Fragmented Lives

I recently attended a two day seminar by the world renowned Ayurvedic doctor, Vasant Lad. Dr Lad is a brilliant, humble, funny and wise human being, who gives his time and energy to teaching the deep wisdom of Ayurveda.

The second day’s topic was relationships, and it was a day that had a profound impact on me and made me question my own and other people’s patterns of behaviour.

Ayurvedic Medicine places great emphasis on relationships, and because Mind, Body and Spirit all need to be in a healthy state if we are to truly be in complete health, we need all of our relationships to be healthy and clear. Perhaps these days we are too preoccupied with the physical aspect of health and we are consequently overlooking the metaphysical. We only have to look at the current issues regarding mental health as well as global issues such as war, extremism and the refugee crisis, to see that it is not just physical disease that is increasing at unprecedented rates.

For our relationships to be healthy and thus promote Mind health, we need clarity. However, we are all aware that there is too much judgement, criticism and anger in many relationships (between individuals, groups and nations), and we all draw conclusions about others. These conclusions make us decide how we see the people we come into contact with- in fact, we have already decided what we think even before we engage in any dialogue.

Ayurvedic philosophy is deep and insightful; it says that in order to have absolute clarity in our relationships, we must practise conscious thinking. During the seminar, Dr Lad explained that our subconscious thoughts are simply thoughts that we are not conscious of until we CHOOSE to be. When we allow subconscious thinking to dominate our relationships, we are in chaos, but once we become conscious, or aware, we can objectively observe these thoughts and put them in order- We can rationalise them. This allows space for the relationships we have, and this space stops expectations that in turn lead to disappointment.

It made me start thinking about how we in the West see health and well being and how we seem to be missing something fundamentally obvious….

The Western idea of health seems to be one that is made up of a series of unlinked fragments that one is able to dip into depending on where one’s interests lie. Some like to practise yoga or pilates, others run marathons or attend fitness boot camps; some people decide to become vegetarian, or vegan, all for the sake of better health. Whilst this is fine and ultimately does some physical good, it is a fragmented way of looking at our wellness. What we are overlooking is the interdependence between Mind, Body and Spirit; we cannot focus on one without the other.

Ayurveda is an incredibly conscious medicine, one that asks us to forgive far more readily than we like to. Forgiveness is not easy for human beings, because our egos are easily hurt, and though we are all making mistakes all the time, it seems that we cannot see this in ourselves,and we cannot forgive it in others.

Once we form a pattern of thinking and we assume that those we are close to are at fault, our initial expectations are not fulfilled and we decide to separate from them. This could be any kind of relationship; once the expected behaviour of another is not met, we become confused, and the relationship loses clarity. We are fickle beings who find it easier to walk away, carrying hurt, confusion, anger and sorrow with us and bringing them into the next relationship. We look for the answers in new connections, but the emotions we bring to these relationships are not magically erased by them. They are still there, an integral part of us, and they are ready to surface again the second we feel that the person we are pinning our hopes on has let us down. Thus the cycle continues. If we can start to take ownership of our feelings and address what it is in us that feels hurt, confused, angry and sad, we can come to see our relationships as vehicles for learning and growing.

How many times have do we convince ourselves that another person has hurt us, made us angry or let us down? Have they done this to us or simply highlighted emotions that we have carried with us through past experiences? Think of all the feelings floating around in our subconscious waiting to feed on our weak moments.

How many relationships could be saved through self acceptance and responsibility for our own learning and expansion? It is tragic that we cannot see this. We divorce, we break ties with old friends, we even lose touch with family members, through blame and unconscious thinking.

The sooner we can accept that life is never perfect and that relationships and challenges are part of our development, the sooner we can begin to bring more clarity and wholeness to our lives.

Fragmented lives are lives that can never be holistically healthy.

 

Seasons to be cheerful

Sweet summer is fading fast; the days are gradually getting shorter, the evenings greet us a little earlier each day, and there is a smell of autumn in the air. Adorable autumn, with her intoxicatingly beautiful hues, veritable jewels of nature. Soon the trees will offer us a show of such enchanting, tantalising  grace, as their leaves begin to fall and perform a burlesque-like dance that renders them bashfully bare.

I love the season of autumn with its spectacular colours of burnished copper, blood red, russet brown, sludge green, rich gold and copper. England in the Fall, when the days are sometimes chilly, and sometimes as warm and balmy as an Indian summer. In early autumn, when our senses are adjusting to its arrival, we never know quite what to wear, for it is the in-between season; cheeky autumn, the Teaser, the Trickster.

Our taste buds are seasonally aware, for as autumn approaches, no longer do we desire the foods of summer, the salads and ice creams. In autumn our thoughts begin to turn towards grounding and comforting meals. Hot bowls of wholesome soups, legumes, casseroles, and root vegetables, sweet bejewelled berry crumbles and pies, lift our spirits as the bright days of summer fade.

This, of course, is entirely instinctive and correct. Autumn is the Vata season, with its ether and air elements. Vata, like autumn, is cold, mobile, light, dry, irregular and changeable. These qualities need to be tempered with their opposites. Hot, liquid, oily and grounding foods are the perfect antidote to autumnal ailments such as insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, and aches and pains.

My passion for Indian food clearly has its roots in my heritage and my upbringing. However, it seems to be more pronounced during the colder months. The memories of my childhood, my close-knit family of five, our friends, the Collective that is our surrogate Indian family often popping in for impromptu suppers, are evoked by a simple Indian meal. A chickpea  and spinach curry eaten with steaming hot, cumin- infused basmati rice, or hot air-filled chapatis (Indian breads) finished with golden ghee (clarified butter), takes me right back to our kitchen. Indian food is somehow the essence of all that is good; it is honest and true, it warms the heart and speaks of unconditional love, kindness and affection. There are no airs and graces with Indian cuisine, no flamboyance. But it is possessed with a sorcerer’s touch, it is a skilful magician in its ability to turn oppressive grey skies into aquamarine blue, and to switch a mood of melancholy into one of thankfulness and joy.

A  little something  to eat in autumn or any other season….

Channa Saag (chickpea and spinach)

Ingredients (to serve four as a light supper):

2 x 400g cans of chickpeas

2-3 medium tomatoes

A large handful of fresh spinach leaves, chopped

A medium onion, chopped

Coconut or rapeseed oil

2 fat garlic cloves, chopped

A small green chilli, chopped

2 teaspoons of fresh grated ginger

A teaspoon of  cumin seeds

A teaspoon of ground turmeric

A teaspoon of ground cumin

A teaspoon of ground coriander

A large handful of fresh coriander leaves

Method:

Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan on a medium heat and add the cumin seeds. Once they start to pop, add the onions. Soften until golden, then add the ginger, garlic and chilli. Fry for a minute or two before adding the dry spices. Incorporate everything for another couple  of minutes before adding the tomatoes along with a teaspoon of sugar to counterbalance their acidity. Turn the heat down and allow the mixture to cook for around ten minutes. If it gets a bit dry, add a splash of water.

Add the chickpeas and spinach and a teacup full of warm water. Season with salt and cook for 15 -20 minutes on a low to medium heat.

Check seasoning and sprinkle the coriander leaves on top.

This is perfect with Basmati rice or Indian flat breads, and perhaps a little plain yoghurt on the side.

A quick way to transform basmati rice into something special is to melt a couple of teaspoons of ghee and fry a teaspoonful of cumin seeds for a minute. Pour them onto the cooked rice and mix through with a fork.

Chickpeas are full of protein and fibre, and spinach is vitamin and mineral dense,  and is also a great source of protein .

ENJOY!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A warm bowl of hope

Hope is the one emotion that unites us all, no matter what faith, cultural background or attitude to life we have. When there is sadness, rejection, hurt, grief, hunger, and even death, there is the hope that the situation will change, and we know that it will, because everything in life is transient.

I believe that HOPE and FOOD are connected. The human predicament is such that we are eternally hopeful that food will somehow save us from ourselves. In the underdeveloped world, those who have to beg for food hope that they will be offered a meal by a kind stranger, and that this gesture will at least allow them one more day. Those who grow their own food in their villages hope for a good crop; they hope that no drought or heavy monsoons will come and decimate their lovingly cultivated vegetables and grains. Commercial farmers too hope that their crops will be bought for a good price and that their customers will be satisfied enough to give them repeat business.

In the West, there is hope of a very different kind. We hope we will come home to our favourite meal after a hard day’s work. We hope that our expensive restaurant meal will be worth the money it costs, we hope that the food  we have spent hours preparing for friends or family will be appreciated enough to feed our delicate egos, thus making all our effort worthwhile. The hope is that that we will get something back in return.

Hope surrounds us all when it comes to food, but in different ways.

In the poorer nations, where poverty is rife,  many people are malnourished and there is lack of quantity, not quality. These people are not exposed to ready meals, fast food, addititves or preservatives. When they do eat, they eat freshly prepared vegetables, rice, legumes;  they drink water, maybe not always as fresh as they would like, but if it keeps them alive and hydrated, they are not going to be fussy.

The preventable diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, many cancers, strokes and heart disease, are pandemic in the developed world , and are mostly related to food and alcohol consumption. Excess sugar, saturated fats, ready meals, and fast food, are all unwholesome foods and are considered in Ayurveda to be Tamasic ( causing lethargy, excessive sleep, heaviness).

However, this post is about HOPE.  We need to use that hope to rebalance the situation. Where there is abject poverty, we need to work towards eradicating it and endeavour to create equal distribution of the wonderful wholesome food that grows on the earth. Where there is excessive unwholesome food consumption, there is the hope that through education and understanding, we can begin to change our relationship with food and see it more as vital to healthy living (The Ayurvedic principle that comes to mind is ‘food is medicine and medicine is food’), rather than something that is an indulgent birthright.

Food that is eaten at home should not be unaffordable for anyone. If it is so, then it is not likely to be freshly prepared food.  We have the choice to eat healthy, wholesome food for very little money, by cooking it at home as often as we can, with simple, fresh and ideally seasonal ingredients.

Daal represents all that a meal should be. It is Incredibly wholesome, simple to prepare, economical, and delicious. It is inclusive, affordable to everyone, it is not a trendy food that one needs to purchase unusual and elusive ingredients for. A bowl of daal comforts and delights the tastebuds, and it is the perfect meal for communal eating. It brings people together (nobody should have to eat alone regularly), and it can be eaten for lunch or supper, being easily digested. Last but certainly not least, it is beautifully, aesthetically pleasing.

This meal can literally feed the world, and my wish is to make it a symbol of global hope- A bowl of ingredients that come together synergistically and symbolically to render each one of us equally deserving of it and all that is represents.

DAAL

Ingredients:

A measure of yellow moong daal, well rinsed

(130g is enough for two people)

Four to five measures of warm water

A  teaspoon fine Himalayan rock salt

A small green chilli sliced in half lengthways

A teaspoon ground turmeric

A good squeeze of lemon juice

A good pinch of asafoetida

Two medium tomatoes, chopped.

A  small onion, sliced

Five or six curry leaves (fresh ideally, but dried will do)

A fat garlic clove, thinly sliced

A heaped teaspoon cumin seeds

Half teaspoon black mustard seeds

A tablespoon of rapeseed oil

Half a bunch of fresh chopped coriander leaves

Ghee (clarified butter)

Optional additional ingredients:

A large handful of baby spinach leaves and/or a sliced carrot/courgette.

Wash the daal a couple of times and soak for an hour or two. Once soaked, drain away the water and add more fresh (quantity as above)

Mix the first ten ingredients together and slowly bring to the boil. Once the mixture is boiling, turn the heat up to medium, so that the daal is on a slow boil the whole time. It will start to froth a bit and you can skim this off with a wooden spoon as and when it builds up.

Add any vegetables half way through the cooking.

Let the daal cook until it has become quite soft and a bit mushy. This should take around half an hour.

Once it is cooked, heat the oil in a small frying pan and add the cumin and mustard seeds.

Once they are popping add the garlic and let it slightly colour.

Now carefully add this to the daal and mix it well in. It may splutter a bit.  Allow to cook for another ten minutes.

Throw the coriander leaves on top and serve in deep bowls.

I add a tablespoon of homemade ghee(clarified butter) at the end of cooking.

Serve with homemade flatbreads (chapattis) or naan and  a little yougurt if  desired.

Moong beans are one of the most easily digested foods. They balance all three doshas, and clear ama (toxins). They help with detoxifying the body and are high in both fibre and protein, great for combating obesity. They are often given in a very bland, thin soup-form to people who have digestive problems or who are off their food through recent illness, or have been fasting. Moong beans are high in magnesium, which means they are cardioprotective.

Himalayan rock salt is mineral-rich and full of flavour, so the quantity required is less than other salt.

Cumin seeds and mustard seeds aid the digestive process.

Asafoetida is a flavour enhancer and aids digestion.

Curry leaves are anti-diabetic, digestive and diuretic.

ENJOY

 

The perfect life

Our memories remain a major influence on us throughout our lives, and crucially they help to make us into the people we become, whether we think that is a good thing or not. Some memories are painful and we try to block them, but sadly, they mostly choose not to go away, and even though we push them as far as we can below the surface of the soil that we believe is our groundedness, they never fully take root down there, and eventually resurface. It is always better to try and deal with memories that haunt us, so that we can move forward with them and get to a stage where we accept they are part of us, whether they are pleasant or not.

It is sad that as human beings, we strive for perfection and this quest seems to cause endless suffering. My view is that perfection is all around us in small momentary scenes, and it is not the scene itself that provides this perfection, but how we choose to view it. Perfection is how WE want something or someone to be; it is such a subjective state. We wish for perfect parents, siblings, partners, the perfect career, body, face, holiday. In fact, this longing takes up vast amounts of our time, that we have become lost in the haze of it and forgotten to acknowledge the small moments of perfection that present themselves to us daily.

I believe that life should be seen as being made up of numerous short scenes from a long film, the film that is our life. When we watch a film, we tend to discuss with others the minute details we were taken with, ones that we found moving, beautiful, poignant, humbling, life- affirming even. We see these scenes as perfect pieces of the jigsaw that is the story. We seem to accept the characters’ flaws and view their behaviour in a more empathetic way than we perhaps might if they were real people. We basically tend to be more forgiving as impartial observers of other people’s lives, but less so as participants in our own.

I watched the film Whiplash recently, a brilliant film about an incredibly talented drummer and his teacher’s desire to find a ‘Great’ on a par with Buddy Rich. There was a lot of ‘perfection’ in this film that I didn’t have to spend vast amounts of time searching for, because it was presented to me on a plate. So, I got to hear beautiful jazz music, watch great acting, witness extremes of human nature- what makes people behave cruelly, or dismissively, what saddens people or delights them. Without giving away too much, in case you have yet to see the film, we see the passion for drumming in the protagonist, the passion to discover real talent in the teacher, a desire to prove their worth in both characters, and we hear the perfect beauty of music throughout the film. We may be shocked by the way the teacher behaves, but we also see his emotion and his humanness in more than one scene. We see despair and determination in the drummer, but also selfishness and dismissiveness in the way he treats his girlfriend. In short, the perfection in the film was in its realness and its depiction of the beautifully perfect frailty of the human psyche.

Essentially, we can see that all human beings have many facets to their nature, and that to judge someone by how they make one feel at a given moment, is not really seeing the bigger picture. If we look at the positive moments in the film, the fleeting beauty of various scenes, we are able to forgive the bad behaviour in the characters.

In our everyday lives, we are presented with tiny moments of perfection that dance daintily in front of us, but we often miss them and focus on all the negative things that we feel have taken place.

I am convinced that if we all can be in the moment and savour the scenes that make us smile or even bring us to tears of joy or compassion, we will be a much more contented and fulfilled society.

Fleeting moments of perfection for me:

Watching s small child so wrapped up in its own world
Listening to a piece of music that captures my soul.
Watching a young person engaging with a much older person
Walking in an earth- scented forest
Listening to birdsong on waking
Looking at flowers (just try looking for a few minutes- They represent all that is perfect in nature)
The moon
The sunset
Walking on a beach
Animals (they always seem to live in the moment)
Train staff who go out of their way to help my Mother with her journey (it’s a recent fleeting, heartwarming moment that I was witness to).

So, it seems that we are complicating our lives by expecting too much. The above can be shared by all of us, there is no rationing of these scenes.

We can talk ourselves into moods by blaming; blaming is a favourite pastime of human beings and serves no other purpose than to anger and frustrate us, but also to potentially damage our relationships. Often we invite negativity into our lives, and because ‘like increases like’ (an important aspect of Ayurvedic philosophy), the more we view something as negative, the more we invite further negativity into our day.

Take a day out of your week and try to understand how events transpire. If something negative happens (or at least you perceive it as negative), how does that determine how the rest of your day takes shape? The chances are that if you decide a situation was negative and you blame somebody else for it, the rest of your day will be filled with further blame- producing moments. Conversely, if you see the positive aspects of a situation, and take the focus away from the negative, you are likely to have a much more positive outcome to your day.

It is the same with memories. We can decide to hold onto the negative moments in our lives and allow them to continue to influence us, or we can accept them as events that shaped our current selves, and indeed were of eventual benefit.

Our families, our careers, our bodies, our faces or our holidays are neither perfect nor imperfect, they just ARE. If we don’t like what they are, perhaps we need to look at what we would want to change about them. The likelihood is that it is just a matter of changing how we view them. The media has a huge role in this, but the media creates much that is a figment of its own imagination, providing fuel to the notion that elusive, desirable perfection is the key to a better life.

Celebrity Culture creates an idea of perfection that lodges itself into the impressionable minds of many young (and not so young) people. It leads people to believe that those who are known to the masses through their exposure in the media (Celebrities) are leading perfect lives and the rest of us are lacking. We read about their relationships, their weddings, their homes, their holidays and their bank balances, and we try to emulate them in the hope that our lives will be as rich and seemingly perfect as theirs. We are somehow shocked when their marriages fall apart, when their partners cheat on them, or when they become addicted to alcohol or drugs. We wait with bated breath to read that they have found love again, or solved their addiction problems. It seems we cannot bear the thought that the perfect life they clearly seem to have and that we strive for, could be crumbling before our eyes. We take it personally, for there is an expectation of them to stay on the Yellow Brick Road to salvation, so that we may try and follow in their footsteps.

I would go as far as to say that Celebrity Culture is bad for our health, both individually and collectively. We have created a ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ society, the former made up of all the famous perfect -lifers, and the latter made up of those of us who find it difficult to swallow the ‘ordinary mortal’ pill. The more we idolise and deify famous people, the more we are likely to end up with a society that cannot cope with what it sees as imperfections. The long term consequences of this could include a huge rise in depression and stress- related disorders.

We are all human, we are all perfectly fine as we are, and life is the richer for its ups and downs. Our lesson is to always take the positives out of all situations we are faced with and to remind ourselves that the perfect moments are never far away.

Nettle soup and a Mother’s love

Cooking  has been a lifelong passion for me, a passion that has found its way into my psyche via my mother, who has an innate and perfect understanding of how to combine ingredients, spices and quantities and have a fabulously perfect synergistic outcome.

My mother has never used recipes, but instead has memorised virtually  every meal she cooks. From the age of ten, she and her siblings had to prepare meals together after their mother, my grandmother, sadly died days after giving birth to her sixth child, who also died a month later.  My mother learned the art of cooking early, initially from the family cook and then from various aunts and family friends, but it was something she was naturally drawn to, and good at. She learned through trial and error and was soon cooking entire meals for her immediate family single handedly.

She is such a selfless and giving person, so I like to think it was her way of trying to comfort and nourish her siblings with the maternal love that was so tragically denied to them once their own beloved mother had gone.

My mother needs to know we, her family,  approve of her lovingly cooked meals. She wants us to feel nourished, full, satisfied, loved. And we always do, because she cooks so well. Her energy oozes into every meal, and she likes nothing better than to spend days preparing pulses, vegetables  and grains, and deciding menus  for forthcoming family events. Although she is into her early eighties, this outpouring of energy somehow never depletes her stores, for she is quickly  re-energised by our grateful comments and our praise of her veritable feasts.

My mother has been a strict vegetarian all of her life, and as a consequence of this, my siblings and I were raised on a predominanly vegetarian diet, with the odd carnivorous school meal thrown in.

I have never been fully comfortable eating meat, both from the point of view that we don’t have to kill other animals in order to eat well, but also from a health perspective.

Ayurveda sees nutrition as a key aspect of its philosophy.  Food is medicine and medicine is food.

If we know our constitution type, and we know how to eat accordingly, we show love, kindness and compassion to ourselves.  Cooking at home is a vital aspect of family life, one that helps us to bond and forces us to spend time being with each other. It is important to be in the right mood in order to bring positive energy and love into the meal. If we are angry, feeling resentful or irritated, we should neither cook nor eat. Meals cooked with anger will never taste so good, meals eaten when angry will affect our digestion.

Eating should not be mechanical, but a conscious act;  we should be aware of every mouthful, chew our food carefully, take a few sips of water during the meal to help digestion, and we should always eat sitting down, comfortably, never in a hurry.  Food should not be seen as a means to an end,  or a way to try and fill emotional gaps in our lives. We should be thankful, for food is a blessing that sadly not all of us in the world are honoured with, and it should be treated as such.

I love to cook instintively, like my mother,  and for this reason, I too very rarely use recipes.  If i do, I tend to add my own twist to them, using ingredients I have in the fridge or cupboard, and sometimes substituting ingredients too. I always see my cooking as an expression of who I am, my creativity,  and also my love for my wonderful  family and friends.

Seasonal cooking is what we should all be aiming for. Eating seasonal  food means it is cheaper due to increased availability. Food that has been picked too early and shipped from somewhere across the other side of the world, will not have had time to develop its full complement of nutrients, and will have lost  some flavour due to chilling or long term storage.  Eating seasonally also allows us to experience the old-fashioned art of patience, and expectation. Isn’t it nice to look forward to strawberries being available when they are naturally available, rather than eating a tasteless bowlful  that were shipped  from abroad just because we are too impatient to wait?

I made nettle soup this week. I lost myself in the whole process of picking the nettles, and washing them gently whilst protecting my hands from their nasty stings with a pair of gardening gloves. I removed the stalks and placed the delicate leaves in the pan, their vivid green  beauty promising a filling, healthy and earth- scented meal.

So, if you can pick some now, when they are at their best, you will benefit from a super cheap, seasonally right, earthy soup that nourishes you, both nutritionally and emotionally. It is surprisingly filling and the quantities in my recipe are enough to feed four as a main meal accompanied by some crusty grained bread.

Revel in the process, be in the moment, experiment with ingredients, garnish with something pretty,  and enjoy every slow, conscious mouthful.

NETTLE SOUP

Ingredients:

Four or five large handfuls of fresh stinging nettles

rapeseed oil

a chopped onion

1-2 chopped garlic cloves

a large chopped potato

a litre or so of vegetable stock

salt and pepper

a pinch of nutmeg

a swirl of cream

Wearing gardening or rubber gloves, pick four or five large handfuls of nettles. The first five or six newer leaves from the top of the plant are the ones to go for.

Wash them a few times in the sink and cut the leaves off the stalk.

Soften the onion in oil in a large deep casserole pan, making sure you don’t brown it.  Add the garlic and potato and mix well. Saute the ingredients for around 10 minutes.

Add about a litre of vegetable stock (I use the reduced salt Marigiold Swiss vegetable bouillon powder) and let everything gently heat through before adding the prepared nettles. Cook for around half an hour, until the potato is soft. You can add more stock if the mixture looks too thick. Add salt and pepper to taste, allow to cool before blitzing in a food processor.

If, like me, you need to be aesthetically pleased, serve your soup in pretty antique bowls and eat with silver plated soup spoons- it will simply taste better!

Enjoy!

An era of excess

We seem to be in the midst of an era of excess that is making us reflect on the importance of  wellbeing.  Advances in medical research mean that we know a great deal about the causes of physical and emotional diseases such as obesity, diabetes, strokes, heart disease, stress and loneliness. Our knowledge is vast, and is evidence- based; we understand the methodology of prevention, YET ironically, we are seeing unprecedented  levels of most of these diseases on a global scale.  It seems as though we are self-sabotaging, testing our luck, convinced that our health issues must be the fault of others. We blame the fast food companies with their incessant marketing that takes advantage of our vulnerability and seeming inability to resist temptation, we put it down to the omnipresence of sugar-rich foods and drinks that are presented to us in glossy advertising campaigns as the harbingers of the perfect life we all crave.

 

We cannot blame anyone for the state of our health. It is for us to manage.

 

The mind tells us we need to feel secure. Our memories of the first few years of our lives when our parents, especially our mothers, nurtured and held us, stay with us forever. According to experts, it is apparently this memory that everyone wishes to hold onto in life. Of course, sadly,  we know that many people do not  necessarily experience this period in a positive way.  Some of us may have parents who were unable to show us love, possibly because they were physically or mentally unwell during our first few years, or unable to cope with the responsibility of being parents. If something  caused them to be distracted from nurturing us, we may  never have been given the crucial experience of early life security.

The huge hole that is left needs to be filled, and constantly topped up.  We feel emptiness is not good in every sphere of our lives,  be it in our hearts, in our fridges or in our stomachs. If this emotional need for security  is not met through healthy, loving, fulfilling relationships with others, we may try and find it through food. Many people with health issues caused by overeating explain that they began to eat excessive amounts at a time when they felt lonely, hurt, unloved and depressed.

The current media reports about the huge rise in childhood obesity, the rise in strokes in younger people, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (caused by overeating the wrong foods)  are alarming;  we need to take action now, while the stories are fresh in the public’s minds. We must act by removing the easy access to sugar -rich snacks and drinks;  vending machines filled with drinks, chocolates and sweets should not be seen in school tuck shops, and sports halls, in public swimming pools, and especially in hospitals.  The message must be clear, these foods should not be seen as  part of our everyday diets, but rather as an occasional addition.

However, I believe that this is not the whole picture. If we are taught how to manage our eating habits,  this may work well for a time. What we require  in equal measure are the tools to calm the mind, to see beyond the emptiness we feel,  to accept what is, and avoid blaming others.  We must learn how  to take back the control of our own health, rise above any adversity we may have experienced as children or young adults, and forgive those who perhaps for all kinds of reasons, were unable to give us the emotional foundation we all need in order to make the correct nutrition and lifestyle choices.

Ayurvedic medicine knew thousands of years ago the causes, symptoms and treatment for sthula ( obesity). Eating too much madhura (sweet) food, is stated in the Ayurvedic texts  as the main cause, and is in itself a sign of Kapha vitiation. Symptoms are seen not only as excess folds  of fat on the body, but also in the colour and texture  of the skin, excessive sweating, lethargy, sleepiness, attachment, heaviness, depression. Nothing new has been idenitfied today regarding obesity, in fact, experts are now stating that eating the wrong foods is the primary cause, more so than lack of exercise.

Reasoning is the gift in  human beings that sets us apart from other animals. We seem to be losing this ability when it comes to our wellbeing. If we act now, and acknowledge we are in a precarious situation regarding our health,  we can move into a new era of balanced living that will benefit us individually and collectively.

Holisitcally speaking

Ayurvedic medicine offers a totally holistic approach to health, where mind, body and consciousness are viewed as equal aspects of our being.  Nutrition and lifestyle choices affect us in every way, but it is their qualities that are important. Everything we eat and drink, every thought we have, every activity we choose,  every relationship we have, can be medicinal or toxic!

If we understand the principles  of the doshas ( vata, pitta and kapha), we can then begin to see how these work harmoniously when they are maintained in the correct proportions in our body, but equally how they can become antagonistic when they are vitiated.

Each of us has a unique constitution- type made up of different proportions of the three doshas, with one or two of them generally being more dominant. This can be seen in our body types, our personalities, our relationships and emotions, the foods we like and dislike, the hobbies and lifestyles we are drawn to – in fact, in every aspect of our lives.

An important Ayurvedic theory which helps us to understand self-healing is that all substances, organic and inorganic, and all thoughts and actions, have definite attributes or qualities, which contain potential energy. (These are known as gunas ). They are categorised as ten opposite pairs, for example, hot and cold, heavy and light, sharp and dull.  Vata, pitta and kapha each have their own collection of qualities. Vata  (Ether and Air) can be described as cold, dry, rough, mobile, subtle and clear. Pitta  (Fire and Water) similarly, can be described as hot, sharp, light, liquid, mobile and slightly oily. Finally, kapha  (Water and Earth) has qualities that are heavy, slow (dull), cold, oily, liquid, slimy (smooth), dense, soft, static and sticky.  These qualities express the nature of a substance in its static state. The potential energy of a substance becomes an action when the substance is transformed chemically.  For example, food and its qualities are altered during digestion.  A ripe mango undergoes chemical changes to become ripe, and thus its qualities are altered. When water is boiled, it becomes steam.

According to Ayurveda, the universe can be viewed as the interaction of opposite attributes, and human beings, as the microcosmic replica of the macrocosm that is the universe. The method of disease management  is based on the principle that ‘like increases like’, and opposites decrease each other. What is seen in the qualities of our external environment is seen to increase the same qualities in us,  or decrease the opposite qualities in us. Likewise, the qualities in the food we eat, and our actions, follow the same principle.  The following simple example shows our innate understanding of what is good for us:

On a cold , windy day (the external qualities of cold, light, mobile, rough), we do not usually crave the same qualities in our food, we tend to desire the opposite. So, one would choose a warm, thick, earthy soup (hot, heavy/grounding, and smooth) over an ice cream ( cold).  One would want to wrap up in a warm coat and would long for a hot bath.

When they are in balance, the doshas promote positive qualities, but out of balance, they become negative in their effects.  Vata  in balance is creative, flexible, light, happy and joyful, but out of balance, it is fearful, anxious, indecisive, flighty. Pitta in balance is intelligent,  promotes learning and understanding , but out of balance  it is fiery, angry, hateful and critical. Finally, Kapha in balance promotes calm, forgiveness, love and harmony, but when it is vitiated, it causes grief, envy, attachment  and greed.  Occasionally, we all experience health imbalances due to vitiation of the doshas. This is normal and does not necessarily pose a health threat as a  one-off event, but if we leave the imbalance untreated, we invite disease.

Ayurveda is a medicine system aimed at prevention of disease through the concept of self management and awareness,  and this concept is the key that will open the door to the next era of healthcare in the modern world.  We have exhausted the possibilities of the current paradigm of healthcare, which has seen the National Health Service  used as a mother figure, tending to her millions of sick offspring, with wise words of comfort. In every other sphere of life, we are encouraged to be the masters of our own destiny. We learn about choices regarding schools for our children,  buying our homes,  our careers, and finances.  Why are we not also encouraged to manage our own health?  We should all learn to do so, and from a young age,  so that it becomes second nature. This would surely lift the burden we have placed on the NHS and allow it to function as a support system , rather like a kind aunt or godmother, available to us during absolutely crucial times of need, rather than as the mother we repeatedly offload our often self induced health issues on,  in the hope that she will instantly fix us.

We have a growing population that is living longer, but longevity is surely only desirable if it is achieved with our health still mainly intact?  By learning how to balance the qualities of foods, actions and thoughts with which we feed our bodies and minds, we can look foward to  healthier old age. The process of growing older is natural and  should not be seen as a disease that needs treating, or as a stage of life when we have to accept that  endless medical intervention is inevitable.  It should be a time of contentment  and reflection,  a time to enjoy the fruits of life’s labours, to spend quality time with family and friends and to be able to remain healthy protagonists, not ailing spectators, in our life story.

Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurveda is the oldest complete medicine system known to man.  Its foundations were established by the ancient and sophisticated  Vedic civilisation that promoted living by certain principles to ensure a balance of mind, body and spirit. There are still a few original Ayurvedic textbooks in existence, such as the Charaka Samhita, written by the Ayurvedic sage, Charaka. The book fully explains the causes, signs, symptoms and treatment of many diseases such as  Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes! It is amazing just how much they knew about causes of disease thousands of years ago!  The Charaka Samhita is an essential text for students of Ayurveda.

According to Ayurveda, the universe is an interaction of the energies of 5 elements- space, air, fire, water and earth, which in turn are grouped into three simple functional principles that are present in everyone and everything in varying degrees.  These principles, called doshas , are vata – (movement and change), pitta (transformation and metabolism) and kapha (structure and fluidity).  They work together to maintain the body’s functions and the health of the tissues.  We are all born with a unique combination  and proportion of doshas of the body (dosha prakruti) which determine our physical constitution, and similarly  we are all  born with a combination of doshas of the mind (manas prakruti).  These determine our mental constitution and are known as sattva (clarity, love, and compassion), rajas (selfishness, restlessness) and tamas (inertia, sadness, depression).

As long as the doshas as normal in quality and quantity, they maintain harmony of the body and mind, but the moment they go out of balance, they impair the tissues (dhatus),  inviting  potential disease.