‘Our Thinking And Behaviour Are Impacted By Foods We Consume’



Monica Yearwood is a cleanse expert, herbalist, meditation instructor, Ayurveda and Ashtanga Yoga practitioner. She is the founder of Hamsa Ayurvedic Lifestyle Centre in Chicago. She has completed programmes in Ayurvedic theory, detoxification strategies, diet, and herbal applications, and has worked as a Panchakarma apprentice with Dr. Light Miller. She has studied Ayurveda with Dr. Mark Halpern of the California College of Ayurveda, Vaidya Rama Kant Mishra, Sri Swamini Mayatitananda and Lama Surya Das. Her areas of speciality are Ayurvedic cleansing methods that address the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects.

During an e-interaction with Pratyasha Nithin, Monica talks about various Ayurvedic principles and her own experience of the healing power of Yoga and Ayurveda. This interview has been conducted with inputs from Nithin Sridhar.

How did you get introducted to Eastern medicines and philosophy?

I grew up in the suburbs outside of Chicago. I was always interested in spiritual studies. My father’s side comes from a long lineage of Christian pastors. Their influence on me in my early life inspired me to question the deeper meaning of our existence. I can remember exploring the spiritual and occult section of the book store when I was still in grammar school. By the time I went to high school, I was very interested in Buddhism and was experimenting with some forms of meditation that I tried to teach myself after reading from a book. In college, I studied Eastern Philosophy and Religion. At the same time, I did feel a growing well of sadness within me. There were many things about life and our societal constructs that I found to be depressing. I had a hard time understanding our collective drive to work so hard, and the need for material gain. I also struggled to understand why people grow old and why they get sick or suffer. Mostly, I felt depressed or disconnected about the lack of purpose I felt in my life. I did not understand why I was going to college, or what the purpose was of much of what I was doing. There were times when I was overwhelmed by these feelings and these questions. By the time I was in my early twenties, I struggled with depression frequently. I saw a psychiatrist when I was 23 and walked out with nine different prescription medications. I knew that it did not make sense for me to be on so many powerful medications, and then, I decided to seek out alternatives. This brought me to a Shamanic practitioner. In my first session with her, I had a very powerful emotional release experience. It expanded my awareness of psychology profoundly. From that experience, I understood how we store memories within the fabric of our physical body. I also understood that memory was an eternal storehouse, that extended beyond our immediate present, and far into the recesses of our existence, through the course of our familial lineage. This began a very powerful healing experience, and I have not felt that depth of depression ever since. From there, I immersed myself in yoga. I studied kundalini and ashtanga and went on to get certified in yoga. Finally, I moved to Fairfield, Iowa, and began to study Ayurveda at the Maharishi Mahesh Univerity of Management. I was so inspired by Ayurveda that I wanted to study it more exclusively. I contemplated several schools, but eventually decided to study with Dr. Light Miler, in Sarasota, Florida. I completed her programme and an apprenticeship under her in 2006. Then, I moved back to Chicago, to the city, and began my professional practice.

Tell us about your study of Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is an expansive study that goes on forever. My most influential teachers are Dr. Light Miller and Sri Swamini Mayatitananda. There are many intellectual concepts that I struggled to understand for a long time, and I am still learning so much. I feel that I am at the beginning. I believe that the most important thing, which I continue to learn, however, is that Ayurvedic lifestyle can only be truly understood experientially. For someone like myself, who really likes the intellectual stimulation of learning something, who has good retention and is able to assimilate information well, it becomes very easy to disregard the importance of an experiential practice. It is the experience of it that is the true teacher and really helps a person understand Ayurveda, and I think, for me, the more I apply the concepts in my own life, the more it makes sense.

What is the relationship between our diet, thoughts and actions?

Our thinking and behaviour are very much impacted by the foods we consume. Modern science shows how compromised digestive tracts, common in cognitive disorders like autism, lead to sensitivity, to gluten and increased symptoms. Conversely, when gluten is removed from the diet, many patients and their family members observe drastic decreases in abnormal behaviours. People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often show metabolic differences in the way that they process carbohydrates, and/or deficiencies in dopamine, which leads to intense cravings for carbohydrates. Dietary allergies are known to contribute to anxiety and addictive behaviour. Sugar addiction, for example, is common in alcoholics. From an Ayurvedic perspective, food also affects behaviour via its influence on the quality of our mind. There are three great qualities, called maha gunas, which determine the primary mental tendency of a person. Sattva is the quality of illumination; rajas is the quality of passion; tamas is the quality of inertia. We are born with a certain quality of mind, but it can be influenced by our lifestyle choices and behaviours. Sattvic foods are fresh, organic, plant foods (most fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes/beans, seeds, grains and dairy from well-treated animals) that are prepared with love. Rajasic foods include stimulants such as coffee and many spices. Tamasic foods are old and stale foods, convenient and fast foods. The more sattvic foods we eat, the more clear and illuminated we will become. The more rajasic foods we consume, the more agitated, passionate and unsatisfied we will be. The more tamasic foods we consume, the more inert, dull and ignorant we will become.

What is digestive fire? How does it affect digestion?

The jatharagni is the mother fire and it resides in our small intestine. It governs over the 13 minor fires. We have one fire for each of the seven dhatus (tissue layers) and five primary fires in the liver, called the bhuta agnis. These fires collectively rule over all of our metabolic processes, and how we digest life.

Digestion from an Ayurvedic perspective is a very interesting thing. It is very different from what most of us think of when we think of digestion. Accordingly, we do not just digest the foods that we eat, but we actually digest through all of our senses. We consume all that we experience. We eat what we see with our eyes; smell through our nose; hear with our ears; feel with our skin; taste with our mouth. A strong digestion is the ability to retain the nutrient from whatever we consume and effectively expel the waste. We become toxic whenever this ability is compromised (most frequently through chronic stress or sudden impact trauma or following an unhealthy lifestyle for too long).

Each of us also have a native digestive tendency. Ayurveda puts them into four distinct categories: visham (irregular), tikshna (high), manda (slow), sama (balanced). Knowing your digestive tendency not only helps you understand how you tend to digest your food, but also understand how you tend to digest all that you experience.

What is aura in terms of Ayurveda?

The aura refers to the radiance that one exudes.  In some higher states of conscious awareness, this radiance can be perceived.  In ayurvedic medicine, there are three vital essences: ojas, prana and tejas — refined master forms of the doshas kapha, vata and pitta, respectively.  These three essences are interrelated. Prana and tejas are rooted in ojas.  Often, the three essences are described as being different aspects of ojas itself.  Tejas is the light, heat and energy of ojas.  Ojas is our vitality, sap and immunity.  Tejas is the heat byproduct of ojas. Prana is the energetic byproduct.

The aura is produced by prana that enters the nadi system.  The nadi system is a complex interface of thousands of tunnels through which prana flows.  The nadi system innervates the physical body and the surrounding.  Ojas is a refined byproduct of a strong digestive system that forms our immunity, strength and vitality.  The quality and strength of our prana, life force, is directly related to the strength of our digestion and the quality of our foods.

What is Pragyaparadha? 

Pragyaparadha is frequently translated as ‘mistake of the intellect.’ It refers to the decisions that we make, knowingly or unknowingly, that are against our best outcome. This means, that it is our choices that are the origin of disease. A simple concept to understand at first glance, its meaning is actually quite complex. The drivers behind our faulty decision making range from toxicity in the body to the inherited karmas and influences we come into this life with. Thus, healing disease from an Ayurvedic perspective is multi-pronged. Ayurvedic healing addresses the spiritual, mental, physical, karmic, and emotional levels of our being. It asks us to shed the layers of all that impedes life-supporting choices and teaches that innately within each human is the ability to live in alignment with one’s true purpose.

What is the importance of sadhana in Ayurveda?

Sadhana is everything in Ayurveda. The sadhanas are the lifestyle practises that align our individual biorhythms with the cycles in nature. They provide the framework that sustain the medicinal therapies, cleanse programs, herbal treatments and dietary procedures. Without the sadhanas in place, the positive effects from the cleanse programmes that are part of Ayurveda are greatly weakened and less sustaining. Sadhana is a lifestyle practice that also enlivens and awakens cellular memory. It helps the deep tissue layers of our being remember the time when we lived in alignment with the earth and the sun. The sadhanas help to awaken our ability to self-heal. There are many sadhanas, but a few of the most popular include rising before or with the sun, eating one’s main meal midday, meditating with the sunrise and sunset, and eating what is local and what is in season.

Tell us about Hamsa Ayurveda Centre, its goals and achievements.

Hamsa Ayurveda Lifestyle Centre is the only full service Ayurvedic centre in the city of Chicago. Our speciality is cleansing programmes, rooted in Ayurvedic and yogic medicine that awaken the ability to self-heal. Our goals are to help people form deeper relationships with their inner knowing. As for our achievements, in many ways, I feel like we are just beginning. We opened four years ago. We were the first Ayurvedic centre in the city of Chicago proper, since then, one other Ayurvedic centre has opened, though, many Ayurvedic practitioners have also been showing up. It has been an incredible journey with many ups and downs, but I am more inspired than ever to help Ayurveda have a presence in Chicago.

What is ama? Tell us a few simple steps to eliminate ama.

Ama is mostly described as the sticky, white residue of undigested ‘food stuff’, which lodges itself deep in the tissue layers. Remember that digestion refers to all that we consume via all of our senses. Sources of ama are poor food choices, exposure to electromagnetic frequency (television, cellular phones, wi-fi, etc), stressful situations, and emotional conflicts. However, all of these things can be handled with strong digestion. In fact, Ayurveda teaches that we can thrive in all circumstances with strong digestion. Thus, practises to keep digestion strong are the most simple and profound measures we can all take to enhance our ability to eliminate ama. My two favorite practices are as follows: let digestion rest and enhance digestive strength with spices. When we let our digestion rest, it naturally increases its strength. Digestion, like all bodily processes, contains the ability to self-heal. Quite frequently, we just need to get out of its way. We get out of its way by letting it rest. We let it rest by avoiding causative factors (poor relationships, conflicts, low quality food), and by eating easy to digest foods (harmonious situations and a nourishing diet). The second way we can help our digestion heal is by enhancing our digestive fire. Pungent spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cumin enhance digestive fire. Trataka (the practice of staring at a candle flame, symbol or sacred image) can enhance the fire in the mind. Kaphalabhati, the yogic breathing practice translated as ‘breath of fire,’ or bhastrika pranayama, translated as ‘bellows breath,’ enhance the fire element. The mantra RAM accesses the manipura chakra — the sacral energy that houses the mother fire in the body, our instinctual knowing and animalistic intuition, and develops our self-confidence and inner radiance.

Tell us about netra tarpana.

Netra tarpana is an Ayurvedic treatment that helps to improve eyesight. The eyes are a digestive organ, and therefore, netra tarpana also helps in balancing the fires in the eyes. It enhances our ability to see things as they truly are. It cultivates tejas ‘the fire of the intellect,’ so that we can use right discernment.

In the treatment of netra tarpana, a dam made of dough is built around the eye and filled with ghee. The patient opens his/her eye submerged in ghee and looks around allowing the full mass of her eyeball to bathed in the ghee.

You say that in Ayurvedic medicine, the tongue is a mirror to the internal body. Explain.

We actually have many mirrors that we can look at to get a sense of what is happening within. Our skin, hair and nails can tell us about the health of our bones. Our bowel movement can tell us about the quality of our digestive strength. Our tongue is a map of all of our digestive organs. It also can help us to understand if our body is hot, cold, dry or damp. It can reveal the strength of our digestion, mental state and toxicity level. The best time of the day to look at the tongue is in the morning before you brush your teeth. Stick out your tongue in front of a mirror. Notice, if there is any white coating (a strong indicator of toxins). Your tongue should be a natural pink that is relatively clear of any coating, cracking or swelling. Any of those indications mentioned correspond to organ functioning in the body that may not be optimal.

Tell us about your future projects.

We are launching a more formal training programme at Hamsa. Also, I am finishing my first book, refining my cleanse programmes, and helping my current therapists to realise their goals.

How to stay healthy?

My first tip is to practise keeping a positive mindset. There are a lot of competing influences that direct the attention to a negative place of what is wrong and what is missing. This type of negativity is constrictive. It reduces our ability to see possibilities. Instead, direct your attention towards what you want. Do this at least one time a day. An easy practice that I love to do is to bring my hands in prayer in front of my heart and simply state ‘I want….” I stay connected to my wants in my thoughts and in my feelings and I state all the things I want for fifteen minutes. This can be a very powerful experience for people. Remember — what you put your attention on grows. So never disconnect from what you really want for too long.

After that, practise being grateful. We have so much. Even those of us who believe that they have little. Few things are truly terrible things. Be grateful for the people who you love and who love you. In that love that you share are the exchanges that really mean something.

Eat a healthy diet, cleanse seasonally, and sleep well.