Me… trying Ayurveda?! It’s true!
So I mentioned on instagram recently I’ve been experimenting with Ayurveda. This may or may not come as a surprise to people who know me – I like to think of myself as a healthily open-minded sceptic – I treat all ideas critically, in a balanced way, and am open to changing my mind if people present evidence. It’s a safe and scientific and logical approach… which conflicts a bit with my arts-degree (I was a literature girl) more free-thinking and creative writing side… but I’ve always been contradictory like that (or as I like to think of it, it’s Keatsian ‘negative capability’ mwahaha).
I’ll explain more about ayurveda shortly, but here’s how I’m approaching it.
I’ve fallen into it via modern practitioners who fuse ancient Ayurvedic philosophies with modern Western life and nutrition knowledge. I do believe that it was created 5,000 years ago (yoga’s sister science) for India 5,000 years ago, therefore it doesn’t have to be followed to the letter – for example, lifestyles change, and my environment and culture is different from that of India 5,000 years ago. For example in Ayurveda you should never eat raw foods. That was true in India then (and much of India now!) – salad could make you ill. It’s not the case in London, so you can tweak it based on where you are and also just modernity.
I also believe that modern medicine and science knows a lot more about many things now, so naturally there are inconsistencies.
However, there are some overlaps – like the body types endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph, for example, correspond with the Ayurvedic doshas – mesomorphs would be dominant in pitta, ectomorph – vata, and endomorph – kapha (see discussion below). In terms of the mental qualities associated with each dosha (more on what these are below!), you can think of these as metaphorical, emotional or psychological illustrations of personality types if you struggle with the pseudo-scientific nature. Just be open-minded with it, I guess! It’s not a science, it’s a philosophical system of wellness… and it’s 5,000 years old, so take or leave what works for you, and where modern knowledge is proven to contradict, that’s fine, but remember – Western medicine responds to disease and treats symptoms and causes. Ayurveda aims to prevent illness arising.
*quick check on cultural appropriation* I am fascinated by different cultures, and you may or may not have seen a discussion I had on instagram recently around the issues of cultural appropriation around yoga in the West, for example. These practices (yoga and ayurveda) are no doubt growing and evolving – they’re not the same as they once were, but I do want to take a second to say I have the utmost respect for the origins of these philosophies, and I’ve done as much research as I can into the history of the practices. I’d like to make clear and acknowledge that it isn’t part of my own heritage, but it’s something I am interested in exploring and I hope my adoption of some of the modern-fusion ayurveda is sensitive and respectful of anyone who does have deep roots in Ayurvedic and Hindu traditions. I know that ‘my’ version, or Sahara’s (see below) aren’t necessarily authentic, but hopefully we can all share in it respectfully and the last thing I would want is for this to offend anyone. Read more about the tradition here, and the Atharva Veda .
With all of that explanation over with to ‘explain’ and satisfy any fellow sceptics, here is why I have kind of fallen in love with Ayurveda, despite my reservations about all things that tend to be embraced by ‘hippy’ types which undeniably eastern and Indian philosophies have been (having grown up around Glastonbury and seen many families hugely disrupted by drugs, dropping out of school and various consequential issues, hippyisms are not something I tend to be a fan of and I feel should be treated with huge caution! Plus they tend to be unchecked appropriation of other cultures, and used as excuses for outrageous lifestyle choices… Rant over, okay, okay!)
(NB: where it conflicts with modern nutritional and scientific knowledge, I’d go with those things. However, on the mental and emotional side it’s more just like an alternative perspective on things, and one I find helpful!)
It’s a romantic and almost mythical way of expressing many things that I think modern science and psychology do tell us too.
It feels intuitive, and places emphasis on living a healthy, balanced lifestyle, with diet and digestion as a cornerstone of wellbeing – which we know to be true.
It helps me make sense of my personality, how I emotionally respond to things (and have responded to past trauma), and how to balance myself out.
I’m inclined to agree it’s more helpful from a mental health and balance perspective than it being a medicine system to cure physical ailments – I wouldn’t ever substitute it for qualified medical advice – but it can certainly support, in my opinion.
I’ve always been drawn to ancient cultures the world over and it’s fun to play with… and there’s no harm in playing and being interested!
It just feels intuitive to me and explains my personality. Whether that’s placebo, or whether modern science and psychology aligns with it or not, if it makes you feel good, what’s the harm?!
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda means the ‘knowledge of life’, and is a holistic Ancient Indian system of health and wellbeing. If you google it, the definition you get is:
the traditional Hindu system of medicine (incorporated in Atharva Veda, the last of the four Vedas), which is based on the idea of balance in bodily systems and uses diet, herbal treatment, and yogic breathing.
I have got into it through modern practitioners like Sahara Rose who has an incredible story and journey to discovering ayurveda, and Jasmine Hemsley (check the ayurveda section of her website here), but this is the most helpful objective overview I’ve found of the subject.
I found Sahara Rose‘s attitude of choosing the parts of the practice that work for you and work in modern life helpful. You can read her article here about why practicing yoga (although amazing!) is only a tiny step in optimising how you feel – and how ayurveda is the ultimate lifestyle compliment (the two systems go hand in hand, after all!)
As a simple introduction, in Ayurveda the idea is we’re born with a unique combination of the three Ayurvedic doshas – kapha, vata and pitta (the combo you’re born with is your prakruti). Diet and lifestyle and other factors can change this – if you were born vata dominant, for example, you could become more pitta. Your present constitution, if different from your prakruti is your vikruti.
In Ayurveda emotional states, mental and physical ailments etc… basically anything that means you’re not ‘well’ is thought to be because of a dosha imbalance in some way. Too much vata, too little kapha… it can be much more complex than this, but this is a simplified explanation, and ayurveda seeks to provide lifestyle choices and practices people can follow to stay physically and mentally balanced. Certain personality types may prefer different things, and need to bear in mind they should balance themselves (for example I’m a pitta – considered to be driven, fiery, highly motivated, prone to loving caffeine and heavy duty workouts – but I need to balance this with more yin yoga, for example, and slowing down, caffeine and alcohol reduction, even if that’s not my instinct!) A lot of it can be considered common sense! Kaphas are thought to be much more grounded, stable, generous, but also potentially prone to lethargy and weight gain if out of balance… and so more vigorous movement is recommended. (These are just some super simplistic illustrations!)
My experience so far
I’ve found that certain ayurvedic practices, including but not limited to an improved morning routine (including tongue scraping, oil pulling, splashing the eyes 10 times with cold water and abhyanga [an ayurvedic form of self-massage with oil]) to be therapeutic and actually quite uplifting.
I’ve also been trying trying a few of the dosha balancing meditations (discover an indication of your dominant dosha here but for truly accurate results see a practitioner), and making some dosha-balancing lifestyle changes (for example, I am very dominantly pitta – in both body and mind – so rather than stick to my go-to agressive coffee consumption and power yoga, I’ve incorporated more deep breathing, some very gentle yin yoga, and calming herb teas).
Studies have shown (I was reading a scientific paper from a journal on the train about exactly this today!) that meditation, yoga (and other activities like reading, qu gong, tai chi) etc. are beneficial for health and mind because they promote the relaxation response which has a positive biological impact – reduced oxygen consumption, blood pressure, heart rate and changes to regions of the brain whose names have escaped me just now! Activities like this positively influence our epigenetics (the parts of our DNA that switch cells on and off essentially – determining which bits of our DNA are used!) On a similar note, exercise is another lifestyle factor that can alter your DNA (as can nutrition, stress levels, exposure to toxins…) and you can read more on the science of that here.
However, whether or not there are tangible benefits you can derive from ayurveda (and anecdotally there do seem to be, although clearly when people like me try things, we’re not doing a controlled study so it’s hard to establish a reliable causal link), to me, it’s all about how you feel and if it has a positive impact on your life and general wellbeing… and this definitely is for me!
I also just did a quick 8 week short course called Self Care and Ayurvedic Nutrition to learn more, and it has given me some great practices that really help me manage stress and my mood, plus some delicious recipes.
What do you think?!
I’d love to hear your comments on this, and any philosophies or lifestyle changes that you find work for you!
Sahara Rose Ketabi, Ayurvedic Practitioner, Holistic Health and Sports Nutrition Coach on dosha-sports science parallels:
Sahara Rose Ketabi writes (full article here)
“Ectodermal = Vata
Some of us have increased development of the ectodermal layer, contributing to a more active nervous system and faster catabolism (the breakdown of muscle tissue.) This makes make us more naturally small-boned, full of thoughts, sensitive to external surroundings and energy, and often cold — exactly like a Vata.
Vata is regulated by Ether and Air energy, regulating the nervous system as well. Vatas are thin-bodied, dry-skinned, bold-bodied, hypersensitive to their surroundings, and imaginative. When they’re off balance, they can become anxious or anemic. I often compare Vata to the Fall wind — cool, dry, creative, and a little bit all over the place.
If you are an Ectomorph/ Vata, then I recommend consuming a more warming, grounding foods like soups, stews, and proteins. Avoid too much cold, raw food, which will cool down your already weak digestive fire. Make sure you stretch your body to prevent it from getting stiff and practice strength-training exercises. Practice more mindfulness.
Others of us have increased development of the mesodermal layer. We’re naturally more muscular, prone to stress, with strong bones and appetites — just like a Pitta.
Pitta is comprised of Fire and Water energy, controlling transformation — metabolism, digestion, assimilation, and muscle development. Pittas are naturally athletic, high-achieving people with strong work ethics (and appetites). When they’re off balance, they can become impatient, overheated, or agitated. I often compare Pitta to the summer — hot, fiery, and passionate!
If you are a Mesomorph/ Pitta, I recommend consuming more cooling, hydrating foods like fresh fruit and leafy greens. Avoid spicy food, caffeine, and chocolate, which are all too stimulating and heat-inducing for your already hot system. Be careful not to overexert yourself and become overly competitive. Practice yin yoga and meditation regularly.
And there are those of us with increased development of the endodermal layer. We may have slower metabolisms and digestions and are prone towards respiratory issues, exactly like the Kapha Dosha.
Kapha is comprised of Earth and Water energy, regulating structure, body tissue, and bone structure. Kaphas are peaceful, easy-going, good-natured, people. When out of balance, however, they can easily become overweight and lazy, and catch colds frequently. I like to compare Kaphas to the Spring — cool, wet, and dense.
If you’re an Endomorph/ Kapha, I suggest favoring light, stimulating foods like well-spiced quinoa, steamed vegetables and bitter greens. Avoid sweet, cool, and creamy foods like ice cream or pasta, which will make your sluggish digestive system even slower. Make sure you break a sweat every day to prevent yourself from becoming lethargic. Try something new every day.”