In the modern West, we count calories, food groups and carbs. In ancient India, people absorbed life force, or prana, from their food, thoughts and environment. In his new book, “The Hot Belly Diet,” Ayurvedic doctor Suhas Kshirsagar says even if we may have lost sight of this bygone wisdom, it hasn’t changed since Indian sages cognized it thousands of years ago. (Read more about the principles of the diet in 6 time-tested ways to revitalize your metabolism.)

We’re not just what we eat, but what we drink, breathe, see, hear, taste, touch, experience and ultimately, digest. In Ayurveda, the oldest recorded medical system on Earth, diet is everything on our  proverbial plate — not just the porcelain variety we eat from.

“The concept of the Hot Belly diet is understanding that looking at your plate, looking at your life, looking at everything you do from the time you wake up in your morning until the time you go to sleep, everything counts,” Kshirsagar says. “Every experience has an impact in your physiology — the movies you watch, the books you read, the people you hang out with.”

This old-world medicine says each of us has a template for well-being and happiness inside — not as the “average” person, but our own unique blueprint. Whether we want to lose weight, heal an illness, boost our mood or age gracefully, Ayurveda is a mindful way of understanding what bolsters, and depletes, us. Its core premise is that the body wants to heal. That healing comes from tuning into ourselves and aligning with the laws of nature.

“The body is infinitely intelligent,” Kshirsagar said in a Hot Belly diet webinar. “It knows exactly what to do because the organizing principle of the body is the same organizing principle of the universe. The changes of the sunlight, moon, planets, everything being held up in the galaxy properly in a well-oiled machine, that’s exactly how the body is.”

Prescription for passion

Hot Belly Diet author KshirsagarFrom his clinic tucked below the redwood canopy of Northern California’s Santa Cruz mountains, Kshirsagar gives patients the unusual prescription of understanding who they are and what they need to thrive. Many come from the high-stress, high-tech hub of Silicon Valley where they commute to work for an hour, sit for eight-plus hours in the blue glare of their computer, drive home in the same rush-hour traffic and slump in front of the TV before bed. It’s unrecognizable from how humans evolved over thousands of years of hunting and gathering.

The classically trained Ayurvedic doctor notices that people often want a super herb or miracle treatment to feel better in their unhealthy lifestyle. Instead, he helps people understand their mind-body type, what impact different foods have on their physiology, and what truly makes them sing, tick, happy or sad. He’s no therapist, but Ayurveda is a mind-body-spirit medicine.

"Follow your passions" is not an inspirational cliché. It’s a health prescription in Ayurveda, which flips the idea that health brings us happiness on its head.

“In the good old days we used to say ‘people who are healthy are generally happy.’ But we’ve realized, painfully so, that those people who have learned to be happy are more or less healthy more effortlessly and more naturally,” Kshirsagar says.

Sometimes that means accepting challenging circumstances, from a sick child to a demanding boss. But he encourages patients to begin aligning their talents and interests in a livelihood that makes them feel appreciated and needed in the world. “We often use this term 'fire in the belly' because once you have the fire in the belly you will be a passionate person. If you feel passionate in your mission, work becomes real play. You’re not tired and you really get good at what you do because you love it at the core of your being.”

It can take effort and patience to create an enriching work life. Kshirsagar says try to find gratification in whatever job meets your obligations now, while striving for more satisfaction in all areas of life. “There are many things people are suffering from. It can be challenges with their children, job, money and relationships. I see so many people of this kind who are getting migraines, insomnia and autoimmune conditions. It’s coming from a greater imbalance in those areas of their life. It’s their reaction to those situations that’s creating that imbalance.”

Mind how food, experiences and environment make you feel

In Ayurveda, awareness is the key to reinventing your health. The moment you become aware of what a stimulus is doing to your body, it begins to shift, Kshirsagar says. This takes more attention than popping a pill, and the rewards can be infinitely greater.

“Another important Ayurvedic concept is having awareness of everything that you do, whether you eat a bucket full of ice cream at 10 o’clock or you go for your morning walk early in the morning or you have a tennis game or you eat some good food or you have a terrible experience with an emotional meltdown,” explained Kshirsagar in the webinar series. “Every little experience you have, mindfully pay attention to what it’s doing to your body and physiology.”

You’ll naturally learn to repeat what makes you feel good and stay away from what doesn’t. We’re not talking instant gratification. You may have enjoyed the taste of that hot fudge sundae, but how do you feel 30 or 90 minutes later? You’re the only one who really knows.

Kshirsagar says disease thrives on toxic food and air, pessimistic thoughts, a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol and tobacco, pesticides and other chemicals, as well as physical and emotional trauma. All of it affects how your body feels. Learn to watch and listen to your body’s constant cues. Being present to what’s happening in and around you makes life more enriching. Mindfulness also brings a trove of information about how to best care for yourself.

woman walking at dawn

Whether you take a stroll at dawn or eat a sundae at midnight, you need to be responsible for your choices. (Photo: /Shutterstock)

Be thy own physician

There’s nothing new-age about Ayurveda, whose texts date back thousands of years. This holistic medicine touts personal responsibility. From a quiet walk at dawn to a pig-out at midnight, the Hot Belly diet encourages people to be accountable for their choices. There are plenty of forces beyond our control. We don’t worry about those. We affect what we can because the only physician that’s with us 24/7 is the person gazing back in the mirror.

 “As we currently face the challenge of the healthcare system crumbling in this country, I think we need to go back to Ayurveda as a preventive-based medical science,” Kshirsagar says. “If at all you’re able to lead an ideal daily routine, follow the changes of season, eat the right kind of food made in and by mother nature, allow yourselves to be in sync with the changing rhythms of nature, then your microcosm is intricately connected with the macrocosm of the universe.”

Simply put: When we fight our basic nature, we suffer. When we cooperate with our design, we thrive. If you’ve been ill, something as temporary as the flu or as long-term as cancer, your health suddenly becomes your full-time job. Why not employ prevention before a health crisis?

Ayurveda does this is by identifying three mind-body types, or doshas, and treating each one distinctly. This is a taste of what Kshirsagar calls the original personalized medicine.

  • Vata people are thin-framed, sensitive, creative, enthusiastic and flexible but prone to worry, insomnia and coldness. They need an early bedtime, gentle exercise and warm, unctuous foods that ground them.
  • Pitta types are medium-built, strong-willed, passionate, intelligent leaders who tend towards anger and argument when out of balance. They’re best served by moderate sports, soothing activities like walks in nature and cooling foods sans hot spices and alcohol, which overheat them.
  • Kapha mind-body types have a wider, sturdier frame, steady stamina, easy-going personality, calm demeanor and affectionate disposition but are vulnerable to lethargy, being overweight and cold, damp environments. These people need endurance exercise, light and warm foods, the stimulation of new sights, sounds and experiences.
See the pattern? With Ayurveda, you understand your own constitution and apply the law of opposites to find balance. Take a dosha quiz and try it out for yourself. You’re likely a combination of two mind-body types, with one being most dominant. The crux is to learn who you are and how you’re designed, using that knowledge to steward wellness in all you do.

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