.Feeding the Tree

Regaining balance with Ayurvedic nutrition


Basking in the warmth of autumn’s glow, I take note of the changes the season has wrought on the earth. The scents, too, are particular to fall: the nose-wrinkling manure spread over the fields, the sickly sweetness of rotting apples littering orchards still heavy with unpicked fruit, and the smoke that drifts from unseen fires burning acres of overgrown hills and ravines. Autumn is the season that teeters on the brink, balancing abundance and scarcity, growth and decay, heat and cold, short days and long nights.

I take note of the changes in my own life. We harvest different foods from the garden as the crops die off, eat earlier dinners as the days grow shorter, rise earlier as one child moves from a middle school to high school, fill an emptier heart and home as another child leaves for college. Despite the beauty that surrounds me, I feel internal disruption. In a word, my world is imbalanced.

None of this would be a surprise to the ancient sages of India who developed the teachings of Ayurvedic wisdom over 5,000 years ago, translated as ayus (“life”) and veda (“knowledge, science or book”). Later, Sanskrit Ayurvedic texts, the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita, spelled out a natural system of medicine traditionally used in India, and still used throughout the world today as an alternative to Western medicine.

This system of preventing and treating disease utilizes nutrition, herbal medicine, meditation and yoga, among other methods, and strives to rebalance the body on an elemental level. According to its teachings, everything in the universe, which naturally includes the human body, is composed of five elements: earth, air, water, fire and ether. When the equilibrium of these elements in a person’s life is established, greater health results.

Very simply put, these five elements combine in various ways to create three different body constitutions, or doshas: vata, predominantly air and ether; pitta, fire and water; and kapha, earth and water. Not unlike the elements that correspond to the astrological signs, the energies present during one’s birth designate one’s dominant dosha. All three can be present incrementally as well, just as the planets also influence an astrological chart.

Each dosha can be determined by looking at the individual aspects of the physical, mental and emotional makeup of an individual, including digestion, sleep and dreams, activity, memory, hair color, body type and more. Once a person’s dosha is determined, Ayurvedic treatment is used to even out imbalances caused by the individual’s activities, food or lifestyle.

Reflecting on my lingering discombobulation, I decide to take a yoga class, something familiar to me, to help rebalance myself. As I talk with the instructor after class, she suggests looking into Ayurvedic medicine, as it is known as the sister science to yoga. Figuring it can’t hurt and certainly might help, I do some online research and take a quick survey to determine what my dosha is. I find that I am predominantly a fiery pitta. I also discover that the seasons have doshas as well; naturally, summer is pitta, while autumn is vata, which governs movement, wind and air. The change of season affects my dosha, in this case exacerbating the fire by adding air to it. The earth’s tilt has thrown me out of whack.

I click on a “remedies” link, searching for some cyberharmony and wisdom, and link on to Ayurvedic nutritional guidelines. The Ayurvedic diet teaches which foods will support or imbalance the dosha. For example, if, like me, you are a pitta, too much hot, spicy food may exacerbate our digestion.

“Everything comes back to digestion, and overflows into other parts of the body,” says Melanie MacDonald, a local Ayurvedic practitioner. “Ayurveda looks at the body like a tree. The roots are the three doshas, which relate to the stomach [kapha], small intestine [pitta] and the large intestine [vata]. When imbalances with digestion overflow, they go through the trunk of the tree, the circulatory system, and out through the branches—the extremities, joints, skin, etc.—and manifest as an ailment. These specific ailments have their own set of symptoms, which Western medicine labels and treats. Ayurvedic practitioners treat the tree roots instead of trimming the external parts.”

MacDonald outlines some basic principles and guidelines that have a familiarity throughout the world. “The optimum time for food digestion is between 10am and 2pm,” she guides, adding that lunch should be the main meal of the day and supper only a light, “supplemental” meal. Many cultures throughout the world follow this tenet today, followed by the siesta so popular in other parts of the world.

Although Ayurvedic medicine has existed for thousands of years, it is new to me, but I can clearly hear my mother’s voice in the five principles above. It is plain common wisdom, probably passed down from her mother, and her mother’s mother back to Eve. The essence of the teachings distills into a simple syrup of practices found worldwide. Slow down. Listen to your body. Pay attention to what goes in and what comes out. Sit up straight. Chew your food. Find the balance between rest and activity, heat and cold, abundance and scarcity. Use moderation in all things. Enjoy the earth and the changing seasons, because this is our element.

I visit a website recommended by MacDonald, looking for one last bit of advice to help me achieve balance. I find a suggestion for a fall detox diet. “Eat lots of watermelon to flush the kidneys, pomegranate to cleanse the lymph and two to four apples daily to heal the intestines.” As I take a bite of juicy watermelon and savor its sweetness, my world tilts a little bit back into balance.

Melanie MacDonald recommends a simple tea for each dosha:

Vata: equal parts ground ginger, cumin and coriander.

Pitta: equal parts ground cumin, coriander and fennel.

Kapha: equal parts ground ginger, cinnamon, and a pinch of clove.

Bring water to a near boil. Add the above ingredients and steep for a few minutes. Add sweetener and lime juice if so desired. Drink warm or cool throughout the day.

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