Ayurveda has celebrated the benefits of homemade ferments for thousands of years. Fermentation was an essential tool to make perishable items last. The vaidyas of yore noticed that fermented foods enkindle agni, the power of digestion.
Dr. Robert Svoboda’s book Aghora tells a story of his guru, Tantric adept Aghori Vimalananda, teaching him about the 5 Elements. His guru tells him to worship the 5 elements. If he has to choose one, choose fire. That is the foundational teaching of agni in Ayurveda.
If your fire is strong and balanced, you have an opportunity to thrive. If you’re not digesting well, you’ll develop ama, or gut inflammation. Ama is a toxic residue from undigested, unabsorbed food, that slowly sinks your battleship. Fermented foods contain living bacteria that digest ama and replenish enzymes, which create functional agni.
Oddly enough, I didn’t learn how to ferment vegetables during my Ayurvedic training. I intellectually learned the benefits of adding yogurt to cooked food. I didn’t get my hands bio-enzymatically engaged. Nor did I learn, until years later, that the power of agni is actually in my own cabbage-squeezing hands.
After a few years in my Ayurvedic practice, I went to India for 3 months. During that time, I completed Dr. Lad’s Gurukula program in Ayurvedic practice. Spent a few weeks chanting at Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Mandiram. Sat a Goenke Vipassana retreat, and studied Pancha Karma in Kerala. A day didn’t go by that I wasn’t served small batch fermented foods.
An Indian Thali, or lunch, is packed with small-batch homemade fermented foods. Breakfast was idli, a fermented lentil and rice cake. Idli is commonly served with chutney, another traditionally fermented food. Lunch consisted of a one plate meal with minimum 10 different sides. A base of rice, sambar (loose dhal), and vegetables. Thalis always include a few fermented foods, namely, a yogurt sauce as well as fermented vegetable and fruit relishes. Dinner may be a dosa stuffed with potatoes and chutneys. Like idlis, dosas combine rice and beans and ferment them for digestibility.
This explains why people in India have better, more diverse, gut bacteria than us Westerners. We simply outsourced our food creation to the extent that we lost most of the good bacteria in our diet.
“More (gut microbial) diversity is probably better than less, because a diverse ecosystem is generally more resilient — and diversity in the Western gut is significantly lower than in other, less-industrialized populations.” Michael Pollan, New York Times May 15 2013
As Westerners we have outsourced and outsmarted ourselves once again in our exploitation of convenience, mass production, and centralized food production.
Traditionally, when clients or students are new to Ayurveda they are initially taught how to eat a doshic diet. Instead of teaching clients how to eat seasonally (and giving them basic kitchen skills like sprouting and fermentating), we give them a print out of a “doshically appropriate” diet.
Pittas need to drop the wine, hot sauce, chocolate and coffee.
Vatas should cut out chips, salads and coffee.
Kaphas, ditch the comfort foods.
This is helpful, but could be more so. It’s certainly not capturing the essence of Ayurveda. Ayurveda teaches practitioners to prioritize the most useful remedies and to uproot problems at their source. If a whole family needs to up their gut bacteria, and they have different constitutions, focusing on 3 different constitutions is going to make the chef go mad.
If we’re going to help clients where they need it most, we need to understand that Agni is king, and remember, that Agni is fed by small batch biodiverse fermented foods.
Most people get off track when they are prescribed an “Ayurvedic Diet” without the larger context of understanding what nourishes their agni. This may be because most Ayurvedic practitioners don’t make their own locally grown fermented foods.
As Ayurveda merges with the western world, be aware that most westerners have a lack of diversity in the microbiome. Prior to working with me, many of my students were taking probiotic supplements and enzymes to deal with poor digestion.
While a doshically-appropriate diet will help, my sense is that a local and seasonal diet with homemade fermented foods helps a lot more. We need to teach our clients and students to make their very own fermented foods, just as we teach them to rub oil on their bodies. Yes, it takes time, as treating the root of a problem often does.
Squeezing cabbage just might increase serotonin and/or oxytocin, similarly to petting a cat or kneading bread. My theory, not scientifically proven.
If you’re psyched to become a fermentation revivalist or simply make some sauerkraut, start today. It’s a simple and inexpensive hands-on kitchen skill to up your immune function, your digestion and help you thrive.
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