Staying at an ashram in the Himalayas taught me a lot about eating. Not just the food itself, but how and why we eat the way we do, and the impact on our emotions and bodies. In the run up to my trip, I read on the ashram’s website that they follow a ‘Sattvic’ diet. I had no idea what that meant, but the list of no-no’s seemed to be a yogic approach: no meat, fish, alcohol or coffee, very little dairy – until we got to no spices, garlic or onions. That struck me as odd – how ‘bad’ could they be? But it seemed a minor detail as I was in the throes of jabs, malaria pills, what to pack and how to actually get there. I was ready to embrace ashram life (living in basic accommodation, spartan eating, sharing the chores….). Even so, alarm bells did ring a little when a previous student (I was going to do the same yoga Teacher Training programme at the ashram) emailed to say she’d been hungry most of the time she was there. With two big yoga sessions a day, no wonder. She advised me to pack my favourite snacks and I duly lined my case with trail mix, 9 Bars and Green & Black’s.
The word diet in the Western world has come to mean weight loss. Having worked on glossy magazines for years, I cringe, but know only too well the selling power of a ‘lose half a stone in a week’ cover line. It pushes our buttons because, let’s face it, many of us do over eat and need (or more often want) to shed a few pounds. Trouble is, modish quick fixes promise a lot and deliver little and we end up back where we started or worse.
Practising yoga has put me more in touch with my appetite and what my body needs, giving me an ‘eat and enjoy everything in moderation’ approach. The only thing I have cut out of my diet is meat. This was no dramatic statement – it just happened because it felt right. About 12 years ago, I went on a serious detox involving waking up to a tablespoon of olive oil, taking psyllium husk, sipping pressed apple juice in between colonics and no solid food for 4 days. It was worth it – the after effects were enlightening. I’d never felt so ‘clean’ from the inside. I managed to cut out sugar, sticking to pure whole foods for a while, and haven’t wanted to eat meat since. So I wasn’t afraid of the ashram diet (backed up with my own supplies!) and was looking forward to the complete change of eating habits I was sure it would bring.
My first taste of authentic Indian yogic fare was on arrival at the ashram, being offered steaming hot spicy milky chai tea served in a finger-searing tiny metal cup (the opposite to huge Starbucks-style bucket like vessels). Much needed after an 8 hour white knuckle jeep ride along an unmade road round the mountains, I greedily drank it down. Already enjoying the peace of the place right next to the clear running water of the Ganges, little did I realise the tea – served twice a day (7.30am and 1.30pm) from now on – would become a high point of the daily routine.
Days began at 5am with morning meditation and chanting (known as Satsang) on an empty stomach. We savoured the bite-sized sweet treat, an offering at the end of Puja, the prayer-like ritual practised morning and evening. As someone used to big breakfasts and a morning coffee, I’d be gasping for the first chai of the day which fuelled morning yoga. Still, no-breakfast was easy to get used to and makes sense, as anyone who’s ever tried to do Sun Salutations on a full stomach knows. Brunch at 10am was the biggest meal, with a lighter supper at 6pm. Made on site from local ingredients, the food was fresh but without any pepper, spices, little salt never mind garlic and onions, completely bland. A simple formula of dhal, rice, chapati, vegetable in various combinations, mostly unappetising. That’s what Sattvic is. No stimulation, nothing to feed your senses or get the fire in your belly going. The thinking being to keep the body calm for meditation, good sleep, and fresh in the mornings for yoga. It works. Any time I guiltily snacked on my stash, or had extra cups of tea, it did disturb my concentration, upset my digestion or made me feel stiff, struggling that bit more in my postures. People who ‘ate out’ on the one day off a week usually ended up sick.
But the biggest shock was the ritual of mealtimes: having to chant, say prayers and sit in silence. In the first week, I couldn’t wait to get out of the dining hall, couldn’t stand the smell of the food, let alone look at it, and hated the fact that it would be cold by the time we actually ate it. There seemed to be no joy in eating – and, as an adult, I’d got used to eating my choice of good and tasty food as a form of socialising and recreation and to make me feel good. I realised eating the ashram way brought up memories of school dinner halls, being institutionalised, controlled and forced to eat things I didn’t want to. I battled with this big time, then had a miraculous turnaround. Suddenly, I could see that I was behaving like a child. Once I relaxed into the routine, singing endless rounds of ‘Hari Krishna’ while meals were dished up put a smile on my face. I allowed myself to focus on the moment, to notice and take my time to savour the food without judging it on appearance. I started to love it. Later, someone told me the answer the Dalai Lama gave to the question ‘What is your favourite meal?’. He said, the one in front of me when I’m hungry. It summed up the lesson I’d learned. Free from the usual cultural conditioning, emotional and social reasons for eating, I came back filled with energy and lightness (a combination of the disciplined eating, plus meditation, yoga and breathing). I’m working at keeping that feeling whilst allowing myself to enjoy food my way. Seems to me a very yogic and balanced approach.