Nature Therapy

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 12.05.32 PM.png

Nature therapy in Rocky Mountain National Park

Nature Therapy

Nature therapy is an important part of Ayurvedic teachings, but one often under-emphasized because at the time the texts were written, human life was still interwoven with the natural environment. Lets take a few minutes to consider how nature therapy can play a part in our self-care.

The average American spends only 7% of their time outdoors, with the rest of their time being indoors or in their automobile. Given that some of the outdoor time is just walking in the parking lot, that doesn't give much time for nature. Even children nowadays spend only about half an hour a day outside, while nursing home residents are typically outside for only minutes a week. Often our vision of 'exercising' is to drive to the gym, exchanging one indoor environment for another. Another popular form of exercise is mall walking. In an indoor mall you don't have to worry about heat, cold, rain or mountain lions. But you also don't get any sunlight, fresh air or nature.

Ayurveda places various aspects of nature therapy among shamanam, or pacification of doshas as well as among rutucharya or seasonal routines. Some of the important ways to calm down disturbed doshas and remove toxins include maruta seva or 'taking the air' and atapa seva or sunbathing. We can practice taking the air by strolling, sitting on the porch or patio or spending time in a park or garden. Sun therapy can be as simple as making sure we get a twenty minute walk in daylight during the winter months, or sitting in a pleasant, sunny corner for a cup of tea. Doing yoga outdoors, especially sun salutations, is highly recommended for both sunlight and taking the air. When Sadananda and I are on vacation, a favourite part of each day is chi gong outside. Some of my happiest memories of each place we have visited involve chi gong in the garden or park!

The classical Ayurvedic text Ashtanga Hridayam spells out types of nature therapy for each season. In winter the author, Vagbhat, recommends getting sunlight whenever possible without becoming too chilled. As spring arrives, more time outdoors is recommended. "Spend the middle of the day in forests, parks or gardens with cool breezes, lakes and ponds and filtered sunlight, enjoying the sound of the cuckoo and the beauty and fragrance of flowers." There are no cuckoos here in Colorado, but the sound of the mountain chickadee is equally thrilling. And just lately it has been so refreshing in our garden and as we stroll the neighbourhood--all the beauty and fragrance of lilac, iris, and the pungent sweetness of chokecherry blossoms as well.

In summer, picnics are a recommended self-care activity. "Daytime should be spent in forests with tall trees reaching the sky, obstructing the hot rays of the sun." Extra outdoor time can be gained by sleeping on a terrace or back patio, with good exposure to the cooling rays of the moon. And on warm autumn evenings, Vagbhat encourages us to sit on the terrace or porch, dressed in white and enjoying the moonlight.

While getting into deep nature in forests and mountains is ideal, it may not be feasible on a daily basis. Tending your own garden--or even patio garden--is a readily accessible form of nature therapy, as well as walking in a park or strolling through neighbourhoods enjoying other people's gardens. Songbirds delight us in residential areas and we can use bird feeders and the like to encourage them. At Alandi we eat outdoors on the porch or lawn whenever the weather permits--gaining a double benefit by combining mealtime with outdoor time.

How can you increase your time in nature? Can you bring a lunch to work and eat it in the park instead of sitting in a restaurant? Can you start a garden or help with a friend's garden? Can you add outdoor walking to your exercise routine? Soothing and refreshing, nature therapy is a great way to stay in balance.

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 2.49.55 PM.png

Aroma of propolis, beeswax, honey
Mingles with lilac and iris
Fragrant May garden!

P1070622.jpg

Scroll down for recipe

It's early Friday evening, April 24th, and I'm cooking for Shabbat. I carefully and mindfully prepare Armenian Squash Soup while listening to the BBC World Service talking about the Armenian Genocide and the Gallipoli campaign. One hundred years ago today, the Armenian Genocide began, with the murder of 800 Armenian leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople, followed by the forced removal and deportation of Armenians. As many as 1.5 million Armenian civilians are believed to have died--many of them little children.

I start the chickpeas in the pressure cooker and begin cubing a squash from Munson Family Farms as I listen and reflect. The moment the Armenian Genocide first came to my awareness is unforgettable. It was 1971 and I was in the cafeteria at St Barts Hospital Medical College. We students liked to mix and mingle at the lunch tables. That day, a strikingly beautiful young woman with almond eyes and long, dark hair came to sit with me. "My name is Katherine in English, but at home I'm Gadarine. You see, I'm Armenian." At once a great sadness came over her beautiful face and her large, brilliant eyes clouded. Without further preamble, she said "We suffered a genocide in 1915." As a descendent of Ashkenazic Jews, I could understand her pain. We suffered the event for which the word genocide was coined.

I wash and chop the green pepper, wondering what was the most striking and unforgettable aspect of my first encounter with Gadarine. Was it the fact that, despite having taken A Level history, I had never before heard of this catastrophe? Or was it that, more than half a century later, this was the first thing my new friend wanted to tell me about? The power of her testimony, to an event her grandparents lived through, impressed me so deeply that I have felt close to Armenians and their tragedy ever since. So I decided to make an Armenian recipe today as an act of solidarity and remembrance.

P1070615.jpg

While the chickpeas were cooking, I chopped and assembled the other ingredients

P1070617.jpg

Then added them to the pot and simmered them.

Armenian Squash Soup

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 1cup chickpeas
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 1/2 - 2 quarts water or vegetable broth

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 chopped tomatoes

  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 
2 1/2 lb. winter squash, washed and cubed (about 1" pieces)

  • 1 green pepper, cut in 1" pieces

  • Aleppo pepper to taste

  • 2 tablespoons dried, crushed mint leaves

  • 1.5 Tbsp olive oil

Directions

Pressure cook chickpeas for an hour. Add salt, squash, tomatoes, tomato paste, pepper and lemon juice. Fry the garlic in a little of the olive oil and add. Simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour, until squash is soft. Heat olive oil in small pan. When hot add crushed mint. Blend. Pour on top of soup. Enjoy!

Serving suggestion: Serve with Armenian Cashew Rice Pilaf

P1070619.jpg

Royal Rice.JPG

A traditional Ayurvedic meal featuring Royal Rice

Resistant starch (RS) is the latest buzzword in glycaemic control, prebiotic support for our microbiome and improved fatty acid metabolism. How does this hot new topic relate to the ancient teachings of Ayurveda?

In this article we will consider:

  • What is resistant starch?
  • What are the different types of resistant starch?
  • How does resistant starch help us?
  • What kind of resistant starch is best for me?
  • How does it feature in an Ayurvedic diet?
  • Should I worry about resistant starch?

As some of you know, my watchword is: eventually the latest research will 'prove' controversial teachings of Ayurveda to be correct. Resistant starch is one such example, as you will see.

What is resistant starch?

Resistant starch is starch that is resistant to digestion by small bowel enzymes. As such it acts as part of our dietary fibre, passing into the large intestine and being fermented by our gut microbes. Note the word fermented here. If we introduce too much resistant starch too fast, or the wrong kind for our particular microbiome (aka agni type), we will get gas--and Ayurveda takes gas seriously as a symptom of vata buildup.

What are the different types of resistant starch?

There are four main types:

  • Type I is found in seeds, beans and whole grains and is resistant because it is encapsulated. The Ayurvedic diet is full of this type of resistant starch.
  • Type II is inherently resistant due to its amylose content. Green bananas, raw potato starch and raw plantains fall into this category (but could be very vata disturbing).
  • Type III is formed when we cook and cool starchy foods. This type of resistant starch is thankfully not destroyed when the food is re-heated--in fact it may even increase. (That's a mercy, because we don't want you to eat cold food!)
  • Type IV barely deserves a mention as it is a chemically modified high amylose industrial corn product, which we definitely don't recommend.

How does resistant starch help us?

  • Resistant starch feeds our gut microbiome, the key factor in good health.
  • Resistant starch is beneficial for glycaemic control, lowering the postprandial glucose spike--or in plain English, it helps your blood sugar not to spike up after meals. Foods with more resistant starch are considered as having a lower glycaemic index than foods with less resistant starch.
  • Regular intake of resistant starch improves insulin sensitivity.
  • Resistant starch improves fatty acid metabolism.
  • Resistant starch lowers appetite.

What kind of resistant starch is best for me?

Read this carefully--there are a lot of people who want to sell you a product with the buzzword 'resistant starch.' Probably the different types of resistant starch would have different effect on the microbiome, but the research on this isn't done yet. But Ayurveda tells us that we need 'different strokes for different folks.'

  • If you are kapha prakriti, try to meet your RS needs with type I sources. Quinoa and cooked buckwheat groats are brilliant sources of resistant starch that will best suit your metabolic type, as well as some whole beans and some seeds. If you are on our Diabetes Prevention diet, make sure to include these foods on a regular basis to help your gut bacteria and glycaemcic control.
  • If you are vata prakriti, your digestion is more delicate and you are more gas-prone. It's fine to have some Type I RS to the extent that you can tolerate it, but you can also support your microbiome with Ayurvedically prepared Type III RS. And in a few minutes I'll tell you how to make that!
  • If you are pitta and have really strong digestive fire, you might want to try including green banana in your diet! But many of us pittas are quite delicate and probably would do well with a combination of Type I and Type III RS.

How does RS feature in an Ayurvedic diet?

As it turns out, Ayurveda has come up with ancient agricultural and culinary techniques that create Type III and IV RS using the basic food--rice. A new, hot off the press Sri Lankan study recently presented at 249th ACS National Meeting & Exposition in Denver, CO has served only to illustrate the advantages of these traditional techniques. Here are some highlights:

  • Traditional rice varieties like basmati rice and Bhutanese red rice have higher levels of RS and are inherently lower glycaemic than new and 'improved' varieties.
  • Parboiled rice--a traditional Indian rice processing technique--contains more RS. and hence a lower glycaemic index.
  • Traditional cooking methods create more RS in rice. For example, pilaf rice and fried rice have more RS than boiled or steamed rice.
  • In the Sri Lankan study, rice was cooked the traditional Sri Lankan way, then cooled for 12 hours in the refrigerator, with an increase in RS. This increase was not reversed by re-heating the rice. And this is important because rice can be a source of botulism and should either be eaten fresh or heated up thoroughly.

How to Make:

Lower glycaemic rice: boil the rice in extra water until it begins to fluff up. Then drain, rinse, add new water and finish cooking. This simple method lowers the glycaemic index of rice.

Yellow Rice: Adding turmeric to your rice will lower the blood sugar spike from eating rice.

Sri Lankan high RS rice: Start with a traditional and ideally a parboiled rice. Wash thoroughly and soak for an hour. Then cook the rice with a teaspoon or two of coconut oil. This should help increase the amylose in the rice--and it's delicious and traditional. After cooking the rice on the stovetop for 40 minutes, oven-dry it in a low oven for a couple of hours. Now refrigerate the rice for use the next day. Steam or better still fry it before you eat it. Voilà--higher RS rice!

Should I worry about Resistant Starch?

  • If you are on a standard American diet, (SAD) you're not getting enough RS. But then, you are not getting enough of many nutrients. So instead of adding commercial RS to your deficent diet, why not start eating an Ayurvedic diet of whole grains, beans, vegetables, nuts, seeds and healthy oils?
  • If you are on a Paleo diet, you should worry about RS because you're probably not getting enough. Bear in mind that your microbiome is totally different from that of a hunter-gatherer who never tasted sugar or refined flour and never had any exposure to antibiotics.
  • If you are on an Ayurvedic diet, rest assured that our ancient sages have already featured plenty of RS into your diet, as long as you adhere to traditional foods, traditionally prepared.

Yoga for the Mind

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

The_Delivery_of_the_Bhagavad_Gita.jpg

Perform action, Arjuna, established in yoga, renouncing attachments and even-minded in success and failure--yoga is equilibrium. Bhagavad Gita, Ch 2 v 48.

'I wonder what he thinks of me?' 'Did I get a good grade?' 'Why didn't I get that promotion?' 'His car is newer than mine.' 'I wish I were as pretty as her.' 'One day I'll have as much money as him.' For most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, internal dialogue of this kind is constantly going on. Our mind analyzes our successes and failures, judging and comparing, planning and fearing for the future. Yet as Bob Dylan reminds us, in Love Minus Zero/No Limit:

Some speak of the future

My love she speaks softly

She knows there's no success like failure

And that failure's no success at all.

All our judging, comparing, analyzing, hoping and fearing creates a state of constant stress and anxiety. So next we want to relieve our anxiety by doing some yoga. And yoga postures, or asanas, offer excellent stress-relief. Yet yoga is far more than a workout, an exercise program, a sport or a hobby. Yoga means to yoke the mind--to yoke the small self who runs around worrying to the Self that never changes. This is yoga for the mind. Bhagavad Gita, the conversation between Arjuna, representing the individual self, and Krishna, representing the changeless Self, is the instructional manual of yoga for the mind. Krishna, the charioteer, is the yoga teacher, Arjuna the perplexed yoga student, and the yoga studio is dharmakshetra, the battlefield of everyday life.

To use the owner's manual to the mind that Gita provides, you first have to appreciate what model of psyche you are driving in this life. Krishna offers not just one but three distinctive methods of yoga for the mind, suited to individuals of different temperaments. These temperaments are described in Ayurveda as vata, pitta and kapha prakriti. The vata individual has an airy, spacey nature and a lot of mental activity. Vata's mind is constantly on the move, thinking, fantasizing and philosophizing. So vata needs to train the mind through the yoga of wisdom and the path of meditation. The pitta person has a fiery nature, high ideals and plenty of ambition. Pitta is always busy with so many important things. The pitta person is a person of action. So pitta needs to train their mind through the yoga of action and the path of work. And the kapha type has a watery and earthy nature and is sentimental and caring. Kapha is loving and loyal but gets deeply attached and possessive. So kapha needs to train their mind through the yoga of devotion and the path of love. Now let us take a look at each of these yogas in more detail.

The yoga of wisdom is known in Sanskrit as jnana yoga. The essence of this path is to separate the unreal from the real.

The unreal never is; the Real never is not.

This truth indeed has been seen by this who see the True. Gita 2 16

It is our inability to distinguish the real from the unreal, the ephemeral from the permanent that causes us immense stress and worry. We all desire happiness, yet when we cannot distinguish what is real and true, unhappiness is bound to follow. We seek our happiness in things that cannot last forever, rather that being anchored in the changeless happiness of our true nature. In his famous poem Adonais, Shelley writes:

The One remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

Until Death tramples it to fragments. -- Die,

If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

Shelley, meditating on the death of his dear friend Keats, points to death as the opportunity to awaken 'from the dream of life.' Yet we can also awaken from the dream while still very much alive, through the path of meditation. Just as we like to have a nice yoga mat for our asanas, we begin our practice of the yoga of wisdom by creating a special place to meditate. When possible, we can meditate out of doors in a beautiful and peaceful spot. But we can also create a special meditation spot in our home. If we have enough space, we can designate a room for meditation; otherwise, we can set up a special corner or even fix up a large closet as a 'cave'. Meditating regularly in the same space is a support for our practice. Our meditation seat should be made of natural fibers. Bhagavad Gita suggests grass, deerskin and a cloth cover. I like to practice on a felt rug; others may prefer a cotton zabuton and zafu. Use your special seat only for meditation.

Next, we need to take our seat correctly, sitting with a straight back and neck. Krishna in Bhagavad Gita suggests meditating with open eyes, gaze directed to the tip of the nose, while other lineages and traditions recommend closing the eyes gently. Engaging in the yoga of wisdom is easier said than done. Not just our practice time, but our whole lifestyle needs to be designed to support awakening. If we overeat or don't sleep enough, we will be dull and sleepy in our meditation practice. If we don't eat enough, or over-stimulate ourselves, our mind will be agitated and will not settle. Throughout the day, it is important to attend to a lifestyle that is balanced and supports our meditation practice.

Even for Arjuna, a great warrior and Krishna'sclosest friend, the yoga of wisdom sounds daunting at first.

O Krishna, the mind is so restless, turbulent, strong and obstinate.

Trying to control the mind is like trying to gather the wind! Gita 6 34

The answer is to have great patience and never give up. Little by little, step-by-step, one practice session at a time, the mind becomes less turbulent and we inch closer to the goal of the yoga of wisdom--a mind like a lamp in a windless place, never flickering away from the knowledge of the Real.

Karma yoga, or the yoga of action, is essentially about carrying out all our activities without feeling, 'I am the doer.' So often our mind gets caught up in our activities and the results we expect to see in terms of fame, wealth and reputation. Our energy is being drained in pursuit of results that are at best temporary.

As a young woman, I spent a year working eighty hours a week as a junior doctor in a country hospital--on call night and day. I was in charge of men's ward, women's ward, coronary care, intensive care and emergency room. Whenever I sat for meditation, either I became sleepy or my beeper rang. From there I spent a year and a half in an enclosed contemplative abbey. I worked very hard there too, growing vegetables to feed thirty nuns and getting up before three in the morning to chant psalms. Finally I was a reunciant in India with 'nothing' to do--nothing except pounding my clothes on a rock in the river every day and walking miles along hot, dusty roads to get a bowl of rice or a cup of water. I saw that in all these varied conditions of life I was engaged in action and that my contemplative practice also flowed through these different lifestyles.

He who sees the inaction that is in action and the action in inaction,

He is the wise person, the yogi, the all-accomplishing. Gita 4 18

I also experienced a great revelation when I left the abbey. As a doctor I was quite indispensible. Yet when I re-emerged after eighteen months in seclusion, I saw clearly that everyone had been perfectly fine without me! I was not the doer. Various actions flowed trough me, be they suturing lacerations or moving molehills or scrubbing a sari. These actions did not change or affect who I really am. And so it was that on the hot and dusty roads of central India, I learnt the yoga of action. Do the duty that comes your way without caring about the fruits-- in terms of gain and loss.

Renouncing the fruits of our actions does not give us license to do our actions in a careless or half-hearted way. When we perform any action for its own sake rather than for a result, the action itself requires our full attention and must be done with utmost excellence. As Bhagavad Gita says, 'Yoga is skill in action.'

As we come to bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, we move from the head and hands to the heart. Nowadays we view the heart and mind as separate, but in ancient times the heart was seen as the seat of the mind. So bhakti yoga is yoga for the mind--the heart-mind. Like karma yoga, bhakti yoga can be practiced throughout our daily life.

Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give

Whatever austerity you practice, do this, O Arjuna, as an offering to Me. Gita 9 27

This simple practice of 'offering it up,' as we used to say in the abbey, imbues all our daily actions with the radiance of devotion. This path is considered as the Royal Road or the king's highway. The metaphor here refers to the fact that other roads are narrow, winding and circuitous, whereas the king's highway is broad and straight. In contemporary language, we might say that bhakti yoga is an expressway. No education or qualifications are needed for this easy type of yoga for the mind. We can practice bhakti yoga when we sit up at night with a sick child, stand in front of a classroom or clean up after an elderly incontinent parent. We can also practice while we enjoy a concert or make love to our beloved. Remembering that the person we are serving, enjoying or relating to is simply a form of God, we offer all our experiences in service of the Divine.

Although we have been discussing three different yogas, the fact is that they are integral to one another--it's just a matter of emphasis. The practitioner of the yoga of wisdom still has to work, as I did when living as a wandering renunciant. So when working they need to bring their wisdom into play in practicing desire-less action. The karma yogi can only practice in daily life with a basis of wisdom acquired through meditation. And the bhakti yogi needs wisdom and karma yoga as a foundation for developing genuine devotion. In the end, all forms of yoga for the mind lead to the heart, love and devotion. This devotion flows not just towards an abstract ideal of the unseen divinity, but also expresses itself towards the visible form of the divine, meeting us in each moment in each person, in each living being, we encounter.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.12.39 PM.png

Water Lily, Orto Botanico di Padova by Sadananda

7295.jpg

An old woman is speeding down the highway when she is pulled over.

Highway Patrol: "Do you realize you are doing ninety miles an hour?"

Old lady: "Officer, I need to get there before I forget where I'm going."

He lets her off.

For many readers, as for this old lady, memory may be a concern. Perhaps you are over forty-five, and have begun to notice that you walk into a room and forget why you went there. Perhaps you are going through menopause and wonder where your brain went. Perhaps you have cared for a parent or grandparent with dementia and fear that their fate will be yours. Perhaps you have suffered a car accident or skiing accident and have experienced cognitive impairment since then. Perhaps you have noticed that throughout your life, you never had as good a memory as your peers. Although we may, reluctantly, take these changes for granted, both current neuroscience and ancient Ayurveda offer ways to support and improve memory and brain power.

Back in the seventies, when I was a medical student, the brain was seen as a fixed and static organ. Your brain could grow until about age twenty-five, after which neural pathways became fixed and neurons (brain cells) began dying off in enormous numbers. As we students engaged in our rituals of heavy drinking, we grimly reminded each other that we were speeding the death of brain cells. We figured we were intelligent enough to spare a few; but we saw no hope of brain improvement or regeneration after graduation. Past twenty-five, we knew it was all downhill. People over forty were 'over the hill,' those over sixty were seen as elderly, with little to no chance of anything except slow decline.

Today, a generation of over-sixty Boomers see themselves as anything but elderly or over the hill. In Western astrology, the Boomers have Pluto in Leo, accounting for the childlike nature of this peer group. Boomers, whatever their age, tend as a generation to perceive themselves and young, special and full of promise. And right in time for the graying of the Boomer generation has come the discovery of neuroplasticity. As experienced by stroke survivor Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and described in her book My Stroke of Insight, new neural connections can be made and new neurons generated in certain areas of the brain at any point during our lives. Our brain is not a machine that slowly wears out but rather a work of art completed only when we take our final breath.

If my brain is a work of art, why can't I find my car keys? Perhaps it's time for some master classes. According to Ayurveda, a problem is only addressed when we treat the cause. So let us have a look at the root cause of memory problems. To begin with the viewpoint of Western medicine, we need to look at the biochemistry of brain damage. Just as your car burns gasoline and produces exhaust fumes, your brain burns energy and produces waste products of combustion, including the pesky molecules called free radicals. Free radicals can damage your brain and other tissues by oxidation. As a piece of metal will rust when exposed to the oxygen in the air without protection such as auto body paint, your brain will 'rust' (not literally!) if not protected from free radicals. One form of 'brain rust' due to oxidation is amyloid plaque, associated with Alzheimer's disease.

From the standpoint of Ayurveda, we look at the body in terms of the three doshas, vata, pitta and kapha. Memory problems are related to the vata dosha, a combination of Air and Space. If you have had memory issues throughout your life, perhaps your Ayurvedic constitution has a high proportion of vata. The elder years of life are a vata time of life and see an increased incidence of memory problems. And accidents and injuries are experiences that disturb vata and may be associated with memory problems. So from a Western point of view we need to deal with oxidation and free radicals and from the Ayurvedic standpoint we need to manage vata and nourish brain tissue to support memory and cognition.

Antioxidants are the brain's protection from oxidative damage by free radicals. Anything that lowers the amount of antoxidants available for your brain to use could lead to spaciness, brain fog and memory issues. And we seem to have created a way of life designed to lower our antioxidants. Lets begin with the Standard American Diet. High in refined carbohydrates, processed meats, sugar and trans fats, this diet not only has little to offer in the way of antioxidant support, it also directly adds to our oxidative stress. Add junk food and diet sodas containing aspartame, and the American diet seems almost calculated to court dementia. Looking beyond diet, we live in a toxic world. Chlorinated tap water, pesticides, solvents and heavy metals are just a few of the brain toxins, too numerous to name, that find their way into our food, water, air, workplaces and homes. Many of the medications we routinely use, including birth control pills, painkillers, blood pressure medications and statin drugs for cholesterol lower our body's antioxidant defense system. So of course do recreational drugs, cigarettes and excess alcohol consumption. And as we age, our bodies manufacture fewer antioxidants, so we need to get more from food. Stress, sleep deprivation, electromagnetic fields and and sedentary lifestyles also add to our 'rusty brain' problem. No wonder fourteen percent of the US population over seventy suffers from dementia!

Both cutting-edge Western medicine and Ayurveda would agree that you can boost your brainpower and extend the 'use-by' date of your higher brain functions with a program of diet, exercise and appropriate supplementation with specific substances to support your brain. To look at diet first, many Western experts now recommend diets such as the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet and the mitochondria rejuvenation diet. All these plans emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, with limited quantities of meats and minimal sugar and fried foods. Dr Terry Wahls developed the mitochondria rejuvenation diet after she was struck down with a severe form of multiple sclerosis. Wahls claims to have healed herself with a diet that includes an entire dinner plate of colourful fruits or vegetables at each meal as well as fish and grass-fed meat.

The colour in fruits and vegetables tells us a great deal about their antioxidant content. The rich golden and orange colours of carrots, winter squash and mango speak of beta-carotene. Green foods offer beta carotenes and lycopene, as do red foods like tomatoes. The deep red of beets and prickly pear fruits offer unique betaine antoxidants, while crimson in pomegranates and concord grapes hold the promise of polyphenols. Deep purple foods like purple cabbage are rich sources of anthocyanins. Brown foods such as whole grains contain B vitamins. And while refined white foods, like white bread, white sugar and white rice, are major culprits in 'brain rust', some naturally white foods such as onion, garlic and cauliflower are excellent sources of glutathione. Eating a rainbow every day is a great way to support your brain.

Ayurveda suggests a vata soothing diet to improve brainpower. Emphasize warm, well-cooked foods, sweet and sour fruits and soaked nuts and seeds. Soups, stews, casseroles, dals and kitcheris are all recipes that enhance availability of absorption of nutrients. Put simply, it does not matter how nutritious your diet is, if you cannot absorb the nutrients. Use of digestive spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, clove and mustard seeds help our digestive fire, agni, the root of health according to Ayurveda. Among these, pride of place goes to turmeric, which not only enhances digestion and absorption but also boasts a deep yellow colour that speaks of its amazing, brain supportive antioxidant content. Looking deeper, vata is dry and needs a good supply of healthy oils. And the myelin in your brain needs to be supported by fat-soluble nutrients and fatty acids. So healthy oils such as ghee, sesame oil, coconut, sunflower, mustard and olive oil, as well as oily foods such as nuts, coconuts and avocadoes are helpful both for your vata and your brain. Raw, unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows is regarded as a supreme brain food. Almonds are another famous brain food in Ayurveda and are now known to be an important source of the neurotransmitter precursors phenylalanine and l-carnitine. A drink made from almonds blended into warm milk and spiced with saffron, cardamom and black pepper is a superb Ayurvedic brain food.

Nutrient depletion due to over-the-counter and prescription medications is an important area not to be overlooked. If you regularly take painkillers, birth control pills, antacids, antidepressants, statins or medications for high blood pressure, asthma or diabetes, you are at risk of nutrient depletion that could impair your brain function. In The Better Brain Book Dr David Perlmutter offers specific supplement regimens for each of these medications. I highly recommend getting this book and following the regimen suggested for you.

Anther important way to improve your brainpower is exercise. So can you actually exercise your brain? There is a plethora of computer programs available for brain training--and a dearth of evidence to show that such programs really work, or accomplish anything truly useful for everyday life. An article published in Nature in 2010 suggests that brain-training games do not significantly improve brain function--and there is no evidence to show that such cognitive games will realistically help prevent dementia. On the other hand, activities such as reading, listening to music, playing chess and searching the Internet can indeed enhance brain function by engaging more parts of the brain. But the most proven way to maintain and strengthen brainpower is exercise. Physical exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, improves blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain, enhances hormone release, and stimulates brain plasticity.

While many benefits for brain function can be found with any type of aerobic exercise, there is one specific physical activity that offers immense potential benefits for the brain. Yoga has been shown to improve remote memory, mental balance, attention, concentration, delayed recall and immediate recall, verbal retention and recognition in menopausal women and to improve cognitive functioning in type 2 diabetics. In a recent study published in the Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, a long-term regular yoga practice improved concentration, memory and mental health in healthy individuals, suggesting yoga has a preventive as well as therapeutic benefit in cognitive functioning.

Paradoxically, sitting still, doing nothing may offer immense benefits for the brain--if sitting still means sitting for meditation. Author and researcher Richard Davidson has done significant research in the area of neuroplasticity and cognitive functioning. Meditation leads to increased connectivity in the areas of the brain related to memory, learning and emotion. The brain becomes richer and more complex, with increased folding of the cortex. In the brains of long-term meditators, there is increased high amplitude gamma activity, as the brain becomes more synchronized and large assemblies of neurons (brain cells) work together with greater synergy. A dedication to mediation may improve brainpower to the point of ultimate human potential.

Ayurveda emphasizes lifestyle changes and enhancements as part of a balanced program of wellbeing. Important lifestyle changes that can improve brainpower and reduce vata relate to sleep, habit-forming substances and social interactions. Sleep is important for brain repair and regeneration, neurotransmitter production and information processing. Ayurveda recommends 'early to bed and early to rise.' According to the teachings of yoga and Ayurveda, the early morning hours are extremely important for brain synchronization and mental clarity and should be dedicated to meditation, yoga and chanting. Traditionally, practitioners of the Vedic sciences chant Gayatri mantra at sunrise and perform agnihotra, a Vedic fire ceremony. Gayatri mantra is dedicated to the radiance of the rising sun and invites this radiance to illumine our minds as the world awakens from the darkness of night. Chanting Gayatri mantra improves cognitive functioning and brings enhanced mental clarity. Performing the agnihotra fire ceremony at sunrise and sunset is also said to improves mental clarity and bestow brilliance to the mind.

If we want to improve our brainpower, it is important to let go of habit-forming substances such as tobacco, recreational drugs, excess alcohol consumption and white sugar. It is also vital to tend to our social environment. The human brain is designed to operate within a rich social milieu, with supportive long-term relationships, meaningful interactions with an array of people and energizing community activities such as dance and singing. Modern lifestyles with alienated suburban environments and long commutes may leave us lonely and isolated unless we make efforts to make rich social engagement a regular part of our lives.

As our bodies age, our ability to manufacture many of the antioxidants that support our brain declines. Hence supplementation is helpful in maintaining memory and brainpower. Dr Perlmutter suggests supplementation with B vitamins, vitamins C, D and E, coenzyme Q 10, and other antioxidants that may be insufficient in our diet. Ayurveda also recommends special types of supplementation for the aging brain, although these take the form of herbs rather than typical supplements. The Ayurvedic discipline of Jara Chikitsa or care of elders is the ancestor of the Geriatrics of today. But Jara Chikitsa is not about caring for debilitated seniors in special 'memory care' facilities. Rather, the aim of Jara Chikitsa is to ensure a vigorous, healthy old age. The emphasis is on quality of life and preventive care. Accordingly, from age fifty on, it is important to use specialized herbs and herbal remedies known as rasyana or rejuvenatives.

An extremely well known general rejuvenative is the herbal jam chyavanprash. Brahmi is an herb famed for its capacity to sustain and improve memory and cognition and may be taken as a tea. Tulsi, now widely available in natural groceries as a tea, is not only a delicious beverage, but also an important brain rejuvenative. Specialized herbs such as ashwagandha, shatavari, bhringaraj and guggulu are also used to delay ageing and improve brainpower. Because Ayurveda always considers the individual constitution, it is better not to go it alone when choosing rejuvenative herbs. An Ayurvedic practitioner can select the appropriate rejuvenative regimen for your individual needs. Your body will benefit from rejuvenatives when it is ready to absorb and utilize them. So a practitioner may recommend herbs and regimes to cleanse toxins and improve digestion before you begin a program to improve brainpower through rejuvenative herbs.

Everyone, from schoolchildren to college students to elders can benefit from a diet, exercise plan and lifestyle that enhances brainpower. The cutting edge science of neuroplasticity, together with the ancient teachings of Ayurveda and yoga offer the prospect that old age may not be a time of fuzzy brain and mental decline, but rather the crowning years of sharing our accumulated wisdom as we paint the final strokes of that great work of art, our brain.

0.jpg

P1070607.jpg



Bitter gourds are a remarkably healthy food, good for blood sugar, diabetes and weight loss. They are also good blood purifiers and helpful for psoriasis and other skin rashes. There are two varieties, a darker green, wartier and more bitter variety sold in Indian grocery stores and a paler green and smoother variety, pictured above, sold in Asian markets. Due to their bitterness, they have the reputation of being an acquired taste. This delicious recipe will help you acquire the taste!

Besan is a flour made from chana dal and is available in Indian grocery stores. Chickpea flour would be a substitute.

Thank you to chef Ish Baker for taking the photos and creating this super-easy way to make Bitter Gourds Stuffed with Besan! The photos will help you get the recipe right the first time. Scroll down for the recipe.


P1070600.jpg

Slitting the bitter gourds

P1070601.jpg

Taking out the seeds.

P1070603.JPG

Stuffing and baking

P1070604.JPG

Turning after 30 minutes


Bitter Gourd Stuffed with Besan

Ingredients:

  • 4 bitter gourds, size about 6 inch long. If longer, cut into 6 inch pieces. (Also known as bitter melon or karela)
  • 2 green chilies, finely chopped
  • 1" ginger, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 4 Tbsp cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 4 Tbsp besan (chickpea flour)
  • 1 tsp red chili powder
  • Salt, to taste
  • 2 tsp Coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp amchur (Mango powder) or lime/lemon juice, 2 tsp
  • 1/4 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 pinch hing

Method

  • Wash bitter gourds thoroughly with water. If they are of longer variety, cut them into pieces of 6 inch size.
  • Lightly steam the bitter gourds to make it easier to slit, scoop and stuff them. Take out of steamer and cool until you can handle them.
  • DO NOT cut the bitter gourds in half BUT just SLIT them open lengthwise so seeds can be removed & stuffing added. Remove the seeds.
  • Heat a frying pan and add 2 tsp oil. When the oil becomes hot, add cumin seeds and hing. When the seeds becomes dark, add, green chili, ginger and garlic. Cook for 2-3 minutes and add all the spices and besan. Stir well and cook until the mixture turns light brown, about 5-7 minutes. Mix half the cilantro
  • Fill the above mixture in each bitter gourd and close it back up.
  • Brush the bitter gourds with oil. Place in an oven dish and bake at 375 'F until soft (about an hour), turning them after 30 minutes. Garnish with the remaining cilantro.

Serve with rice & dal or simply with chapatti.

P1070599.jpg

Since I'm planning to host Frances Hollander, one of our Living Witnesses of the World War II era, for the amazing occasion of Shabbat and the first Seder of Passover, I knew I couldn't get away without matzo ball soup! So here is a recipe for a nice vegetable soup made special--and Jewish--with matzo balls. If you're not vegan you could use a standard matzo ball recipe. And if you're gluten free, you're in luck, as there is a GF variation of the vegan matzo balls recipe!

Vegan Matzo Ball Soup

Serves: 8 to 10

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 large or 3 medium leeks, white and palest green parts only,
    halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
  • 1 celery root,peeled and finely diced
  • 3 medium carrots, finely diced
  • 3 medium celery stalks, finely diced
  • 1 medium turnip, diced
  • 1 medium rutabaga, diced
  • 8 ounces white or brown mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed, and sliced
  • 8 cups home made vegetable broth (or 2 qt pkts vegetable broth)
  • 4 medium tomatoes, diced
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh dill
  • A few springs of mint
  • Vegan Matzo Balls (see below)

Heat the oil in a large soup pot. Add the shallot and leeks and sauté over medium heat until the leeks are limp (about 10 minutes).

Add the celery root, carrots, celery, turnips, and mushrooms and sauté for a few more minutes. Add the vegetable broth and tomatoes. Bring to a slow boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently, covered, for about 25 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender but not overcooked.

Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat. Resting during seder will allow the soup to gain in flavour.

Just before serving, add the paprika, dill and mint and heat the soup through. Add more water or vegetable broth if needed, then adjust the seasonings. Serve with Vegan Matzo Balls.

Adapted from http://www.vegkitchen.com/recipes/moroccan-style-matzo-ball-soup/ and http://www.vegkitchen.com/recipes/spring-vegetable-soup-with-vegan-matzo-balls/

P1070592.jpg

Sauteeing the veggies seals in flavour

Vegan Matzo Balls

Adapted slightly from http://www.vegkitchen.com/recipes/vegan-matzo-balls/#EhwSxApSrfmOAMit.99

Most vegan matzo ball recipes use silken tofu; I picked this one because it used quinoa flakes instead. I decided to use whole wheat matzo meal for health and taste. And I added turmeric to replace the golden colour of egg yolk and because it's healthy. I've had disasters boiling vegan matzo balls, they just fall apart in the water. So I loved Nava's idea of baking them instead. They hydrated and became larger in the soup. Not really like Granny Pearl's fluffy matzo balls, but not like bullets either. I did a trial run this shabbat in preparation for Pesach and Sadananda and Frances did appreciate these vegan matzo balls.

P1070594.jpg

Matzo balls are shaped and ready to bake; I used Ancient Harvest quinoa flakes and Whole Wheat Matzo Meal

Makes: About 24

  • 1 cup quinoa flakes
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 cup whole wheat matzo meal (or 1 1/2 cups quinoa flakes for a gluten-free version)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or more, to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 cup sunflower oil

In a large mixing bowl, cover the quinoa flakes with the water. Let stand for 2 or 3 minutes.

Stir in the matzo meal (or additional quinoa flakes for GF), salt, pepper, turmeric, onion powder, and oil. Mix until well blended. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

Just before baking, preheat the oven to 275º F.

Roll the matzo meal mixture into approximately 1-inch balls; don't pack them too firmly. Arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes (more like 30 min for whole wheat), carefully turning the matzo balls after 10 minutes, until golden and firm to the touch; don't let them brown.

If making ahead of time, let the matzo balls cool completely, then cover until needed. Warm them briefly in a medium-hot oven and distribute them among the soup bowls, allowing 3 or 4 matzo balls per serving.

Note: Ancient Harvest Quinoa Flakes are kosher (carry a hexure). They don't need a special kashrut for pesach because they are not a grain at all. I used Manischiewitz 'kosher for passover' matzo meal.


P1070596.JPG

Baked yummy matzo balls ready to add to soup!

_DSC0637.jpg

Sunset on a Tuscan olive by Sadananda

On Thursday this week, Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday in Britain), Catholic cathedrals around the world will be conducting a special olive oil blessing, the Chrism mass. All the oil to be used throughout the year for confirmation, ordination and anointing the sick and dying will be consecrated by the local bishop. My birth name being Olivia, the ancient name of the goddess of the olive groves, I always loved this ceremony and naturally feel a special affinity for olive trees.

Olives were loved across the ancient Mediterranean world and have been cultivated in the Levant for over 6,000 years. In Greek mythology, the creation of the olive tree was the result of a contest between Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, God of the Sea as to who would be the patron of a newly-built city in Attica. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and water gushed forth, creating a spring of salty water. But then Athena struck a rock with her spear and produced the olive tree. The citizens chose the gift of Athena --peace, plenty and fruitfulness. And so she forever became the patroness of the city, named Athens to this day. The athletes competing in the Olympic games were massaged with olive oil and the victor was crowned with a wreath of olive leaves.

Athena.jpg

The Romans similarly saw the olive tree as the gift of Minerva, goddess of wisdom and healing, while to the Egyptians, Isis bestowed the olive tree.

The olives have their own Catholic saint as well--Saint Olivia of Palermo, a Sicilian noblewoman who was martyred in Tunis, or so her legend goes. She is still the patroness of Tunis, whose cathedral today is dedicated to St Vincent de Paul and St Olivia. Even more remarkable, the grand mosque of Olivia, the oldest mosque in Tunis, is said to stand over her tomb, and she is revered by the Muslims of Tunis.

img-Saint-Olivia-of-Palermo1.jpg

Saint Olivia of Palermo with olive branches

MinaretMosqueeZitounaTunis.JPG

Mosque of the olives (or of Olivia) in Tunis

Noah's flood finally came to an end when the dove returned to the ark bearing an olive branch--showing that dry land had appeared again. The dove with the olive branch has become a symbol of peace, as has 'holding out the olive branch.' Jesus spent the last night before his crucifixion in the olive grove of Gethsemane, while St Francis made his hermitage on Mt Subasio beside an olive that is growing to this day.

Today olive oil is revered as a bestower of good health, due to its content of oleic acid and other monounsaturated fats. The main fat used in the Mediterranean diet, olive oil consumption is associated with a low mortality from cardiovascular disease, as summarized in a review article by Marıa-Isabel Covas.

The olivey taste of olive oil is associated with special phenolic antoxidants, oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol, while carotenes and tocopherol (Vitamin E) are also important components.

Good olive oil should have a peppery, somewhat acrid taste. It's worth spending money and also taste-testing carefully. Many blogs and news sources have been reporting on a study from UC Davis indicating that a number of well-known brands of olive oil are adulterated. I have several issues with that study. Sample sizes were unscientifically small. The study was funded by the California Olive Oil Council and by some of California's largest olive producers--and recommended we buy only California olive oil. And a single study does not prove anything--the results have to be reproducible by other researchers. Even more intriguing, the link to the pdf of the actual study has been removed from UC Davis Olive Center's website. However, there is no doubt that olive oil scams abound, as they have done for 6,000 years. See this website for more information. Some tips for buying the best possible olive oil include:

  • Don't buy the cheapest--good oil isn't cheap
  • Taste test before you buy--look for the fruity, bitter and peppery taste
  • Use a light-protective container--and use up the oil quickly (never a problem in our household)
  • Buy oils bottled this year, or within their 'best by' date.
  • Buy only olive oil labeled 'extra virgin'
  • Prefer PDO and PDI olive oils, coming from a protected geographical location.

Fair Trade olive oil is also available. For my birthday I got Rumi Tree olive oil from Palestine, sold at our local fair trade shop.

Another confusing issue about olive oil is the claim some make that 'you shouldn't cook with olive oil.' This is not true. And were it true, the entire Mediterranean diet, demonstrated to be so healthy, would be invalidated. Olive oil smokes at 420'F, a far higher temperature than the 'sizzle point' at which you can effectively stir-fry or sauté your food. Some studies have subjected olive oil to high temperatures (below its smoke point) for long periods of time without destroying its special phytonutrients. I'm leaving the references at the end of the article in case you need further convincing. However, since some of the olivey flavor is lost in cooking, Spaniards and Italians (and Alakananda & Sadananda too) always add some extra, fresh olive oil at the table.

Olive trees should never be harmed, even in war. As it says in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah, 'Are the trees your enemy, that you should attack them?' They give us so much--shade, shelter, wood, olives and oil. (Deut. 20, 19). As gifts of the Ancient Mother, the trees and those who tend them deserve our love, respect and protection.

1. Bastida SS-M, FJ. Thermal oxidation of olive oil, sunflower oil and a mix of both oils during forty continuous domestic fryings of different foods. Food Sci Tech Int 2001;7:15-21.
2. Gennaro L, Piccioli Bocca, A, Modesti, D, Masella, R, Coni, E. Effect of biophenols on olive oil stability evaluated by thermogravimetric analysis. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 1998;46:4465-4469.
3. Allouche Y, Jimenez A, Gaforio JJ, Uceda M, Beltran G. How heating affects extra virgin olive oil quality indexes and chemical composition. J Agric Food Chem 2007;55:9646-54.
4. Cicerale S, Conlan XA, Barnett NW, Sinclair AJ, Keast RS. Influence of heat on biological activity and concentration of oleocanthal--a natural anti-inflammatory agent in virgin olive oil. J Agric Food Chem 2009;57:1326-30.

P1070591.JPG

Making thrifty vegetable broth (aka vegetable stock) is easy; it just takes a little thought and planning. At Alandi, we usually make the broth on Friday. All week long, I save clean vegetable scraps in a plastic, cloth or brown paper bag in the frig. This time I had asparagus stalks, watercress stalks, tops and tails of carrots, some Jerusalem artichoke offcuts and the stem and outer leaves of my cauliflower. Often I have broccoli stalks etc.

When you're ready to make the broth, use a stainless steel stock pot. Wash your veggie scraps and put them in the pot. If it's something large, like a cauliflower stalk, chop it up. Look in your vegetable drawer for anything that needs using up. You can wash and add it. If you like, add some dried herbs for seasoning, but you don't have to. And I prefer not to add salt as it's easier for me to salt the final product (soup, risotto etc). Add plenty of water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for a couple of hours, until the water has a good colour. Strain and store in a screw top glass jar until you're ready to use it as a base for a soup or as called for in a recipe.

Mint Chutney

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

Yam Kitcheri.jpg

Mint Chutney with Tridoshic Yam Kitcheri

The perfect accompaniment to kitcheri is Mint Chutney. This refreshing condiment stimulates digestion, comforts your taste buds and adds to meal satisfaction. As you come off your pancha karma or kitcheri cleanse, begin adding Mint Chutney alongside Cleansing Kitcheri, Tridoshic Yam Kitcheri or Kitcheri with Cauliflower and Peas.

Mint Chutney

Makes approximately 2 cups

Ingredients:

3 cups fresh mint leaves

1 cup water

1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut

½ small green chilli, chopped

1" piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine

1 Tb ghee

½ tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp black mustard seeds

1 pinch hing

4 curry leaves

½ lime

¼ tsp salt

Preparation:

- Wash the mint leaves and discard long stems.

- Put the mint, water, coconut, chilli and ginger into a blender and blend on medium until it is a well mixed and finely ground paste.

- Heat a saucepan on medium and add the ghee, cumin seeds, mustard, hing and curry leaves. Cook until the seeds pop.

- Cool and add to the mint paste.

- Squeeze in the juice from the lime.

- Add salt and stir well.

- Store in refrigerator, keeps for 2-3 days.

Source: Usha & Vasant Lad, Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing (New Mexico, The Ayurvedic Press, 1994).

Recent Comments

  • Alakananda Ma: Lately we've tried maple syrup as the sweetener for special read more
  • Alakananda Ma: This year has been amazing for plums in Boulder and read more
  • alyse michelle: Yesterday's lunch was both delicious and beautiful! Thank you Alakananda read more
  • Alakananda Ma: Delicious! read more
  • Alakananda Ma: Thanks for the recipe Onana and the interesting thoughts about read more
  • Alakananda Ma: Thanks for the recipe Onana and the interesting thoughts about read more
  • Alakananda Ma: Seva did a fantastic job of cooking dhoklas since he read more
  • Alakananda Ma: Great post Oana! Thanks! read more
  • Alakananda Ma: Thank you, Heather. Beautiful bog post! Great writing. read more
  • Heather: I made a variation of this simple, delicious meal for read more

Recent Assets

  • Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 2.49.55 PM.png
  • Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 12.05.32 PM.png
  • P1070617.jpg
  • P1070619.jpg
  • P1070615.jpg
  • P1070622.jpg
  • Royal Rice.JPG
  • 09_11_15---Cauliflower_web.jpg
  • VOA_Markosian_-_Chernobyl02.jpg
  • FukushimaPic.jpg