Rainbowyoga's Blog

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Rasa Practice towards real Soul Food April 12, 2011

Filed under: Dailies — rainbowyoga @ 3:46 am

Rasa is a concept with a multitude of meanings. On its most obvious level, rasa means “taste.” More subtly, rasa is defined as the “juice” of any object, its “marrow” or “sap.”

On an even more esoteric level, rasa is the essence of an object. With food, with all living beings, and even with philosophical concepts like truth and lies, rasa is the quality that defines and identifies something’s ultimate nature. To foster our ability to perceive and understand rasa is to cultivate good taste. This means creating our own personal aesthetic, our likes and dislikes, based on an awakened ability to observe and discern.

But to come to know the more subtle levels of rasa, we must also learn to perceive the essential nature of all that we encounter in the world. Finding satisfaction and balance in our diet can be particularly frustrating as we try to juggle the slippery elements of what, when, and how much to eat.

At the most basic level, Indians characterize rasa as possessing six principal tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Sometimes these classifications are further broken down into 63 different mixtures of the principal six flavors. These efforts to define taste are attempts to codify the common experience of eating. The Western understanding of taste also includes the metaphorical language of the “sensual gourmet”: Westerners “lust after” or “die for” a food, and swoon at the thought of aphrodisiacs. There’s even the specialized term of “connoisseur” for one who develops a heightened sense of taste of a particular food or spirit.

From the Indian perspective, the concept of rasa takes the qualities of passion and sensuality experienced when eating to yet a deeper level—to the source from which the “juice” originates. This means experiencing rasa within the context of the food’s existence as a living, dynamic entity. Discovering this deeper level of taste, of rasa, requires us to remain open to how the food may present itself in any given moment.

In our everyday eating experience, it’s easy to stop at the outermost layer of naming the familiar taste of a food—sweet is a chocolate cake, salty is a potato chip, pungent is garlic. Then the process of exploration comes to a halt because the food has been reduced to a concept that is so well known that it can be dismissed. But when we comprehend the rasa of a food, we experience the intricacies of sweetness, or the nature of astringent, the ultimate being of pungent. To reach this deeper understanding we must stay conscious and present while we eat; then we can intimately connect with the juice, the marrow, the prime reality of any particular food as it is in the present moment. We can do this with practice, by combining our own sensual experience of eating with an understanding of the science of taste.

By practicing a state of awareness while we eat, we will eventually be able to remain clear and present within all of our senses. This practice of communing with the essence or rasa of food can carry through the entire eating experience, from the moment we become hungry, through the selection and preparation of the food, and into the act of eating the food itself.

The following simple food practice allows you to explore the depths of the essential nature of a food as experienced by all of our senses. It also introduces us to the idea of staying fully conscious as we eat.

Set aside about 20 minutes during which we won’t be interrupted. Make sure to start the practice at a point in our day when we are hungry, but not famished. Select three of our favorite foods. If possible, choose foods that require no preparation and that may be eaten with our hands (a piece of fruit, some cheese, or a cookie, for example).

Place the foods on a table in front of us within easy reach. Close our eyes and take a moment to clear our mind. Open our eyes and look carefully at each item, examining it fully, noting whatever it is that appeals to us about its appearance. Allow all of the thoughts or feelings about the food to register, then decide which food we want to eat and reach for it. The instant our fingers touch the food, broaden our awareness to include our sense of touch. Pay attention to the physical sensation of the food against our hand: its texture, firmness, temperature, and so on.

Now bring the food close to our mouth and prepare to take a bite. As we do so, notice its smell; we may also detect a shift in temperature around our lips as we bring the food close to our mouth. Notice that the smells may be influenced by the temperature or moisture of the food, or they may be mixed with the smells of our environment. In order to hone in on this part of the eating experience, we may close our eyes momentarily.

Now open our mouth and take a bite of the food. Notice that we can hear the sounds of contact between us and the food as we bite into it before we even begin to taste it. Are the sounds soft, rhythmic, slurping, sucking, crunching, wet, dry, etc.? Finally, take another bite of the food and engage our sense of taste. Are the flavors sour, sweet, spicy, pungent, aromatic, etc.? Do we taste more than one flavor at once, or does one taste dominate, then another come forth?

This food practice demonstrates two important elements that will help us appreciate tasting as a complex art. First, it gives insight into how our physical senses work. Although we may ordinarily jump to the conclusion that we like or dislike something because of how it tastes, the practice shows that a food appeals (or does not appeal) to us based on how we perceive it through all five senses, and even before you taste it. The practice also trains us to become more conscious as we eat so we can be truly satisfied by food.

As we tune into the rasa of any given food, we may find that what we thought we were hungry for doesn’t bring real satisfaction. If we stay conscious and start tuning in to the rasa of our favorite junk food or candy, we may discover that the refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors and flavors, not to mention a host of preservatives with hard-to-pronounce names, may not actually be brimming with lively seductive deliciousness.

An important part of exploring rasa is seeking balance, a path which leads to the true juice of life. When we start connecting with rasa, without making any special effort to change our eating, a process naturally starts to take place. We’ll start to desire foods that are abundant and alive, foods that give us what we really need on the deepest level. This is truly “soul food”—food that satisfies deep within, all the way down to the very essence of our being.





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