As we approach yet another holiday season in the United States, I invite readers to consider a new approach to celebration and the creation and perpetuation of family traditions. Currently cultural norms dictate celebrating by engaging in excess, extravagance and often glutinous behaviors. While these traditions may be wrapped up with feelings of honor and respect for past generations, with childhood memories and sometimes even offerings to the Divine, the result of such actions on the body only has one outcome- they contribute to imbalance and ultimately sow the seeds of disease.
I would like to offer some thoughts and suggestions to change the way we hold these festivals and celebrations, not by taking away the sweetest part of them – the sharing food and gifts with loved ones – but by making them even more sweet with an additional offering of compassion and respect for body, mind and spirit.
I was never very big on overeating at the holidays or using any one such day in particular as an excuse to indulge. I did, however, grow up in families where it was typical to make, serve and eat an enormous amount of food in one sitting and over the course of the day. These holidays and festivities were looked forward to, cherished, and enjoyed, until after the meal when inevitably people would be full to the point of physical discomfort, exhausted, and sometimes even ill. Often, relatives would encourage me to eat more or take seconds. “Manga! Manga!” would be heard throughout the day. When you would comply with this request to eat more, it was seen as affectionate and loyal. If you choose to refuse, it was seen as an insult, and I often felt isolated when I would do so.
When I was fourteen I became a vegetarian, and much of the food I ate previously was not part of my diet anymore, so that when I attended family gatherings, I chose to abstain from many of the dishes because they either contained meat or were prepared with animal products. This further contributed to my feelings of isolation, as well as made me feel like I was odd and unaccepted for not wanting to partake in the eating of animals.
Then, as an older teen, I joined a spiritual community where vegetarian food is actually a central part of worship. It was a big attraction for me, of course, and every gathering culminated with a delicious feast of many preparations, and again, I was faced with regular opportunities to eat more than I needed.
By my early 20s I had gained enough weight to be considered obese, and my mother, realizing I was headed down a road that she herself had gone, decided to help me early on and buy me a membership to weight watchers. I had success on the diet, which to me was just learning awareness around how much food I ate and adding more regular activity. Within a year I had reached a healthy weight, and have been able to maintain it, for the most part, ever since.
Even within the weight watchers program and mentality celebrations and overeating were still accepted, and people regularly talked about how they would step away from their healthy habits to indulge or cheat at those times. All one had to do was to get back on the program after the fact and try and undo the damage that had been done. I, also, had this mindset, so continued to have periods of overeating. It was not until my mid-thirties when I discovered that by doing so I wasn’t only contributing to short term and potential long term weight gain and the possibility of a food hangover, I was actually contributing to dis-ease in my body.
According to Ayurveda, the body can only digest a certain amount of food, and once that food is ingested, it needs to complete the digestive process before it can go on to nourish the tissues and systems of the body. If that process is disrupted, the result is malnourishment at the minimum, but also the creation of toxins that can build up and cause disease in the body.
I also learned about something we call “the first burp”, a subtle burp the body gives you to signal that it has had enough, and about eating habits that would assist the digestive process rather than interrupt it. All of the teachers of Ayurveda I have encountered put a great deal of emphasis on these eating practices as being key to maintaining good health and preventing disease.
That leads me rethinking the holidays. In previous years, I would collect my kid’s Halloween candy after allowing them a few pieces so that they wouldn’t have too much sugar, only to enjoy the rest of it myself as a treat throughout the following weeks. Now, I still collect most of the candy, but now instead of keeping it as a stash for myself, I give it away to an organization or donate it to local collections. For the kids, the fun is in going out with friends and dressing up. They couldn’t really care less about the candy.
At Thanksgivings in the past I would always eat a big meal of whatever preparations were available at relatives houses or gatherings. Now, my family and I prepare a special meal of some of our favorite healthy foods, arrange the table beautifully, sit down together and eat with gratitude. We eat the same amount that we would on any other day, but we take extra time to prepare the meal together, say prayers of offering and thanks, and sometimes to share it with friends.
A typical meal at my home around Thanksgiving will have carrot ginger soup, homemade bread, vegetarian stuffing, roasted vegetables and sometimes a dessert with apples or pumpkin. It might only take a spoon full of each to create a full meal, but that is ok. Having a small amount makes it cherished and appreciated all the more.
During Christmas, usually I celebrate with more extended family, and will eat with relatives and friends, but it is not about the food for me. It is about coming together with people I rarely see, sharing stories and making memories, all the while nourishing the body in a way that will facilitate my staying healthy and strong in order that I might celebrate many more.
I don’t drink alcohol, but this is another way that one can honor and celebrate the holidays in a way that doesn’t have negative consequences for body, mind and spirit. Alcohol of any kind, even a glass or red wine, will contribute to imbalance and digestive upset. Better to leave the alcohol out, and in doing so support wellness, and be fully present in the jubilations rather than dulled by intoxication. I know this isn’t the way of western culture, and it often can mean being feeling left out of the crowd, but in the end, the person who abstains and respects and honors their body through the holidays will reap the benefits – not only on that day, but on all of the days and weeks that follow.
I invite you to take pause and meditate on the real treasures the holidays have to offer, whether or not they are the holidays coming up in the United States, or holidays you celebrate in your own country or tradition. Consider ways in which that treasure can be experienced in a way that allows you to create wellness in yourself, without taking out the sweetness that exists in the sharing and honoring of food together as a family, as a community, or anywhere.
Founder of Ahimsa Ayurveda and Bhakti Center Ct, a Holistic collaborative in Willimantic, CT, Lisa spends her days living what she teaches while also coordinating events for cancer charities and environmental awareness.
She recently began writing the story of her life and plans to publish it within the year.
Lisa discovered Ayurveda while looking for a way to better integrate her roles of mother, wife, counselor, yoga practitioner & spiritual seeker. After losing both of her parents at a young age, she knew that the odds were stacked against her genetically and in her late 30s was already experiencing the effects of living a chaotic modern life.
Within a short time of finding Ayurveda, she knew that she had found the path that would allow her the best chance for living a long, healthy, spiritually fulfilling life.
Lisa is a graduate of the Hale Pule School of Yoga and Ayurveda’s 600-hr Ayurvedic Health Counselor Program and YTT 200-hr certified.
Lisa has a holistic view when it comes to teaching asana, and when you attend one of her classes be prepared to learn something new. She incorporates her knowledge of Ayurveda and of Bhakti into her classes and aims to offer a practice that will be be balancing and accessible for all.