Published on Global Hobo
All photographs by the author
Eating is a spiritual practice, and if you do it right, it will boost your health and your mindfulness.” Vaḷḷi, a female meditation guru with a shaved head and clinking anklets, is giving a short lecture on Ayurvedic beliefs.
“It’s all about your personal dosha, the energy that circulates throughout the body. You have to feed it well…” It’s my first day living in a Hare Krishna community, and already, all I can think is, I’m never gonna make it.
I’d just moved to Australia and wanted to try something different. As cliché as it sounds, I had the great idea of committing to a month of meditation, detoxing and detachment from worldly goods. That’s how I ended up in the middle of a valley in New South Wales, volunteering in a spiritual retreat completely surrounded by charming nature.
At first, the fact it’s run by Hare Krishnas seems like a minor detail, if not a plus. What could possibly go wrong when living with joyful hippies that dance all the time, right?
I quickly realise it’s not like that at all. The community at the retreat is fairly small and, therefore, close. I don’t quite fit in. They call each other with names of Hindu divinities or mythological characters. Some are yoga teachers and meditation masters who worshipped Krishna for years, others are ex-convicts and rehabilitated drug addicts who joined the movement to find their “way back”.
“May this place help you start a path toward spiritual enrichment.” Vaḷḷi’s gaze crosses mine. She smiles at me encouragingly.
The “path”, I learn, is made of a rigid karma yoga routine (spiritual liberation through volunteer work, aka gardening for six hours a day under Australian summer sun) and – argh – a strictly vegetarian diet.
Hare Krishnas follow Ayurveda, based on the principles of centuries-old traditional medicine practice. This means adherence to vegetarianism and exclusion of non-sattvic (‘pure’) food. For example, onion and garlic are banned, believed toxic to the body. It goes without saying that so are caffeine and alcohol.
As I sit on the ground among that eclectic coven for my first Ayurvedic meal, I am skeptical. But the smell of that butternut squash and lentil stew is promising. I taste it and have to admit it straight away: it’s delicious. I quickly finish my first serving and line up for a second one.
“You see?” blinks Radhi, an Australian dude with hip-long hair queuing in front of me. “Your body celebrates all that good nourishment. And you’ll never get tired of it.”
Despite the success of my first meal with the Krishnas, I am not quite convinced of that yet. To a proud Italian ragù eater like me, the vegetarian diet still seems quite restricted and essentially monotonous.
But the days pass and I find myself loving veggie food. When I come to dinner tired and hungry after long hours of work in the vegetable garden, I’m never disappointed by the meals served at the retreat. From tasty spicy curries and super sweet pumpkin soups to soft beetroots lasagnas, crispy salads and yummy vegan chocolate cakes, every dish is not only a burst of flavours for the palate, but also a pleasure for the eyes with all those colourful shades on a single plate.
I realise I’m actually eating in a much more varied way than I’ve ever done. So, between shifts in their organic garden, I offer to volunteer in the kitchen as well, eager to learn more about Hare Krishnas’ fascinating relationship with food. This way, I begin helping to cook for the entire community, learning new recipes and discovering what goes on in the kitchen behind the scenes.
“No eating in here!” says Vaḷḷi sententiously every time she sees me tasting something. “The kitchen is a sacred space, walk outside for that.” Then she turns to the altar between the oven and the sink to finish her rites and prayers, blessing each course.
For the first time, this vegetarian cuisine allows me to grasp the entire food production cycle. Some days, I cut the very same tomatoes I’ve picked from the vegetable garden earlier, and then diligently collect the scraps to make compost for future sowing. It feels like the circle closes. In the meantime, my body begins to experience all the benefits of this new meat-free diet. I am lighter and more energetic, my skin shines, and my nails and hair grow stronger.
The hyper-healthy routine of the place helps too: we awake before dawn, do two hours of yoga in the open air, work hard during the day, and relax with long sessions of chants in the evening before nine solid hours of sleep. While embracing all this, I finally develop a sense of belonging to the community.
“You are feeling so good because you are in harmony with the universe,” Aditi, a Danish girl who lived most of her nomadic life in forests, tells me one day. “By following a vegetarian diet, you are not only respecting the Earth and honouring the lives of the creatures that live on its ground, but also committing to give back everything you took from the soil to feed yourself.”
I think about her words for a while. Never before had I felt that balance within me. “You’re right, Aditi.”
Her big dark eyes sparkle. She is caught by a missionary-like impetus. “This is only the first step towards a more just and non-violent world! If we start treating animals with respect, harmony among men follows naturally, wars and suffering would end.” She goes on saying that I should join the movement and fully dedicate myself to the cause.
Sadly for Aditi though, I did not join the movement. After that month, I went on with my Australian trip, I moved to Sydney and got back to coffee and alcohol. But I do have to thank the Hare Krishnas. Two years have passed since I last ate meat and I couldn’t be happier with this choice.