Last night we just finished season 4 of Mad Men. SPOILER ALERT! It ends with Don Draper getting engaged to his secretary and he has to break up with Dr. Faye. Dr. Faye is quite distraught on the phone with him and her comment to Don was to make sure that the secretary knows that he only likes the beginnings of things. Yes, we are playing catch up on episodes, but thank you very much Netflix.
Who doesn’t like the beginnings of things? Springtime, learning about the other person in a new relationship, your first stand-up paddleboard yoga class. The promise of adventure awaits. It’s like that with food too… the first thing you notice is how it tastes. Smell and presentation play an important role as does the setting in which you eat. Have you noticed when you eat in a relaxed setting, everything just tastes better? When you are comfortable, not in a rush, and food looks, smells, and tastes delicious, your digestion is much better too.
In my last post we discussed the beginnings of digestion — taste. The sat rasa, the concept of six tastes, is an important component of Ayurveda and is helpful in encouraging good digestion too. But if we only care about beginnings, that is superficial and not sustainable over the long term. Food has a taste, but as it moves through your system, it also has a virya, potent energy, and a vipaka, post-digestive effect. Both are important components to good health.
Virya means energy, strength, potency, or power. After food is chewed well and swallowed, it moves to your stomach and small intestine. What does the energy from the food feel like in your body then? Generally, it can be described using pairs of opposites, in particular hot-cold, heavy-light, oily-dry, and soft-sharp. Regarding virya, hot and cold will be the dominant pair. You may have a tangible experience or even intuitively be able to guess what sort of effect certain foods will have inside you. For example, sweet foods generally have a cooling quality which would pacify pitta dosha but perhaps aggravate kapha dosha. Pungent foods generally have a heating energy that can improve digestive fire if that happens to be only smoldering inside you.
There are exceptions to these. Honey and molasses are sweet, but they both have a heating effect. Raw sugar, maple syrup, or brown rice syrup are cooling sweeteners. Limes are sour and sour taste is usually heating, but limes have a cooling energy to them.
A normal amount of food with a heating virya generally promotes metabolic activity, therefore it increases your metabolism and body temperature, enhances circulation, and can promote strong agni and digestion. Too much heating virya can cause “burn-out” or even acid indigestion, hypoglycemia, and inflammation.
A normal amount of food with a cooling virya usually stimulates anabolic activity, meaning growth or in ayurvedic terms it will build bodily tissue. It will slow agni or digestion, relieve burning, irritation, and inflammation, and decrease body temperature. Too much of the cooling virya can cause abnormal growth, dull digestive fire, poor digestion and malabsorption and ultimately increase ama.
As food moves into the colon, rasa continues to unfold with a post-digestive effect. Vipaka is what brings rasa to its conclusion. Either the nutrients and other components of food are absorbed in the system or they are excreted, and this is how we tell what effect the vipaka has on a body. Ayurveda uses three of the six tastes to describe the post digestive effect: sweet, sour, and pungent. Generally sweet and salty rasas have a sweet vipaka, sour rasa has sour vipaka, and pungent, bitter, and astringent rasas have pungent vipaka.
Sweet vipaka promotes tissue growth and anabolic functions of the body, so it can be said that sweet vipaka has a building function and increases kapha. It also aids in proper elimination through feces, urine, and sweat.
Sour vipaka promotes metabolic function and therefore increases pitta. It can create acidic pH in bodily secretions and has a reducing quality on tissues in the body. This one can cause loose stools if there is too much heat.
Pungent vipaka increases catabolic activity in the body. What you say? I had to look it up — catabolic activity encourages the breakdown of complex molecules into simpler ones and often creates energy during the process. Pungent vipaka increases vata dosha, which is the energetic, mobile, creative quality in the body. In excess, this one can cause constipation.
So ultimately, we are looking for what can maintain healthy balance of all the functions within the human body ecosystem. We want to enjoy the beginnings of our food — does it look, taste, and smell appetizing? But it doesn’t end there. How does food feel once it enters your stomach? If it causes gas, bloating, indigestion, or other discomfort, there may be some imbalance in its virya, perhaps due to improper food combining. That’s a whole ‘nother post. And what about the end result of rasa — vipaka? Does the food you eat help you maintain a healthy weight and provide enough energy for you to carry out your daily activities? If so congratulations to you, that is no easy task in this fast-food culture.
Meanwhile, can Don Draper dig beneath the surface of a relationship to make this marriage last? It takes more than an exciting beginning to maintain something lasting. (Don’t tell me… we start season 5 tonight!)