Chef Claire Ragozzino, the founder of Vidya Living, gave up a career in policy making in favour of Yoga and Ayurveda. Claire says her mission is to move beyond trends to Truth, as far as food is concerned. She is a certified Ayurveda Health Counsellor as well as a certified Yoga trainer. She has also done courses in integrative nutrition.
Her journey with Ayurveda began in her teens when a gut problem led her to cooking her own meals. As the daughter of two busy pilots, Claire says she did not grow up with awareness of food as medicine. “There are many paths to healing, mine happened to start with food. I didn’t grow up with a lot of awareness about the importance of food as medicine. My parents were busy pilots with their focus and passion on aviation, so food was seen more as fuel, and eating a matter of what could be quick and convenient. I would say this is the case for many.”
Claire adds that “With an industrial globalized food system, it’s easy to go to the grocery store today and shop for quick pre-packaged foods without having any idea of what’s inside the actual ingredients, let alone where the ingredients came from or how they will affect your body or mind. In the quest for convenience, we’re losing real connection to our food sources, and thus our innate wisdom of our relationship to the natural world. Now with so much nutritional information and product lines out there, it can be quite confusing and even overwhelming to know how to select and prepare meals that are properly nourishing to your unique needs. It’s become a passion and mission of mine to help people reclaim this inner wisdom and heal their relationship with food.”
In the course of your extended training with various specialists in Yoga and Ayurveda what was the importance given to food and cooking?
Diet (Āhāra) is one of the three supporting pillars of good health in Ayurveda. Healthy and wholesome food nourishes the body, mind and soul. On a physical level, it forms our tissues and dictates the overall health of our body. On a mental and emotional level, food plays a vital role in how we can perceive the world around us. Ayurveda teaches us how to apply correct knowledge of our individual constitutions (Prakṛti) and our current state (Vikṛti) to our time and place in order to feed ourselves according to our unique needs. So when studying Ayurveda, food and how we digest that food is a large focus.
As a yoga practitioner, this knowledge can help you to intelligently care for your body and foster a clear, sattvic mind. I would say many modern yoga trainings don’t delve too much into diet or cooking, however, I believe every yoga practitioner would benefit from knowing at least the foundational principles of the sister science and how an individualized approach to diet can better support their practice.
What is the connection between yoga and Ayurveda for you?
Yoga is considered to be Ayurveda’s sister science, with a similar timeline of development. Many know yoga in the modern West as a physical practice, a workout for staying in shape. However, until recently, yoga was primarily a practice for spiritual liberation, only outlining a handful of postures for meditation. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that yoga became a more embodied practice and started to merge with Ayurveda as a means of supporting the body, mind, and spirit as an interconnected whole.
Yoga can be used as a therapy (Cikitsā) to prevent and treat disease. Because the mind influences the body, yoga’s aim is not only to bring strength and vitality back to the physical body but also to restore the mind back to its sattvic state so that it can perceive reality more clearly. Yoga as a therapy is not a one-size-fits-all or all-the-time approach. Rather, yoga can be practiced in accordance with your unique type and needs. In my book, Living Ayurveda, I aim to equip the reader with an understanding of how to use yoga as a therapeutic tool to balance the doshas and work with different postures and breath through the seasons.
What is the main difference between eating healthy and eating for healing according to you?
Healthy eating has become a really trendy term these days hasn’t it? There seems to be a plethora of ways that people are claiming to be the healthiest ways to eat—some tout no fat low carb diets, some praise high fat and high protein diets, or trumpet intermittent fasting, or caffeine-laced with butter and superfoods. What I love about Ayurveda is that it’s not a trend or a fad diet that is exclusive to certain types of food deemed healthy at the moment. Rather, it looks at the individual, their unique metabolic blueprint and current digestive capacity, their environment and time of life, and maps out a diet that is healing to their present moment needs. A healing diet is used to treat imbalance and put the body back on track, whether that is healing from a long-term illness or treating a seasonal imbalance. There is no “good” or “bad” food necessarily in Ayurveda, but rather an awareness of what is needed for the individual at this point of time in their life.
Physically we are aware of the benefits of an Ayurvedic diet. What is your experience in its mental and emotional benefits?
The old saying “Food affects mood” is true! We look at the Maha Gunas (Rajas, Tamas and Sattva) as overall states of mind. The mind’s nature is inherently Sattvic, and when we eat nourishing meals prepared from quality, whole food ingredients and cooked with loving presence, this can promote a peaceful mind. When our diet is habituated with foods that are processed, frozen, canned, old or stale, it does not give life. We can feel a sense of lethargy, dullness or even withdrawal and depression when our diet is Tamasic in nature. Equally, when we live a fast and furious life fueled by caffeine, processed sugar and stimulants, our frenetic energy can create an aggravated Rajasic state of mind. Knowing these states of mind can help us to choose a diet that supports what we are seeking in our daily experience, and can shed the light of awareness on poor eating habits that drain us.
Can Ayurveda help to break the cycle of poor eating and addictive eating?
Absolutely, because it teaches us awareness of our root patterns. When we become aware of how we want to feel and observe what is pulling us towards habits of disordered eating, we can then approach the change needed by treating the root of the pattern. Oftentimes, poor eating comes from lack of knowledge on how to eat for how we want to feel. And addictive eating usually stems from an unmet emotional need.
For example, a client once shared that she was so busy with her work as an online counselor, she never had time to eat during the day and instead wound up binge eating at erratic hours. She drank several cups of coffee to curb her appetite and stay energized during her busy hours. She saw a half dozen clients in the day where she spent most of the session talking or listening to difficult emotional stories, and afterwards felt ravenously hungry. Without thinking, she’d eat a whole bag of salty chips and then crave chocolate afterwards. Her biggest concern was having addictive eating patterns she could not overcome.
Yet, the foods themselves weren’t really the culprit here, it was the activities and unmet needs behind them. Her work was hyper-stimulating, she exhausted her energy talking and unintentionally fasting during the hours she needed the caloric intake the most. In order to calm herself after a long session, she would quickly eat some salty and then pendulum over to the sweet sugary foods. Both of these tastes, sweet and salty, contain qualities that provide a sense of comfort, grounding and satisfaction. When she realized the binge eating came after long client days, but not on weekends when she could prepare meals, she could quickly shift the habit by using her weekends to meal plan and have better quality foods prepared and ready to eat during her busier workdays.
Kitchari by Claire
Could you share some anecdotes on what transformation food can bring about?
To continue the example above, the client that continuously binged on snack foods and never took time to eat full meals, was moving towards hypothyroidism and experiencing chronic fatigue. She had difficulty sleeping and irregular menstrual cycles. She was often constipated and felt bloated after eating. By prioritizing meal planning based on her needs and taking a short lunch break midday to eat a full meal, she was able to get out of the cycle of overstimulation and binge eating. Instead of reaching for caffeine to pick her up or alcohol to calm her down, she took a conscious rest and meditation after work when she felt most tired and ate a nourishing dinner in the evening. In time, she began sleeping through the night and waking more energized. Her digestive fire was restored by eliminating the erratic eating cycles, and she no longer felt bloated and constipated. Food became an anchor point in her busy life, and by nourishing her relationship to food she began to find a deeper stability within herself.
Your book deals with seasonal cuisine and recipes. At this time of the year, what would you recommend to your followers?
It depends on your climate, your constitution and digestive capacity, I would note first and foremost. However, what the summer season generally brings is increased heat and longer days. In summer, we want to keep in mind how high temperatures and more time outside in the sun can increase our internal heat and start to dry us out. Our body’s digestive fire, Agni, is weakened this time of year, as heat disperses from our core to cool us down. So it’s important to maintain healthy eating habits and routine meals to keep our digestion on track. We want to avoid excessive fasting or grazing all day, and instead focus on eating two to three satisfying meals a day at consistent hours, with a digestive-friendly snack as needed for those who are more active or have a sharp digestion. We also want to reduce foods with heating qualities, such as pungent spices like chilies, onion, garlic, mustard and ginger. Instead, we cook with more cooling spices and herbs such as coriander, fennel, dill and parsley. Our meals can incorporate more sweet tastes from ripe fruit, whole grains, and quality dairy, as well as bitter and astringent tastes from seasonal leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and legumes. We often crave lighter foods in summertime, such as salads, but it’s best to enjoy these at lunchtime when your digestive capacity can handle more difficult to digest raw ingredients, and enjoy your cooked meals in the evening.
How did you do the research for your book?
When researching for the book, I spent time with the classical texts, primarily referring to the Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam and the Caraka Saṃhitā. I also referenced Dr. Vasant Lad, Dr. Robert Svoboda and Dr. David Frawley, their translations and interpretations are very helpful for a Western reader who is still studying the nuances of Sanskrit! My aim was to provide a very simple introduction to the foundational principles of Ayurveda in a way that could be approached by a Western reader and palate. The recipes include more traditional recipes—like ghee, chapati and khichdi—alongside dishes like mung bean tacos and chapati crust pizza with parsley pesto with an Ayurvedic spin. My hope is to share Ayurvedic wisdom in a way that any reader from any culture can feel comfortable and confident applying the principles to their culinary traditions.
(Claire Ragozzino is a certified yoga instructor and Ayurvedic counselor with a background in holistic nutrition and natural cooking. Her work is dedicated to bringing yoga, Ayurveda, and nutrition to a modern lifestyle. She is the author of the popular site, Vidya Living, and also writes and photographs for online and print publications surrounding topics of food, culture, and our relationship to nature. Her first book, Living Ayurveda, offers a comprehensive Ayurvedic cookbook and lifestyle guide. Claire works with clients around the globe and leads immersive workshops and retreats. www.vidyaliving.com, www.instagram.com/claireragz, www.facebook.com/vidyaliving)