Stick to your roots

Stick to your roots

Our traditional practices are the key to holistic healing.

When it comes to health and lifestyle, culture matters. Indian culture is an assortment of many beliefs and practices and is blessed with richness and diversity. While our cultural practices vary from region to region, all of them if studied in a scientific and respectful manner move us towards a sound physical, mental and emotional health.

Every culture teaches us to adopt certain practices and habits. It is the exposure to a particular culture that shapes our genetic code, gut microbiome, metabolism, thought process and beliefs.

Over the years, media and technology have become a shaping force in culture. Unfortunately, this is also giving birth to many trends, fads, myths, confusion, unhealthy competition and body image issues. It is only when we step away from our roots and start aping another culture, a decline in health sets in and we become susceptible to diseases.

A good example is a shift from traditional eating patterns among south Indians. Apart from the emphasis on coconut oil, traditional, nutritious south Indian meals include idlis and dosas (which is also a complete protein because of rice and dal). But a shift to refined oil, olive oil, chapatis, and quinoa has increased the rate of obesity, gut issues and cases of cardiovascular conditions among them.

Here are some practices that we see in different cultures and how it plays a major role in shaping our health:

Dry fasting

This ancient discipline is observed in nearly all religions from Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Mormonism and Judaism, and is followed as a form of cleansing, self-discipline and spiritual growth. It has now become the ultimate form of healing, and prevents diseases ranging from inflammation to cancer and even halting the process of ageing. Scientifically, it’s also a proven method to improve vagal tone, that helps one switch from a sympathetic mode to a parasympathetic mode.

Yoga & breathwork

Yogic teachings including the asanas, pranayama, and meditation (dhyan) have existed since time immemorial and are an integral part of our culture. Yoga channelises our prana (life force) through breathing practices, gently massages every organ, boosts flexibility and circulation through asanas, brings our mind, body and soul in balance with one another through meditation, and also helps in detoxification through an enema, oil pulling and several yogic kriyas.

When we look at fitness, our culture has always prescribed the idea that “less is more”. The best and safest forms of exercises are nature walks, yoga, surya namaskara and traditional dance forms. When we take that away and follow something that someone else may be doing as a part of their culture, it doesn’t benefit but harms us.

Saatvic lifestyle

Saatvic way of living has taught us that the beauty lies in simplicity, whether it is the kind of food we eat, the clothes we wear or the thoughts we get. A saatvic diet includes some of the most nourishing foods like khichdi, buttermilk (chaas), spice concoctions (kadhas), and ghee. Even the practice of praying and offering gratitude before eating allows us the time to realign ourselves, stimulate gastric acid secretions and focus on food for a better digestion, absorption, assimilation and portion control.

Culinary culture

Olive oil in Mediterranean cultures, mustard oil in West Bengal and parts of Assam, coconut oil in south India and parts of Goa, ghee in North India. Similarly, idli and dosa in south India, parathas in north India, rice in West Bengal and dhoklas in Gujarat. Every food has its own place. The vastness and variety of food is not indicative of which culture is better and healthier. Every culture and its food practices are perfect for that particular region considering the climate, ecology, environment and so many other factors.

Take coconuts and its byproducts for example. Why does the culture in tropical zones speak highly of it? It’s because the hot and humid climate causes fungal growth and coconut has been blessed with antifungal properties.

Likewise, spices such as turmeric, pepper, cumin, fennel, asafoetida, onion and garlic can be found in almost every dish in India. It is because of the prevalence of these spices that our diet naturally becomes anti-inflammatory and easily digestible. Take for instance a good old cup of masala chai. With several health benefits, many of us grew up on it and are emotionally attached to that one fulfilling and soothing cup. However, we misunderstood this humble drink thinking that it was impacting our health and weight, and switched to exotic teas. Tea and coffee if consumed in the right quantity and quality is never harmful. Even the Turks and people from the Middle East add spices like cardamom to nullify the acidic effects of coffee.

The beauty of following one’s own culture is that it gives a more holistic approach to health that includes the body, mind, and spirit. We see that when a nutritionist or a doctor works with a patient’s cultures and beliefs, rather than against it or ignoring it, they experience a more pronounced healing and recovery.

Having said that, it’s also important to know that culture alone doesn’t determine your predisposition towards a disease. But it is something that should be taken into account and tied with other ways of taking care of health.

(The author is a holistic nutritionist, who specialises in Integrative & Lifestyle Medicine)