That night as we drive home, my husband cops an earful about his driving. I have a cold shower but still feel hot and sweaty afterwards. I'm more impatient with my kids as I put them to bed. I'm unsettled and agitated but eventually fall asleep.
I dream of billowing red clouds in the distance. Looking around I notice I'm standing in the doorway of my house, and that the crimson clouds are emanating from nearby houses which are being engulfed by a bushfire. I look behind me and realise that my home, too is on fire. I am trapped with my husband and children and think "this is the end" until a bunch of firefighters kick the door down.
That's what you get when you load a pitta meal onto a pitta person! According to Ayurveda, my constitution is predominantly pitta, or hot: my mind is sharp (as can be my tongue), my build is medium, I put on muscle quite easily, and when threatened my temper can flare. Ayurveda would say that my heat-increasing indulgences increased the natural heat in my pitta constitution and lead to hot conditions “erupting” in my body and emotions.
Even whilst knowing that my pitta body and mind respond in a certain way when I eat spicy food, I will continue to eat spicy food for the rest of my life as I absolutely love it.
THE PITFALLS OF following AYURVEDA & TCM DIETS
They happen to closely mirror what I feel like eating during certain seasons and certain life stages. Another example is how the TCM principles I followed in my postpartum Golden Month were easy to follow because they were pretty much what I felt like eating anyway: cooked stews, warming herbs and spices, and hot teas. These principles served me well and I came out of my fourth trimester feeling stronger than ever.
Of all the dietary philosophies, I like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the best.
But without the backdrop of intuitive eating - without a solid foundation of attuned, embodied self-awareness - these ancient and potentially helpful philosophies can easily become just another dietary dogma.
When we bring the same mindset to Ayurveda or TCM as we have to modern mainstream diets, positioning its tenets over and above our body’s intelligence, we outsource our dietary autonomy, neglecting the innate wisdom of our body.
We reduce these ancient systems to lists of do and don't foods. We reduce ourselves to pitta, kapha, or vata rather than complex, ever-changing, dynamically evolving human beings. We shut down personal exploration and are lulled into the false sense of security that being categorised as, and identifying with, one of the doshas brings.
We risk using these philosophies against ourselves as just another weapon of diet culture.
When Ancient systems and Diet Culture Collide
These systems must be used wisely otherwise they become the "Don't Eat Before 12pm" diet.
Or the "I must never eat dairy because I'm Kapha and milk will make me phlegmy" diet.
I've come across people with disordered eating tendencies who layer restrictive dietary philosophies one atop another, so that they end up being vegan, low FODMAP and they believe can't eat before 12pm due to their Ayurvedic constitution. This is all terribly restrictive, stressful, unhealthy, unnecessary, and certainly not the best use of these ancient wisdom systems.
Ayurveda and TCM are humoral systems of medicine, which originated in the sociocultural and historical context of India and China respectively. They evolved over thousands of years from empirical observations by the learned and wise people of the time, of how various factors - including but not limited to diet - affected mental and physical health.
We must remember that the genetic blueprint of a multi-cultural individual living in a global world in 2018 where gene pools are more varied than ever, is going to be different from an Indian person living 3000 years ago whose family had not left their town of origin for generations.
This doesn't mean that Ayurvedic tenets are totally irrelevant in this day and age, just that a degree of discernment is required when approaching them. I believe that discernment comes with the practice of intuitive eating.
And as previously mentioned, without the backdrop of intuitive eating - without a solid foundation of attuned, embodied self-awareness - these philosophies can easily become just another dietary dogma. Especially in the hands of those who already have disordered eating patterns.
How to incorporate Ayurveda or TCM principles wisely
For someone who has dieted for a long time, or for someone who is coming from an upbringing where lack of resources, education or location did not allow them to eat intuitively, Ayurveda and TCM can support you in beginning to understand why, say, certain foods - like a warm stew with grainy bread - feel nourishing during cooler months, and others - like a green smoothie on ice - just leave you cold, unsettled, hungry... and possibly bloated and gassy.
To get the most benefit from these traditions there is usually an initial learning curve, where you use your senses to decide whether dairy really is phlegm-forming for you, or whether or not avoiding curries really does make you feel calmer when you're a pitta constitution.
When used with wisdom, Ayurveda - or TCM - can be doorways into intuitive eating. These systems offer concepts and ideas to experiment with, and can provide you with the courage needed to depart from diet culture tenets like "eat mostly raw salads".
They can help you to curiously explore whether or not a concept applies to you. But first, you must get into your body.
The safest and healthiest way to incorporate Ayurveda or TCM principles is to first get into your body. That is where I try to start first and foremost because that is not an easy place for most people to be in. From a young age diet culture seeks to wipe out our ability to eat intuitively, and it continues throughout every stage of our lives, especially if you're a woman or identify as femme.
A change of weather or a turn in seasons is a perfect time to practice intuitive eating. The wisdom philosophies of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine offer an elemental understanding of why your body might be craving heavier, warmer foods at the cooler times of the year (we're not meant to subsist on salads and green juice all year round, despite what diet culture and Women's Health magazine tells us!).
But your body is the result of millennia of generations of ancestors who practiced seasonal and attuned eating long before it became a "thing". The wisdom traditions are just back up for those who have forgotten.
For a step by step introductory series to get you started with Intuitive Eating, click here.
This is Part 2 of our series on Ayurveda, TCM and intuitive eating. Read Part 1 here.