Scientific developments of the last century have led to unprecedented advancements in healthcare facilities and medical treatment which have significantly improved the average human life span. However, this improved understanding of the human system and associated chemical compounds has also inadvertently led to huge health related problems mainly in three ways. Firstly, as Michael Moss describes in his book titled "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us", many companies and establishments in the food industry cleverly design foods that will get people hopelessly addicted and make them indulge in over-consumption finally leading to huge deterioration in health and prevalence of deadly diseases. Secondly, there has been an increased use of pesticides and artificial ripening agents which get inside healthy looking foods and cause irreparable damage in the long run. Thirdly, most of educated people nowadays work in sedentary jobs with minimal physical activity and their work is usually so demanding and/or the personal ambitions are so high that they hardly get any time for exercise. One approach to solving these problems could be resort to science itself. But as Albert Einstein once said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them".
Nowadays it is quite fashionable to call everything as scientific without actually understanding what science means or does. Science is inherently based on a reproducible verification of various physical phenomenon. The word reproducible here is very important since for a claim/theory to be scientific, it must be independently verifiable by another research group. This works best in physics and chemistry since there we are dealing with inanimate objects. But things start becoming very complicated when we get deeper into biology since there is too much variation among different species. And the human system is far more complex since there is an interplay between the body, mind and consciousness. Other animals also surely have a mind and consciousness since they have also evolved by the same process, but these two entities seem lot more pronounced in humans for reasons that are not yet known. Of course, the human system can still be subject to scientific analysis as stated above, but how much of it can lead to actual good health can be a matter of intense debate. Lets try to understand this through an example. Suppose a person has to decide if eating a food A at a certain time of the day will lead to good health or not. Now if s/he wishes to adopt the scientific method, s/he has to make a large number of humans consume the same food A at that time of the day for many days and then carefully analyse the results in order to come to a conclusion. This process is quite problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the effect of food is not limited to itself but also the other foods that we eat in combination. Secondly, it is very unlikely that all humans will react to the same food in the same manner also because a food is a complex mixture of many different compounds. Hence, in order to carry out a proper scientific study on this issue, we will require a practically impossible setup and also have grave problems of statistics. This is also why most scientific studies by the medical and food industry are restricted to simple compounds (eg. salt, sugar and fat) and not whole foods since the effect of simple compounds is still reproducible to a good extent. As Russ Altman says in his very interesting TED talk titled "What really happens when you mix medications?", it is very hard to test the effects of even two medications taken together.
So does this mean that good health is an impossible dream, something we can only hope for but never really achieve? The human system is an interplay of the physical body, mind and consciousness. Science assumes that the physical body is fundamental and mind+consciousness are emergent properties. However, Yoga and Ayurveda consider consciousness to be more fundamental and says that if activated properly, it can serve as a dependable guide to good health physically, mentally as well as spiritually. Yoga and Ayurveda provide a very good balance between the subjective and objective aspects of health enhancing practices. They tell us about foods that are generally good for most humans, specific foods suitable/unsuitable for specific people in specific conditions and also help us in developing a sensitivity and sensibility to understand what works for us and what does not. It is important to note that Yoga is not just about physical exercise and Ayurveda is not just about herbal medicine. Yoga and Ayurveda are full systems of health and are also complimentary to each other. When combined intelligently, they reinforce each other leading to truly holistic health for an individual. Here the word intelligently is very important since when used mindlessly or without proper care, they can also harm an individual. Hence, it is important to learn the basic principles from a proper authentic teacher/practitioner and throughly discuss with them what would work for us and what would not. But of course, Yoga and Ayurveda also warn against blindly following any particular person or school of thought. After having gathered sufficient information from various sources, we need to then try out what we think is good for us, weed out what does not work and slowly deepen our conscious experience of ourselves in the process. It does sound complicated at the beginning, but becomes an amazing process of self-discovery as we go along the path.
The most important part of good health is to take care of three things : the respiratory system, the digestive system and the energy channels (nadis). From the Yoga perspective, these things can be taken care of by practicing some of the Yogasanas (Pawanmuktasana, Marjari, Surya Namaskar, etc.) and Pranayamas (Anulom Vilom, Kapalbhati, Bhramari, etc). What is important here is to find the right combination of the various Yogasanas and Pranayamas that our system needs and that can be done within our time constraints. Hence, it becomes important to consult few authentic Yoga teachers to get their inputs and then use our own intelligence to arrive at what works best for us. In any case, it is very good to do these practices for 30-60 mins everyday early in the morning. From the Ayurvedic perspective, there are certain practices that are considered to be universally good and others that work well for specific people in specific conditions. Now, of course, the phrase universally good has to taken with a pinch of salt since there can be many exceptions to the rule.
The respiratory system and the energy channels are lot more subtle and its not easy for individuals to sense problems in these at the beginning. And specially from the Ayurvedic perspective, it is good to focus on the digestive system to begin with. Here are some tips that might be useful in this regard:
- Avoid staying hungry for too long or even cooking while hungry since it leads to secretion of certain acids in the stomach. These acids start corroding the internal walls of the digestive tract if not provided with food to digest. Hence, it is important to drink water at regular intervals to neutralise these acids. If the hunger is more than a certain threshold and its not yet time for our regular meals, it is a good practise to eat some fruits.
- Food that we eat can be digested more easily if the stomach is already prepared in advance. Here, maintaining the same time of eating daily can be very helpful since the stomach gets trained to receive food at specific times and be ready with the required acids and digestive juices.
- The body needs lot of water apart from what we get through foods. Make sure to drink at least 3-4 litres of water everyday. Of course, an overdose of water is also not good and can lead to inefficient digestion by diluting the acids in the stomach. Try to avoid drinking water before and after 30 mins of the meal time.
- Alkaline foods like fibre rich raw vegetables can be very helpful in neutralising the acids in the stomach and thereby prevent problems of gastric and acidity. Try to have a salad of raw cucumber, carrot, beetroot, etc in both meals of the day. But make sure to wash them properly since nowadays there is an overuse of pesticides.
- Nowadays many people have gluten intolerance and these people need to avoid consuming whole wheat products. Instead, rice and dal can be a very good option. Among the dals, moong dal is the lightest to digest. Rice should be cooked in an open pan and the water drained out in order to avoid consuming the starch. Best variety of rice is whatever that is locally grown and produced.
- Ghee is a very important part of maintaining good health and helps in many ways. The actual quantity of consumption depends on many factors like body type, daily activity levels, etc.
- Consumption of fruits is very important. It is best to have an apple everyday in empty stomach. Try to avoid having fruits along with carbohydrates and proteins. Fruits get digested easily but end up rotting in the stomach if combined with other foods that take longer to digest. Hence, its best to take fruits on empty stomach and then have other foods after about 30 mins. But there are certain fruits like guava that should not be eaten on an empty stomach.
- Curd and milk are generally heavy and not easy to digest for all individuals. But buttermilk is a good source of calcium and is also a probiotic, thereby helping in keeping the digestive system in a good condition. Home made cottage cheese (chhena) is also a good source of all the benefits of milk and easy to digest.
- Avoid eating rich and spicy foods as much as possible. Some people like to balance it out by eating very rich food on one day and fasting on the next day. This is like slapping a person on one day and hugging them the next day. It just does not work out in the long run! If you feel like having something rich once in a while, make sure to do it during breakfast or lunch. Food consumed for dinner should be as light as possible and preferably avoid eating anything much after sunset.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list and is just meant to provide some rough guidelines. A very important component of maintaining good health is also to reduce our stress levels. It certainly helps to have a companion so that the two people can reinforce each other's focus towards maintaining good health and help in keeping each other on the right track. It also helps a lot to spend at least one week in a year at a good nature cure centre. Nowadays there are many such places across India that provide good services at a reasonable cost. As the Buddha once said, "To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear".