Intro to Ayurveda
The Science or Knowledge of Life
You’ve probably noticed by now that I have a deep love and respect for Mother Earth.
Being in Nature is food for my soul. And it’s no coincidence that Ayurveda, the ancient system of mind, body, and spirit medicine that has been instrumental in my own healing, is deeply rooted in Nature and the elements.
I’ve thought a lot about Ayurveda over the past almost three years as I watched in horror at just how little people seem to know about their own bodies and how to care for them gently and holistically.
Ayurveda is a way of life. Knowing our unique constitution, our present state of imbalance, paying attention to our daily routine (a vital component), and living in harmony with Nature all lead us down the path to good health and longevity.
Ayurveda is a five-thousand-year-old system of healing with origins in the Vedic culture of ancient India.
Ayurveda is "the Knowledge of Life.”
The Sanskrit word Ayurveda is derived from the root words ayuh, meaning “life” or “longevity,” and Veda, meaning “science” or “knowledge.”
A mind-body-spirit approach to holistic health, Ayurveda teaches that the secret to maintaining good health and longevity is to know your own individual constitution (Prakriti) and its unique needs, as well as your present state of health (Vikriti), which is always affected by our outer world. Ayurveda is not a one-size-fits-all medical system.
For thousands of years, Ayurveda was an oral tradition passed down from teacher to student, and so it’s impossible to know just how old it really is. India’s ancient texts, known as the Vedas, were written approximately 1500 B.C. by the Rishis (or seers) who, through deep contemplation and meditation, were able to “see” the truth of the Universe.
Two of the Vedas, known as the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda, give information about healing, surgery, and longevity. Along with general medicine, modalities such as pediatrics, toxicology, fertility, and even plastic surgery are included.
Ayurveda is at the root of many other systems of health that came later – Traditional Chinese medicine, Greek medicine, Tibetan medicine, etc. Even in our modern times, the basic principles still apply.
Deeply rooted in Nature and the elements (air, ether, fire, water, and earth), Ayurveda teaches us that living in harmony with Mother Nature is necessary if we want to live a long and healthy life.
Ayurveda is not about “quick fixes” when it comes to healing our body, mind, and spirit.
This ancient medical system always looks for the root cause of disease or illness – almost always beginning with our digestion. It is about prevention as much as healing.
An important principle in Ayurveda is that “like increases like,” and so we apply opposite attributes to obtain balance. Common sense prevails here – if you’re too cold, apply heat. Is digestion sluggish? Add spices that increase metabolism. Problems with dryness (internally and externally)? Add healthy oils to your diet and to your skin. And on and on…
The Doshas: Vata, Pitta, Kapha
The three functional energies, or forces, in nature, are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. In the body, it is the unique ratio of these three humours that determines an individual’s Prakriti (constitution).
Our constitution is determined at the moment of conception, and it never changes. It’s influenced not only by the constitution of our parents but also by the time of day, season, and emotional state of our parents at conception.
What does change constantly is our present state of health (Vikriti), and that is where the focus needs to be in order to bring the body back into balance. When the doshas are present in appropriate quantities, they support the health and integrity of the body; when they accumulate (as basically waste products), they can cause illness and disease.
After studying for years, I have always tried making Ayurveda digestible (pun intended!) both in my writing and when I was working with clients.
So, here are a dozen simple but important Ayurvedic teachings that can revolutionize your health like they have mine.
Good health starts with good digestion. I don’t care what is ailing you – be it poor eyesight or cancer – an Ayurvedic practitioner will always ask first about your digestion. Roughly 80% of our immunity resides in our gut, and undigested food turns to sticky toxins (called ama), which wreak havoc on the body. So it makes perfect sense to fix poor digestion asap.
The body loves routine. It wants to eat and sleep and eliminate and exercise and work at roughly the same time each day. So, as much as is humanly possible, try to stick to a daily routine. Especially with meals and sleep. This tip is especially challenging for Vata-types. Trust me.
Begin each day with a big glass of warm water with fresh lemon juice. You can change it up with lime or ginger. Or just drink it plain. Maybe add a pinch of sea salt. This will help to rehydrate you from the night, flush toxins from the body, and stimulate elimination (which should happen for everyone every morning upon awakening).
Hydrate more efficiently by sipping hot or warm water every 15 minutes throughout the day rather than gulping huge glasses of cold water. I used to keep a thermos of hot water on my desk. I’m going to try getting back into this practice! If this is too hard to stick to, at least do it for a two-week period. It’s a great detoxification tip.
Stoke your digestive fire. We actually have a digestive fire called Agni, which prepares our body for digestion. You should be hungry and literally have a warm belly before mealtime. Go ahead and feel your belly before your next meal! Eating without an appetite (weak Agni) can impair our ability to digest food. And cold water puts out this fire! Drinking a glass of warm water ½ hr. before meals will hydrate the stomach lining, allowing for necessary stomach acid to form. To rev up a sluggish appetite, chew a little slice of fresh ginger with lemon juice and sea salt fifteen minutes before a meal.
Eat your biggest meal ideally between 11:30-1:00 p.m. (2:00 p.m. at the latest), when our digestive fire is strongest. If you’re going to eat hard-to-digest foods, this is the time to do it – not late in the evening.
Get to bed before 10:00 p.m. Yep. I see all the eye-rolls coming from the night owls! Ayurveda breaks the day down into six four-hour periods. 10:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. is Pitta time. Pitta dosha rules metabolism, the production of energy, and digestion. Our body “wakes up” (especially the liver) and wants to get to work cleansing, repairing, and doing all kinds of tasks that take a lot of energy. If we’re awake – eating, reading, working, watching TV – that’s where our energy is going to go, and we will miss out on the most restorative hours of the night. Plus, when 10:00 pm hits, we get our second wind and have a harder time falling asleep.
Exercise to only 50% of your capacity. Now, doesn’t that sound nice? All exercise is not created equal. It is very specific to the doshas and your unique constitution. I will write more about this in another article.
Eat seasonal local foods. The way Mother Nature intended. Need protection from the summer sun? Berries are full of sun-protecting antioxidants. Do you have excess heat in your body from the summer months? Mother Nature provides peaches at the end of summer and apples in the fall, which draws excess heat out of the body. And on and on. She is wise. Eat accordingly.
Add meditation and yoga to your daily routine. Remember, Ayurveda is a mind/body/spirit practice, and there is also such a thing as mental ama (toxins). Meditation was a huge component of my own healing. And yoga is the sister science of Ayurveda. One should not be without the other. That being said, this is a tough one for many, and it’s always ok to say “that’s just not for me.”
Like increases like. This is a famous Ayurvedic saying and is nothing more than common sense. You run hot (Pitta)? Stay away from hot spicy foods, the hot sun, saunas, etc. Run cold (Vata & Kapha)? Eat gently cooked foods, avoid cold beverages/food, and always dress warmly – especially around the head/neck. Think in terms of opposites.
Tune into your body. Ayurveda teaches us awareness at a very deep level. Once you start to pay attention to the messages your body is giving you, you will intuitively know where to place your focus. Don’t panic. Just take note and then explore what healing options are out there.
I may no longer suffer from chronic pain, but I still experience stress both from my inner and outer worlds. This is inevitable. And, as we know, stress leads to all kinds of physical and emotional challenges. Having the wisdom of Ayurveda in my back pocket has made my life so much easier.
Of course, each day, I fall short of following a good number of my own tips. Hey, I’m only human. But I never stop trying. I hope these simple tips will help you, as well.
In my next article on Ayurveda, I’ll focus on Vata Dosha, as those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere are fast approaching Vata Season.
P.S. You don’t need to like Indian food to embrace Ayurveda!
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