Making Merry Part 1: Ayurveda and Alcohol

In my blog on Ayurvedic Self Care for Winter we looked at how various meats and alcoholic beverages are recommended for use in the winter months. Today, let's take a look at some Ayurvedic perspectives on alcohol. How and why might we use alcohol in an Ayurvedic context?

One of the most important texts of Ayurveda is Charak Samhita. Charak takes a nuanced view of alcohol use and abuse. Wine, "is like a nectar when someone drinks it in the proper manner, in the proper quantity, at the proper time, with wholesome food, adjusted for the strength of the individual and with merrymaking. On the other hand, it acts like a poison when one indulges in drinking wine of poor quality, or in the context of a disorderly lifestyle or excess physical exertion." This same dilemma confronts us to this day. Alcohol can be a pleasant or even beneficial component of a celebratory meal, or it can be the destroyer of lives and families.

Wine has ten properties: it is light, sharp, hot, subtle, sour, quickly absorbed, quick acting, drying, sedative and rough. These ten qualities are exactly the same as the ten qualities of poison. When consumed in great excess, alcohol can cause coma and death. It is a notorious liver toxin and brain poison. Regular excess consumption can cause hepatic cirrhosis and eventually alcohol dementia. But, in line with Charak's nuanced approach, the same qualities that make alcohol a poison also render it a yoga vahi, an excellent vehicle for introducing medicines into the tissues. This is the rationale behind the use of tinctures, as well as the various medicated wines used in Ayurveda, known as asavas and arishtas. The most well-known and commonly used outside India is drakshasava, a wine made from dark grapes or raisins and spices such as cardamom.

Because wine is an intoxicant, Charak gives importance to set and setting for consuming alcohol. This is not something to be done casually, nor when alone, nor when sad or stressed. Make sure your body is externally and internally clean before partaking. Dress up nicely, in clean clothes and jewellery and wear essential oils suited to the season. Recline on a comfortable couch with cushions. Your environment should also be uplifted, with flower arrangements and incense. Drink in a pleasant social setting, with guests whose company you enjoy. Sincerity and affection are key qualities in this context.

Charak actually recommends using a gold wine-cup, like the Mycaenean one pictured here.

This makes sense in that gold only dissolves in aqua regis and hence would not contaminate the wine or impart a metallic taste. Nowadays we are more likely to use crystal (or cut glass, for UK readers). My father used to emphasize polishing the wineglasses nicely so they were not just clean, but sparkling. Charak would agree. And Charak also gives importance to pairing good food with good wine, mentioning fruits, green vegetables, well seasoned dishes and roasted meats.

In ancient times a libation was offered before drinking wine. Today we might make a toast, or do kiddush, or at least say "Cheers" or sláinte (in Irish,) santé (French), or l'chaim (in Hebrew). In other words, there should be some sense of sacredness, offering, blessing or well-wishing before partaking.

Finally, Charak offers some special precautions for each dosha.

Vata: Wine is drying for you. Make sure you get an oil massage (or self-massage) and hot shower or steam before drinking. Have warm and oily food before taking wine. Prefer sweet to dry wines.

Pitta: Wine is heating for your constitution. Take a lukewarm or cool bath, use a rosewater spritzer, wear sandalwood or vetiver essential oil and loose clothing. Select a menu of sweet, bitter and astringent foods such as green vegetables, sweet potatoes etc. Choose red wine or mead (honey wine).

Kapha: Wine adds extra calories to your meal. To get your metabolism going, season your food with black pepper. Use kapha-soothing grains such as barley or quinoa. Choose red wine or mead (honey wine).

Next week, we will look at some of the latest medical research regarding alcohol. Is it beneficial? Is it safe? We'll find out next week.

Read Making Merry Part 2: Is alcohol safe?

Alakananda Ma M.B., B.S. (Lond.) is an Ayurvedic Doctor (NAMA) and graduate of a top London medical school. She is co-founder of Alandi Ayurveda Clinic and Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula in Boulder Colorado, as well as a spiritual mother, teacher, flower essence maker and storyteller. Alakananda is a well known and highly respected practitioner in the Ayurveda community both nationally and internationally.

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