Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lesson #19: Taste: The Six Tastes and the Emotions

Taste: The Six Tastes and the Emotions
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay.

The word for taste in sanskrit is rasa. Rasa also means essential sap or juice. This refers to the essence of life in a food or plant, and also the essence of life in each of us. Ayurveda, being the science of life, is interested in methods to awaken the taste, the rasa, the essential life-juice in our foods and thereby feed the essential life-force, the prana, the sap of life in each of us.
Rasa also refers to our individual tastes, our inclinations. Here we see that we are inclined to certain tastes in our foods and also to certain tastes of experience. Conversely, we are disinclined to other tastes and experiences.
Perhaps most interestingly, rasa also refers to our emotions, our feelings, and our sentiments, including our religious sentiments. As you can see, the single word rasa has a wide-ranging set of meanings. Yet these meanings are not distinct, they are interconnected.
We could refer to a food as having a sweet taste. We can talk of a person as a sweet person. We can speak of a sweet experience. And we can feel the satisfaction of a sweet feeling or sentiment. All of these descriptions are linked. For example, the sweet taste of a food can directly affect the sweetness of your emotion.
It is also possible to describe something or someone as being too sweet, or lacking sweetness. As we shall see, all the possible tastes have their positive and negative expressions.
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes which are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. There are a total of sixty-three possible combinations of the basic six tastes: 6 single tastes, 15 mixtures of 2, 20 mixtures of 3, 15 of 4, 6 of 5, and one mixture of all six tastes.
All foods and herbs are classified by taste. The taste of a food gives us the key to its actions upon the digestion, the body, and ultimately our emotions and our sentiments. Because of this powerful interplay, understanding taste is of critical importance in understanding the methods of ayurveda.

Taste and Food
Sweet taste is also called neutral taste. This is to distinguish it from the idea of simple sugar or desserts. In fact, the sweet or neutral taste includes all the macro-nutrients - proteins, carbs and fats, as well as most of our fruits and vegetables. Thus it is said that about 90% of our food is of the sweet/neutral taste. Sweet taste has a nourishing effect. However, too much sweet, especially sugars, can lead to obesity, lethargy, loss of appetite, excess mucus, and even parasites.
Ayurveda tells us to let our food be our medicine and our medicine be our food. Many people are familiar with this idea. But ayurveda goes on to say that food is that which is digested and medicine is that which helps us digest our food.
If the sweet/neutral taste composes 90% of our food, it is the other five tastes that help us digest our food. The other five tastes are our medicines. Sour taste includes all foods that are aged, ripened, fermented or naturally acidic. They are considered to be partially pre-digested foods or digestive aids. Thus they help stimulate appetite. Too much sour can lead to blood toxicity, heartburn, acidity, or itching.
Salty taste stimulates the flow of saliva and the creation of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thus aiding digestion. Too much salt disturbs the blood, leads to inflammation or fluid retention, and overwhelms all the other senses.
Pungent taste includes all foods and spices that are spicy, hot, and sharp. The warming quality stimulates the digestive fire known as agni. It reduces fluids and has a cleansing action. Too much pungent can lead to excessive heat, burning, dehydration, restlessness, and irritability.
Bitter taste is found in many vegetables and herbs. It works in a paradoxical manner. Being extremely cooling, it temporarily suppresses the digestive fire. The digestive fire then responds with greater vigor enhancing our appetite. Bitter has a purifying action and corrects all the other tastes. Too much bitter leads to emaciation, dizziness, and nerve disorders.
Astringent taste is found in fruits like pomegranate and cranberry, and also in beans, some vegetables and herbs. It has a corrective action. It tones up the surface areas of the digestive tract and helps dry up excessive fluids and stop discharges. This allows for a better functioning of the digestive tract itself. Too much can cause excessive dryness and constipation.
The idea then is to combine foods and herbs of all six tastes into a balanced whole. First, as mentioned, we can balance the predominant sweet taste with the other five tastes. A well-rounded meal uses all six tastes in due proportion.
Secondly, sweet, sour and salty have a building action, that is they help build tissues. Pungent, bitter and astringent have a reducing action. Therefore, we need to strike a balance between building and reducing. This is achieved by balancing the heavier proteins, carbs, and fats with the lighter vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
More specifically, sweet foods have a cool, damp and heavy quality and action. The perfect balance is provided by pungent taste which has the opposite qualities and actions of hot, dry and light. This is the strategy of adding hot spices to help digest heavy foods, such as adding pepper to a protein dish. Please note that a little pepper goes a long way. The idea is not to have equal quantities of protein and pepper, only equal actions. Sweet/neutral taste will still be about 90% of your diet.
There are many strategies that can be devised once the energetic qualities of the tastes are understood. For example, if you are a vata individual who tends towards excessive cold, dryness, and lightness, the best taste to add is a good quality salt which is warming, moisturizing, and heavy. A more subtle approach would be to introduce a full spectrum of trace minerals, the ‘salts’ of the earth, to one’s diet. The best tastes for vata are sweet, sour and salty.
A kapha person tends to be too cool, damp, and heavy. They especially benefit from the pungent taste, which is hot, drying, and light. The best tastes for kapha are pungent, bitter and astringent.
A pitta person tends to be too hot, damp, and light. The best tastes to add are bitter, astringent, and sweet. Bitter is strongly cooling and drying, albeit light in quality. Astringent is mildly cooling, drying and heavy in quality, a perfect balance. Sweet/neutral taste is cool and heavy in quality, albeit damp.
To review, any quality in excess can be balanced by foods and herbs of the opposite quality. This is called the energetic approach. The strongest cooling taste is bitter. The strongest heating taste is pungent. The most most moistening taste is sweet/neutral itself. The most drying taste is pungent. The most clearing and lightening taste is bitter, and the most nourishing, grounding, heavy taste is sweet/neutral.

Taste and Emotions
In the same way that we say that 90% of our foods are sweet, we say that 90% of each person is sweet, but the other tastes/emotions are there as well.
When a person becomes too sour we call them a sour-puss, or say they are feeling sour grapes. A salty person is called a salty dog, given in to their cravings. The hot-head, you know, the one with a sharp tongue and burning words, is a little too pungent. The bitter person has become cynical about life. The astringent type is shriveled like a prune, suffering from insecurity. An overly sweet person has a saccharine personality. Too much sweet taste, unchecked by the other tastes, also leads to complacency, over-satisfaction, dullness and apathy.
On the other hand, each taste/emotion has a positive potential when in balance. Sweet taste gives satisfaction and love. Sour gives exhilaration. Salty gives courage and strength. Pungent has a cutting through quality, which provides excitement and brings clarity and focus to the mind. Bitter gives realism, and astringency feeds our wit.
Ultimately, as we mature emotionally, we begin to see the place and purpose of all the emotions and begin to suspend our judgment of them. Rather we begin to seek a creative balance of emotions and develop a taste for the full range of human experience. Thus, just as the art of cooking can be seen as the art of combining tastes, the art of living can be seen as the art of harmonizing our experiences and our emotions. Eventually, we begin to intuit what is known as the one taste which is the essential unity or sap of life that pervades all the rest.

Lesson #18: The Life of Plants

The Life of Plants
An Introduction to Ayurvedic Herbology
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay

Have you ever walked in the woods of spring and marveled at the beautiful herbs and wildflowers? Have you ever sat quietly in a garden and contemplated the life of the plants? Have you ever harvested an herb or prepared your own medicine? Have you ever been healed by an herbal remedy?
If you have, you know that each plant has it’s own unique qualities, growing and thriving in it’s own time and in it’s own way. Each plant is like a person, with personality traits, alive and conscious. And just like a person, plants thrive in an environment that suits those unique qualities and traits.
Is there any point in asking why a rose thrives in the sun? Or why another prefers the shade? Why some plants grow in the desert and some near the sea? It is what is natural for that plant. And just like humans, place them in an unnatural environment and they will suffer.
Of course, we can learn to classify plants according to family, genus, species and variety. Or we can analyze the chemical constituents and compounds within the plants and isolate the medicinal components. Or we can learn which plants thrive in the sun or the shade and how much water and the type of soil and fertilizers they need.
All of these studies are practical and helpful, but they do not replace knowledge of the plants as a living whole. One of the ways to practice ayurveda is to spend time in nature, in this case, observing plants and getting to know them.
Ayurveda is a science of qualities, so we can observe the qualities that distinguish each plant. We first notice that each plant is alive. Healthy looking plants have more prana or life-force than sickly plants. Freshly picked herbs have more potency and flavor than dried herbs. When dried herbs lose all their smell and taste, they are inert.
The formal name for the observation and categorization of plants and potential medicines in Ayurveda is dravya guna shastra which means the science of substances and their qualities. Their are seven categories called:
1) Dravya (substance)
2) Guna (attribute)
3) Rasa (taste)
4) Virya (energy or potency)
5) Vipaka (post-digestive effect)
6) Prabhava (special effect)
7) Karma (pharmacological action)
1) Dravya: Substances are said to be composed of and are described in terms of the five elements. For example, in plants roots are related to earth, stems, branches and sap are water, flowers are fire, leaves are air, fruit is ether, and seeds contain all five elements.
Plant substances are also categorized according to the three doshas. Kapha (water in earth) plants exhibit lush growth and are moist, heavy, dense and succulent. Pitta (fire in water) plants exhibit moderate growth and are brightly colored. They can be poisonous. Vata (air in ether) plants exhibit sparse growth and can be dry, rough, crooked, or irregular in shape.
There are two types of substances, organic (from plants and animals), and inorganic. Organic substances can act directly on living tissues, our physiology, senses, emotions and even our thoughts when ingested, while inorganic substances act only on physical structures of the body.
2) Guna: The attributes are ten pairs of opposites: hot-cold, dry-wet, light-heavy, fast-slow, rough-smooth, sharp-dull, hard-soft, subtle-gross, clear-cloudy, contracted-expanded. Each plant is defined and distinguished by it’s attributes. And each attribute will tend to have a like action or effect when ingested. A heavy plant will tend to cause heaviness.
3) Rasa: The heart of the system is rasa or taste. What could be more natural when observing a plant than to taste it? The tastes are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent and give important clues as to the potential karma or action of the plant. It is felt in the mouth and the stomach and is associated with kapha and anabolism. Rasa also means sap, flavor, juice, emotion. For example, a sweet tasting plant is likely nourishing and moistening when eaten, will satisfy the stomach and increase kapha and pleasure.
4) Virya: The virya is the basic energy or heating/cooling potential of the plant. It is one of the most important attributes to consider therapeutically and is felt in the small intestine. It is related to pitta and metabolism. The virya is often measured on a scale from very hot, hot, warm, neutral, to cool, cold, very cold. For example, chile peppers, the fruit and seed of the pepper plant are extremely hot and have a very strong heating effect. The quality implies the effect and the effect implies the quality.
5) Vipaka: Vipak is the post-digestive or long term effect. The possibilities are sweet (moistening), pungent (drying), or occasionally sour (acid-forming). This effect is felt in the large intestine and the three waste products (urine, feces, and sweat). It is related to vata and catabolism.
6) Prabhava: Prabhava is any special or unique, sometimes unexplainable living action-the exception to the rule.
7) Karma: The karmas are the general actions or results of the plant on our tissues, organs, systems, doshas, emotions, energy and consciousness. For example, a svedena (diaphoretic) herb causes sweating. You can see that ayurveda is a comprehensive and holistic system.
To summarize thus far, we can learn about the plant world from careful and repeated observation over time, from experimentation and from linking the qualities to the effects and the effects to the qualities. Then we can make inferences or educated guesses based on our experiential observation over time. Or we can rely on the testimony of others, from authoritative compendiums, and time-tested traditional knowledge. Here we are lucky. There are many excellent herbal guides available that use the ayurvedic classification system. This method is often referred to as the “energetic” approach to herbology.
There is another approach to learn about plants, their qualities and their actions. In vedic philosophy it is called upamana, which means by comparison or resemblance. In the west, it is commonly referred to as the doctrine of signatures. The idea is that we can learn about a new plant by comparing it to other plants or parts of the body. For example, a fruit which is heart-shaped may be good for the heart. Hawthorn berries and apples are good for heart health. A leaf which is shaped like a brain may be good for the brain, like gingko leaves. A leaf which is shaped like a lung may be good for the lungs, like mullein. Or, slightly differently, the bark of a tree may be good for the skin. It is fun and educational to look for the signatures of plants. But all comparisons need to be tested and checked.
There is also a spiritual component in the ayurvedic approach to herbs and plants. Each living plant has a measure of consciousness and the ability to effect our consciousness. The effects can be either sattvic (harmonizing/clarifying), rajasic (agitating/activating), or tamasic (dulling/darkening). This categorization is especially important for those on a spiritual path as herbs can either support or detract from one’s inner work.
And since each plant has a measure of consciousness, we can talk or sing to them and they will talk back. For example, plants have come to me in dreams. It is startling to have a vivid dream of a plant talking to you. The first time this happened I was cautious and asked around if I should take the plant as medicine. It turned out that the plant was poisonous but symbolically represented strength in herb lore. I ended up taking a homeopathically prepared dose of the plant, but I feel now that the real message was that I was eating too much denatured food at the time and that I needed more fresh foods and herbs to stay strong and healthy. It was a warning.
My wife and I have also had plants come to us in nature. Gardeners know that every year some plants will ‘volunteer’ to grow in the garden. They never grew there before and they weren’t planted. Perhaps a seed gets dropped by a bird or a squirrel. Time and again, the plants that volunteer have been the plants needed for medicine that year.
You can even look around your neighborhood. The plants that people need are often growing in out of the way places or near wasteland. For example, dandelion is ubiquitous in the spring and is an excellent detoxifier for people who have been eating too rich of a diet. Burdock is another common weed that people could benefit from if they only listened to nature. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered!”
There is one more story I would like to share with you. I first heard it while studying ayurveda with the Himalayan Institute. The discussion was about a famous rejuvenative herb called ashwagandha. When it came to the prabhava, or special action of the herb, it was stated that the herb confers strength because ‘he’ was strong. The herb had been blessed by a sage who was known for his strength!
As we study and practice we find that certain foods and herbs are our friends, our companions, our helpers. This is based on the premise that all life is inter-related. That which we need is all around us. We only need to recognize what is natural and harmonious for ourselves as unique beings. To go against nature is unwise.
So where do we begin? How do we discover those foods, herbs and medicines that are our friends? For that matter how do we discover our own true nature? And how do we find that special place in the sun where we can thrive?
Ayurveda teaches that we can quiet the mind and meditate to discover our true nature. We can regulate the breath and harmonize body with mind to discover our special place in the sun. Or we can spend time in nature and make friends with the sky, the trees, the plants and the flowers to discover our friendship with nature. Or as said by Swami Sivananda:

“Smile with the flower and the green grass.
Play with the butterflies, birds, and deer.
Shake hands with the shrubs, ferns, and twigs of trees.
Talk to the rainbow, wind, stars, and the sun.
Converse with the running brooks and the waves of the sea.
Speak with the walking-stick.
Develop friendship with all your neighbors, dogs, cats, cows, human beings, trees, flowers, etc.
Then you will have a wide, perfect, rich, full life.
You will realize oneness or unity of life.
This can be hardly described in words.
You will have to feel this yourself.”

References for further study: “The Yoga of Herbs” by D. Frawley & V. Lad, “Planetary Herbology” by M. Tierra, and “The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs” by K.P. Singh Khalsa & M. Tierra.