You've probably heard the old adage: Until a person hits 40, she (or he) has the face she got from her parents; after 40, she has the face of the life she has lived. This truth is often good news for those who've made stress-reducing measures like yoga part of daily living. Not only will asanas nourish the internal organs, but they benefit skin health and complexion as well. But beyond yoga, what else can we do to keep aging skin looking healthy?
"Our face and complexion are the physical manifestation of all that we think and do—an exacting mirror of the soul," notes Pratima Raichur, in her book Absolute Beauty: Radiant Skin and Inner Harmony through the Ancient Secrets of Ayurveda. "If you want to change your appearance, you must first change the thoughts, emotions, and habits where stress and aging originate."
The good news, then, is that we have a considerable amount of influence over how our largest organ will look and function in the long run. If we lead a life filled with pressure, inadequate nutrition, and too little sleep, the stress these habits bring to the body will eventually be transposed onto our skin. Conversely, if we tune into our body's needs and learn how to adopt a healthy lifestyle, our skin will age gracefully.
According to Ayurveda, a major factor influencing the deterioration of the skin comes from ignoring the needs of our unique body types. Each of us is born with a certain mind-body constitution, determined by the degree of dominance of the three doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—in our body. All three body types experience different challenges and age differently. Paying attention to the needs of our personal constitutions is the first step in maintaining healthy skin.
Those with a predominance of vata dosha will reflect the qualities of vata in their psychophysiology. They'll tend to be of a light build, their hair will be thin, frizzy, and dry, and their skin will be fine and delicate with a tendency towards dryness, premature wrinkles, and a dull, lackluster appearance. If vata is dominant in your body, your main beauty focus should be rehydration and nourishment—both from inside and out. Drink at least eight glasses of water a day. Adopt a diet of warm, sweet, and unctuous foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also very beneficial, but never eat them ice-cold.
Pitta types have very sensitive skin. As a result, people of this body type are more prone to wrinkles, aging spots, and freckles caused by sun exposure. Pittas are also extremely sensitive to chemicals in personal care products, which may cause rashes or other types of breakouts. If you are a pitta type, take extra care to use only 100 percent natural care products with no preservatives, petrochemical derivatives, or artificial scents. In addition, take care to avoid direct sunlight and pacify pitta by maintaining regular eating habits, eating lots of sweet juicy fruits, and avoiding hot, spicy foods.
Kapha types tend to age more slowly than the two other body types. Their skin is thicker, which makes it less prone to wrinkles. The main challenge that most kapha individuals face is their low digestive power, which often causes them to accumulate ama, or chemical waste products, in the body. This can impede the circulation of nutrients to the skin and create oily, rough, dull-looking skin with enlarged pores. Kapha types should focus on regular detoxification, using natural scrubs and masks to detoxify the skin. Exercise regularly, as this is both a great way to detoxify and to counteract a kapha tendency towards lethargy. Avoid heavy, cold, and sweet foods, as these are hard to digest and will tend to generate toxic waste products in the body. You will also benefit from following a detoxifying diet for a few days on a regular basis.
Once you've given some thought to your skin's unique needs, it's time to take a closer look at the stress in your life—both the stress from your environment, and the stress of daily living. "Stress is one of the biggest causes of deterioration of the skin and premature aging," says Dr. Rama Kant Mishra, one of India's foremost experts on Ayurvedic self-care and current director of research at Maharishi Ayur-Veda Products International in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "It affects the balance of the doshas and the delicate process through which nutrients are transformed into bodily tissue, including the skin. Anything you do to diminish stress will not only reward you with enhanced beauty, but will increase your health and vitality as well."
Many of the changes in the skin that we consider a normal part of aging, such as wrinkles, pigment changes, or brown spots, are caused by environmental stress factors, and are therefore quite preventable. Pollution, sunlight, alcohol, cigarette smoke (even if you are just exposed to it from others), and chemicals in toiletries and water all compromise the skin.
While taking steps to avoid these negative influences seems relatively straightforward, managing daily stress can be a bit more tricky. When the body is under stress, it releases a number of stress hormones, a response which is useful for short-term stressful situations, but harmful if sustained over longer periods of time. Hormonal changes can cause a number of specific skin problems, such as hair loss, acne, thinning of the skin, itching, excessive sweating, and premature wrinkles, or skin disorders such as psoriasis, hives, or shingles. "Through the language of hormones," notes Raichur, "the skin and immune system 'know' exactly what we think and feel at every moment, and reflect our thoughts through their functioning."
Prolonged stress will result in a number of long-term changes in both skin and hair. The body will redirect nutrients from the skin to the vital organs, such as the heart, brain, and lungs, a process which over time will deprive the skin of the nourishment it needs. Extended periods of stress also affect metabolic functions, slowing down the renewal of skin cells, causing the skin to look dull and gray. Stress furthermore upsets the body's fluid balance, making the skin sag and look dehydrated.The stress response also increases free radical production and the associated damage to vital cellular structures and functions of the skin. Free radical damage not only shows up in our appearance, it puts us at risk for the gradual deterioration of body structures and functions—the source of most chronic diseases, from heart disease to cancer, autoimmune disorders, and arthritis.
One of the biggest commitments you can make to reduce stress is simply keeping up your yoga practice. Yoga postures induce deep relaxation, helping you to prevent fatigue and strain. Deep breathing normalizes blood pressure and helps release tension-related conditions such as headaches, backaches, sleeplessness, and stomachaches. Meditation brings another skin-care bonus, according to Dr. Mishra. The deep relaxation often obtained during meditation helps balance several of the subdoshas of vata involved in blood circulation. Long-term meditators' skin often develops a particular glow and radiance. The key is to find and maintain the type of meditation that suits you. A good teacher can make a real difference in terms of answering questions and helping you overcome initial obstacles to regular practice.
By creating a self-care skin routine that suits your Ayurvedic constitution, and by managing the impact of environmental factors on your skin, you can enjoy the outer radiance that reflects a deep inner state of balance and overall well-being.