Todd Caldecott - challenging the beliefs on Food in Ayurveda
by Sandra Radja
Food touches a core part of ourselves. We use it religiously, recreationally, creatively, and of course to find a pathway to our health. Food can be used in place of finding deeper connection in our relationships with others or ourselves, either with too much food or a lack of it or even the wrong combination of it. It can also reform our tissues to a heightened re-imagining of our way of being. It is such a place of confusion for so many and within that confusion lie the opportunists ready at the pulpit of decreeing the good the synthetic and the unethical.
Food has a trail as long as your Vikruti or imbalances that present themselves; it represents the nature of the environment it comes from, not only in the physical qualities it is born in but also the nature of the people that tend to it for their own development. They say there is a strain of yoghurt culture in Varanasi as old as a thousand years, no doubt collecting impressions along the way. The soil your food grows in has also been through changes reflecting wastes and environmental changes. There is a story to tell with the food you eat and the recent relationship we have cultivated in the West seems to concentrate on the end product but the food we eat has been through many lives - we tend to forget that.
Todd Caldecott is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Western herbalist that has set his sights on exploring the deeper meaning of the scriptures within reference to his own Western roots system. He fuses the two worlds well. He also ascribes to an independent way of thinking that provides insights aplenty by showing you how the core of the natural world works and its various applications in a clear cut way. It's a step into a deeper way of thinking. I think of the idea of Tamas or inertia as holding potential, and I think of how Todd has taken the very real and earthy idea of food and created a doorway of self discovery within it. He has become part of the foods journey. Read on, you will see why.
1. You make mention of the lack of lineage in your life. The poignant and beautiful article you wrote about your mothers life and death (and MDMA) mentions a shaky upbringing in terms of creating a strong emotional foundation. Do you think you were able to re-create that foundational aspect via food?
When I moved out at the age of 18 to live on my own, I spent the first six months preparing all the dishes I learned in my high school home economics class, which basically meant that I was eating a lot of spaghetti and muffins. But over time, I grew to appreciate the importance of a varied and balanced diet on my health, and mostly due to my pre-existing interest in Taoism, was drawn to the principles and practices of macrobiotics. It was the first system that taught me about the energetics of food, and although it pales in comparison to the sophistication of Ayurveda, it was a very important step on my journey.
There are many realizations to be had about diet and the nature of food, and because it is a perennial companion on our journey through life, there are many levels to it's understanding. On a macrocosmic scale, it is important to understand that there is no separation between the consumed and the consumer. All indigenous, earth-centered traditions acknowledge this reality. Among the Coastal Salishan peoples, for example, whose traditional land I now inhabit, the all-important salmon were seen as their departed ancestors: a great gift and bounty of the previous generations to nourish the present. In a similar fashion, many Hindus chant the Bhojan mantra before eating, visualizing the digestive fire as the sacred flame of transformation. Unlike the blessings before food invoked by the Abrahamic faiths, this mantra isn’t chanted to appease an angry paternalistic god, but invokes a realization that all things are connected. This notion of interconnectedness is a prescient perspective, particularly considering the emerging food crisis that has been wrought by the cultural impact of Western industrialization:
brahmārpaṇaṃ brahmahavirbrahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam
brahmaiva tenā gantavyaṃ brahmakarmasamādhinā
“The ritual is brahman, the offering is brahman, the tool used to make the offering is brahman, and the fire to which the offering is consigned is also brahman. For such a one who abides in brahman, by this alone is brahman attained.”
Every being is food, and every being must eat. This realization can help to bring each of us closer to the food we eat, an interaction I think is crucial if we want to put an end to the high level of chronic disease in Westernized societies. But while eating itself is an intensely personal and profound act, it is also something that we share in common with each other. It wasn’t until I was married and had children that I truly understood the importance of community when it comes to nutrition. Not just in the sense of family support and interaction, but in the collective knowledge that a community holds, often derived from practices that extend deep into human prehistory. Not growing up with any significant food traditions in my broken family meant that I was forced to tap into other cultural food traditions, and recreate a vision for my family and community, and as a practitioner and teacher, for my patients and students. In this way, my conscious participation in the practice of food, both as a receiver and a giver, connects me to a deep lineage of human knowledge and experience - something I strongly feel compelled to protect and maintain.
2. Your book "Food as Medicine - The Theory and Practice of Food" has healing recipes from many traditions, including meat. There seems to be such a divide in the Ayurvedic community about this topic throwing about the idea of what is Tamasic, Rajasic or Sattvic food. Can the intention you create with the food override the qualities it inherits?
Your question unfortunately belies a misapprehension that is all too common in modern Ayurveda. To correct this misunderstanding, it is necessary to have a suitable grasp of the epistemology of Ayurveda, which is based upon the Samkhya darshana, a lineage of knowledge that was already considered ancient when mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita.
The teachings of Samkhya are remarkably simple, and allied with the chief aim of Ayurveda and also Buddhism, which is the alleviation of suffering. The concept of sattva, rajas and tamas, collectively known as triguna, is derived from the Samkhya tradition, and relates to three (tri) qualities (guna) manifest within our everyday waking consciousness (called ahamkara). Within this temporal state, sattva, rajas, and tamas represent different aspects of being. Sattva represents the subjective consciousness, that which is experienced through deep meditation and insight, when the mind is turned inward and away from the compulsions of raga (desire) and dvish (aversion). In contrast, tamas represents the objective, physical world, which includes our bodies, the food we eat, the earth itself, and all the stars in the universe. Rajas is the quality that binds sattva to tamas, drawing the consciousness outwards into physical reality, just as a tortoise extends its leg out from the shell.
If you can appreciate this brief exposition of triguna, then hopefully you can see that it cannot be applied to food, for food itself is a manifestation of tamas, i.e. the physical world. We consume food to nourish our bodies, both of which relate to tamas. To interpolate sattva and rajas into the equation is to misapprehend the basic teaching of Samkhya, and introduce a value-based system that really speaks more to a personal or cultural bias, rather than the intrinsic nature of food. Thus, some people will say that a certain food is “sattvic”, such as milk or ghee, and that another food such is “tamasic”, such as meat or fish. In truth, milk, ghee, meat and fish are all tamasic, and are eaten precisely for these tamasic qualities, i.e. to nourish and sustain our tamasic bodies. For what other purpose do we need to eat? When we elevate food to the quality of sattva, we practice a form of spiritual materialism, where the object becomes confused for the subject. Thus, in the manner of spiritual seekers who look everywhere except within, a belief that elevates food to the level of sattva suffers from a fundamental confusion - at least according to Samkhya.
This is not to say that food does not impact consciousness. It absolutely can, as can a rainy day, an argument with your spouse, or winning the lottery. Obviously, tamasic or physical experiences can dramatically impact the equilibrium of the consciousness (sattva), but they do so most powerfully when we confuse subject (i.e. our mind) for object (i.e. physical reality). In Buddhist terms, the word given to this state is avidya, or ignorance, which arises when we unconsciously seek to resolve the inner conflicts of the mind within the corporeal world. The mind is the mind - it is not the world. To confuse them is to deny the basic teachings of the Vedas, and other spiritual traditions such as Buddhism. Thus the Buddha argued with and eventually expelled his kinsman Devadatta from the Sangha, because he wanted to turn the teaching into a cult of materialism that elevated vegetarianism as a spiritual goal. Likewise, in making distinction between vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism, the Sikh holy book called the Guru Granth Sahib, says:
"The fools argue about flesh and meat, but they know nothing about meditation and spiritual wisdom. What is called meat, and what is called green vegetables? What leads to sin? It was the habit of the gods to kill the rhinoceros, and make a feast of the burnt offering. Those who renounce meat, and hold their noses when sitting near it, devour men at night. They practice hypocrisy, and make a show before other people, but they do not understand anything about meditation or spiritual wisdom. O Nanak, what can be said to the blind people? They cannot answer, or even understand what is said.”
Beyond anything I have said here, the basic evidence for my thesis is easily evidenced in the classical texts of Ayurveda, including those of the Brhat Trayi (i.e. Charaka, Sushruta, and Vagbhata), and the Laghu Trayi (Madhava, Sharangadhara, Bhavaprakasha), none which in any way attempt to categorize food or medicines according to triguna. Rather, food, beverages, and medicines are understood according to dravyaguna, which enumerates factors such as rasa (taste), vipaka (post-digestive effect), virya (energy), karma (action), and prabhava (special potency). To date, I have never seen the terms sattva, rajas, or tamas used in context with food or medicine in any text of Ayurveda, with the exception of a few modern writers, whose mistaken notions have unfortunately been taken as gospel.
The fact, as difficult as it may be for some to accept, is that Ayurveda is not and never was a vegetarian-based system. There is no classical text which recommends a vegetarian diet, and if you peruse the treatment of almost any condition described in the classical texts, some kind of animal or meat product, such as mamsa rasa, or meat broth (e.g. chicken soup), is recommended. The issue of vegetarianism in Ayurveda is a metaphorical sacred cow that obfuscates its authentic history and practice, and forces it to become nothing more than an anemic, pale replica of itself. The reality is that Ayurveda is for everybody, regardless of faith, gender, age, culture, geography, or climate. According to tradition, the knowledge of Ayurveda is built into the very fabric of matter itself, and in this way, is a part of us all - even if we don’t know it. Ayurveda is a system of knowledge that allows you live in concert with dharma, or the natural rhythm of life, no matter where you live: whether its the lush tropics of south India where being a vegetarian is very easy, or the frigid steppes of Tibet, where being a vegetarian isn’t even a possibility.
3. How do you work with busy-ness, as in clients that are too busy to cook? Do you have some cheat notes of how they can get around the idea of avoiding left overs?
I tend not to attract patients that have no interest in food or cooking. I consider cooking a prerequisite of health, and those who do not consider it so, or can’t be bothered to get involved in some way, aren’t worth my time and energy as a practitioner. It is my job to help people, but I need to carefully balance this against the need to honor my knowledge and the tradition I represent. It is a question of priorities, and what we ultimately want to uphold and honor. As the body is made from food, it is the first place to start when there is any problem with health.
As for leftovers and preserved food, I also believe this to be something of a red herring in modern Ayurveda. Hopefully I have deconstructed the notion that somehow leftover food is more “tamasic” than fresh food, as both are tamasic). Apart from this misconstrued value-based assessment, the only important considerations when it comes to leftovers are the preservation of nutrients, and the risk of microbiological contamination.
In ancient India, nobody of course had refrigerators, and so any prepared food would spoil quickly. But just like the old English nursery rhyme “Peas Porridge Hot”, a traditional Indian housewife wasn’t so imprudent and wasteful as to throw food out just because it was “leftover”. There are many examples of “leftover" dishes in India, such as biriyani, a dish made from leftover rice. In this way, as long as they are properly stored and re-heated to a piping hot temperature, there is no reason why you can’t have that tasty chicken curry for lunch tomorrow, and maybe even the next day, but perhaps along with some fresh veggies for added nutrients. Generally, any food left to sit more than 2-3 days in the fridge should probably be avoided. Relying exclusively on leftover or preserved food isn’t a good idea, and can lead to all kinds of nutrient deficiencies. This issue of the devitalization of food is part of the problem with the industrial, fast-food diet of the Western world.
4. It seems we have forgotten how to truly enjoy food. Coming from a European background food was a major reason to share with relatives around a big table. I would love to know how you celebrate with your family and friends.
As I alluded to earlier, eating is a profound act of communion. In Ayurveda, eating is considered to be a yagya, or a spiritual ritual. In this way, Ayurveda has a number of recommendations to ensure the propitiousness of the act, such as eating at the appropriate speed, in a relaxing environment, free of distraction and intense emotions. But for some, this probably doesn’t sound or look like the family dinner table at home!
The European tradition of the big family dinner, with its emphasis upon social interaction and discussion while eating, is typically absent in traditional Indian homes. Eating is a private act, shared with companions, but ultimately with the focus upon mindful nourishment. At Indian weddings for example, guests don’t sit at round tables to chat with each other, but sit cross-legged in long rows, each person with a banana leaf in front of them, covered in food, with very little interaction between the participants until after eating.
This doesn’t mean, however, that food cannot be a celebration, or that Indian cultural norms are preeminent considerations. Beyond the basic advice given to us by Ayurveda on the subject of eating, I think eating can be an act of celebration: in many ways, eating already is a celebratory act - certainly it feels that way when I’m hungry! But when actively celebrating, intoxicated with emotion or perhaps other substances, eating isn’t the most appropriate act to engage in. Even if you consider the autonomic nervous system, digestion is activated by parasympathetic reflexes, whereas partying is more of a sympathetic reflex. Thus, it’s better to come to a celebratory event well-fed and fortified, instead of trying to mediate the stress of eating and partying at the same time.
As for how I celebrate food with friends, I like to cook for them! In the Indian tradition, guests are viewed as emanations of the Divine, and there is no greater way to honor this principle than offering them the havis, or divine nourishment, so they may continue to protect all that is good in the world. Cooking for me is a kinesthetic meditation, amplified by the fact that I never taste the food while its cooking, which would violate the sanctity of the offering.
5. There are all sorts of great ideas spreading about food these days such as the Slow Food Movement, Farm to Fork (catering from local suppliers) and Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution to reduce the reliance on fast food. What kind of revolution would you start with food?
It seems to me that the concept of a food revolution is passé, and maybe little more than a marketing term used by celebrity chefs to sell merchandise. The approach to food that I have articulated in my book, and in my answers to your questions, is something I have been invested in and practicing for a lot longer than most, but it’s not like I “own” it, or it’s “my” idea. At the age of 47, I’m personally tired of the upheaval and destruction that revolutions bring. If there is to be a food revolution, I hope that it is a quiet one, returning us to the innate wisdom of our shared human heritage. That was my purpose in writing Food As Medicine.
Todd leads various online programs via his Dogwood School of Botanical Medicine.
- Inside Ayurveda program is a comprehensive online course, which includes 20 recorded classes, a 612 page manual, two years participation in the weekly Q&A (all of which are recorded), and two years participation in the discussion group.
- Food As Medicine is a 15 part series that builds upon the book Food As Medicine, including a detailed review of modern clinical nutrition. Packed with all the useful, practical I have learned over 20 years of practice, this course is supplemented by a series of additional lectures and instructional videos to help students bring these practices to life.
- Both of these programs are prerequisites to further training within the
- There is also an affiliate program for any practitioners wishing to support the lineage of information.
- To get a feel for the content, there are some free audios that can be accessed after registering on the school’s website.