In our previous blog, we talked about the Best and Worst Utensils commonly used in our household. Carrying forward the discussion here in this blog we will talk about the traditional ways of eating and the science behind it.
Eating with hands
Hands are considered our most precious organ of action. The importance of the hand is explained in the following mantra:
कराग्रे वसते लक्ष्मीः करमध्ये सरस्वती ।
करमूले तु गोविन्दः प्रभाते करदर्शनम् ॥
karagre vasate lakshmIH kara-madhye sarasvatI |
kara-moole tu govindah prabhate kara-darshanam ||
Meaning: At the Top of the hand (i.e. Palm) dwells Devi Lakshmi and at the Middle of the hand dwells Devi Saraswati, At the Base of the hand dwells Lord Krishna; Therefore one should look at one’s hands in the early morning and contemplate on them.
Eating with cutlery such as a fork and spoon is basically a European and western culture. India and its neighbouring nations have a long tradition of eating with hands and has often been subjected to harsh mocking. It has been labelled as uncivilized, primitive, unhygienic, and also disgusting practice. However, if we look closely, eating with our own hands is the most hygienic practice. At least we can be sure of it being clean. We cannot guarantee the same about the cutleries in the restaurants.
Hands are required in every process of cooking, from washing the vegetables, cutting to blending. So, eating with hands completes the whole process of consumption of food. Eating sustenance with hands is associated with not just the body but also the psyche and spirit. Eating with hands gives both physical and mental health and also optimum satisfaction to the senses. According to the Ayurveda, our fingers and toes correspond to the Pancha-mahaboota. The thumb is related to agni (fire), the forefinger to vayu (air), the middle finger to akasha (ether), the ring finger to prithvi (earth), and the little finger to jala (water). The nerve endings of the fingertips are believed to boost digestion. One becomes more aware of the textures, taste and aromas as one eats with hands engaging the fingertips. When one touches the sustenance with fingers, nerve endings in the fingers sense the temperature and texture of the food, and based on this information, the brain triggers the release of relevant digestion-related juices. Ayurveda studies have shown that the body can react to the touch of food by releasing the required chemicals and initiating digestion-related movements in the stomach before the sustenance even meets the lips.
Eating with hands helps us in maintaining the food proportion. It allows us to mix different types of food together more efficiently thus enhancing the taste and making it more palatable. It allows us to appreciate the eating process with the maximum number of senses such as taste, smell, sight, and touch.
It is a proven fact that our body has bacteria or flora, which resides in places like hands, mouth, throat, intestine and gut that protects us from harmful bacteria growing in the environment. When we eat with our hands, the friendly flora protects our digestive system from harmful bacteria and also stimulates it. However, washing hands thoroughly before eating is a must. In a traditional Indian household, no one is allowed to enter or sit for food without bathing or atleast washing one’s face, hand and feet thoroughly.
According to a study published in the journal ‘Clinical Nutrition’, people with type-2 diabetes were more likely to be fast eaters who used cutlery. It has also been noticed that eating with hands slows down the eating process and thus, prevents one from developing type-2 diabetes. Another research published in the journal Appetite, eating by hand promotes a sense of fullness and satiety as compared to eating with cutlery. This, in turn, could help against binge or stress eating.
One more benefit of eating with our hands is that it protects us from consuming extremely hot or cold food. When we hold our food in our hand first, we instantly become aware of its temperature, which is not the case with a spoon and fork.
Meals on the floor
Sitting crossed legs on the floor and eating certainly aids in better digestion of food. Placing the plate in front requires us to bend forward slightly to grab a morsel. The repeated action of bending forward and going back to straight position results in triggering of the abdominal muscles, which increases the secretion of stomach acids and allows food to digest faster. Getting up and sitting down elevates movement of the body. As any other yoga asana, sitting asanas have numerous health benefits. So when we sit on the floor in any of these asanas, we are practically incorporating those benefits into our dietary process. For example, sitting in Sukhasana helps in maintaining a good posture and relieves muscle and joint pains. It gives flexibility, keeps the back straight and provides strength to the legs. Padmasana and Sukhasana are ideal positions for meditation and benefit a lot in relieving stress from the mind. Sitting down also affects us psychologically and emotionally. Since we are lowering our body down it keeps us emotionally grounded and humble.
Acharya Charaka says that sparsha (touch) is the only thing that has connection with both sense organs and mind. Eating food with one’s hands feeds the body, mind and spirit.
Taittiriya Upanishad talks of five koshas or the energetic sheaths surrounding our soul that exist together and are encased within each other. The physical or the material body composes the outermost kosha, while the innermost kosha contains the bliss body, or atman or soul. They are as follow:
- Annamaya Kosha / Food or physical sheath
- Pranamaya Kosha / Life force sheath
- Manomaya Kosha / Mental sheath
- Vijnanamaya Kosha / Wisdom sheath
- Anandamaya Kosha / Bliss body
The first Annamaya Kosha is the sheath of the physical self as food empowers it. Through this sheath we identify ourselves as a mass which consists of the skin, flesh, fat, bones and filth. This is the most condensed form of energy as it relates to our physical body. Since all the koshas are encased within each other, food we eat and the way we eat not only play an important role in sustaining the body, but to assimilate the universe’s elements and energies within our physical and emotional body and to nourish the greater, spiritual self. So, eating with our hand sitting on the floor connects us more closely to the elements and energies of the universe giving us a wholesome experience of the action of eating.