When it comes to navigating our life, we can often get overwhelmed. And funnily enough, the good things can be just as overbearing on our nervous system as the darker moments in our life.
Scheduling too many social events in a row, however positive they might be, can be draining. Loneliness and the feeling of being disconnected from a community is the opposite extreme. A festive period – joyful by definition - can become a marathon of overindulgence in carbs-rich meals and a mulled wine too many, pushing our metabolism into a sluggish state of apathy. On the other hand, following an overly rigid diet can take the fun out of a dinner date, as you anxiously quiz the waiter and realise the menu simply does not cater for your refined tastes. It is all about maintaining a balance! And there is no better school of thought to teach us about that than Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian holistic medicine which is thought to have been around for as long as 3,000 years. It is one of the oldest healing practices that exist. Translated from Sanskrit as nothing less than “the science of life”, it is all about synching your lifestyle with nature and maintaining an overall balance. Sounds simple enough but how do we actually do it? With a disaster-biased news cycle playing on repeat and busyness often getting the better of us, we could certainly all do with incorporating some balancing everyday Ayurvedic rituals into our lives.
We will be looking at some of the key principles of Ayurveda and the simple but effective practices that have truly aged well over the millennia.
Doshas: a balancing act
Where there is balance, one would expect opposing forces that need to be balanced in the first place. In Ayurveda, they are the distinct bodily energies known as doshas. There are three in total: the dynamic vata associated with wind, the changing pitta symbolised by the element of fire and the binding kapha represented by water. But rather than thinking of a person being one or the other, Ayurveda believes that we are made up of all three. It is just that our lifestyle choices can fuel one or two of them into action, bringing our emotional and physical state out of balance.
This delicate balancing act is affected by what we eat, how we choose to move and our overall daily routines. It also changes throughout the seasons. A vata body type, for example, can be balanced out by eating salty, sour and sweet foods, pitta - by bitter, astringent and sweet meals, and kapha - by bitter and astringent flavours. You can do a basic test to determine your dosha online or find a vaidya, an Ayurvedic practitioner, for a more precise and informed diagnosis.
Sattvic diet for a satisfied mind
The author of the Ayurvedic lifestyle manual “Prajna” Mira Manek explains that the idea of doshas comes hand in hand with another concept known as gunas, qualities “that determine our psychological state but are also present in our actions, our food and habits”. Three certainly seems like a magic number in Ayurveda as gunas also come in a package of three: rajas (energetic activity), sattva (purity and equilibrium) and tamas (inertia).
Rajastic foods are strong and fiery and are perhaps what most of us would associate with the Indian cuisine. It is associated with energy and power, which is unsurprising, given a curry’s ability to set our bellies on fire. But the oily and spicy modern Indian food that we have come to know is actually a far cry from the ideal sattvic diet prescribed by Ayurveda. Sattvic foods include fresh lightly seasoned ingredients that are associated with positive energy and a state of calm. Think simple freshly cooked vegetables, which are easy to digest. But more than anything, the guiding principle of Ayurvedic eating is to not start the next meal until the previous one has been digested.
The food we eat is instrumental in lighting up our digestive fire, which contributes to a healthy flow of energy in our body.
Meanwhile, tamasic foods are the least desirable given their association with lethargy, irritability and laziness. You probably guessed it. This category covers meats, alcohol and deep-fried foods.
There is so much more to Ayurvedic eating, that it has been the subject of countless articles and publications. The “you are what you eat” principle could not be a more accurate summary of it. The food we eat is instrumental in lighting up our digestive fire, which contributes to a healthy flow of energy in our body. In a nutshell, the food we put in our mouth has as much effect on our physical wellbeing as on our mental states and everyday thoughts.
We all know what it is like to get out of bed on the wrong side. What we choose to do the moment we open our eyes very much sets the tone for how the day unfolds. Having a good morning routine is key to a good day and Ayurveda has plenty to say about that. Spoiler alert: the early bird gets the worm.
Remember how Ayurveda is all about synching with nature? Waking up at sunrise and sleeping when it is dark is a simple rule but one that many ignore. Sleeping between 10pm and 6am is the best way to recharge our batteries and give our digestive system a break. We tend to think of people as either night owls or larks, but have you ever seen a night owl baby? We all certainly have it in us.
Even if your lifestyle is fast paced, try to rush your morning slowly and incorporate at least a few balancing rituals. It can be as simple as drinking a pint of warm water first thing, which Ayurveda recommends for clearing the digestive system. Even better if you have a copper vessel to drink it from. Copper is thought to have many healing properties and makes the water ionic, helping to balance the body’s pH. This metal’s antimicrobial properties really have come to the forefront during the pandemic as a clever material for offices and other communal areas.
We do not always have time for a full-blown workout but even a brief flow or stretches can be transformative.
Rather than checking your inbox the moment you wake up, why not check in with your breath? Breathwork, or pranayama as it is known in Ayurveda, is another fundamental tool that channels the healthy flow of energy in our body and balances the doshas, not to mention its ability to increase oxygen in our blood. A mere five minutes can do the trick.
There are many different techniques but perhaps the most common is the so-called ujjayi breath. Think of it as trying to mist an imaginary mirror by exhaling deeply while constricting the muscles in the back of your throat. It is sometimes also referred to as oceanic yogic breathing and is a great tool for reducing anxiety next time your cortisol kicks in at the sight of your to-do list. Try a sequence of 20 ujjayi to reap the benefits.
Why not continue the breathwork practice onto the mat? We do not always have time for a full-blown workout but even a brief flow or stretches can be transformative. It is the best way to get out of our heads and tune in with how our bodies are feeling.
Reconnecting with your body
Yoga is a fundamental practice in Ayurveda and such a popular exercise that it needs no introduction. Anyone can create a basic routine at home for a perfect start or finish to their day. But another practice that is perhaps less familiar is Ayurvedic self-massage, which is another great way to reconnect with your body.
Our emotions often end up accumulating as tension in our necks, backs and overall posture. Ayurvedic massage reduces stress, improves immune functioning and stimulates the lymphatic fluid to deliver nutrients to cells. A great way to really feel what our bodies need is to treat yourself to a full body massage scan.
You will need a body oil and a big towel or mat. You can also do it in the bathroom. There are three basic types of strokes: use your fingers or palms in a clockwise circular motion on your joints. Stroke up and down on areas between the joints to create friction. On hands, feet, neck and face stroke upwards only. Listen to your body and apply as much pressure as your dosha requires. The deep and vigorous tamasic touch is best for oily kapha skin types. Rajastic moderate pressure is recommended for sensitive pitta types. And gentle sattvic strokes are great for dry vata skin types or if you need to calm down. You can start with your scalp or, if you prefer to not get your hair oily, your big toe and work your way upwards. There are plenty of detailed step-by-step instructions online.
Small acts of kindness
Many more rituals and practices can be mentioned but Ayurveda’s formula for happiness would not be complete without seva, the concept in Indian philosophy which stands for selfless service to others. Be it volunteering or helping others who have less advantage than you, finding time to do this will aid you develop empathy and compassion, some of the key building blocks of a happy fulfilled life for you and others around you.