Embracing Health and Happiness through Ayurvedic Eating | Civil Eats

Embracing Health and Happiness through Ayurvedic Eating

Winter is a time for slowing down, pulling on layers and feeling cozy. With the arrival of cold weather we finally have an excuse to stay indoors, work on forgotten projects by a crackling fire and fill the house with baking aromas. But it can also be a time of overindulgence, holiday excess and stress. When that celebratory eggnog has found its way to your lips more consistently than your waistline would like or, somehow, once again, what started as one nibble has turned into an empty bowl where the spiced nuts once resided, you might start to think that a starvation diet is the best, or only, way to bring your body back into balance. Not so says the ancient healing system of Ayurveda. Essentially, a long, dark winter can throw our eating habits off balance and, in turn, create toxic turmoil within. This premise is a cornerstone of Ayurveda, which recognizes that nature’s elements directly affect our state of being, with our diet being a crucial component.

Two Sanskrit words, “Ayu,” which means life and “Veda,” meaning knowledge of, literally come together to create Ayurveda, or the “Science of Life.” This holistic Indian ideology, said to be the origin of all medical sciences, dates back about 5,000 years and began as a way to understand how human beings relate to nature. The practice often utilizes diet, herbs, acupuncture, yoga, and massage to maintain or regain balance and harmony within the body. According to Ayurvedic thinking, the five elements of air, ether (space), fire, water and earth are categorized into three patterns or “Doshas” that dictate our well-being. Depending upon our own specific tendencies, symptoms and environment, the three Doshas: Vata (air/ether), Pitta (fire) and Kapha (water/ earth) are said to mirror our unique imbalances and needs. Each one of these has its own characteristics and describes the main patterns of deficiency, heat, and excess that are said to be at the root of most disease. Ayurveda believes that we are all individually unique combinations of the elements and that there are no black and white answers. Practitioners of Ayurveda believe that our true natural state of being is one of balance, with health and happiness falling right in line. In balance, our bodies are toxin free, our organs function efficiently, and our minds are peaceful.

Marin County resident and Ayurvedic consultant and educator, Abbie Scianamblo, says that the true art of Ayurveda is listening to your body and avoiding extremes—every aspect of your life influences your health and finding balance is central to any kind of healing practice. In the winter months, as our bodies are working overtime to stay warm, we must keep this energy expenditure in mind and not overdue anything, she warns. The reasoning behind why some animals go into winter hibernation is true for us as well; it is a time to rest, to heal, to honor the call to be calm and to slow down. “Winter is one of the most challenging times for people to understand their health,” says Scianamblo. “It is not only what you eat, it’s how you eat and your whole approach to life.” She notes our typical reaction of dieting and limiting what we eat on some days in order to counter balance the days of overindulgence. She says that, actually, indulging in the season’s warm, heartier, nourishing foods is fitting for these cooler months because that corresponds with nature’s rhythms and gives our bodies what they need to stay warm. Vegetable stews and winter squashes cooked with spices such as coriander, allspice, black pepper, anise and ginger are perfect examples. The spices stimulate circulation and aid in digestion. Rather than balance robbing dietary changes like fasting or cleanses, symptoms of sluggishness or weight gain should be righted instead by simply consuming smaller quantities of nourishing foods and engaging in light indoor exercise, such as yoga. Any more drastic measures are much more appropriate in the spring when the weather outside signals re-awakenings and rebirths. “Winter is a time to celebrate food, family and good times and part of the joy of Ayurveda is to really enjoy what you are doing. Eat in a calm, relaxed fashion by sitting and being focused on your food, but still engaging with friends and family. Enjoying things in your life in all ways and listening to your body is the Ayurvedic way,” Scianamblo says.

Out of the wide range of healing and balancing foods recommended within the Ayurvedic repertoire, perhaps none is more revered than ghee. Western cultures know it as clarified butter, but both are made through the same process wherein unsalted butter is slowly simmered until all the milk solids have sunk to the bottom and the water has evaporated. The resulting lactose-free and casein-free liquid is then separated without disturbing the solids left on the bottom. Ghee has the highest flash point of any oil, meaning it can reach a very high heat without losing nutrients or becoming harmful for consumption. In ancient India, ghee’s role in Ayurveda was central and it was considered to be a divine, sacred food, sacrificed to the gods through fire. This led to its symbolic position as a supreme offering into the fire of digestion, seen as a carrier or vehicle for the body to absorb minerals and nutrients from the other foods with which it is cooked or consumed. Because ghee is the most penetrating of all oils, it was even used by assassins as a deadly tool—infused with poison and then stealthily stabbed into the victim, swiftly carrying the poison deep into the body. Following this same line of reasoning, ghee is also used to great effect as a healing moisturizer in skin care.

In our area, probably no one knows more about ghee and its role in Ayurveda than Peter Malakoff, owner of Ancient Organics Ghee in Stinson Beach. After undertaking an intensive Ayurvedic certification process in India, Peter returned to this area in 2004 and started experimenting with making ghee at home. Already a fan of Straus Family Creamery, just up the road in Marshall, he realized how much better the sweet cream butter from this high quality organic dairy made his resulting ghee. The Straus cows’ diet of sweet green grass, rich in healthy beta-carotene, gives both the butter and the ghee their distinctive bright yellow color. Ancient Organics’ small batch production, still made with only Straus butter, is made in stainless steel pots and purposely allowed to slightly burn on the bottom, creating flavor nuances. In further adherence to traditional Ayurvedic practices, Ancient Organics ghee is only made on the full or waxing moon. “In Ayurvedic culture, the moon rules soma and the essence of plants. This ‘sap of life’ is at its maximum with the most light. It is admittedly subtle, but in those subtleties is the most power of life,” explains Malakoff. In addition, he also recites ancient prayers while making his ghee, reasoning that the same absorptive qualities the oil has in the body also means it will drink in the reverential environment in which it is made.

The geographical connection between neighbors Ancient Organics and Straus also strongly resonates with Ayurvedic philosophy, mirroring the idea that our bodies are living organisms in a very specific time and place. Malakoff points out that the current fervor for eating locally and seasonally is actually a very ancient ideology. In a balanced state, our true patterns and needs flow right along with nature’s shifting seasons, directly adhering to the here and now.

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Ancient Organics Ghee can be purchased at Good Earth in Fairfax, all local Whole Foods, other specialty markets and yoga studios, or on line at their website. You can also find recipes which include ghee on that site. Yes, by the twenty-seventh cookie swap and many cocktails too many, we are inevitably ready to start fresh by New Year’s resolution time. Perhaps this new year will ring out our typical winter gluttony followed by regret and ring in the addition of some delicious and actually healing dishes to winter menus. By January, those cravings for second helpings of chocolate cake may be for spicy lentils and warming chai instead.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2009 edition of Edible Marin and Wine Country

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Amber Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A long time Good Food advocate, she has owned, operated and helped launch several food businesses. She is a regular contributor to Civil Eats, various Edible magazines, and the San Jose Mercury News. Read more >

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