"Never diet, or obsess about health. Cook from scratch, with a mixture of vegetables, pulses, grains, fruits, and keep fish and meat for occasional meals rather than every day. Food is medicine, and no natural food is bad for our health. We have become a society that is addicted to fads — fad diets, fad exercise routines, and the latest 'superfoods.' It is a waste of energy to focus on these things."
Sonja Shah-Williams, founder of Anala, is an Ayurvedic practitioner, teacher, and writer. She has recently finished writing her debut non-fiction book, a memoir which includes regional Indian recipes.
Sonja offers private consultations in London and creates individualised nutrition and lifestyle programmes for her clients. She also runs small group workshops that offer building blocks of knowledge that participants can incorporate into their lives. Passionate about the uniqueness and validity of Ayurveda in today’s society, Sonja believes the future health paradigm requires a shift towards preventative, self-managed healthcare through knowledge and understanding of this amazing science.
"I believe true holistic health is what we should be aiming for both individually and as a society."
What does Ayurveda mean to you?
Ayurveda influences all my thoughts and my way of life. It allows me to make sense of the world and to understand that good health is totally holistic: healthy mind, body and spirit. I believe true holistic health is what we should be aiming for both individually and as a society.
When did you discover it? How long have you been practising it?
I actually discovered Ayurveda as a child. My mother understood its principles through her early life in India, where food is eaten seasonally and made fresh at home, and spices are seen as medicinal, not just culinary. I began my private practice a few years ago after completing my degree, which included an internship at a teaching hospital in India.
What drew you to Ayurveda?
I have always been a little obsessed with health and nutrition, as well as human behaviour. My father was a doctor and I was drawn to the idea of good health through his work. Even as a teenager, I understood the importance of routine, and wholesome eating, as well as clarity of the mind through a healthy relationship with oneself and with others.
Has it helped you with anything major?
Although I have been fortunate to be healthy, I feel the major benefit it has had is to enable me to bring it to my children through the food I cook and through the tips I have given them over the years, both about healthy eating and about life’s challenges. (Ayurveda is the only true holistic medicine system that recognises the importance of maintaining mind health).
Is Ayurveda part of your everyday life or just for your medicine cabinet or fall-back routine?
Ayurveda is absolutely part of my everyday life. That is the beauty of it. It can be learned and then applied to everyday life, for the whole of life.
What are your top 3 Ayurvedic tips that have worked for you?
There are many principles of living well in the philosophy of Ayurveda. My absolute non-breakable rules are:
Never drink very cold water or drinks. This dampens the digestive fire and can lead to improper digestion, which as we know, is the cause of many ailments.
Never mix fruits with dairy (incompatible qualities) and in fact, I eat fruit separately from other foods. I tend to make a smoothie in the morning, and then eat a light breakfast half an hour afterwards.
Always eat consciously, slowly, sitting down, chewing well and preferably, without distraction.
What surprised you most about Ayurveda?
How simple it is, how sensible, yet incredibly deep, philosophical and spiritual. Ayurveda is a beautiful way of living life with awareness.
Did you integrate it gradually or overnight for any particular reason?
I have been living though the principles of Ayurveda for most of my life. My mother grew up in Gujarat, Northwest India, and the food cooked in homes there is as Ayurvedic as it can get. Her understanding of spices and their medicinal qualities meant that her children were healed through it. I remember "yellow doodh" (milk), which she made for us when we had colds or were just under the weather. Its main ingredient was yellow, and was of course, turmeric. How fashionable has this amazing spice become in the West now?
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 children have understood my Ayurvedic ways all of their lives, and are used to the food I cook being incredibly nutritious and wholesome. They hardly eat shop-bought meals or takeaways, and mostly drink water, very rarely fizzy drinks. They are now adults, but this way of eating has passed onto them without the need to call it Ayurveda anymore.
What is your favourite Ayurvedic recipe or go-to ingredient?
My absolute favourite, which I have passed onto many friends, is moong dal. It has been a staple in my diet since I was a baby, and my children crave it as often as I do. Dal is a generic word for all dried pulses in India, and moong dal is one of the most nutritious dals of all. High in protein, low in carbohydrates, fibre-rich and brimming with micronutrients, moong dal is also very easy to digest. It is often eaten after fasting, or after a bout of illness, because it is gentle on the digestive system, yet filling even in small quantities. It is a perfect food to give to babies too. I always adapt my dal to suit my mood, so sometimes I will add spinach leaves or a sliced carrot or courgette.
How does Ayurveda fit into your day-to-day routines?
Ayurveda fits into my daily routine smoothly, and in so many ways. It dictates how, when, what and why I eat. My routine is fairly regular, which is such a huge health benefit, because Vata Dosha, responsible for our nervous system, is exacerbated when we rush, skip meals, and have irregular routines.
What do you wish was easier in our society to make an Ayurvedic lifestyle more accessible?
The reliance on doctors and on medication to treat every ailment is becoming a huge issue in society, and I would love to shout from the rooftops that Ayurveda needs to become the new globally accepted medicine system, in order to create a new way of thinking about our health. The principles of Ayurveda can greatly aid the betterment of society.
Do people around you/in your circle of friends know about Ayurveda?
All of my friends and family know at least a few things about Ayurveda. It is tricky to try and make people understand its principles easily, but little by little, the word is spreading and I feel I am getting the message across.
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?
Never diet, or obsess about health. Cook from scratch, with a mixture of vegetables, pulses, grains, fruits, and keep fish and meat for occasional meals rather than every day. Food is medicine, and no natural food is bad for our health. We have become a society that is addicted to fads — fad diets, fad exercise routines, and the latest "superfoods" (which is a term I do not approve of). It is a waste of energy to focus on these things, and I would go as far as to say, it actually is bad for our mental health to obsess, as it creates stress.