5 practices from Ayurveda that I've added to my life
And my recipe for Instant Pot Khichdi
I’m kicking off my 2024 Food is Medicine series with this teaser on Ayurveda, the OG ancient Indian system of medicine that means knowledge of life (ayur = life, veda = knowledge).
First of all, I want to lay down that I am no Ayurvedic expert. I’m just starting to dip my toes in the literature, and it’s fascinating. Growing up, my exposure to alternative forms of medicine was restricted largely to homeopathy. When my sister or I caught a cold, my grandmother would take us to a homeopathic doctor, who would prescribe these little sugar coated globules of pills that were extremely pleasant to intake and possibly had fewer side effects than allopathic medication. I didn’t think much of it then, although we recovered just fine. But, I digress. Homeopathy is a separate form of alternative medicine where I again have no expertise, but have consumed happily as a child. Back to Ayurveda now.
Doing my research in this world of wellness, I have come to believe pretty firmly that we need to go back to our great-grandparents generation (I’m a millennial, so for some of you it may your grandparents’ generation) to get some nutritional practices right and eat whole foods. Because by the time our grandparents had settled down with families, in say the 1950s and 60s..the Industrialized Agriculture era was in full swing. I’m convinced that’s where a lot of current troubles in our collective health and the food system originate, for example, our abnormal intake of refined grain products, sugar and industrial seed oils.
Our great-grandparents’ generation was also probably the last time that Ayurveda was considered a natural way to heal, rather than an ‘alternative’ form of medicine. Under British rule in India and then subsequent Indian government policy, Ayurveda got relegated to the background in favor of allopathic medicine (which has its own strengths, I am not picking favorites here).
In the past year, I have read up on several guides (see Recommended Resources below) and dabbled in a number of rituals with varying degrees of success. Some stuck, and some didn’t.
Here are the 5 practices that worked well for me -
Eating for my ‘dosha’ - There are 3 main doshas or mind-body types in Ayurveda - Vata (air + ether), Pitta (fire + water) and Kapha (water + earth), which make up our constitution and define our natural state of balance. Some people are archetypes of a particular dosha but everyone has all 3 doshas within them in unique proportions, with two out of the three being dominant. When any of these doshas are out of balance, we may develop physical or mental issues.
It is uncanny how accurate these predictions about who we are can be. I am self-diagnosed as a Vata-Kapha, with many attributes from both doshas. When I cut down on starch and sugar and increase Bitter, Pungent and Astringent tastes in my meals (see next point) I feel fantastic, like a Kapha would - which is possibly why going lower-carb worked for me. But I am pretty generous with natural sources of fat and don’t restrict them much, be it yogurt, ghee or olive oil. I think the Vata part of me appreciates that. When I eat this way, I feel my best.
In today’s world, where excess starch and sugar tend to rule, my guess is that a large percentage of people will develop a Kapha imbalance leading to chronic disease. Now, it’s way more complicated than I lay out above, and out of scope of this post, but I highly recommend you dig deeper into the topic using the recommended resources at the bottom of this page. Here is a fun dosha quiz you can take to find out which dosha you might be.
Using the 6 tastes of Ayurveda to design my meals - I briefly spoke about this when I launched Weeknight Simple. The 6 tastes are - Sweet (eg. grains, potatoes, dessert), Salty (eg. salt, tamari, celery), Sour (eg. lemon, tamarind), Bitter (eg. leafy greens, coffee, dark chocolate), Pungent (eg. onion, ginger, cayenne) and Astringent (eg. cruciferous vegetables, legumes, pomegranate). A well-balanced meal needs to have all 6 tastes - which is what I try to do in my meal plan so that each dish feels like a complete meal. However, you can also tweak the amounts of each taste for your dosha or to fix your imbalance. For example, when Kapha is out of balance (eg. weight gain, sluggishness, depression), you will want to increase the amount of Bitter, Pungent and Astringent foods that you intake, and minimize the sweet, salty and sour tastes. Eating low-carb does this quite naturally, and I add in tons of spices in my recipes to increase the pungent taste. The Eat Feel Fresh cookbook by Sahara Rose in my Recommended Resources below does a fantastic job of recipes tailored to each dosha.
Seed Cycling for female hormonal balance - Taking flaxseed + pumpkin seed in the follicular phase (days 1-14) of my cycle, and sesame seed + sunflower seed in the luteal phase (days 14-start of next cycle). Flax and pumpkin seeds contain phytoestrogens which are supposed to help build up estrogen in the follicular phase. Sesame and sunflower are supposed to support the build of progesterone, which is needed in the luteal phase. I don’t know if this is a proven practice by any means, but after I started doing this, my cycles - which were longer than normal and often a touch unpredictable, have gotten synchronized like clockwork. The practice is also supposed to support women through perimenopause and menopause. I just grind the seeds myself and add a couple of tablespoons to my smoothie every day, but you could also add them to your salads or other dishes. If you have painful or irregular periods, or other hormonal imbalances like PCOS, you may want to look into this more. There is also a new company called Beeya Wellness, that will send you the ground seeds as a subscription service.
Starting the morning with hot water infused with spices, rock salt and lemon juice - To rehydrate the body and activate the digestive system. Some will say this is a weight loss hack but I didn’t really see that happen. I can’t point to a specific outcome here but it does feel less dehydrating than starting the day with a cup of black coffee. I still have the black coffee right after, anyway, but I feel like I’ve done a little wellness ritual first thing in the morning and gotten a head-start on the day. While grating ginger and combining spices feels like too much work, I take a shortcut here by using this Chai Masala powder and add a little squeeze of lemon. Sometimes when I’m feeling extra good I try to do a 5-minute meditation alongside.
Getting consistent with exercise - Now this topic merits a longer post, perhaps for next month. Kapha types are supposed to need vigorous exercise. I have always loved a good HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout. But life happens and honestly the hardest resource to find for working out is not money or fancy equipment, it’s time. This past fall, I decided that I would dedicate just 30 minutes of my morning to a HIIT workout - no excuses. I’ve been pretty regular with this in the past 5 months, (taking a day per week usually for recovery and also alternating with a low-intensity workout) and I may be in the best physical shape of my life right now, finally hitting my goal weight (yes we all have one). PS: HIIT workouts are not for everyone, you do you - my point here is consistency with exercise.
Some practices that haven’t worked for me yet, or that I haven’t gotten to-
Lunch being the biggest meal of the day - Our digestive fire, or agni is supposed to be the strongest at noon. Ayurveda recommends we intake our biggest meal of the day at this time. I tried this but it didn’t work for me - I just felt like I needed a nap after! Also, my lunch tends to be a non-event with leftovers, and dinner is the ‘social’ meal that I make an effort for. However, when I’m on vacation I do use this excuse to indulge more at lunch :)
Tongue scraping - This ritual is supposed to bring big benefits of eliminating toxins but I haven’t tried it for fear it will activate my gag-reflex.
Oil pulling - Another morning ritual of swishing oil in the mouth to remove toxins that I just.can’t.do.yet.
I hope this post was helpful to some of you! Interested in digging deeper into Ayurveda?
Here are my recommended resources
(and I’d love to hear if you have suggestions)
Perfect Health by Dr. Deepak Chopra - a bit dry, but the OG manual
Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing by Dr. Vasant Lad - well-illustrated and comprehensive text
Idiot’s Guide to Ayurveda - by Sahara Rose and Dr. Deepak Chopra - approachable and comprehensive
Eat Feel Fresh by Sahara Rose - an approachable and contemporary Ayurvedic cookbook that made me fall in love with this ancient wisdom. She also has a lowish-carb tilt which resonates with me.
Ayurveda: Beginner’s Guide by Susan Weis-Bohlen - concise text with a 3-week plan
Practical Ayurveda by Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center - well-illustrated, includes yoga poses and recipes
Instant Pot Khichdi
I don’t often eat rice these days but khichdi is a dish for which I’ll happily make an exception. Eating rice and dal together also significantly lowers the glycemic impact of rice. Basmati rice, in particular is considered tridoshic - meaning that it helps balance all 3 doshas. In combination with nutty moong dal and dollops of ghee, this is a comforting one-pot meal that I crave, especially when I’m sick or when my stomach feels iffy. This recipe is dump-and-go if you make it in the Instant Pot, but you can also cook it on the stovetop (see Cooking Note).
3/4 cup [135g] dry white Basmati rice
1 cup [120g] yellow moong dal
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/3 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3/4 tsp ground cumin (I love roasted cumin powder)
3 tsp fine sea salt
1 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger
7 cups [1680ml] water
3-4 Tbsp grass-fed ghee, ideally home-made, or sub extra-virgin olive oil for vegan
Rinse the rice and dal together. Add all ingredients (except ghee) and 1 Tbsp ghee to the Instant Pot. Mix well. Pressure cook at high pressure for 15 minutes and release pressure naturally. Garnish with remaining ghee and serve hot.
To make this on the stovetop, soak the rice and dal together for 30 minutes, drain and rinse. Then add all ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer until rice and lentils are fully cooked.
Leftovers will solidify in the fridge. To rehydrate, add hot water and mix.
PS: If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts in my Food is Medicine series. See you next week, XOXO