in the recipes throughout the blog will help you a great deal with calming the Airy storms in your body (and life). In general, when you feel “up in the air,” your mantra is “Slow down and breathe!” Keep repeating it to yourself and find ways to connect with the calming, nurturing, stable energy of Mother Earth.

The Fiery

Picture fire. It is hot, oily, unstable, stimulating, drying, penetrating, and when ablaze, it is difficult to temper. The fire energy impels action, produces heat, and brings about transformation. It gives you the sense of perception, illumination, purpose, passion, and radiance. Through our Fiery nature we uplift others with our divine brightness.

Just like turning up the heat changes sensation from comfortably warm to burning hot to destructive, when your fiery energy goes up, you begin to experience “burning” physical sensations: your radiant skin turns reddish and is affected with acne, eczema, or brown spots; your bright eyes turn reddish and dry. You experience “burning” digestive problems: unsatiated appetite, hyperacidity, heartburn. Your sharp, insightful, and focused mind becomes unstable, and if someone pushes your buttons, you erupt into the “hot” emotions of anger, jealousy, and impatience. You are on fire!

Fiery qualities are also accentuated in summer and from adolescence until advancing age.

Mild Imbalances
Excessive hunger and thirst
Skin redness, rosacea
Hot flashes, excessive sweat
Cynical, doubtful
Sarcastic, critical
Takes unnecessary risks
Forceful, impulsive
Temperamental, irritable

Strong digestion
Radiant skin
Warmer body temperature
Sharp intellect
Dynamic, energetic
Natural leader

Acid reflux, ulcers
Acne, psoriasis
Inflammation, fever
Dishonest, corrupt
Does not trust anyone
Judgmental, manipulative
Excessive, addicted
Overly stimulated
Jealous, controlling
Overdoing everything
Angry, violent
Goes on power trips

The variations for Fiery digestion in the recipes throughout the blog will offer you immense relief in taming your fires. In general, when you feel like a firecracker, your mantra is “Chill out!” Keep repeating it to yourself as you find ways to connect with the cooling, calming energy of water and earth.

The Earthy

Visualize the earth. It’s massive, solid, stable, heavy, cool. It is our source of nourishment and sustenance, and it contains vast water reservoirs that provide us with moisture and fluidity. The earth element in the body creates and supports its structure and growth (anabolism), and the water element (or fluids) lubricate and nourish every cell. Through your earthy nature you uplift others by your divine nurturing presence.

With the power of your earthiness you remain calm and patient, steady and enduring, loving, devotional, and accepting. You feel strong, secure, and stable. But when your earthiness overwhelms your balance, you build up excessive tissue and gain weight, become congested, take too long to make changes in your life. You experience sluggish digestion. You dwell in the “heavy” emotions: depression, sadness, lethargy. You feel stuck.

Earthy qualities are also accentuated in late winter-spring and in early childhood.

Moist, supple skin
Well-lubricated tissues
Thrives in warm, dry climate
Calm, even-tempered
Caring and compassionate
Long-term memory
Slow but steady
Sound sleeper
Down-to-earth thinker
Slow appetite
Loyal, devotional
Loves routine

Mild Imbalances
Dense, stiff muscles
Oily, puffy skin
Colds and flu
Delays things
Sleeps too much
Lacks subtle perception
Misses meals
Unable to say no
Fearful of change

Physical weakness
Wet eczema
Water retention, bloating
Congestion, asthma
Long-term depression
Can’t let go
Prolonged fasting

The variations for Earthy digestion in the recipes throughout the blog will give you a good kick to shake off your piled-up earthiness. In general, when you feel heavy like a mountain, your mantra is “Let go and move on!” Keep repeating it to yourself as you find ways to connect with the light, mobile energy of air and the transformational energy of fire.

As you study the characteristics of each type, please do not focus on what’s wrong with you (or others) when you identify with some of the challenges. You should expect some anxiety or some gas, some anger, or laziness once in a while—that’s natural for all of us. Our mind-set should be to continuously balance these mild and transient challenges to prevent them from becoming consistent and chronic.

It is good to understand the challenges for educational purposes, but dwelling on them will drag your mind down. Elevate yourself by looking for the assets in you or another individual; relate to whatever is uplifting about you and others. Find the positive charge in the negative expression.

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