By Sean O’Donnell
I’ll admit that when I first heard of Ohsawa diets, I thought that “Ohsawa” was a Sanskrit word or referred to an ancient, revered yogi. It took me a while to acquaint myself with its real namesake―George Ohsawa, the founder of macrobiotics.
George Ohsawa was a Japanese man who spent most of his life in France. He mission was to bring Eastern principles of health to Western society. In his life, he authored over 300 articles, papers, and books describing general systems of well-being. Ohsawa achieved some fame in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps peaking with his 1961 publication of Zen Macrobiotics, which was specifically intended to introduce these principles to the United States. Some credit Zen Macrobiotics with sparking the local food and organics movements that were popular in America in the 1960s.
Ohsawa presented ten dietary regimens, beginning with a mix of meat, fruit, and vegetables and becoming progressively more restricted. However, in contemporary yoga communities, the buzz seems to be centered around the most restrictive, “Diet #7.”
Ohsawa Diet #7
In its simplest form, Ohsawa Diet #7 consists of only brown rice. Like all of Ohsawa’s principles, this was not a “new” concept in the 1960s—it had been practiced in many cultures going back at least 5,000 years. Its general intention is to give the mind a break from stimulation and the digestive system a dose of simplicity in order to balance the being. Ohsawa described this balancing in terms of yin and yang, but whatever terms may be used by others—from ancient Hindus to modern dieticians—the underlying principles remain the same.
However, calling this diet a “brown rice only” diet perpetuates a few myths. The basis of all of Ohsawa’s recommendations is having whole grains as the primary dietary component and supplementing them with small amounts of other natural, local, in-season foods. This fully includes the options of whole wheat, millet, buckwheat, whole oats, and barley. Exciting, I know! Granted, the easiest of these to find and prepare for most people is brown rice, but any of these cereals can be the basis for a balanced and healthy diet according to Ohsawa.
Ohsawa Diet #7 is his most extreme regimen. But, there are still some allowances. The use of well-sourced natural sea salt is, in fact, instructed. Natural, traditional soy sauce is also permitted in all Ohsawa diets. But, the vast majority of commercial soy sauces available today are not “natural.” Any that contain corn syrup, caramel color, or sodium benzoate should be avoided. Additionally, gomashio―a mixture of ground sesame seeds and sea salt―is heavily encouraged throughout Ohsawa’s writings. While not technically suggested for a strict Diet #7 in Zen Macrobiotics, the use of gomashio has been allowed by some of his students in their current practices.
Some practitioners have also come to include certain teas―such as basil or cinnamon―in Diet #7. While these are yang teas, there is no mention of their use in Zen Macrobiotics’ explanation of the diet. In fact, cinnamon is a severe yang product, and, generally, Ohsawa diets are meant to balance yin and yang. Whole grains are very moderate yang foods, and the balancing they induce provides a defense against the natural bombardment of pollutants, chemicals, toxins, and electromagnetic fields that are almost inescapable in modern life. Drinking copious amounts of cinnamon water would not seem to be in line with any kind of balancing, and also defeats the purpose of giving the senses a chance to rest and balance during the diet.
Focusing on restrictions, however, belies the greater wisdom that George Ohsawa was trying to communicate. Diet #7 is but a tiny slice of his teachings, though it has gotten more than it’s share of attention. The fact that the diet is “#7” indicates that there is a much wider range of healthy eating options taught by Ohsawa. The cereals-only version is recommended because of its simplicity. It is, in fact, the easiest diet to follow, as Ohsawa noticed that people had a greater tendency to stray when given a wider range of options and more complicated “rules” to adopt. It is recommended to follow this diet for a maximum of 10 days, and in the preface to modern versions of Zen Macrobiotics, there is a quite ironic and insightful passage relaying a conversation between George Ohsawa and one of his students, Herman Aihara: “Ohsawa told Herman that the French always cheated on their diets and that is why he recommended a number seven diet as the best. In this way, he overstated the case so that they (the French) would eat more natural foods. Again, according to Herman, Ohsawa had no idea that Americans had the willpower to eat only grains for unusually long periods of time.”
If you go deeper into Ohsawa’s teachings, there is, in fact, nothing inherently restrictive about his principles for happy living.
The Broader Experience of Doing an Ohsawa Diet
The core of Ohsawa’s teachings is that macrobiotic principles are a means to achieve happiness through health and nutrition. This is a very deep shift in perception and holistic living, and it encompasses everything from how you cook to the freshness and purity of the foods you consume to the attitude with which you eat them. Happiness experienced through balance at the physical level can help lead to the experience of true happiness, that of the Self.
Ohsawa was a big proponent of another ancient tradition that also shows up in yogic texts―chewing foods thoroughly. In fact, if you aren’t chewing your brown rice thoroughly, you are not following an Ohsawa diet. If you think about it, this practice implies so many other beneficial “side effects.” It’s a matter of slowing down. It’s about appreciating your food. In the West, there is a tendency to be in a hurry so much of the time. It is deeply conditioned, and even if you aren’t frenzied, the world around you seems to be. In the Eastern tradition, mealtimes are not the place for this. The discipline of slowing down and chewing thoroughly also dictates, in time, that you start to appreciate mealtimes more. You have to make time for them and treat them as something special. You are taking a break and nourishing yourself, and this is a very high form of connecting with the world around you. Furthermore, physiologically, digestion takes place in the mouth, and properly chewing your food and letting saliva do its prescribed work takes an unnecessary burden off the rest of the bodily systems. This also gives your body time to respond to what is being ingested, allowing you to feel full and stop eating when you are naturally inclined to do so. As M.K. Gandhi said, “You must chew your drink and drink your foods.”
On that note, one of the major principles of Ohsawa’s diets that has nothing to do with eating grains is based on liquid intake. Ohsawa’s advice has varied, again touching on some very austere recommendations that may have been overcompensations. Adaptations by his students generally follow the guideline of drinking when you’re thirsty and avoiding excess water. Some modern health proponents espouse the idea of “flushing” the body with lots of water, but Ohsawa’s teachings rightfully view the kidneys as a much more complicated organ than, say, a steel pipe that needs flushing. Excess water can overwork the kidneys, engorge them, and dilute toxins to where they cannot be properly filtered. This advice should also be flexible based on the climate you are living in and your activity level, but keep in mind that more water is not always better. Remembering that almost all foods contain water is something that can point you in a balanced direction.
Going beyond Rules
Ultimately, in the full realization of the macrobiotic principles, there are zero restrictions. If you can look past the simplicity of a “brown rice only” diet and realize that it is just a tool, a pointer, meant to decondition and provide a new system of health in people’s lives, you can see the deeper truths Ohsawa conveys. If you can learn to treat cooking as an art form, if you can pick ingredients that aren’t shipped long distances or forced to grow with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, if you can treat food as a sacrament and mealtimes as communion, then you are free to eat anything you want, in any quantity you want, at any time you want.
As Ohsawa said, “For those who have lived from their youth through middle age and into their late years in accord with the order of the Universe, there is no special diet; they are allowed to eat anything. Anything is used in the macrobiotic sense of the word: he who has lived in dynamic yin-yang balance for many years is so well-adjusted that he can control himself. His high level of judgment governs his choice of things to eat and drink so that he is able, figuratively, to eat anything that he desires.”
This is reminiscent of the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, another great figure whose goal was to bring Eastern wisdom to the West. Yogananda recounted a conversation he had with a potential devotee that touches on a similar concept. The devotee asked, “You mean to tell me, if I come to study with you, I can drink alcohol?” Yogananda replied, “Yes.” The devotee asked again, “You mean to tell me, if I come to study with you, I can smoke cigarettes?” To which Yogananda again replied, “Yes.” Astounded, the devotee finally asked, “And if I come to study with you, I can have promiscuous sex?” To which Yogananda again replied “Yes. But what I cannot guarantee you, is that if you come to study with me, that you will continue to desire to do any of these things.”
Have a happy and healthy holiday season, everyone, and please feel free to leave a comment about your own personal experiences with diet and nutrition.
Sean is a Hridaya Yoga student and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of his blog posts here.