"You are what you eat." How often have we heard this phrase in regards to health, nutrition, and wellness? We read it in books. It is spoken often on T.V. Maybe our own mothers also remind us of this from time to time, too. It therefore might even make sense to us, on some level. But what in the world does this phrase really mean, and how do we start to actually eat what we want to be?
Ayurveda, the ancient sister science of Yoga, holds the answers to this question and teaches us three potent ways that food can profoundly impact our mood.
What is Ayurveda?
The word "Ayurveda" stems from "ayur," which means "life," and "Veda," which means "knowledge" or "the study of." Ayurveda is, thus, the study or knowledge of life. A complete medical system from India, believed to be revealed to the ancient Rishis (sages or seers), Ayurveda addresses every aspect of human life, ranging from digestive disorders to romantic relationships.
One of Ayurveda's many incredible contributions to the world is an amazing entire sub-branch called Svasthavritta, which teaches people how to preserve and protect our existing health and to actively prevent disease. The Ayurvedic term for health is "Svasthaha." The word "Sva" means "higher Self," and "Sthaha" signifies "to be established in."
Ayurveda is a truly hope-filled medicine, which holds the beautiful conviction that the nature of our true Self is Svastha, which is health.
Svasthavritta practices that I follow, and love to now teach beginner Ayurveda students, allow us to connect the health that this science teaches is truly our birthright. One of the primary ways we practice being healthy is by the way we eat.
3 Qualities Permeating the Universe
To learn how to eat in a way that will make us truly healthy, we must first understand three gunas, or qualities, that permeate the entire universe and how they contribute to creating our health and ill health at all levels: physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. These three gunas comprise the basis of Ayurveda psychology.
1) Tamas: Cloaking Us in Darkness, Depression & Denial
One of the qualities that Ayurveda psychology teaches about is Tamas, which can be thought of as being like a dark cloak that covers us completely. When we have a lot of Tamas in our mind and body, we feel very heavy, lethargic, and depressed. Tamas is the awful feeling of confusion that tears away at our heart and soul, causing us to not know what to do, where to go, how to be, nor who we really are.
As someone who spent a lot of my younger life in the mode of Tamas, I can speak from experience in saying that this is not a place we want to be! Tamas is the manifestation of the mind traps we so often create for ourselves, the suffering we unconsciously get attached to, even though we may know that there must be another way. Tamas is that state where we delude ourselves and others, doubt everything, and sometimes even feel like dissolving completely into a different state.
Tamas, thus, easily gives away to addictions of all kinds.
Some Tamas, however, is necessary for us to rest and especially to sleep properly at night. It is not all bad. We just want to avoid allowing Tamas to build too much in us, because when we have excess Tamas in our mind, we easily get drawn to eating foods that are Tamas in nature. Conversely, when we eat very Tamas-dominant foods, our minds also become cloaked in Tamas. Foods that are considered Tamasic include those that are decaying, stale, dull, heavy, leftover, processed, etc.
Examples of Tamasic foods that we want to avoid, or at least, eat very seldom, include mushrooms, cheese, beef, pork, canned and frozen foods, etc.
2) Rajas: Activitating Passion
Whereas Tamas governs inertia, Rajas is on the opposite end of the spectrum—it is all about action, passion, and motion. We need a healthy amount of Rajas to counteract the heaviness of Tamas. Rajas is necessary to achieve any goal – we also need this quality to even wake up in the morning.
Excess Rajas, however, can manifest as anger and other heated emotions, such as jealousy, hatred, aggression, violence, etc. My Ayurveda teacher, Acharya Shunya, explains how the salient characteristics of Rajas are "hurry and worry. People with a lot of Rajas are like steamrollers, rolling relentlessly over any obstacle in their way."
Too much Rajas can also cause us to lie, experience anxiety, restlessness, discontentment, judgmental attitudes, and fanaticism. The foods that we are drawn to when Rajas is dominant – and/or that spark Rajas in the mind – are those that are very spicy, salty, and sweet, such as junk food, chips, green and red chilies, wasabi, and candy bars.
3) Sattva: Inspiring Health, Harmony & Happiness
The third and final quality of Ayurveda psychology is called Sattva, which comes from the root word "Sat," meaning truth. We are all searching for Sattva, because this quality represents who we are, at our deepest essence. The Sattva quality is synonymous with inner peace, happiness, purity, harmony, and balance. It is the feeling we have when we experience compassion and true love.
Cultivating Sattva is the key to obtaining – and sustaining – great health. Sattvic foods are fresh, light, easily digestible, and full of prana (life force). Ripe fruits, nuts, ghee (clarified butter), cardamom, raisins, cooked vegetables, and cow's milk from well-treated cows are all considered Sattvic in both Ayurveda and Yoga.
Try minimizing your consumption of Tamas and Rajas-inducing foods, increase your intake of Sattvic foods, and you, too, can start to become as healthy and free as you were always meant to be. Bon appetit!