School of Ayurvedic Diet & Digestion
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So, I ignored his advice because I loved saying Om. My teacher also told me if I said Om I would become enlightened, be god-like, and experience my own nature as divine. Some yogis were so enlightened by Om, he said, they even levitated. Others were so detached they lived on breath alone. I actually met one of these yogis, which at the time seemed very cool and exotic. I wanted these spiritual abilities too. My teacher also loved Om, and chanted Om with his students every class.
I wondered, "Why would my teacher say such a thing against Om, which seems contrary to his own spiritual life and practice?" Perhaps that day he simply wanted to give us a more objective Ayurvedic perspective on Om. Although my teacher is religious, and Ayurveda declares spiritual life is essential to health, Ayurveda itself is a science - not a religion. The word Ayurveda actually means the science of life. In fact, Ayurveda can be used as a tool to examine one's religious life and practice. So, Ayurvedically, his teachings that day made me wonder, "What does the science of Ayurveda conclude about Om?"
Due to detachment and Om's etheric qualities, the science of life would conclude that Om is dry, cold, light, subtle, and clear. Om aggravates Vata, one of the three body types in Ayurveda. One could even say that the etheric qualities of Vata are fully realized in Om, even to the exclusion of the other two body types, which have warmth and can be touched. According to Yogic practice, Om is an entirely spiritual word - it has no body or flesh - and chanting it increases disconnection from one's own mind, body, and flesh.
Om appears throughout the ancient Indian texts as a symbol of the ultimate reality (Brahman). In the "8 Limbs of Yoga" outlined by Patanjali, Om is considered to be the sound of God (Ishvara). It was in yoga class that I first heard the word Om. I went to yoga because I wanted to be healthy and learn about my body.
Soon, I discovered that Yoga was also an ascetic philosophy aimed at dissolving one's ego. Yoga, the word itself, means union and practicing it leads one into a sensation of universal oneness. Yoga's goal is to transcend the self and enter into cosmic consciousness. The mental state induced by Om aids one in this process. That was why Om appeared at the end of every yoga class, the grand finale of the yoga ritual. I learned that, in this idea of oneness, the self is considered to be an illusion (maya) created by one's ego.
The yogic approach to oneness has some apparently positive features. It is a very powerful tool for mutual understanding.The idea that we share one reality can be good when applied to another person because in a sense we are all brothers and sisters and share the same feelings. Imagine the capacity for love and understanding brought by the ability to walk in your brother's or sister's shoes, to immerse yourself in his or her inner world. You can imagine, then, how excited I was to discover Om. I wanted detachment from my emotions. I wanted to be like God, and to experience my nature as divine. I wanted to recognize the oneness of my brother and me.
So I continued to say the word Om. For some reason, I didn't immediately recognize the connection between Om's detachment and the loss of security and bonded love. It is not hard to see how one could lose one's home, career, and spouse by chanting Om. By saying Om, you become detached from everything - and therefore "lose" even the desire for these things. With this realization, the Vata increasing qualities of Om became clear: in Om, I found the freedom from painful emotions I was searching for, but not the warmth and commitment I needed to thrive. In Om, I could find no priorities or loyalties. As much as Om seemed to cultivate appreciation for all, it did not offer bonded love with one. Yet, I passionately wanted practices, beliefs, and roadmaps that were more stable and steadfast, concrete, and that led to cherishing one another uniquely.
But in Ayurveda, healthy living is also full of important attachments. Because of attachment to goodness, for example, life makes sense and is mutually supportive. Attachment to relationships is what makes life fruitful and joyful. One's friendships, family, and colleagues form a network of support that is essential to one's health and wellness. Another important attachment, if you want to be physically healthy, is identification with your body and self, as opposed to identifying with the whole cosmos.
In Ayurveda, attachments are also sacred and must be kept in proper order and perspective. Life as Ayurveda sees it, because of attachment, stands in opposition to the disembodied state of detachment that Om & samadhi encourage. Ayurveda recognizes a second step after detachment, which is re-attachment. One should be attached to all things good and to supporting life. Life is sacred to Ayurveda practitioners. And, if life is sacred, then so are the attachments necessary to sustain it. Ayurveda is full of priorities attuned to this purpose.
As fascinated as I was about exploring Om, I also couldn't ignore the fact that dissolving into the cosmos and escaping the cycle of birth and death seemed contrary to my value system. I found Om's opposition to the life cycle chilling - it seemed to challenge the dignity of life itself. As an Ayurveda practitioner, this was an affront to my sensibilities and world view. As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I love life and more than loving it, I believe in it and want it abundantly. Instead of eschewing existence, I prioritized it. True, the endless cycle of life may be a source of suffering. But for me, it was also the source of goodness and love.
My clients came to Ayurveda and yoga to heal their bodies. I wondered, "What would happen when these clients realized, like me, they were practicing a philosophy of disembodiment?" Would they turn away from Ayurveda and reject it? How could I claim to be helping my clients as a health and wellness professional, while following a philosophy that suggested escaping the circle of life? Doesn't Ayurveda, the science of life, celebrate life instead of trying to escape it? Doesn't Ayurveda place life at the front and center of its spiritual ideals? Doesn't Ayurveda see the cup of life as half full, instead of half empty?
Suddenly, participating in the yoga ritual of corpse pose or imitating death or dying in yoga class on any level at all seemed like the opposite of Ayurveda's purpose. I started to feel a stabbing pain in my heart every time I watched a teacher lead others to float in Om. Inwardly I resisted, and even rebelled because my heart screamed, "Life is good!" Like most Ayurveda practitioners, I wanted to feed people and to heal them. I wanted to strengthen their bodies. During my entire time at Ayurveda school, I struggled with the aloofness of Om. In fact, my heart wanted to be surrounded by life, the warmth of love, and the sound of children laughing. I wanted to have hope.
Thus, considering Ayurveda's commitment to prioritize life, I began to question the compatibility of Ayurveda and Om. I began to seek answers to an even harder question, "If not Om, then what?" Was there a word that affirmed living a full and abundant life? Something that would affirm my clients' love for their body, serve their legitimate needs and keep them coming back for more? This is a journey we'll continue in future issues.
About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. His online course Balance Your Ayurvedic Diet in a Week provides tools for gracefully healing with Ayurveda to thousands. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.
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