Ayurveda and Thanksgiving go together like cumin, coriander, and fennel. Both are very food-focused, and both can get more complicated the deeper you dive—whether it’s into anatomy and physiology or into a few bottles of wine . . . This congruence also means it’s quite simple (but not always easy) to apply the principles of sound Ayurvedic living to your Thanksgiving day, and the whole holiday season, in a way that prioritizes our main indicator of health: agni, or the digestive fire.
You see, having a strong digestive fire—which means regular, not too strong and not too light, hunger/appetite; smooth and undisturbed transformation of food into nutrients; and complete elimination—is what allows our bodies, minds, and spirits alike to remain happy and satisfied every day. Whether we’re going about our daily lives or settling in for a special gathering with big meals and big personalities, agni is what keeps you going. Ideally, we’d have a strong baseline of agni going into a day like Thanksgiving, which we can maintain through our daily routine, or dinacharya. But even if that’s been a bit wonky (thanks, pandemic + vata season!), there are still ways to ensure that the foods you take in on Thanksgiving—edible or otherwise—get broken down properly and, hopefully, deliciously. Plan to incorporate at least one of these Ayurvedic practices into your holiday, and notice how it changes your experience of the moment!
The mind thinks it’s a good idea to not eat in preparation for a big meal. The body does not agree, my friends. Since the body is doing the heavy lifting in this scenario, it’s best to loop her into the game plan and heed the cycles of hunger that will allow everything to go down smoothly all day. Eating breakfast is one way to ensure that your agni is primed and ready to take on whatever you take in the rest of the day. Think of it like a literal fire: you need to feed it a bit of wood and fuel in order to get it going. Having food in the morning will also help to regulate your metabolism and appetite later on, so you’re not so hungry that you blindly attack the snack table, then layer on your meal, and regret the whole thing later because agni wasn’t prepared. But if agni is already a bit stoked, you’ll have an easier time enjoying your food—and knowing when to stop.
In addition to regular feedings, agni can be primed through a pre-digestive support known as deepana. Usually a type of pungent or sometimes bitter spice or herb mixed in water, ghee, milk, or honey, this dose of heat kick starts the digestive process so the enzymes you need to break down food are ready to go when you eat. Taken 10 to 15 minutes before a meal, deepana herbs can be helpful any time agni is feeling sluggish and impeding your appetite, but especially when you have a heavier meal than usual coming up.
On the other side of the meal, we can support the breakdown of food, and prevent metabolic waste from building up, with pachana herbs. Similar to deepana in their quality, pachana herbs digest ama, so that any existing blockages won’t get in the way of your new nourishment from reaching your tissues. While there’s tons of individual and personalized options for both digestive supports, candied ginger is one of the most accessible—and tastiest—ways to do it. Simply take a chew before and/or after your meal; choose the ones with sugar to tamper the heat (Mary Poppins had it right!). If you are sensitive to heat and tend toward reflux, sour burps, or loose stools, swap the ginger for fennel or cardamom seeds, which will offer a more cooling but equally potent digestive aid.
Take a walk
Similar to deepana/pachana, movement can help to, well, get things moving in the gut and support digestion with the whole body involved. The steady, rhythmic movement of the body while walking, which also helps move energy down into the legs, supports apana vayu, the downward movement of vata responsible for peristalsis and elimination. Getting outside is also a great way to break up any boredom or tension building inside the house, or giving your host a bit of quiet while they do their work. Walking before or after you eat for as little as 15 minutes will refresh the body and mind.
Simplify your plate (i.e., embrace leftovers)
Where Ayurveda and Thanksgiving divide on the food front is about food combinations. Ayurveda has some pretty strong opinions about what foods go best together and which should never be on the same plate (radishes and bananas, for instance . . .); Thanksgiving, however, is often a day where everything and anything goes down the pipe all at once. Mixing too many kinds of foods—especially anything sour, like fruits, milk/cheese/yogurt/dairy, vinegars, and alcohol—together is a recipe for indigestion, since the gut gets overwhelmed by too much information and can’t organize the rate at which these foods are broken down. (Sour foods tend to break down faster). While this may seem to be a killjoy for your Thanksgiving feast, it’s also an opportunity to actually enjoy your foods more thoroughly. Rather than cramming your plate with every side, choose 3 or 4 max, eat slowly, and make a note to enjoy others as leftovers.
We’re all tired of living 6 feet apart, and Thanksgiving might be one of the first times you’re gathering with loved ones in a while. But preserving space—personal space, but also mental and digestive space—is essential for digestion of all things. Space between your meals, and leaving a little space in the belly at the end of your meal, prevents agni from being suffocated and getting jammed up. Similarly, when it comes to personalities or opinions that rub you the wrong way, leaving space in conversation can prevent reactive comments from leaving a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Leaving space for your senses—namely, a moment of quiet before your meal, or even during—will allow love and gratitude to take their essential seats at your table.