The dry, chapped feeling that many of us live with during the colder months is something that the therapies of Ayurveda, India's first form of medicine, are uniquely suited to address. That's because Ayurvedic remedies treat not only the symptom of dry skin but also the underlying imbalances that can cause it.
Ayurveda recognizes three basic energies of life: The first is known as vata; the second, pitta; and the third, kapha. Vata also means "wind" in Sanskrit, and vata's sensory qualities—dryness, coolness, mobility, lightness, unsteadiness, and roughness—are much like those of the wind. In late fall and early winter, as the air turns dry, leaves drop, temperatures cool, and winds shift, our world naturally buzzes with vata's energy. We're more likely to face vata imbalance now than at any other time of year.
"When vata is aggravated, arteries, capillaries, and nerves become dry and won't work properly, affecting your circulation," says Archana Rao, an Ayurvedic doctor at Safronya Ayurvedic Retreat in San Rafael, California, explaining the theory behind dry skin. "Your hands and feet become cold. Skin becomes rough and dry. Your heels may crack or your lips peel. Inside and out, we've got to calm that vata down."
Rao's skin-soothing recommendations are based on two Ayurvedic principles: limit exposure to vata's qualities and increase exposure to those substances and experiences that are the opposite of vata. So in late fall and early winter, we should nurture ourselves with foods and sensations that are warm, stable, heavy, smooth, and grounding.
Warm oil is a natural opposite to vata. One ancient practice, abhyanga, is traditionally performed by two therapists who massage warm sesame oil all over the body, using sweeping strokes to redirect vata's energy into a healthy pattern. "[Abhyanga is] the No. 1 technique for calming vata," says Naina Marballi, Ayurvedic physician, esthetician, and founder and director of Ayurveda's Beauty Care Spa in Manhattan.
While it's a treat to receive abhyanga from trained therapists, it's also a gift that you can give yourself. The oil itself does wonders for parched skin, but the benefits go deeper. The word for lubrication in Sanskrit, snehana, is also the word for affection. Vata dryness tends to come packaged with vata-type mental states such as worry and insecurity.
Abhyanga calms the mind, leaving you feeling grounded yet focused and alert, and with balanced emotions. It's also revitalizing, supporting stable energy levels during the day while promoting easy, restorative sleep at night.
In Kerala, India, where I spend part of each year, Ayurveda is still very much a part of daily life. On a recent visit, traditional healer S. Sanjeev Kumar sat down with me in the front room of his thatched house and called his wife, Bindhu, and her amma (mother) in from the kitchen. Together they gave me a rundown on their favorite homemade emollients. One in particular, Kumar said, is easy for Westerners to make at home.
"First heat some whole cow's milk in a small pot," he said. Double-checking his instructions with the women, he went on: "Let a skin form on top, remove the skin, and place it in a small saucer. As soon as it is cool, add a few drops of lemon juice."
"Ah?" he queried, turning to the women. Bindhu's amma had mentioned something, and Bindhu repeated her words to Kumar. "OK," he added. "You can use a little lemon juice or a little rose water. Then take the back of a spoon and stir this into a creamy paste. Smooth the mixture onto your face or any dry skin, and leave it on for 30 minutes to 2 hours before rinsing with water. This special cream of the milk is very nourishing."
Kumar's wife and mother-in-law smiled. "Your skin," he said, "will become lustrous once again."
Another simple potion is a paste of warm water and almond meal, which contains fatty acids that help keep skin smooth. (Don't use hot water; it strips skin of its natural protective oils.) Making the almond meal is easy: Use a food processor, blender, or coffee grinder to pulverize raw organic almonds into a fine powder. (Be sure to pulse the mixture for a few seconds and then pause, so you don't end up with almond butter.) Refrigerate the powder in a clean glass jar. It will keep for about three weeks.
When you're ready to use it, pour a teaspoonful into your palm, add a little warm water, and blend that with your finger to make a paste. Smooth it onto your face, massaging in gentle circles to enhance circulation and exfoliate dead skin cells. Then rinse with warm water and moisturize as you usually do.
To smooth rough elbows, knees, and feet, mix together two parts mung- or garbanzo-bean flour with one part full-fat organic yogurt. Let this mixture sit in a bowl for 10 minutes, then massage it with circular motions into your rough spots. Let it dry, and leave it on your skin for 30 minutes or so. Rinse with water, and then do your usual moisturizing routine.
Nourish from Within
Other Ayurvedic therapies for dry skin work from the inside out. "When someone comes in with dry skin," says Cheryl Silberman, founder/director of Kanyakumari Ayurveda Education & Retreat Center in Milwaukee and a clinical Ayurvedic specialist, "the first thing I ask is'How much coffee are you drinking?'People drink more coffee in winter, and caffeine is a diuretic, purging water from the body. It has a direct impact on the nervous system, upsetting vata's normal regulation of circulation, forcing the fine capillaries of the skin to dilate and constrict unnaturally." Silberman suggests drinking frequent servings of warm water or warm spiced milk throughout the day in place of caffeinated drinks.
What you eat can make a difference, too. "When there is dryness, a person should try eating regular warm, moist meals such as thick soups and stews, lightly spiced," Silberman says. "Dry skin usually responds well to plenty of fat intake. Adding ghee (clarified butter) to meals can really help."
And while ghee does contain saturated fat, you'll find that a tiny bit goes a long way. Ghee is sold at health food stores. (For more on ghee, including how to make it, visit yogajournal.com/health/ghee.)
"Increasing essential fatty acids with oils like borage or hemp is great, too," says Silberman. "Walnuts are a good source of healthy fat, and soaking them in water overnight makes them really easy to digest," she adds.
When Kyriakatos added vata-balancing practices to her winter routine—getting into the abhyanga habit along with eating regular meals of warm, moist foods and sipping warm water throughout the day—her dry skin lost its roughness and turned soft and supple.
"It has helped with so much more than just my dry skin," she says. "I feel more grounded, even with my crazy schedule. It's really amazing."