N ot far off Tennessee’s first state highway, outside McMinnville, there is a 1400-acre tract of land with waterfalls and bluff overlooks. Its inhabitants constitute the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences. This center is one of a trio in service to the world, with the others located in England and India.
Along the wooded road leading to the 10-year-old Isha USA campus is an unassuming sign directing you through what was formerly a pine plantation. A visitor’s guide, which can be picked up at the welcome center, states that this is “a powerful space for inner exploration and complete well-being.”
And I feel it.
After all, this is the place where Inner Engineering is taught. The brochure extends an invitation to “a comprehensive program as an overhaul of all aspects of the human mechanism, imparting practical wisdom and powerful yogic practices to manage body, mind, emotions and the fundamental life energies within.”
Still, my heart rate drops as I engage with the delightfully unplugged Alison Murry and Jordan Funk. Many have come here for classes in meditation, yoga and healing; proper eating is utmost on my mind. I have mild interest in the ayurvedic way of observing health; indigestion is a preoccupation these days and I wonder if knowledge here can simmer me down.
Outside the welcome center, we walk along a stone pathway to gaze at an immense copper-colored steel dome built in 2008. Supported with an abundance of planks cut by a local mill, the structure is named Mahima, aka grace. Adjacent is a pine-rimmed pond, which was reclaimed by the institute and is filled with creation: frogs, snakes and all manner of birds.
Groups and individuals come upon this scenario soon after arrival. “The space was consciously created,” says Alison, “and subsequently consecrated for health and well-being with an intention to last 1,000 years.”
We partake of a meditation class; awkward at times, I found myself wishing that I could make the ritual as much a part of the day as brushing my teeth. Afterwards, I realized that in order to live effectively, this quiet process might be the only way to salve the mind and reclaim a childlike harmony. As Alison says, “to enhance one’s perception is the basis of yoga.”
And then I am serene…then hungry.
The Isha Institute is the vision of a “realized yogi” named Sadhguru. Realized yogi, you say? As the west interprets, yoga is not just exercise of the physical body, though that is certainly a constant component. By definition a yogi is “the one who is realized and advanced on the path of yoga and also has insights and discriminative knowledge.” Discriminative knowledge includes instruction on how to fuel the body, which is referred to by those on this path as an incomparable machine.
Sadhguru says, “If only you were aware that so many lives are giving up their own lives to sustain your own, you will eat with enormous gratitude. You will eat only to the extent that it is necessary. The food will behave in a completely different way in your system; the way you treat it is the way it treats you.”
We turn toward the kitchen and dining hall to discover a coincidence of our arrival: We will dine during Pongal, a harvest festival. In India, Pongal is a day when all animals who serve the agricultural system are decorated and pampered in thanksgiving.
Arranged before us on a long table are these offerings: raw foods including banana-nut porridge, moong sprouts, winter melon salad and carrot-orange-ginger juice; nutrient-dense Isha Ruchi Sanjeevini Kanji, a hot multi-grain/nut porridge; South Indian sambar and pongal (curried dal and split-lentil stew); coconut-cilantro chutney; and tempering spices for flavors in curries and salads.
A kitchen staff, which varies from two to four people depending on the number served, composes each meal. Occasionally kitchen staff is adjusted for the more complex meal for 1,000. Alison says that although the Indian culture is always present, a variety of foods are served and special requests honored.
Isha collects its produce from a nearby Amish community and proximates international groceries for more exotic ingredients true to India. It is able to mix east and west in the name of community with wonderful results.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are a mainstay. Alcohol and meat products are not allowed.
Vegetarianism is recommended, but not from a moral perspective. Rather, food choices should be guided by the body’s reaction. Is there a subsequent feeling of energy?
With recognition that the average American eats about 200 pounds of meat per year, the Isha Institute has observed that taking that amount down 75 percent can release many people from their need for antidepressants.
Isha encourages practices of diet that are life-giving, such as a good daily percentage of uncooked foods. A body’s energy level is sustained by the intake of live cells, i.e. pranic foods; by contrast, cooked foods are inert. The kitchen staff favors a preparation of “simply chop and dress.”
The cooks are artists, flavoring hot oils with spices to enhance the cooked portion of a daily menu. Also, those who live at Isha take a morning cup of warm water, neem and turmeric before their yoga practice to cleanse the digestive tract.
Peanuts are favored for their protein and sprouts for their high degree of vitamins and minerals. Jaggery is a hallmark sweetener, certainly novel to the western culture.
And just as my long-lived grandfather suggested, onions, garlic, eggplant, chili spice and tea show up in the body as a minus. Per the yogic system they are negative pranic foods, depleting energy. What my grandfather would not acknowledge is that coffee and potatoes also reside in that downer category.
Given the proper diet, Sadhguru professes that we require much less sleep, enabling our body to run much more efficiently.
The dietary recommendations at the Isha Institute:
1. Don’t eat throughout the day. Two meals suffice—the brain and body work best on an empty stomach.
2. Chew your food very well and allow time between meals for digestion.
3. Eat the right food at the right time: Weather and climate will naturally inform, but eating what is seasonal and locally grown can be of help.
4. Variety on our plates offers energy and health; many believe that the increase in diabetes stems from this shortfall.
5. Do not rely on repetition of food habits. “It is better to decide on our food consciously through our intelligence,” says Sadhguru.
A keynote to this plan of fare is that the preparation is carried out as an offering. “This is all about conducting life more consciously,” says Sadhguru.
I ate double the quantity that I usually do at the noon hour. Concerns of a sleepy drive home were not reality because energy was present as we toured the grounds and then visited the abode of Adiyogi.
This jaw-dropping, 30,000-square-foot structure houses a 21-foot statue of Adiyogi, the first yogi who offered the yogic sciences to the world over 15,000 years ago. The abode is encircled with murals hand-painted in India to depict Adiyogi’s life. The Abode of the Yogi was designed and consecrated for well-being beyond race, religion and culture as a sacred space. We witnessed ceremonies of calm.
And so I was fed.
Certainly there are truths here that have been buried with the pace I have kept for so long. Perhaps your body, the incomparable machine, also seeks proper fuel.
Day trips are free of charge. Beneficial lessons at the Isha Institute on how to take care of oneself are incalculable.
Let us be together. Let us eat together.
Let us produce energy together.
Let there be no limit to our energies.
Let there be no ill-feeling among us.
Aum…Peace, Peace, Peace.
--from A Taste of Well-Being, available at Isha Yoga Centre gift shop