Ayurvedic Tips for Spring Health
Springtime is magical, dynamic, and even sexy. As nature moves out of the cold, wet, dark winter toward spring, the pulse of life quickens, the earth warms, and blossoms unfurl, reaching for the sun. Nature makes it look smooth, but for us humans it's not as easy to transition gracefully from one season to the next—especially from winter to spring. More often we find ourselves feeling heavy and sluggish, like a cranky bear reluctantly coming out of hibernation.
Ayurveda, yoga's sister science and the world's oldest surviving system of healing, shows us that the key to feeling in step with the seasons is to harmonize with nature, to follow her lead and dance to her rhythm. The rishis (the ancient mystical "seers" who founded the yoga tradition) created rituals and festivals to honor each season and to remind us of our connection to the natural world.
The great yoga master T. Krishnamacharya adjusted his approach to practicing and teaching yoga to correspond with the time of year. You may not have a spring festival or an Indian yoga master to guide you, but by weaving some simple Ayurvedic principles into your life, you can weather this seasonal transition smoothly and emerge feeling transformed and ready to get your springtime groove on.
Shed Your Winter Coat
To enjoy a healthy spring, you need to understand the kapha dosha and bring it into balance. Of the three doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—it's kapha that endows your body with its earthy-watery qualities. It provides lubrication for joints, as well as mucus to protect the sensitive tissues of the sinuses, lungs, and stomach; it also determines the size, strength, and suppleness of your muscles.
When kapha is in balance, you feel strong, composed, and stable. When it's out of balance, you might feel sleepy, mentally dull, or depressed. You may also experience excess phlegm in the lungs or sinuses, nausea, unhealthy weight gain, water retention, or heaviness in your limbs.
It's especially important to balance kapha in the spring, because kapha accumulates during winter and can create diseases by the time spring arrives. As the world becomes colder and wetter in winter, your body mirrors these kapha-like changes. You tend to eat, sleep, and stay inside more during winter, which can result in a "winter coat" of insulation. In spring, you need to shed this excess kapha or risk becoming vulnerable to seasonal allergies or head colds. You might also gain or retain weight or succumb to a general lethargy or emotional dullness.
Your Ayurvedic prescription for spring is to develop a rhythm and routine that helps you gradually lighten up physically, mentally, and emotionally without disturbing the stable virtues of kapha.
The best approach is multidimensional and includes eating lighter foods, adding certain herbs to your diet (see Herb Help), and practicing asana, pranayama (breathing techniques), meditation, and some form of devotional rituals.
This may seem to be rather overwhelming at first, but you can begin to integrate change anywhere you're most comfortable—maybe you will choose to begin with your hatha practice or with your diet. Whatever changes you decide to make, even if they're small, commit to sticking with them. Successful transformation rarely happens with a quick fix or a brief burst of dedication, especially when you're dealing with the kapha dosha. Because of its earthy-watery nature, it's very dense and heavy, and it can stick like mud.
Ease the transition to spring by creating sukha, which means "good space" or a general state of health and happiness. You can do this by eating wholesome food and practicing asana and pranayama. Creating sukha is especially important when you're trying to wring out excess kapha, because it enables prana (vital energy) to move freely through your body. Like wind moving clouds through the sky, prana propels kapha, so that fluids and phlegm move easily through the body. If you don't create sukha, the flow of prana is restricted and contributes to dukha (bad space), sukha's evil twin. Dukha represents misery of any kind and restricts or confuses the flow of kapha.
To increase sukha and prana in your practice, add squats, which free up "good space" in the densest part of the body: the pelvis and legs. The pelvis and legs represent the earthy-watery part of the body and are prone to retaining fat and water.
Poses like Utkatasana (Chair Pose), Malasana (Garland Pose), and their lesser-known cousins Simhasana (Lion Pose) and Khanjanasana (Tail-Wagging Pose) create heat, improve joint mobility, aid digestion and elimination, and increase circulation. Of course, these poses are also physically challenging. You might feel your legs quiver, as if someone were pouring cement instead of prana into them. During these intense moments, remember to preserve sukha. Don't overcontract your muscles or compromise your breath by transferring tension into your chest, shoulders, or neck—or you'll risk creating even more kapha, which the body produces as an antidote to excessive muscular and nervous tension.
Once you've created good space in the lower half of your body, you are ready to increase sukha in the upper half. The stomach, chest, throat, and head are the energetic seat of kapha, because all of these areas produce and tend to accumulate mucus. Practicing deep, rhythmic Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose), Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), and seated twists helps circulate kapha by alternately compressing the abdomen and expanding the chest.
Similarly, inverted forward bends such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), standing forward bends, and Halasana (Plow Pose) all strengthen the diaphragm and encourage excess mucus to be excreted through the mouth and nose. Kapalabhati pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) is excellent for strengthening your lungs and clearing your head and sense organs.
While the best way to circulate prana in your legs is by engaging them willfully, the best way to circulate prana in the internal organs is to engage in conscious relaxation. Try to combine the complementary actions of willful effort with relaxation in each breath. As you inhale, guide awareness into your pelvis and legs, refining the qualities of muscle tone, circulation, and stability. As you exhale, hold your lower body steady and imagine a wave of relaxation moving up along your spine. As you do this, pay special attention to your upper back, heart, throat, lungs, and brain.
Turn Up the Heat
According to the principles of Ayurveda, a healthy digestive agni, or "fire," is key for health. Agni gives us the physical power of digestion as well as the energy to digest our sensory impressions, thoughts, and feelings. A strong agni is thought to arm you with the discrimination and courage to separate what is essential from nonessential, healthy from toxic, wise from foolish.
Strong agni prevents you from producing ama, a heavy residue left in the body when you experience or consume things you can't assimilate or completely digest. Noted Ayurvedic physician Vasant Lad describes ama as a "morbid, toxic, sticky substance that is the root cause of many diseases." Unlike kapha, which is a natural by-product of metabolism, ama is a poison. It contributes to fatigue, weakened immunity, inflammation, cravings, and depression. If left unchecked, it can lead to more serious conditions such as obesity and heart disease. (For information on ama and springtime allergies, see Sneeze-Free, Naturally.)
The recipe for balancing kapha includes stoking agni in your practice, your breathing, and your diet. To produce agni in your practice, you must generate tapas, or inner heat. You build this heat by doing strong standing poses, all kinds of Sun Salutations, and backbends, which pump prana throughout your body. The prana acts like a bellows and gradually builds the heat of tapas.
You support and sustain tapas mentally by concentrating on your breath. Try practicing Uddhiyana Bandha Kriya, a traditional cleansing practice. When you suspend the breath after you exhale, it encourages your mind to focus, which stabilizes the flame of agni. Likewise, creating a smooth, rhythmic breath while performing postures, particularly Sun Salutations, is key for maintaining concentration and ensuring that prana spreads heat equally through your body.
But don't confuse inner heat with outer heat—a sweat-drenched yogi is not necessarily the poster child for tapas. When you breathe this way, you actually sweat less because the heat stays inside. This inner heat melts the kapha and breaks down ama in your tissues so your body can eliminate it. If your breathing is erratic or forced, it will disturb both sukha and agni; as a result, kapha and ama won't budge—and may even increase slightly.
You will know when you've created enough tapas if, after practice, you feel light, warm, and invigorated, with an alert mind, clear senses, and fluid emotions throughout the day. Or you can follow Lad's advice to exercise to half your capacity, just until you feel sweat on your forehead, under your armpits, and along your vertebral column. How soon this happens into your practice will vary and will increase as you build strength. To keep the momentum of tapas going, it's important to be consistent this time of year. Showing up regularly on your mat ensures your body will get what it needs for a gentle, gradual reduction of excess kapha, and your mind will wake up from the fog of wintertime habits.
If you truly aspire to be a butterfly—and not a sluggish bear—you'll want to complement your asana and breathing practices with more awareness about your diet. The most important way to ensure a healthy agni is to eat—and not eat—at regular intervals during the day; having routine meals with adequate time between them strengthens mind and body.
Eat light, easy-to-digest foods during spring and wait at least three to four hours between meals. Try eating less of or eliminating foods that increase kapha—dairy products, iced or cold food or drinks, and fried or oily food—especially in the morning and at dinner.
If you're snacking all day as you did during the holiday season, you'll disrupt the elimination of kapha or even add to your body's quota. Instead of a snack, do a short pranayama practice and see what happens. If you're truly hungry, have something nourishing like miso soup or a few ounces of carrot juice. And remember that strengthening your willpower is an excellent exercise for taming an unruly mind and stoking your digestive fire.
To take your ama-flushing a step further, consider a dietary cleanse. As an alternative to strict fasting, spend five to 10 days eating only fresh (ideally local) fruits and vegetables and kitchari, a curried mung bean and rice dish. This will improve your digestive fire and eliminate ama.
During your cleanse, you can also drink tea made with cinnamon, black pepper, and ginger one hour after breakfast and lunch. Drink chamomile tea in the evening; it's beneficial to your digestive and circulatory systems and helps expectorate excess mucus.
Tune into Nature
Now it's time for the fun part—to create harmony with the seasons through acts of mindfulness and devotion. All you have to do is look around to be inspired at this time of year; renewal and transformation are literally welling up from the ground. The natural world is going through a rebirth, so be creative and forge a connection to this awesome process. For some of you, this may mean turning to prayer or silently devoting your daily yoga practice to nature. An easy starting place is with Sun Salutations, which were traditionally practiced while silently repeating a prayer to the sun.
Your efforts to connect to nature can go beyond the edges of your yoga mat. Head outdoors to a place of beauty and observe a period of silence. Slow down to examine the buds and shoots poking out in your neighborhood—if you visit them over several days and see them bloom, you may discover a deeper appreciation for this fresh, new season. Or create a candle-lighting ritual as a reminder of the increasing light of spring. Anything that gives you time and space to appreciate the beautiful transformation that's happening around you will fill you with inspiration, energy, and light.
Ease into the Groove
So, there it is: your Ayurvedic prescription for a groovy springtime. But there's still one more thing to keep in mind: Slow down and keep it simple. Don't let the approach outlined here be one more item on your never-ending to-do list. Savor springtime by simplifying your life to include only those things that truly revitalize your body and soul.
The most insidious threat to sukha and agni is living in the 21st century. Today's world offers endless enticements and makes implicit cultural demands to work hard and play hard. The beeping-flashing-ringing technologies that we've become attached to can overwhelm and inundate our subtle digestive capacities.
When we're overstimulated, we experience the same problems emotionally and neurologically that we do if we overeat—we get filled beyond our capacity, to the point of weakening the entire system. Whether you turn off the TV, heal a relationship, go away on a retreat, or commit more time to just doing nothing, don't forget to create more positive space, or sukha, in your life. Ultimately, that will increase the flow of prana (stoking your agni and burning away excess kapha and ama), and you'll not only feel healthier and lighter, but ready to revel in the glory of spring.