"You can see the best doctors and take the best courses on Ayurveda, but when you go home, the most immediate application of knowledge comes down to the food you eat. How do you actually mix and toast the spices? How do you chop the vegetables and what cooking techniques do you use to protect their prana (life force)? What cookware do you need? How do you prepare a balanced meal for your family and friends who all have different doshas? People need answers in the kitchens."
Divya Alter is a certified nutritional consultant and educator in the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda tradition. She is the cofounder of Bhagavat Life, the only Ayurvedic culinary school in New York. She and her husband launched North America’s first Ayurvedic chef certification programme and Divya’s Kitchen, an authentic Ayurvedic restaurant in Manhattan. Divya's first cookbook, What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen, was published by Rizzoli in 2017.
Cookbook: What to Eat for How You Feel
Restaurant: Divya's Kitchen
Classes: Bhagavat Life
Personal Website: Divya Alter
Facebook: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen
"ayurveda is the healing science of human integration, on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels."
What does Ayurveda mean to you?
To me, Ayurveda is a divine life manual that compassionate sages passed down through centuries to help us heal and grow into the best versions of ourselves. It is the healing science of human integration, on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. Ayurveda continues to give me answers to questions and issues modern science fails to satisfy.
When did you discover it? How long have you been practising it?
I first heard about Ayurveda 28 years ago, during my bhakti yoga ashram studies in Bulgaria, but I’ve really experienced Ayurvedic treatments while living and studying in Vrindavan, India. My first Ayurvedic doctor, Vaidya Liladhar Gupta, completely transformed my outlook on taking care of my body and mind. The effectiveness of his treatments and taking an introductory course with him ignited my curiosity to deepen my self-studies so that I could take better care of myself. From then on, Ayurveda would come into my life on and off, whenever I needed help. My deep, systematic studies and practice began in the United States, where I met my teacher, Vaidya Ramakant Mishra, of the Shaka Vansiya (SV) Ayurveda lineage. I was so impressed by the depth and vastness of his knowledge and practice that I decided to dedicate my life to studying, practicing, and teaching the principles of SV Ayurveda. This has been for the past nine years, and I specialize in the Ayurvedic knowledge and preparation of food.
What drew you to Ayurveda?
Ayurveda just made so much sense to me. It answered questions that no one else could. I benefited tremendously from Ayurvedic treatments not only from taking the prescribed herbs but also by shifting life habits to feel more aligned with myself and with my mission in life. I really appreciate the participatory aspect of Ayurveda—it motivates me to take responsibility of my health, of my diet, of my actions — and make positive changes in the areas that imbalance me. Personal healing became a journey of self discovery and growth. Another reason I was attracted to Ayurveda is that an Ayurvedic doctor always looks for the deep cause of the problem and only then addresses the symptoms and prescribes treatment. By addressing and fixing the deep cause, the body gradually restores its intelligence to heal in all areas, rather than just artificially suppressing the symptoms in one area and causing harm in another.
What drew me to SV Ayurveda and Vaidya Mishra is that he addressed, very practically, some prominent causes for imbalance in the modern world: electromagnetic frequencies (EMF), weakened digestive system (and inability to fully process ingested herbs), lowered friendly bacteria in the gut, increased acidity and toxicity in the liver and the overall physiology. His protocols were effective for me and others because they targeted all these subtle causes.
Has it helped you with anything major?
During my five years of living in India, I suffered from a severe amoebic infection and jaundice, and Ayurvedic treatments helped me heal both. Years later, SV Ayurveda helped me cure an autoimmune disorder and chronic fatigue.
Is Ayurveda part of your everyday life or just for your medicine cabinet or fall-back routine?
Totally part of my everyday life — from waking up to going to bed. It’s hard for me to imagine living without the Ayurveda foundation.
What are your top 3 Ayurvedic tips that have worked for you?
Avoid eating these inflammatory vegetables: potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, onions, garlic — I suffered from chronic inflammation for years, and taking these vegetables out of my diet made a huge difference in my recovery.
Do self-massage (abhyanga): it helps me soften muscles and tissues, nourish my skin, ground my Vata (airy energy), clear EMF, and it gives me the emotional satisfaction of loving myself.
What surprised you most about Ayurveda?
My first impression was that Ayurveda is not for lazy people — practising it means you’ve got to do the work! The second big surprise was, “no leftovers!” I was so used to the convenience of cooking a few times per week and eating leftovers, but then I realized that that habit was one of the main causes for my weakened digestion and immunity.
Did you integrate it gradually or overnight for any particular reason?
To me, full integration is a lifetime project; it is definitely gradual. Adjusting my diet and eating habits works much faster for me (maybe because I’m a chef and run a food business); some lifestyle principles, like going to bed by 10 pm, are still hard for me with the kind of work I do. Living in polluted and stressful environments makes it very difficult for us to maintain optimal health. Vaidya Mishra taught me to integrate Ayurveda gradually, starting with the easiest things and then working my way toward the hardest things. The key is to keep working on it, not just settle for a convenient life of imbalance.
Do your children/family eat an Ayurvedic diet? And if they do, do they know it’s Ayurveda or do they just think of it as home cooking?
My husband Prentiss does (we do not have children) and he’s very appreciative of it.
What is your favourite Ayurvedic recipe or go-to ingredient?
The one recipe that I make almost every day is the Cooked Apple Pre-Breakfast. It is very easy but with a profound healing effect. My go-to ingredient that I can’t live without is cultured ghee that I make myself by culturing cream, then churning it into fresh cultured butter, then cooking it into ghee.
How does Ayurveda fit into your day-to-day routines?
I run an Ayurvedic restaurant, teach Ayurvedic cooking, and write Ayurvedic recipes, so Ayurveda is very much on my mind all day. My challenge is to maintain a steady routine through my very demanding work. Knowing that I do this in service to others and that it is a temporary phase in life, I try my best and also accept support from other healers. My daily routine definitely involves the food I eat and also the self-care practices that are possible for me right now.
What do you wish was more accessible in our society to make an Ayurvedic lifestyle easier?
I think there is a lot of Ayurveda knowledge out there, but there is little training and support in bringing this knowledge into your kitchen. I’m talking about the actual culinary skills of preparing the ingredients that are good for you into delicious meals. You can see the best doctors and take the best courses on Ayurveda, but when you go home, the most immediate application of knowledge comes down to the food you eat. How do you actually mix and toast the spices? How do you chop the vegetables and what cooking techniques do you use to protect their prana (life force)? What cookware do you need? How do you prepare a balanced meal for your family and friends who all have different doshas? People need answers in the kitchens. That’s why my husband and I started an Ayurvedic culinary school, Bhagavat Life, to help people integrate the Ayurveda knowledge and skills of food and cooking into everyday life.
Do people around you/in your circle of friends know about Ayurveda?
Yes, most of them.
What’s the one thing you would encourage everyone to try or you think would benefit the majority of people’s health for the better?
Try to set aside a few minutes in the morning and in the evening for deep, alternate nostril breathing and meditation. We live in a world of chronic Vata aggravation, and Vata is the “king of Doshas,” it governs the intelligence of the body to heal itself. Taking a few minutes to follow breath to center and ground our minds into our core essence can reverse a lot of energetic imbalances and prevent physical illness.
Anything else you’d like to add?
My Ayurveda teacher, Vaidya Mishra, left this world in April of 2017, but his legacy continues to live through several doctors he trained for many years. You can find more information on www.svayurveda.com. Click on his blog to check out the hundreds of articles he’s published!