The last day of my vacation was quite special, part of it was because of the meals I had. I woke up to breakfast prepared by a dear friend with so much care, a bowl of oatmeal with fruits, with a tea light candle and devotional picture to complete the offering. We went to a vegetarian Thai restaurant for late lunch, and I had spring rolls and tom kha soup and mango with sticky rice. And it being off-peak hours, we got to have a little chat with the chef, who turns out to be a former monk. Because Jivamukti September focus of the month is The Magic of Cooking, we asked him if he follows any rituals for cooking. He told us he chants while cooking, and chanted for us too. It was quite nice to know that the process of preparing our food was so divine. For dinner we went to a restaurant called Cafe Gratitude, where the theme of the restaurant is affirmations. You look at the menu and instead of saying you're getting a kale salad, you say: I am whole. You get to say these beautiful things in exchange for getting nourishing vegan food: I am celebrating. I am inspired. I am magical. You get the idea.
The magic of cooking is that the intention can influence the outcome. And once we have tasted food that is cooked with so much love and care and attention, we cannot eat fast food and think it is actually nourishing. Not only is fast food made of violent animal products and harmful preservatives, the process of cooking is also not uplifting, to say the least. Imagine the worries that the line cooks may have while they deep-fry things that come in packages. They could be having financial worries being paid so little wages, as they shout over each other to hurry up and get the orders done. The energy as I imagine it is chaotic.
Cooking food and practicing asana are similar in many ways. We have our ingredients, we mix up these ingredients, subject them to heat, and yet the end result still depends on our intention. When we take a yoga class, we do a lot of the same poses a lot of the time. We have warriors and triangles and twists and bends and inversions. And we can have an okay practice. Even when our poses come deep, it can still be just okay. But with the right intention, we can have a practice that is significantly more meaningful and less egotistic.
Before you begin cooking or before you begin your asana practice, think of what it is that you are grateful for. Radhanath Swami said that to know how rich you are, count the things you have that money can't buy. Let this sense of gratitude carry you through your practice, be it in cooking or in asana.
Notice that gratitude may give you a sense of lightness, as if you're floating from one movement to the other. When you begin to identify with affirmations rather than what could be knee-jerk negative reactions, you may start to ease into even seemingly difficult poses or situations. Even in virasana or hero pose where it may feel torturous to many of us, keeping our thoughts on the positive can make us realize that our perceived suffering is not all that there is, it is just a small part of the big picture, partial and completely manageable. And in poses that we are very familiar with where we may have the tendency to get bored, rooting our intentions with the essence of the pose can give us that extra spice. Warrior 1 and 2 and 3, you say, that you've done thousands of times? Ground on the intention of being a true warrior, someone who has fight in himself or herself, to do right by those who are oppressed, and find that gratitude that you qualify for the role of the warrior. Now see if those warriors start to feel very different. Now see that doing the same thing again and again does not mean that you are going through the motions. As Sharon Gannon says, through repetition magic arises. In the same way, when you cook the same dish again and again, you become so familiar with it that you no longer need the recipe or measuring cups or spoons. The knowing starts to come from the inside.
Of course, it is sometimes hard to avoid thinking of our worries or problems while practicing. It can be challenging trying to feel gratitude when our bodies are in new contorted shapes we are not yet used to. When you find yourself wanting to check how much time is left for class to be over, do this instead. Count not the time but your blessings. Focus not on your impatience but on the people whom you are grateful for. Let go of the struggle of each breath by using the breath to say thank you- to the universe, to the people in the room with you, to your family, to your partner, to your friends, to life itself. Whether cooking or doing asana, keep your intentions elevated and the actions and the results will follow.
What is the significance of cooking or preparing food or our relationship with food to our yoga practice? Yoga asana, the physical poses that make up the exercise component of yoga, is just one of the eight limbs of the practice. The first precept in the first limb of yoga is ahimsa, which means non-harming towards others. When we cook or prepare or eat food, it can either be a harmful action (if we use meat, dairy, eggs) or a nourishing activity (if we choose plant-based food). Therefore, if we are interested in freedom, then the logical choice is to take ahimsa seriously, and the call to action is to be conscious of our food choices.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. May all beings- with no exception- be happy and free. May the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life- including my food choices- contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.