You’ve probably heard the word “Ayurveda“—particularly if you’re an avid Sporteluxe reader. The ancient alternative healing practice has thousands of fans worldwide (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts included), but phrases like “cosmic energy” and Sanskirt words such as “dosha” are just about enough to put a modern woman off. That’s fine, we get that this is a little woo-woo for most, but what you need to understand is that at its core, Ayurveda is really about listening to your body’s needs, and responding by caring for yourself with a balanced diet and lifestyle. By following an Ayurvedic diet, proponents like Divya Alter, the cofounder of NYC-based Ayurvedic restaurant Divya’s Kitchen swear you can “restore your physiological balance” and “awaken your body’s natural intelligence to heal itself” while also feeling more clear-headed, happy, and energized. Sounds pretty good, right?
If you’re new to the concept of Ayurveda, there are a few basics you need to understand. First up, Ayurveda’s understanding of the cosmic energy (called prana) is broken down to its basic five elements: space, air, fire, water, earth. These are the building blocks of all things created, including our bodies. Stay with me, skeptics, Divya explains it better.
Apparently each element linked with a different function. The space and air elements in the body are called Vata and “govern circulation, movement, the nervous system, elimination, and more.” Meanwhile fire element combined with a little bit of water is called Pitta—it “governs metabolism, physical and mental digestion, and transformation.” The expression of earth and water elements in the physiology are called Kapha—our body fluids and tissue layers and bones represent these two elements.
Every person has these combinations in different proportions and the proportions can go up or down depending on the season or surrounding circumstances. So, you might be airier (Vata dosha), while I could be fierier (Pitta dosha), and others more earthy (Kapha dosha).
Fans of Ayurveda believe an imbalance could manifest in physical symptoms: “The Sanskrit word ‘dosha’ means ‘weakness,’ indicating that our predominant elements tend to first go out of balance when we’re under stress. “For example, if my body is of Vata dosha/Airy type, I would be more prone to having a sensitive stomach, and when under stress, I may experience airy type of digestion: bloating, gas, irregularity,” Divya explained.
One way of addressing this irregularity is by following a highly personalized Ayurvedic diet, which means to adapt the way we eat to our ever-changing individual needs. “Ayurveda teaches us that a good personal diet consists of the foods that will help one restore his/her body and mind to optimal digestion and balance. There is no good or bad food in itself. A food or herb can be good for someone or bad for someone—it depends on one’s individual needs at that time,” Divya explained. It’s actually pretty fascinating, and even if there’s limited research supporting the efficacy of this lifestyle, there are other obvious health benefits to listening and responding to your body’s needs.
If your interest has officially been piqued, keep reading—ahead, Divya explains exactly what’s involved in following this holistic style of eating.
There are plenty of free quizzes online (like this one!) that promise to help you determine your dosha, but Divya recommends seeing a pro. “The best way to know your dosha is to have an Ayurvedic doctor/practitioner read your pulse. Dosha quizzes are fun but do not give you the full picture,” she explained. Also, simply knowing your constitution and dosha is not enough—you also need to know what your imbalance is so that you can address it through diet (and other lifestyle changes) and return to health.
It’s not just what you eat, folks, it’s how you prepare that food. According to Divya, you should “select best quality invigorating ingredients and combine them properly (called “samyoga” in Sanskrit.” Then, use methods of preparation that ease digestion while preserving the foods’ nutritional value (referred to as “samskara” in Sanskrit).
A practical way to follow an Ayurvedic diet is to choose seasonal foods and prepare them with spices and methods suitable for one’s digestion. Just like you dress seasonally, you also need to eat seasonally! Divya breaks it down for us:
“In the late fall-winter season, Vata dosha or cold Airy energies are high in the environment and many of us tend to experience irregular, Airy digestion. During this time we need to balance with vibrant, cooked foods that are heavier (good-quality dairy, basmati rice, einkorn, spelt), moist (soups, stews), oily (with ghee, olive oil), with warm, soft qualities and of predominantly sweet, sour, and salty tastes. You may also eat larger portions, but not more than you can digest easily. More food provides more heat for the body in cold weather. In this way your body will store good fats, proteins, and minerals so that you will have sustained energy to welcome nature’s drastic changes in spring. Winter is ‘building season,’ and taking extra care of your health at this time will ensure overall good health for the rest of the year.”
“In spring we enter a new cycle with nature, where moisture and heaviness dominate the environment; therefore, we need to change our diet or our physiology will turn sluggish. In this season, Kapha dosha, or humid earthy energies dominate the environment and many of us tend to experience slow, Earthy digestion. Now we can balance with lighter, detoxifying foods from the spring harvest: peas, leafy greens, dandelion, asparagus, radish, burdock root. We also need the dryness and astringency of lentils and small beans and the pungency of ginger, chiles, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ajwain, and cardamom. In general, favor warm foods that are dry, light, and warm of predominantly pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes. Apples, pears, pomegranate, artichokes, radicchio, broccoli rabe, cruciferous vegetables, and sprouts are all good spring foods. The drying properties of barley, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, millet, buckwheat noodles (soba), and corn make them perfect grains for spring.”
“In summer, when the earth is closer to the sun, temperatures can rise up to 105°F,
the Pitta or fiery energies in our body go up and we may experience sharp, Fiery digestion. To counter the heat of summer, we need to fuel our bodies with predominantly cooling foods that are higher in carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables) and lower in fats and heavy proteins. Balance with vibrant cooked and raw foods of the summer harvest: cooling (summer squash, fennel, all greens, coconut, cucumber, lime, mint), liquid and hydrating (coconut water, aloe vera juice), and the light, calming qualities of sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes to control your heightened metabolism. In this way your body will dry up excessive moisture accumulated in spring, and the carbs from fruits and vegetables will support your high-energy activities in summer.”
You will need to avoid food that has been “bleached, refined, chemically preserved, sterilized, homogenized, hydrogenated, artificially colored, de-fibered, highly sugared, highly salted, synthetically fortified (enriched), genetically modified and generally exposed to hundreds of new man-made chemicals,” Divya told us. “Why let such denatured foods clutter your pantry, and then your body and your mind?” she added.
In general, Ayurveda recommends avoiding foods that are “lackluster and depleting, not bright with energy.” Think about leftovers or frozen foods, where their fresh energy is long gone. “Canned, deep-fried, microwaved, heavily processed, and artificial, sometimes even slightly rotten, or putrefied foods may taste like food, but they give us no prana,” Divya explained. Instead, these foods are believed to “clog the body’s digestive and elimination systems, and even its subtle channels of energy and a steady diet of such foods leads to imbalance and disease.”
You will also have to minimize onions and garlic to medicinal use when following an Ayurvedic diet, rather than heaping the garlic into your vegetarian stirfry. “Although these alliums boost health in many ways, they also have negative side effects, such as overheating the stomach and liver, depleting friendly bacteria, or over stimulating the mind and senses,” Divya says.
In her own Ayurvedic recipes, Divya also avoids nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers) because of their believed inflammatory qualities. “Being a vegetarian for spiritual and environmental reasons, I also do not include meat, fish, and eggs in my Ayurvedic cooking,” she added.
Look for the best quality whole grains and sweeteners, lentils, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, cultured ghee and cold-pressed oils, freshly milled whole grain flours, and grass-fed dairy—and add flavor with a wide variety of spices. “I use these healing and delicious foods not only in my own cooking but also at Divya’s Kitchen,” Divya added.
Obviously, it’s going to be difficult going from holiday eating to a strict Ayurvedic diet, which is why Divya suggests starting off slowly and being gentle with yourself. “If you are open to improving an eating habit or two, I would strongly suggest you go slow. I’ve heard many wise people say that we shouldn’t incorporate sudden, drastic changes if they make us unhappy,” she said, adding: “don’t suddenly deprive yourself of your favorite not-so-healthy dishes. That would reduce happiness, and being unhappy is definitely not balancing.” Instead, begin to incorporate healthy changes in your diet by first trying a few of the simple things: for example, start replacing processed, refined foods with their wholesome origins. The best evidence of what diet works for you is your personal experience.