Ayurveda: Lifestyle Choice for Optimal Health
Reclaim Youthful Energy, Enthusiasm and Perfect Balance
In the ancient writings of Ayurveda, health is regarded as more than the mere
absence of disease. Rather, ideal health is defined as a state of balance in the body, mind, emotions and spirit that produces an inner quality of bliss.
“One who is established in the Self, who has balanced doshas, balanced agni…proper elimination…well functioning bodily processes, and whose mind, soul, and senses are full of bliss, is called a healthy person.”
—Sushruta Samhita, 15.38
For this reason, Ayurveda is a holistic approach to wellness and health care that addresses the total person. When its modern-day practitioners are addressing questions about health and emotional well-being, they always speak about more than just the food we eat or medicines we take—they speak about lifestyle. While most of us live in ways that the ancient Ayurvedic texts could not have foreseen, there are approaches to healthy living associated with Ayurveda that have universal application across the millennia. The goal of a healthy lifestyle, according to Ayurveda, is perfect balance that allows one to experience physical well-being and live in the state of one’s higher nature, “the Self,” which is full of bliss. The following are seven principles for a healthy lifestyle that are customarily associated with Ayurveda:
1. Cleanse the body.
2. Exercise the body.
3. Massage the body regularly with warm oil.
4. Avoid overstimulation.
5. Make time for daily spiritual practice.
6. Slow down.
7. Eat with awareness.
One of the aspects of cleansing that most Westerners don’t think of doing is to scrape the tongue. It is an important Ayurvedic injunction to scrape the tongue daily. First thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything, scrape off the toxins that have collected on your tongue overnight. This way when you take in nourishment, you’re not also consuming yesterday’s undigested residue. (To purchase a tongue scraper, click here)
The most profound form of internal cleansing is called panchakarma in the Ayurvedic tradition. The therapies used in panchakarma work on a physiological and subtle level, providing deep healing of chronic or acute pain and illness as well as emotional and spiritual release and balance. Consider panchakarma on an annual or biennial basis with the support of an Ayurvedic physician or other holistic practitioner who can guide and monitor your process. There are several reputable clinics that provide panchakarma therapies in the U.S. Or you can go to India for complete panchakarma. The clinic founded by Drs. Pankaj and Smita Naram of the Siddhaved lineage can be contacted at www.ayushakti.com/hs_panchakarma.htm.
This means both stretches (daily) and aerobics (three to five times a week).
The granddaddy of all stretching exercises is hatha yoga, a popular system of exercise from India that’s as old as Ayurveda. If you haven’t ever taken a hatha yoga class, look for a beginners’ class so that you can learn how to approach stretching safely. Because yoga combines stretching with awareness of the breath, it has great benefits for the mind and nervous system as well as keeping the body’s soft tissues supple. There are specific yoga postures recommended by Ayurvedic physicians to balance vata, pitta and kapha and also to address particular health problems.
Aerobic exercise also varies according to the dosha. Ayurveda encourages kapha types to participate in strenuous exercise: jogging, running, cycling, tennis, basketball and so forth. Such exercise stimulates kapha’s slow metabolism and helps maintain or lose weight. Very intense activity will increase pitta, so pitta types benefit most from moderate exercise, including brisk walking and especially swimming, which is cooling. After exercise, pitta types would do well to cool down with a cool or lukewarm shower rather than taking a hot shower or sitting in a sauna. More gentle exercise, such as relaxed swimming and brisk walking, is best for vata types.
After we’re forty, vata naturally increases and the skin and organs start drying out, so the body loves the application of a few ounces of oil. A daily application of oil is recommended, but even once or twice a week will make a noticeable difference. Just watch your skin drink up the oil as though quenching a long thirst. Oil application will calm the nervous system and decrease joint pain. Ayurveda recommends sesame oil for vata and kapha, and sunflower oil for pitta. You can buy these organic oils plus lovely herbalized oils, with specific herbs to balance the doshas, by clicking here
Overstimulation is a fact of daily life for most people today, and many of us don’t have much choice about it. In almost any urban setting anyplace in the world, there are huge numbers of people who drive long distances in intense traffic just to get to their jobs. This long commute is, in and of itself, highly stimulating for the nervous system and an aggravation for vata and pitta. Then once we arrive at work, there are inherent job pressures—deadlines and difficult people, long hours and mind-wrenching issues—and many of us face these challenges by revving ourselves up with caffeine, another source of overstimulation. So, be kind to your body and mind when you have a choice.
Especially if you have a vata or pitta imbalance, be vigilant about not giving yourself too much stimulation at home. Go easy on the television, radio, loud music, video games and web-surfing. All of these stressors, individually and cumulatively, take their toll on us.
This doesn’t sound like an injunction from an ancient text, but it is a vital application of Ayurveda to modern life. Almost everyone I know, myself included, is scheduled from dawn to dusk—or midnight—and we rush from one activity to the next all day long. I’m a proponent of finding ways to slow down in general to protect our peace of mind, and I’ve learned it’s especially important to slow down when we eat. The pace at which we eat is crucial to our digestion, which is itself crucial to our health. These days many of us have become habituated to eating on the run. If this is true for you, here are a few suggestions to help you slow down at mealtime:
• Make it a practice to plan enough time to eat, every meal, every day.
• Avoid eating while standing, driving a car or doing any activity other than eating!
• Pause for at least a moment before eating.
• Practice being present with your food. Notice what you’re eating. Observe its colors and textures. Welcome the different tastes.
• Chew each bite at least 20 times—as many as 50 is good—until the food is completely masticated. When you swallow food that isn’t adequately chewed, it is much more difficult to digest.
• If you’re in the habit of eating too fast, practice putting the fork down between bites so that you learn to slow down.
• Afterward, relish what you’ve eaten. Pause for at least five minutes after you eat. Have a pleasant conversation, invite a purring kitty to your lap (my favorite digestive aid), read a book or just be still.
When I speak of spiritual practice, I’m referring to whatever means you may use to get into a state of inner quiet, what I think of as the space of the heart. Here I’m not referring to the physical heart but to the spiritual center of all beings. For you this may be prayer or some form of meditation; it may be pranayama or hatha yoga; it may even be ballet or simply sitting on your porch to listen to nature. While this space of the heart is beyond the mind and body, the benefits that accrue to the mental clarity, emotional well-being and physical health of those who regularly dip into this inner quiet have been documented by research many times in recent decades.
Observing some silence each day has a profound impact on calming and healing the nervous system, and the practice of silence is especially healing for a vata imbalance. Whether our means of getting into the state of silence is focusing on the breath, gazing at a flame or repeating a mantra—in Sanskrit, Hebrew or our native tongue—this practice of meditation settles the mind and allows us to experience the exquisite stillness of the heart. For those of us who actively seek a two-way dialogue with the Divine, meditation creates an opportunity to be quiet and listen. In prayer we initiate contact with the Divine; in silence, we create a space for answers to reveal themselves.
Twenty minutes of meditation can reap great benefits. An hour is even better, but even a few minutes can be helpful. Find a time of day that works for you: first thing in the morning, before going to sleep at night or at any other time during your day when you can be free of distractions and committed to not picking up the telephone. If you can meditate twice a day, you will benefit doubly. And if you have never meditated before, you may want to read some of the excellent books on this topic from whatever spiritual tradition most attracts you. Or, better yet, find a respected teacher or master of meditation from that tradition.
7. Eat with awareness.
Eating with awareness means that while we eat, we’re focused on our food and on the act of eating. To do this, we need to eat in a quiet, uncluttered space. It is by eating with awareness that agni, the digestive fire, is kept in balance and we are able to digest our food—which is considered by Ayurveda to be a vital key to good health.
Excerpted from Sacred & Delicious, Celebrating the Healing Power of Food and Spices, copyright © 2009 by Lisa Joy Mitchell with all rights reserved. Scheduled for publication in late 2009. This information may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, whether electronic, mechanical or otherwise, or used for any purpose other than the individual reader’s personal use without the expressed written consent of the author.