Food, as one of the primal elements that creates and sustains all life, has the potential to be an object of great beauty. From the perfection of a glistening raspberry tart, to the heady pleasures of a five-course meal in a three-star restaurant, food can reveal the wonder and awe of life. But what makes you perceive a food as beautiful? Though “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” why is it that what I find beautiful you might find appallingly ugly? The artfully decorated chocolate mousse cake that you think is to-die-for might spontaneously cause me to think “I’d rather die than eat that!”
Why you find something attractive or repulsive, beautiful or ugly, delicious or disgusting, has to do with your personal aesthetic or sense of taste. A basic sense of aesthetic is something everyone possesses—we all have a set of preferences. With food, this goes far beyond the tastes you perceive with your tongue. Before you have even taken a bite, you’re attracted to some foods over other foods, strongly drawn to this “delicacy,” or repulsed by that “trash.” But aesthetic is something more than mere preference.
The Indian sage Abhinavagupta proposed that aesthetic was an inborn quality that bursts forth, like a seed that lies dormant until it springs to life when encountering truth or beauty. This bursting or sphota is the internal feeling that lets you know that you are in the presence of true beauty.
The word aesthetic, which means “being responsive to or appreciative of what is beautiful or pleasurable to the senses,” is derived from the Sanskrit word avis, which means “before the eyes, openly, manifestly, evidently.” The transformation of the word from Sanskrit to modern-day usage reveals a great deal about the difference between the Western idea of aesthetic as that which is pleasurable to the senses, and a more yogic idea of aesthetic as the perception of what is evident. This yogic ideal of aesthetics can be applied to how you approach both food and your asana practice.
With asana, your undertaking is to encounter each moment of your practice as something completely new and unknown—each pose, and every movement within each pose, is yet to be discovered. Without a preconceived idea of what the pose should be, or an expectation of what any given moment of your practice should yield, you experience the present moment directly—”manifestly, openly, before the eyes.”
To see foods in this way is to discover them anew every time you eat. Consider how differently you approach a food you’ve never eaten before, as compared to foods you eat often. When something is new, all of your senses are heightened, as you determine whether or not you like a food. You notice everything about it—how it smells, feels, and looks. When you take the first bite, you pause to evaluate the flavors before deciding to have more or not to eat it at all.
This wonder and discovery of food as you eat it in the present moment is how you measure the food against your own inner food aesthetic. But when you’ve eaten a food before, or are tasting foods that you have labeled—gourmet, fattening, dietetic, sinful—you’ll tend to eat out of habit. You miss out on the truth of the food as it unfolds in the present moment.
An interesting exercise is to taste a food you’ve never had before, paying attention to and noting the intricacies of the experience. Then, when you have a familiar food, try to recall the wonder and focus with which you approached the new food, and apply that to your well-known favorite. What you will find is that every apple, slice of toast, or meal in your favorite restaurant has its own unique, subtle qualities that often slip by unnoticed when you eat habitually or in a distracted state of mind. If you can bring yourself back to the present moment for just an instant and pause to see how whatever it is you are eating aligns with you deep in your core, you’ll find you have an unfailing tool for knowing what is really healthy and satisfying for you.
Life Cycle of Food
When you eat, you take something from outside of yourself, put it into your mouth, chew, and through the miraculous process of digestion, it becomes part of you. Like every cell in your body, this food eventually works its way back out, as waste or finally in death, to become part of the rest of the world. This cycle demonstrates how thoroughly connected you are to your food. In this light, there is no denying the fact that we are all part of a unified greater whole.
In terms of selecting, preparing, and eating foods, this means that if you can stay aware during the eating process, you will discover that the foods you select and eat are vitally important parts of a far bigger picture than your own personal gratification or health. If you consider this life cycle, you’ll be less inclined to determine what to eat by whether this apple tart is more in vogue than that pie, or whether this bag of chips is more fattening than the other.
We’re bombarded by messages from the media, doctors, and the latest fad diets about what we should or shouldn’t find attractive to eat. The picture of what a stylish plate of food should look like often outweighs the importance of the taste in upscale restaurants. These notions are based on the current whims of whatever food “experts” say is or isn’t tasteful. These images of “right” foods are so enthusiastically presented as truth that many people approach food as a fashion statement or a scientific formula, rather than an intimate means of connecting to their own personal aesthetic.
Food is not simply fuel to keep you going, a gourmet fashion statement, or an enemy, out to turn your thighs into fat blobs or clog up your arteries. There is the potential for a conjunction of truth and aesthetic satisfaction where the essence of each food intersects with your internal essence. This conjunction is also the goal of yoga practice.