Macrobiotics

Swami Gaurishankara Saraswati

Macrobiotics has become one of the most popular dietary paths and has gained recognition in almost every country. Macro means 'large' and bio means life. Macrobiotics then is the 'great and wonderful way of living'.

It was Nyoti Sakurazawa (George Ohsawa) who first took macrobiotics from Japan to the rest of the world. During his teens he became very ill and was told by doctors of western medicine that he had only a few months to live. He began the study of traditional eastern medicine, rediscovering the principle of the unification of opposites - yin and yang - and cured himself completely. He died in 1965 at the age of seventy - four, sixty years later than the doctors had predicted.

As in yoga, the main feature of macrobiotics is balance; harmonisation of the extremes of nature known to the Chinese and Japanese as yin and yang. Yang is light, yin is dark; yang is sun, yin is moon. Yang is positive, male, initiating, concentrated. Yin is negative, female, receptive, diffused. In yoga these two poles of being are known as pingala (yang) and ida (yin). The energy which flows along the psychic channel called ida is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and one's inner psychic environment. The energy flowing along the pingala passageway is associated with the sympathetic nervous system and our involvement in external activity. Together they regulate the various glands and organs of the body, influencing the emotions and states of consciousness. Similarly, in macrobiotics the various organs are classified as yin or yang in nature, and so are the different diseases. Yoga brings about the healthy functioning of mind and body by balancing the ida and pingala flows. Macrobiotics has also formulated a system of treating diseases and maintaining health by correcting any imbalance of yin and yang in the body.

The energies of ida and pingala are aspects of the universal life force or prana. So too, yin and yang denote different forms of ki, the Chinese name for prana or vital energy, which is present in all things including natural foods. Depending on which element is predominant, all food items are classified as either predominantly yin or predominantly yang. There are several characteristics which determine the classification including the colour, taste, water content and acidity, Yang foods are usually red, yellow or orange; strongly flavoured; contain little water and tend to come from colder climates. Yin foods shade through the darker colours to blue and purple. They contain more water and are generally milder tasting. Yang foods are rich in sodium, yin foods in potassium - and it is on the correct balance of these two elements that the functioning of the nervous system (and states of consciousness) depends. Yang foods are more concentrated so that a balanced meal requires five yin elements to every yang element. Any basic book on macrobiotic theory will list all foods according to the degree of yin or yang in each.

The most extremely yang foodstuff is animal flesh, and the most extremely yin are white sugar and refined white flour. These are the main constituents of the affluent diet in India and abroad, and though it is possible to balance them, macrobotics recommends that one avoid extreme combinations, for the effort of moderating their effects places too great a strain on the body. Moreover, the nutritional value of these foods is doubtful. A macrobiotic diet is not necessarily vegetarian, but where meat is part of a meal it is only secondary in importance. Fish and other sea foods are more yin, and therefore more easily balanced, and are considered preferable to meat. In any case, the stress is on correct preparation and complementary combination with other appropriate foods.

One who follows a macrobiotic diet ceases to use processed foods, sugar and honey, and bases his meals on whole grains, vegetables, seeds and local fruit. Table salt is replaced by minerals in sea vegetables (e.g. kelp and seaweed) and sea or sesame salt. Harsh spices are replaced with the fermented derivatives of grains. Brown rice is considered to have the ideal yin-yang balance and is the staple of the macrobiotic menu, but wheat, barley, rye, oats, millet, buckwheat, and maize are all used alone or in combination.

Most grains are yang, and so are balanced by fresh vegetables which are mostly yin, although soybeans are also known to have the perfect balance of yang and yin. The nutrient pattern in grains is complementary to that in vegetables, ensuring a good supply of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals in an easily digestible form. The natural condiments used in place of spices are tamari and miso. Tamari is a balanced seasoning food high in protein and minerals. It is made from soybeans, whole wheat, water and sea salt. Miso is a soybean paste and is a concentrated source of protein and minerals. Many people believe that the therapeutic effects of this diet can be attributed to the food excluded rather than the food included in the diet.

Macrobiotics is more than just a way to eat. It soon becomes a way of life and leads one to study the practical philosophies of the eastern culture. The main disadvantage is that some people tend to obsession with the theory and they become far too rigid in their food habits. The macrobiotic diet is based on certain principles which concern food availability, climate, lifestyle and so on, but in the best developed form is tailored to suit the needs of eastern Asia. The greatest fallacy in macrobiotics is that many practitioners outside Japan have taken the diet literally, word for word, even when this is not in accordance with their needs. It is not an extreme example that someone on a macrobiotic diet would order a salad sandwich for lunch and ask for the tomato to be removed because it is too yin! Many followers do not give enough attention to the principles or spirit of macrobiotics, and go to great trouble trying to procure imported products, failing to use the abundance of local alternatives.

Macrobiotics, like yoga, expounds a sane approach to diet. Stress is on good nutrition, but not at the expense of taste and psychological satisfaction. The combination of different grains with each other and with vegetables is endless, so don't believe those who tell you there is little variety in macrobiotic meals. Once familiar with the ingredients, one can soon create hundreds of new recipes without having to consult a book for ideas.

As in yoga, no foods are forbidden, except when the body indicates otherwise. Macrobiotics involves an awareness of the body, as does yoga, so that one can learn to recognise the signals it sends us. This sensitivity is further refined by the pure nature of the foods eaten. The primary emphasis in macrobiotics is on the balance of natural energies and this too is of great importance in the yogic attitude to food. Food is our major source of physical and vital energy. Macrobiotics and yoga use food not only to maintain the body, but to enhance the subtle life force that is the essence of consciousness.