In its purest form, food is sustenance. But a perfectly ripe peach or a salad replete with flavors, textures, and colors elevates that sustenance to a sensual indulgence. And when love and a conscious intention to nourish on a spiritual level are cooked into the meal, food becomes a vehicle for prana (life force), feeding much more than the physical body.
To learn how to nourish ourselves and those we cook for with the sublime flavors and energy of great food, we collected kitchen wisdom from some of the world's best-loved yoga destinations, places known for delicious, healthful food that nurtures and transcends. For the chefs and cooks at these centers, preparing dishes that encourage both physical vitality and internal equanimity is an opportunity not just to nourish but also to support the journey of those they cook for. Do the same for your family and friends by bringing their practices and delicious recipes to your own summer cooking.
The Original Slow Food
Rancho La Puerta
Tecate, Baja California, Mexico
Seventy years ago, Rancho La Puerta took the radical viewpoint that fresh, local food grown without pesticides and other chemicals was the way to a healthy, balanced life. Today the spa is a leader in innovative, healthful cooking. "We at the ranch have always given a lot of importance to food because it is an essential part of a joyous life," says founder Deborah Szekely.
"If you take yoga seriously, you have to take the body seriously. Yoga involves conversations and relationships with the body. And when you get into conversations and relationships with the body, you really can't eat trash."
Featuring hands-on cooking classes with guest chefs, speakers on topics ranging from slow food to sustainable farming, and produce from its six-acre organic farm, Rancho La Puerta immerses its guests in the idea that the joy people take in cooking and eating is an essential part of the way food nourishes them. "We have achieved a depth that comes from years of experience," says Szekely.
The Cook's Connection
Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
"Food is such a powerful transmitter of energy," says Deb Howard, executive chef at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Howard teaches her staff something they likely didn't learn in cooking school: "Vegetables have prana, and when you cook with them, you're combining that with your own life force, and this amazing transformation happens. You can taste the energy of the cook in the food."
Guests at Kripalu have lots of choices at mealtime, including dahl, rice, and chutneys suitable for balancing the doshas; lightly spiced cooked grains; and steamed vegetables. And for people who might be new to natural foods, there's always a sandwich bar with a panini grill. For Howard, it's a way of staying true to the center's values about the kind and quality of food they serve, while allowing guests to approach a yogic diet from where they are. "People are very appreciative of that," she says. And whether they're preparing a simply spiced dahl or a more spectacular dish like this smoked-tofu paella, "we all work with the awareness that how we're connecting with the food impacts the people who are eating it."
The Expanding Light Retreat for Meditation, Yoga, and Health
Ananda Village in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California
"The first time I visited The Expanding Light, it inspired me so much to make changes in my life," says Jyoti Spearin, kitchen manager at the meditation and yoga retreat center. "When people go on retreat, that's something they take home with them in a very real way." Today, Spearin nurtures that transformative experience in guests at The Expanding Light by preparing food that follows the principles of a yogic diet.
"Sattvic foods, like raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and herbs, are foods that increase life force and joy and help to promote a peaceful attitude," says Spearin. "But we also need rajasic, or activating, foods in order to fulfill our worldly duties—foods like cooked whole grains and lightly cooked vegetables."
A balance of sattvic and rajasic foods is offered to guests every day—organic vegetables (some grown in the Ananda Village garden), whole grains, and fresh herbs, all prepared with the intention to support and uplift. To that end, Spearin says, the cooks pray together before beginning work, keep their conversations uplifting, and sometimes practice mantra as they cook.
In addition, Spearin says, she might choose a divine attribute to work with that day, whether it be peace, joy, or calmness, and then perform every kitchen task with that quality in mind. "In yoga, we believe that we all come from the Divine," says Spearin. "When you can bring that awareness into every cooking experience, you see that that's what you're nurturing through the food."
The Lovin' Forkful
Shoshoni Yoga Retreat
The cooks at Shoshoni prepare food with love and consciousness, says Susannah Narayani Levine, a chef at the center and the author of their newest cookbook, The Kitchen Goddess, holding that energy as they work by chanting or repeating mantras. "When you have that meditative focus while you're cooking, you channel that love and energy into the food. You can really feel the loving energy in the food when you eat it."
Repeating mantras as you cook, focusing on your breath, or singing along with a chanting CD can lift you out of your thoughts and bring conscious energy to the food, says Levine. "Even simpler than that, just thinking of the person you're cooking for with a lot of love is one of the best things you can do." Levine says she sees guests at the end of their stay at Shoshoni looking a little bit softer, more open, and happier than when they arrived. "They always seem to have felt that deep loving nourishment. It's almost like when your mom cooks something for you—it tastes so good because she really loves you."
Quiet Mind, Comfort Food
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
Carmel Valley, California
The kitchen at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is quiet, punctuated by a little small talk. Occasionally a mindfulness bell rings, signaling the cooks to pause and take a few breaths together in silence. "Something is communicated through all of the food we eat, and there's something about the quiet that allows communication to happen more clearly," says Dale Kent, former head cook at Tassajara and the co-author, along with his wife, Melissa Kent, of Tassajara Dinners and Desserts. Kent describes the food at the center as simply prepared comfort food— family-style dishes with an emphasis on fresh produce and whole grains: "It's food like your grandma used to make," Kent says, and that includes homey desserts.
"Even if ingredients like sugar are not the path to enlightenment, it's important ;to make people feel like they're being cared for."
Previous cooking experience is not required for guest cooks at the center; more important is the ability to approach the work calmly and quietly, a mind-set you can cultivate by opening your senses to what's happening as you cook. "It's about not taking for granted the marvelous transformation that happens when a pot comes to a boil. It's noticing how different your experience is every time you cook the same dish. It's not being surprised when things don't go the way you thought they should," Kent says. "Cooking never happens the way you expect."