It's late September and the trees surrounding my Northern Vermont cabin are turning orange, yellow and rusty brown, and only a few the bright red of the most intense foliage seasons. From an Ayurvedic standpoint, fall is the season of vata, the dosha or humor, associated with the “air element.”Is that something that readers of this blog should care about? Crazy as it sounds, I'm going to argue yes. So today I'll give you just a taste of Ayurvedic thinking, with more coming in future entries.
|Autumn Leaves Scenario by Flemming Christiansen (via Wikimedia)|
While spending a year as a scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, where I finished the book's manuscript, ayurveda was everywhere I turned. Kripalu was just starting an ayurveda training course, and prominent teachers like Vasant Lad and Robert Svoboda were visiting. My housemate, Swami Shivananda Saraswati, an Ayurvedic practitioner who taught in the program, was a lively man who hailed from the Netherlands and looked like a 19th century Kris Kringle, except he always wore orange. He and I began to have regular discussions about India's ancient indigenous healing art and the oldest continually practiced medical system in the world.
Swami Shivananda made a few simple lifestyle suggestions for me, which I found surprisingly helpful. And the more I tried, the more I found this holistic science spoke to me. And, yes, Ayurveda did make its way into the book Yoga as Medicine, and now forms an integral part of the yoga therapy work I do and teach. In fact, as soon as I handed in the last edit of the book, I flew directly to Kerala, India, for Ayurvedic treatments. It was during that trip that I met the Ayurvedic master, Chandukkutty Vaidyar, who I’ve been studying with ever since. I have come to believe that if you are practicing yoga and not paying attention to Ayurveda, you are missing a piece that could deepen your practice and improve your health and well-being.
Based on an interview and a pulse assessment, a subtle art very different from the way we take the pulse in western medicine, Swami Shivananda concluded my vata was too high. Not a huge surprise in retrospect, since I’d already been working non-stop on the book, and was just in the process of moving out of Boston, where I’d lived for years. Since I moved into Kripalu in October it was vata season then, too, and Ayurveda teaches in the vata time of year, anything associated with this dosha tends to get worse. Typical vata problems include anxiety, restlessness, digestive troubles, insomnia, degenerative diseases, disorders of the nervous system, and a worsening of any painful health condition.
According to Ayurveda, vata islike a fall breeze: cold, rough, dry light, and erratic, and anything that has the opposite properties can lessen it. Dietary measures are generally the starting point in Ayurveda, and my Swami friend recommended eating warm, soothing foods, like well-cooked soups, vegetables and casseroles.
Probably the most helpful suggestion Swamiji gave me was oleation, both internal and external, that is, putting high quality oil on your skin and into your food. Warmed sesame oil (raw, preferably organic) can be rubbed into the feet before sleep (put on old socks afterwards to protect your bedding), or applied daily and allowed to soak in for several minutes before showering. With all the traveling I've been doing over the last several months, regular oil massages, followed by a nice warm bath, have done a lot to keep my vata in check, though it’s been an ongoing struggle.
An erratic schedule of sleeping and eating, and doing too much in general will tend to increase anyone’s vata, even for someone like me who doesn’t have a lot of vata in his ayurvedic constitution. Your nature or prakriti is said to be determined at the moment of conception. But I am over 50, and that is according to Ayurveda the vata time of life. Increased vata is said to be why older people tend to get dry, cracking skin, become more fearful, and have increased trouble sleeping—and why they move to warm climates. In my own case, and in the yoga therapy work I do, I’ve found that just trying to eat meals and sleep at regular times can be surprisingly effective for insomnia and other vata-related conditions as an adjunct to whatever other measures, yogic or otherwise, you use.
But entering my 15th consecutive week of traveling in the US and Europe—and with all the dislocation and air travel, both said to increase vata—I’m feeling it. I’m tired even after a week of relaxing. The last few days I've done a lot of Malasana (Garland pose), and long holds of forward bends and twists, along with my usual inversions and alternate nostril breathing, all of which are helping bring my vata back into balance. Before this downtime, I’d gotten two separate colds in just over two weeks, as many as I’d had in the previous several years combined, as well as a painful shoulder condition. My body—and my vata dosha—has been trying to send me a message! And I'm listening.
Still, there’s one more Yoga as Medicine workshop in Boston in a couple of days. I had been planning to return to my Vermont cabin afterward. But it’s getting cold and windy up here, so yesterday I changed my ticket to fly back to Northern California a week early. For increased vata, there’s no place like home.
In Loving Memory: This article is dedicated to Swami Shivananda Saraswati, yogi, ayurvedic practitioner, and my dear friend, who passed last summer after a good, long life.