Interview with Nancy Phillips, Ayurvedic practitioner and textile artist
by Alix Anne Shaw
March 5, 2013
Nancy, you are a textile artist and ayurvedic practitioner. You run an ayurvedic business, Life in Balance. You also have a strong interested in permaculture. What connections do you see between Ayurveda, permaculture, and your artistic practice?
There’s an obvious connection between Ayurveda and permaculture, which would be the element of following and allowing nature. Permaculture is a design form and also a philosophy: things work the way they work, Nature knows what it needs to do, let it do that and work for you. Ayurveda to me is a form of permaculture.
The element that feels like it connects all three is difficult to describe, but it’s really important to me—I love being at the cutting edge, the pioneer edge. Art is supposed to open people to new ideas. All three are a way to bring beauty into the world. In ayurveda, I say that people are starving on so many levels—for nutrition, a deep sense of beauty, for kindness—definitely all three of these fill those ways of being nourished and also being in harmony with nature.
Are ayurveda and permaculture similar to an art practice? If so, how? How are they different?
I’m overwhelmed at how much design and how many art skills can be drawn from in doing permaculture. For instance, I’m part of an ashram, and every year the head of the ashram comes and we suddenly have 3,000 to 5,000 people on the property instead of a handful. We spend a whole lot of energy figuring out parking for folks….last year was the first year and there were tons of complaints because people had to walk, so one of the things that’s going to be done is to make the path they have to take so beautiful that it will be an overwhelming, glorious experience. Just this past month, I’ve been doing tons and tons of research and planning. I have twelve separate purposes for gardens: a community food garden, a kitchen garden that’s a keyhole with compost in the center, a kids’ garden, a puja flower garden, a garden for medicinal and dyer herbs, a tropical plant garden, a garden for native planting that encourages pollinators…. It’s not just how to design it engineeringwise, so it works, but also finding a way to make it breathtakingly beautiful. That draws on all the art skills.
In ayurveda, my favorite part of seeing clients is framing medicine in a completely different way. At a doctor you have tests, get five minutes with the doctor, are told you have a disease, and they treat you like a machine or a car that needs a part replaced or fixed. In ayurveda, there’s a 180-degree difference. There is a focus on bringing intelligence back. The body is seen as more like a garden, as a very complex ecosystem. Now doctors have suddenly discovered that 90% of your immunity is in the gut. Ayurveda knew that thousands of years ago. This relates to soil as well—it’s an ecosystem, and if you kill everything in the dirt with pesticides, there are no bacteria to break down the plant matter. It’s the same.
Let’s see…art doesn’t usually have harmful bacteria—but then again, I’ve seen some that does. [Laughs].
On the other side of the question, do your interests in food and sustainability manifest themselves in your artistic work? If they don’t, why not?
I haven’t been doing as much art lately, but the kind of textiles I did was accumulative—adding bits over time. It’s a timed process, so that has some similarities. And also textile art can be very useful, instead of just art to contemplate. I want to start growing natural plants to make dyes and start people dyeing…perhaps shawls or something else that’s useful.
This is an art world question, but do you see a connection between our relationship to food and our relationship to art as consumers?
We consume art constantly in a commercial way. Some people complain that art has become so commercialized and degraded that it’s lost its divinity. And we’ve totally done that with food. It’s mass produced and people choose it based on sensual, instant fulfillment instead of its original purpose. That’s something I really see in common.
Now for some questions about food.
I’m always interested in the range of activities that people interested in these issues seem to take up. What are some things that you do, professionally and in your daily life that have to do with food and sustainability? What other hats do you wear besides the ones we’ve been talking about here?
At the ashram, we’re aiming to grow our own food and plant food forests to fill our own needs. Eventually we’ll be off the grid. We’re also talking about learning how to do canning and I dehydrate food—I’m getting into beekeeping and eventually we’ll have animals because they contribute to the soil. We’ll give excess to food banks and eventually have items for sale. I also teach cooking as part of my ayurvedic business. There’s a lot.
What so you see as most lacking today in our relationship to food?
I’d say, people’s disconnections with themselves and complete disconnection from nature. Everything is disconnected. It’s hard to find the information you need, so people are really lacking—there’s this hollow—and they hardly have any idea what it is. They usually fill it with something else besides what nourishes them. We’re not separate from nature. We’re like one of the grains of sand—there’s no way we can be apart from it.
What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?
There’s no question it’s agribusiness and how aggressive it’s become. It’s really got its tentacles in the political and financial arenas and is working to totally take over and stamp out any other competition. Small farmers are disappearing. Then there are chemical components and the lack of life-force. Monocropping was never meant to be and it causes all kinds of problems. Have you ever read One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukouka? In that book, he has half an acre and he grew everything on it. He did everything “wrong” and had no pests and way more yields than you’d expect. Scientists would come and stay with him and study him…. I think food, like medicine, has become a commodity instead of a natural thing, instead of a basic need that we have.
What is your ideal vision of what our food system would look like?
It would be local, with everybody growing things in their backyard. Not everybody can have a dairy, but small farms would be incorporated into our living systems, not separated from us. No more huge agribusiness farming. We would be growing things in ways where chemicals aren’t needed.
What is the most important thing you know about food?
It’s a gift, a life-gift. It’s something divine and we should it treat as such. Cheese Puffs aren’t food—they’re entertainment! [Laughs].
Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, how?
Well….yes, mostly because I get very bored if I’m not always pushing boundaries or hitting my head against a wall. If no one’s done it and the task is impossible, I’m there. Once someone’s done it and it’s normal, I’ve lost interest. But, radical compared to what? Compared to your average person? I don’t even know what that is.
Well, I always think of radical in its original meaning of “root”—as someone who believes in getting to the root of the problem.
Oh is that what it means? My whole life is that! It’s one of the foundations of ayurveda. As early as I can remember having conscious thought, I’ve always known that things could be better. When I was young, my mom was always sick, always going to the doctor, and they’d give her something and she’d get worse. I always knew there was a better way. That was the root of my interest in natural medicine and health. But it’s more than health. In some ways, I could abandon ayurveda completely if some other way were some better way or were a better vehicle to fulfill these drives and motivations to help people. It’s not like people are happy living like this—it’s not fulfilling and it’s not sustainable. So that would be definite yes to being a radical!
Since we’re talking about childhood, what was your relationship to food like growing up?
My mom cooked everything. We sat down at 5:00 for dinner. My mom would apologize all over the place if it was 5:15 or 5:30. Food was a fuel that you ate but it was also a time of family or community. We could have three cookies a day, period. After dinner, by 6:30, the kitchen got cleaned up and the kitchen lights got turned off by 7:00. It was weird—you didn’t go in the kitchen again. On a weekend, maybe….it would be a big production to make popcorn as a late night snack. Now, besides the fact that people are malnourished, people self-medicate with addicting foods. People are eating every hour of the day. It was really different back then. Food had such tradition to it…this is so and so’s brownie recipe. My grandmother—this is Mrs. Thompson’s recipe. This is my sister’s casserole. That grandmother was Swedish and she went to Pope Cooking School in Boston. There were Swedish recipes and things my grandmother would teach me, like how to make a rose out of butter and steamed pudding and things that people don’t eat anymore. Food was also a way for someone to be creative and nourish their loved ones. Even in my little neighborhood [in Park Ridge] people had backyard gardens. We lived two doors down from my grandmother. We had a rhubarb hedge that divided us from the neighbors, so the two households shared it. I used to steal carrots, just pull them up and eat them, barely rinsing them off. The rich earth taste was so good. I’m remembering later, too, when I went to Kyrgyzstan. We’d have breakfast that was yoghurt with dill, tomatoes, and cucumber. The vegetables were so good…it was so good there. I tried to do it at home and it just didn’t work.
Do you support or shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?
I try not to. I hate Whole Foods and I think they’re totally evil, but sometimes I’m forced to. I’d rather order from Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks. They deliver to your house for $5 and it’s the same price or cheaper than Whole Foods. You can get their box, but it’s way beyond a CSA box. You can pick it out online, get dairy and eggs…they have organic grass-fed meats now too. I won’t get a pineapple there—
I want to pick out my own—but local farmers have good stuff. Once I bought chard at Whole Foods and I paid $3 and got three leaves. For less at Irv and Shelly’s you get a ginormous bunch. At Whole Foods, the stuff isn’t necessarily good for you, or even organic. But it’s kind of all we have in Chicago, so it’s hard to find alternatives.
What is the simplest and most radical component of your daily life involving food?
It’s normal for me, but for most people, making my own ghee and making things from scratch. I have jars and jars of herbs and grains. I order nuts in bulk, straight from the farms so they’re not irradiated and stick them in the freezer. I’m not vegetarian right now—I don’t eat much meat but I need some right now—so I collect bones for bone broth.
Also, I moved recently and I had to pare down a lot. I realized that mattresses are one of the most wasteful and expensive things that we use. I really wanted a charpoy [wooden bed with webbing that they sleep on in India] but they’re $1500 here and you have to have a custom mattress. So I’m looking at how to make my own bed. That’s really radical.
Another thing I can think of— I clean with vinegar, borax, essential oils and a little bit of soap. We cleaned 95 percent of the whole ashram like that.
What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to change their relationship with food?
The first step is to sit down and make your place some level of lovely, using whatever you have. Sit down to eat—no TV, no reading, and think about eating. Think about what’s in front of you—even if it’s a McDonald’s McNugget. And say thank you. There’s so much effort that goes into feeding a person—growing, harvesting, preparing. Lots of people don’t have anything to eat. Just sitting down is such a huge deal for most people. Then, really take in fully what you’re eating. Then, when you can, try to cook it yourself.
What is the contact info for Life in Balance, your business, and for the ashram?
Nancy J. Phillips, M.Ayur.
Life in Balance Ayurveda
Live & Heal without Side Effects or Toxins
Nancy Phillips, Coordinator – Green Friends, Gardens
MA Center Chicago
Green Friends Initiative, Embracing the World: