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Ayurvedic Practices

An Ayurvedic Cure for Modern Life

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Like most Americans, I’m an expert at multi-tasking. I eat at my desk, wash dishes while on the phone, go through bills on the bus, and drive while talking on my cell phone. Based on his knowledge of the Eastern wisdom of Ayurveda, the internationally recognized Ayurvedic physician and author Robert Svoboda has another name for this rushed, fragmented way of functioning. He calls it “vata-deranged.” Modern life as we know it, with its excessive travel, late nights, and nonstop stimulation, often contributes to vata derangement, which can affect anyone. People like me—the tall, slender, fast-talking ones—are most at risk, however, because our native constitutions are vata dominant.

To comprehend vata derangement, we need to understand that vata is one of the three metabolic types, or doshas, described by the ancient health science of Ayurveda. Vata is the principle of movement, ruled by air and ether. The other two doshas are pitta, the principle of assimilation ruled by fire, and kapha, the stabilizing force, ruled by earth and air. Ayurvedic doctors say that we are each a unique combination of these three. For most of us, one type is predominant, another secondary. But whatever one’s native type, when a person goes out of balance, the vata principle destabilizes most easily, causing other kinds of health and emotional problems.

According to Ayurveda, this is the force that governs all movement in the body, including the in-and-out flow of the breath, the action of our limbs, the circulation of subtle energy in our organism, and the mind’s ceaseless flow of thoughts, words, and images. Unlike earthy kapha, solid and grounded and with a tendency to get stuck, or fiery pitta, sharp and focused and knowing just where it wants to go, vata, like the wind, wanders here and there, its direction ever-changing.

Performers like Michael Richards, who played Seinfeld’s Kramer, Lisa Kudrow acting ditzy and off-beat on Friends, and Woody Allen, with his anxious patter, have made us laugh at the off-centered, nervous spaciness typical of vata derangement. While these qualities may seem funny when we see them on film, it’s not fun to experience the jerky stops and starts of breath, thoughts, speech, nerves, and limbs that result from a vata imbalance. And the health consequences aren’t laughable either.

Vata’s Rise and Fall

The pressure and pace of modern life can tip anyone into vata imbalance. But even if you spent your life meditating in the woods, it’s not easily avoided. Ayurveda holds that sturdy kapha is dominant in childhood, ambitious pitta rules in the prime of life, and vata prevails in our senior years. Our senior years bring the vatic qualities of dryness, roughness, and irregularity, manifesting in such health complaints as arthritis, constipation, anxiety, insomnia, and stiffness.

Fortunately, we can look to ancient wisdom for answers: Ayurveda has evolved ways to remedy vata imbalance and its accompanying diseases, and throughout hundreds of years ancient Ayurvedic physicians and yogis devised many techniques to prolong life—hoping to gain more time to attain self-realization.

Undoubtedly, the Westerner most knowledgeable about these Ayurvedic rejuvenative practices is Svoboda, who teaches at Albuquerque’s Ayurvedic Institute and is the author of Prakriti, an excellent introduction to Ayurveda. For the last 25 years, Svoboda has traveled to India to receive and learn traditional rejuvenative treatments and to study Indian culture, philosophy, and practices. Last year he offered a small group of students a weeklong immersion in the health model and way of life he practices. Along with Iyengar Yoga teacher Ellen Leary of New Hope, Pennsylvania, Svoboda designed a retreat reflecting the Indian world view that Ayurveda, hatha yoga, and other spiritual practices like meditation and chanting are aspects of an integrated system of healing and spiritual evolution. As I flew to the Caribbean Island of Tortola, I wondered if, even with these gifted guides, it would be possible to alleviate some of my stress-building vatic habits in one week.

The Beauty of Routine

Vatas tend to be erratic—or as workshop participant Paul Busch, an Iyengar Yoga teacher from Minneapolis (and a vata), described himself, “addicted to variety.” While stalwart kaphas plod along, rising, eating, working, and sleeping punctually, vatas zigzag out of regularity, rising and going to bed at odd times, skipping meals, and not keeping to any regular pattern. Although this makes life interesting, it is also destabilizing. The cure: Establish a predictable routine.

The first evening of the retreat, Svoboda explained that they had carefully structured our schedule and practices to emphasize rejuvenation, particularly for balancing vata. Since dry, rough, airy, fast-moving, and irregular are the core qualities of vata, the Ayurvedic approach is to prescribe treatments, activities, and foods that provide the opposite qualities: oiliness, grounding, slowness, heaviness, consistency, and flow. Svoboda and Leary asked that we adhere to their schedule, even if it meant steering clear of the sun-drenched beach below. Instead of going after “fun,” we tasted a different kind of enjoyment: a restful night’s sleep.

This was the beginning of our routine: Every night we went to bed early, and every day began at 6 a.m. We entered the day gently with an optional morning meditation, followed by an hourlong class in pranayama at 6:30 a.m. This is very important for vata, whose flow can become disturbed by transitions, particularly abrupt ones, like dashing straight from the dream state to the computer upon arising.

“Vata is discontinuous, so if there’s a transfer of energy and direction, like at a juncture or at any transition, that’s where vata becomes agitated,” Svoboda said. No chance of that here. Unlike other classes I’d attended, where even beginners launched into advanced pranayama techniques like alternate nostril or bellows breathing, Leary, who recently returned from a month at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India, led us in a simple, restorative pranayama practice.

We used props in Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), to ensure our bodies were in correct alignment and our diaphragms gently lifted. We supported our legs with homemade sandbags and a belt, allowing the groin area to deeply relax. Leary gently guided us in sensing the inner thoracic area, and after a time, without any forcing, we slowly lengthened and deepened our breath.

Expanding and steadying the breath helps pacify vata because it counters the constrained and shallow breathing—and attendant anxiety—that result from vata’s fast pace. Leary instructed us to allow this expansion to happen without forcing it, encouraging us to take a step back from the vatic and Western tendency to overdo it.

“Breath is essential to rejuvenation,” Svoboda explained later, when we gathered on the stone front porch for one of his three daily talks. The term prana, he told us, denotes consciousness and life force. Because prana is carried on the breath, increasing our breath capacity brings in more life force to nourish the physical tissues of the body. “As the organism becomes more confident there is ample prana, it relaxes,” explained Svoboda. While regulating the breath is necessary for vatas, inducing a calm state is healing to everyone’s cells, bodies, emotions, and thoughts.

But everything in its own time. Lest we fuel our spiritual evolution with ambition, Svoboda reminded us that we won’t get there any quicker by pressing the pedal to the floor. Even when it comes to spirituality, each of the doshas has its own way of overdoing or underdoing it. Kaphas are most likely to be kicking back and smelling the flowers, finding no motivation to practice at all. Pittas may be driven to become spiritual overachievers, losing contact with compassion as they pile up attainments.

Vatas overdo because they are mentally stimulated by so many options but without doing one thing consistently. This tendency carries over into other life activities. “My eyes are bigger than my stomach,” commented Busch. “My mind wants a smorgasbord, staying up late, watching stimulating films, or engaging in late night conversations, while my body would prefer to get some rest. And like all vatas, I overrule my body.”

Underdoing It

The retreat schedule, routine yet relaxing, defeated all vatic temptations to overdo. There’s no point in overdoing a practice like pranayama, Svoboda told us, because we can’t take in more prana unless we have room for it. In minds crammed with thoughts, organs clogged with toxins, and bodies stiffened with neglect, there is just no space for anything else. Wherever there are blockages, the flow throughout our system is obstructed, causing vata disorders. The practices we learned opened the space for that flow. To open the mind, there was meditation. To expel toxins encumbering our digestive tract, there were Ayurvedic herbs and diet. To release structural and muscular blockages impeding our movement, there was hatha yoga.

After our daily pranayama, we performed Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) to the rising sun on a deck overlooking the ocean. With their addiction to variety, vatas find it boring to do asanas slowly and repetitively. Of course, more than anyone else, they need to take the time to allow themselves to become steady in each pose. “As a vata I love constant change, and it’s the worst thing for me,” noted Busch. Surya Namaskar is beneficial for vatas, who tend to have stiff joints, because the asanas move all the limbs and lubricate the joints. Surya Namaskar also regulates the flow of energy through the nadis, channels of subtle energy that run through our organism, like acupuncture meridians.

While pittas and kaphas do well with more strenuous exercise, repetitive, flowing movement balances vata, so it is best for vatas to do Surya Nnamaskar slowly. These poses can align vatas mentally and spiritually, Svoboda pointed out, if they face the sun, real or imagined, while doing them. Focusing gathers vata’s scattered energies, Svoboda said, and directs them toward “the sun, the source of light and consciousness in the world.”

Practice Is Perfection

Following a well-earned breakfast, we next performed abhyanga. This is an Ayurvedic oil massage and a classic prescription for healing vata that brings vata’s dry, rough, and irregular tendencies into balance with the oil’s smoothness and heaviness. Ayurvedic clinics in Kerala, India, are renowned for treatments like pizhichil, in which as many as four people simultaneously oil massage a single client, or shirodhara, in which oil is slowly poured onto the top of the head. When oil is absorbed through the skin, it dislodges toxins, explained Svoboda, which otherwise impede the flow in our system, block the movement of prana, and aggravate vata.

Ayurvedic physicians also use food as medicine, considering the effect of every food and spice on each dosha. Cream of wheat, for example, while grounding for vatas, is too heavy for already grounded kaphas, who tend toward weight gain; on the other hand, a vata should probably pass on the chili because beans cause gas. Although people associate Ayurvedic cuisine with Indian food, the two are not synonymous. A diet balancing to one’s dosha can consist entirely of Western or international dishes. The retreat offered gourmet spa cuisine, delicious and balancing to all three doshas.

Ayurveda views the digestive process as a metaphor for all we take in. Many people eat whatever is available, watch whatever is on the tube, and believe the common consensus on many subjects. But Ayurveda asks us to consider what we can handle, as vata’s delicate nerves and digestion are easily overwhelmed by a bad meal—or a bad movie, for that matter. Svoboda and Leary urged us to use the retreat practices to refine our inner awareness, so we could begin to discern the effects of the foods, images, and ideas we take in. This is helpful for all doshas, but particularly for curious and experimental vatas, who want to try everything even though their powers of assimilation aren’t always up to it.

Anything taken in but not processed remains in our organism and becomes a toxin, Svoboda told us. That’s why it’s important to recognize what is beneficial and decline what isn’t, rather than leave the gate open to any and all forms of input. Vatas are great communicators and love chatter. But as much as they love it, it is jarring to their nerves. The solution? To practice limiting input—and output.

All chatter ceased on the day dedicated to silence, a traditional form of spiritual austerity practiced in India. Silence is believed to have a purifying effect on the sense of hearing and on the mind itself. In silence I noticed how much breath and energy I habitually waste on words. At meals I never missed the conversation, which I now realize was often used to stave off fears or feelings of emptiness. In silence these feelings were given room to come into the light of awareness, where they could dissolve. Our silent afternoon asana class brought the entire group into a state of inner and outer focus, as we followed Leary in a strong series of standing poses, the ocean breezes and our own breath the only sounds we heard. Silence, I discovered, is a restorative posture as powerful as any physical one.

The retreat showed me what Savasana (Corpse Pose), the most basic restorative pose, was all about. With my busy work schedule, I frequently omitted this asana from my practice at home, dashing from other asanas directly to the phone or computer keyboard. The flip side of this kind of vatic overdoing is an energy crash, from which a judicious rest can protect you.

“Savasana brings you as close as possible to perfect physical alignment because it is easier to do correctly than any other pose. Being still while in alignment allows all levels of your being to move into alignment,” explained Svoboda. This is why Savasana feels so restful, physically, mentally, and spiritually. With enough rest and alignment, even restless vatic energy can stabilize.

At first, with its new terminology, Ayurveda can seem exotic, even to someone like me who has traveled to India and studied hatha yoga and meditation for 14 years. But in truth, resting deeply, eating healthful foods, following a regular schedule, moving at a gentle pace, stretching all my limbs, taking deep breaths, and limiting stimulation are all the basics of good health. There’s nothing exotic about these practices.

What is unusual is that we live in a society where we have to make an extra effort to practice them and resist the pressures that lead us to neglect self-care. Following the Ayurvedic and yogic techniques seemed unfamiliar at first, but when I practiced them, my body (or was it perhaps some subtler aspect of myself?) recognized them. As modern Americans, we may have forgotten how to care for the human being, but Ayurveda remembers and can remind us of what we once knew.