After our baby (pretty much) started sleeping through the night, my husband and I realized that the only time we had to prioritize our health was first thing in the morning. So being the geniuses we are, we started doing intense 45-minute HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions. At 5:45 a.m. On limited sleep. Worst.idea.ever.
Eventually we slowed down and tried yoga instead. Thank goodness. It was love at first Shavasana.
Nearly two years later, and after some nudging from several yogi friends and family members, we decided that it was time to try a diet to complement our yoga: Ayurveda.
For those who are unfamiliar, Ayurveda is a centuries-old Hindu system of nutrition and medicine that was developed alongside yoga as the best means to prevent illness and imbalance. Far more a lifestyle than a diet, a famous Ayurvedic saying is, “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.”
Now, us Westerners may flinch a little at that statement. After all, Western medicine has had some uses (say, curing polio). But as someone who had a number of hormonal issues after an emergency surgery to remove an ovary during pregnancy, I was intrigued by the lure of self-empowerment. Could I be doing things every day that ward off disease?
The first step to embarking on an appropriate Ayurvedic diet for you is identifying your dosha. A dosha is one of the three primary elements and energies that exist in the body. They are called:
- Vata (air)
- Pitta (fire)
- Kapha (water + earth)
While each dosha merits its own exploration, the idea that you have a unique blend of mental, emotional, and physical characteristics thought to exist in balance encapsulates the holistic nature of Ayurveda. Mind, body, and spirit all have to function for all three to function together.
There are a number of quizzes online that help you identify your dosha, but unfortunately, there was no Central Authority for Dosha Questionnaires. I was unable to track down a certified Ayurveda specialist with proximity to Midland, Michigan, where we live. I needed someone who could do a traditional clinical examination, but instead I had to make do with my own judgment. After getting different answers with each quiz, I began to get frustrated. How was I supposed to start this life-changing lifestyle if I couldn’t even identify my dosha?
A friend, who is a yoga teacher and practices an Ayurvedic lifestyle, suggested that I was likely tridoshic — that is, I had strong characteristics of all three doshas.
In addition, in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, each season matches a dosha. Right now, we’re experiencing the wet, cold, dark end of winter through spring. You know, that time of year when all you do is wrap yourself in blankets and sit still and wait for sun to return? This time of year in Michigan is pure Kapha. So I decided to follow a seasonal approach and adopt a Kapha-pacifying diet.
Kapha is everything heavy and cold, so the foods that accompany it are the opposite: pungent, bitter, warm, and stimulating. I tried to add lots of turmeric, ginger, cayenne, and cinnamon to our menu.
Ayurveda strongly recommends the use of local, organic foods, so in order to keep the costs down, I bought The Easy Ayurveda cookbook, warned my husband that there would be no coffee or alcohol (he may have cried), and we were off.
Here was the menu I devised for the week:
- breakfast: warm strawberry-peach morning shake
- morning snack: no snack! ginger tea with local honey
- lunch: a huge bowl of carrot ginger curry soup with whole-wheat naan and homemade kale chips
- afternoon snack: no snack! ginger tea with local honey
- dinner: Kapha quinoa bowl (roasted cauliflower, broccoli, and black beans with cayenne, ginger, and salt and pepper over tamari quinoa)
The diet started Sunday, but being Kapha season, my entire family was predictably sick with colds and honking noses. Fortunately, surviving on buttered naan, ginger tea, and golden milk was a genius move.
Golden milk — a blend of coconut milk, turmeric, ginger, and honey — is perhaps the most cherished addition from my Ayurvedic investigation. It truly helped my cold breeze through much more quickly than usual. (The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends about 400 to 600 milligrams of turmeric powder, three times a day. Incorporate it creatively, whether it’s turmeric in your coffee or mixed in with dinner.)
Here’s what else happened.
Breakfast: By Monday, people were feeling hungrier for more substantial fare, which started with the smoothie. The significance of temperature in Ayurvedic diet is no joke, and I’ll admit it was bizarre to drink a warm smoothie. But the spiciness really kick-started my morning, and the heat was soothing to my raw throat. That said, not sure I’m keeping any of the Ayurvedic breakfasts on the docket in the future. I’ll stick to eggs and grapefruit, thanks!
Lunch: The soup was a revelation. Not only was it delicious and cheap, but it was perfect for the cold, damp weather outside. Rather than joylessly eating a salad during the darkest, coldest part of the year, I began to understand why the seasons play such a huge role in Ayurvedic diet choices. I was still getting vegetables, but I was choosing something more seasonally appropriate. This boosted both body and spirit.
(Lack of) Snacks: Not having an afternoon snack was really hard. For the first couple of days, not having snacks felt like torture. Everything I read suggested that a Kapha-pacifying diet avoid snacks entirely, but I think a more helpful guideline is to snack consciously. When I didn’t have an afternoon snack, I was far more likely to order takeout and scrap the whole thing due to hunger. Taking the time to assess whether I was actually hungry or not did eliminate some unnecessary eating, but having a healthy snack available is important for sticking with any regimen.
Dinner: Dinner was tolerable, but eating the small dinner of a Kapha Ayurvedic diet was difficult to reconcile with an afternoon of no snacking and a hungry family. We had far more success sticking with the recommended foods for dinner rather than the serving size.
Committing to no coffee or wine also took a few days to get used to, but once I consciously realized how I was using these tools every day, it was easier to give them up. For example, when I drink coffee every day, I no longer get the jolt of energy I need. I just rely on it to not be a zombie. When I drink wine every night, I no longer get the immediate relaxation I crave. I just rely on it to not be an anxiety monster. Enjoyed only once or twice a week, they both returned to functioning tools of a balanced diet.
The biggest challenges of this diet were the time commitment and expense. Cooking everything from scratch at home, for every meal, takes a ton of meal planning. It needs to get done on Sunday or budgeted the day of, which is not always compatible with the week’s schedule.
Further, it makes it difficult to have snacks on hand. It’s much better to have some dosha-appropriate fruit on hand and not fuss. If you don’t live in a place with a year-round farmer’s market, you will have to get creative as to how to eat completely clean on a budget. (Soups, for the win!)
The greatest benefit of this diet? That it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle. At the end of the week, I had lost 2 inches around my middle just from decreased bloating, and my cold was gone. I felt like getting off that couch and I felt ready for spring.
While anyone who views this diet as a rigid science is exaggerating, there were demonstrable benefits to listening more to my body and incorporating dietary changes. Take away my coffee, steak, wine, and even my pasta, and I will survive and even thrive.
Take away my afternoon hot chocolate? We’re done.