Divya Alter is a certified nutritional consultant and educator in the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda tradition. She is the cofounder of Bhagavat Life, the only Ayurvedic culinary school in New York. She and her husband launched North America’s first Ayurvedic chef certification program and Divya’s Kitchen, an award-winning, authentic Ayurvedic restaurant in Manhattan. Divya is also the author of What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen.
We had the pleasure of meeting Divya and eating at her restaurant this past winter, and came away from the experience feeling nourished inside and out. Divya exudes warmth and kindness, and her food is incredibly well-considered, from the pure ingredients to the amazing flavors with traditional roots. If you live in or ever visit NYC, Divya’s Kitchen is a must stop as far delicious, healthful dining and transcending atmosphere.
In this interview, Divya talks about her take on routine, nourishment, and beauty, as well as how she came to Ayurveda and eventually opened a restaurant. Divya also tells us about using rose water to help reduce negative EMF effects during computer work, the quick, 3-minute snack she prepares to curb a sweet tooth, and so much more.
— Is routine important to you or do you like things to be more open and free?
My routine is definitely on the spontaneous side, mostly because of the nature of my work of running a restaurant and teaching. But yes, routine is important to me, and I try to have one, even when my schedule is different every day.
— What do your mornings look like? If they differ from day to day, describe your ideal morning.
My mornings differ day to day, depending on my work shifts. My ideal morning is when I wake up before sunrise, do my morning cleansing routine, meditate, stretch, cook and eat breakfast with my husband—then face my day with full strength and enthusiasm.
— Do you have any bedtime rituals that help you sleep well?
I make sure that I’m not hungry. If I am, then I would prepare a cup of hot milk with calming spices or a light porridge. I calm down my mind with breathing exercises, rub my feet with Vata balancing oil; I also take all electronic devices out the bedroom.
— Do you have any kind of mindfulness practice?
I meditate three times a day (takes me about 2 hours a day), I pray in my own words and also love to recite Sanskrit poetry prayers. Mindfulness begins with a calm, clear, positive mind, so I welcome whatever helps my mind be that way; then mindful actions naturally follow.
— Describe your typical or ideal meal for each of these:
I’ve been a lacto-vegetarian for the past 30 years. Thanks to my occupation, I have the luxury to prepare fresh seasonal meals and I rarely eat leftovers. The ingredients vary with the seasons, but here are a just a few things I enjoy. My life is fast-paced, and I need a lot of grounding and Vata balancing; I do not enjoy a lot of raw vegetable dishes.
– Cooked Apple Pre-Breakfast (recipe in my cookbook)
– A quick protein shake with cooked vegetables
– A quick hot cereal with vegetables: quinoa flakes, barley flakes
– Oatmeal with dried fruit
– Vegan protein cubes that I make with sautéed greens and vegetables
Lunch (nowadays mostly from our restaurant menu):
– Vegetable soup with a biscuit or focaccia
– Khichari with sautéed leafy greens
– Curry with paneer protein and leafy greens
– Fresh seasonal fruit
– Fresh pineapple juice
– Sweet potato smoothie
Dinner (nowadays mostly from our restaurant menu):
Very similar to dinner, with a few variations, like carrot risotto with leafy greens and paneer protein, roasted vegetables, beluga lentils, quinoa and wild rice, mung dal with spinach, and more.
A couple of times a week, I’d prepare dishes with detox ingredients, such as moringa (pods or leaves), bitter melon, kulthi beans, asparagus, daikon radish, and more.
— Do you do caffeine and in what form? If not, what is your drink of choice in the morning?
I do not drink any form of caffeine. In the morning, I enjoy a spoon of Chyawanprash in a glass of warm water, moringa tea, or the mucuna “coffee” called Vaidya’s Cup.
— Do you have a sweet tooth and do you take any measures to keep it in check?
Yes, sometimes, especially when I feel stressed out. I never use refined or toxic sweeteners in my recipes. Occasionally, I would eat a dessert from my restaurant. To curb a sugar craving, I would have more bitter foods and teas. A quick sweet tooth pacifier for me is toasting a couple of tablespoons of sesame seeds, cooling them down, and then mixing them with a teaspoon of raw honey—it takes 3 minutes to prepare and it satisfies my desire for sweet without unbalancing my blood sugar.
— Are there any particular supplements, herbs, or tinctures/tonics that you take regularly and find to be helpful with your energy level and general wellness?
Yes, but I only take them under the advice and supervision of my Ayurvedic doctor and other healers I work with—I take them only because I need them: Triphala, Guduchi, Wild Amla, Moringa leaf powder, Vitamin C powder, B12 spray, ALA cream. My preferred brand is Chandika.
— Do you exercise and do you have a particular exercise routine that you repeat weekly?
Maybe because my work is very physical and strenuous, I don’t feel like making more time for exercise. That is my weakness and I’m aware that I need to increase my exercise. I stretch, bounce and shake, walk fast, and do yoga.
— Do you find exercise to be pleasurable, torturous or perhaps a little of both? How do you put yourself in the right mindset in order to keep up with it?
Definitely not torturous, but it’s something I have to push myself into doing. The feeling after is what motivates me to step into it.
— What is your idea of beauty – external, internal or both?
Real beauty shines through a person’s character, from the light of one’s soul. One can have the perfect bodily features, but with a wicked mind or poor behavior—who would enjoy hanging out with such a person? Unique beauty is embracing yourself the way you are and not trying to be or look like someone else. Beauty manifests through kindness, wisdom, creativity, spirituality.
Beauty also radiates from a healthy body and mind—when through proper diet, routine, and environment, our energies are in balance, our digestion is working well, our detoxification system is doing its job, our mind is peaceful, and we’re happy—then our skin, hair, nails, weight, and everything else that contributes to external beauty will be at their best.
— What is your skincare approach – face and body?
I use only products with 100% natural ingredients—if you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it on your skin approach. For the face, I love the Ayurvedic products of Dr. Pratima Raichur and Vaidya Mishra. Sometimes I make my own cleansers and masks with ingredients from my kitchen. I also love rose water—as a moisturizer and a toner. For the body, I use different Ayurvedic massage oils for abhyanga (self-massage). I love receiving skin and body care treatments at Pratima Spa and Dayle Breault.
— Are there any foods, herbs or supplements you find to be helpful to your skin/hair/general glow?
First of all, taking supplements is a very individual thing—we might need a particular supplement for a specific length of time. The one that my body needs might not be necessary or good for you. I only take the supplements and remedies that my medical or Ayurvedic doctors or other healers recommend, for as long as I need them. Some Ayurvedic supplements that are good for most people and are safe to take regularly are Triphala and Amla. I take them because they are both rich in vitamin C and support detoxification, skin and hair regeneration, protein synthesis, digestion, and more. I use the Chandika brand because of its purity and high potency.
— Do you have any beauty tips/tricks you’ve found to be especially useful throughout the years?
Make sure you’re well-rested and hydrated. I always carry in my purse a small spray bottle with pure rose water—I spray my face a few times a day (I do not wear makeup.). It immediately cools and hydrates my skin and uplifts my mood. When I’m working a lot on a computer or when I travel, I spray rose water on my face every hour to reduce the negative effects of EMF on my skin and eyes. Two drops of rose water in each eye helps me release the tension and heat from staring at the screen a lot. I learned these little tips from my Ayurvedic teacher, Vaidya Mishra.
— Do you practice any consistent routines in order to avoid stress?
Yes, breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, prayer, rest, spiritual music, spiritual lectures, doing something spontaneous.
— If stress cannot be avoided, what are your ways of dealing with it?
Owning and running a restaurant is stressful because of the everyday unexpected troubleshooting I have to do. I try to face stressful situations with a positive mind, not taking things personally or not blaming others. Prayer helps me see the situation from a higher perspective and depend on divine intervention. And another lesson I learned from my father-in-law: put relationships ahead of the problem!
— What measures do you take when you sense a cold/general feeling of being under the weather coming on?
I stop eating sweets and starchy foods, cook with more ginger and turmeric, eat hot liquid foods (soups, teas, stews), sip hot water throughout the day, rest. Depending on my symptoms, I would use certain vegetables and grains that would help counteract whatever I’m experiencing in my body. If I have the time, I would do a self-massage followed by sitting in my portable steam bath tent. Footbath in warm-hot salt water at night also helps me suck the cold out through my feet.
— Do you strive to maintain a healthy work/life balance or do those things overlap for you? What is your approach?
My work is aligned with my mission in life, so although it gets overwhelming and exhausting at times, I feel grateful and inspired. My husband and I tend to be pioneers in our line of work—we start projects that did not exist before. Starting anything from scratch is very demanding for a few years, with long work hours, minimal social life, limited finances, and hardly any possibility to travel. Sometimes I ask myself, “When can I just relax and enjoy the results of my hard work?” (That relax time has not come for me yet :) But then the most important results for us are right in front of us: witnessing how people feel inspired and feel better, overcome illness, change their lives, share with others the knowledge they have received from us, contribute to raising consciousness on the planet.
— Describe the actions you take or mindset you try to tap into in order to stay on track with your self-care practice and being nice to yourself?
In my meditation, I humble myself as a servant to God and others, as an expression of love in action. Sharing love begins with self-love, my eternal self as a spirit soul. I regard my body as the vehicle gifted to me to achieve the life destination I long for. I lovingly take care of my body so that it serves me as a friend and does not become a terrible obstacle in my human journey.
— What do you consider to be the single most important change you’ve made to your routine or lifestyle in terms of wellness?
Allowing myself to rest without feeling guilty and asking for support when I need it.
— How do you deal with periods characterized by a lack of inspiration or procrastination?
I accept myself in that state and confide with my husband and/or a friend to help me deal with it.
I usually lack inspiration or procrastinate when I feel exhausted. So then, back to self-care. Spending time in nature is my favorite mood-lifter.
— A book/movie/class that influenced your view of self-nourishment or self-care.
My spiritual mentor, Krishna Kshetra Swami is a living example and inspiration of being spiritual, working hard, and taking care of health. The books and lectures another spiritual mentor, Bhakti Tirtha Swami, inspire me a lot in self-nourishment and self-love. I also value the books by Barbara Ann Brennan, an extraordinary healer and teacher, with whom I was fortunate to study about 12 years ago.
— What made you interested in studying Ayurveda and becoming a certified nutritional consultant and culinary educator?
I’ve always been drawn to Ayurveda, food, and healing in general, but I dedicated my life to the study and practice when I faced some serious health challenges years ago. Vaidya Mishra and Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda answered the questions no one else could and equipped me with personalized self-care practice that made a big difference in my life. There is no way I can keep this precious knowledge to myself—I must share it with others!
— How has Ayurveda helped you with your health?
When I lived in India, Ayurvedic treatments helped me recover from severe amoebic infection and jaundice. Years later, under the care and guidance of Vaidya Mishra and Dr. Marianne Teitelbaum, I was able to overcome an auto-immune disease, chronic fatigue, and digestive issues.
— What are some basic principles of Ayurveda that anyone could adapt to their lifestyle? Any advice for beginners?
First, learn to listen to your body. Find a few minutes every day to check in with yourself and see how you feel. Then ask yourself, “What do I need for balance today?” The Golden Rule of Ayurveda is: Like attracts like, and opposites balance. So find the opposing foods, routine, environment that will bring you more balance. Books and courses on Ayurveda will help you gain the basic knowledge of how to personalize your self-care, day-to-day.
— What was your path to opening your amazing restaurant, Divya’s Kitchen? Do you have any advice for those, who just beginning the process of opening a restaurant?
Divya’s Kitchen manifested as the continuation of our culinary school, Bhagavat Life. After 10 years of teaching cooking classes on the 5th floor, we were offered to take over the restaurant space on the ground floor of same building (The Bhakti Center). My husband and I felt ready for our next adventure, and with the support of a lot friends, we opened our first restaurant (and the first authentic Ayurvedic restaurant in New York City).
As for advice, make sure that you really understand what you’re getting yourself into (it’s hard work)—you will be successful only if you have your heart 100% invested in the business. You need to feel an alignment with yourself, your mission, your food, your business, and your staff. You may be a fantastic chef, but if you’ve never had or worked at a restaurant, before, make sure that you have consultant or a business partner who is a successful restaurateur. I could go on an on…
Fun and Inspiration
— What is something you are particularly excited about at the moment?
I’m excited to be teaching my first out-of-town Ayurvedic cooking workshop at True Ayurveda in Malibu this weekend (8/25-26). I love traveling and meeting people, and this is the first time I can step away to do so since we opened Divya’s Kitchen!
— What do you do to unwind or treat yourself?
I’d go for professional massage or facial treatments at Pratima Spa, read books, dig my fingers in our rooftop garden, hangout with friends, watch comedy, be in a place with trees and water.
— What are your favorite places to in NYC?
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Central Park, Prospect Park, the riversides.
— A book/song/movie/piece of art to feed the soul:
Book – Spiritual Warrior II: Transforming Lust into Love, by B. T. Swami
Song/Album – Would You Change?, The Promise, by Tracy Chapman
Movie – Peaceful Warrior
Piece of Art – The Temple of Vedic Planetarium in Mayapur, India
— Is there anyone you would like to hear from next in this interview series?
I would love to hear from Jay Shetty—he is an amazing motivational speaker and mind uplifter, and a good friend of mine.