Sleep issues are a pervasive problem that I see so often in my practice. The inability to fall asleep, stay asleep or have good quality sleep can have an extremely debilitating effect on our lives. In Ayurveda, there are three pillars of health – food, sleep and moral or spiritual living. When one or more pillar is out of balance, we are out of balance. Without good quality sleep or sleep routines that mirror the rhythms of nature, we cannot achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional health. Luckily, there are effective, natural ways to support healthy sleep.
In most cases, insomnia is caused by an excess of the Vata dosha. The Vata dosha, which has the qualities of the air and ether elements, is light and mobile. “Light” and “mobile” is often the state of the mind when a person has sleep disturbances. Their mind is active or racing with worry, fear, planning or excessive thinking. The light quality of Vata manifests as sensitivity to stimuli like noise and light, and the ability to be awoken very easily.
Pitta dosha can also play a role in sleep disturbances. Pitta types are often very mentally focused or ambitious individuals. Productivity is highly valued by Pitta individuals, and they can have difficulty shutting off “planning mode” when their head hits the pillow. The Pitta dosha also corresponds to the times of day between 10-2. Pitta types who find themselves working or focused on an activity close to 10pm can easily be drawn deeper into the focused activity for several more hours, as Pitta becomes elevated during that time and increases the focused qualities of the mind if one does not make a concerted effort to disengage. Lastly, Pitta types can also experience insomnia when the environment is too hot, as the external heat further aggravates the already fiery-natured of Pitta.
The most common causes of Vata and/or Pitta sleep disturbances often relate to overwork, overactivity and overstimulation of the senses. Patients dealing with insomnia often have stressful schedules that leave them feeling overwhelmed and/or they may tend to be very driven or focused, but have trouble calming their minds at the end of the day. This often happens in conjunction with an excess of “screen time” - being overly stimulated by computer, TV and smart phone screens and the over-abundance of information that our minds are asked to process in the modern era of lightning-fast information exchange.
The great news is that insomnia can be treated naturally and successfully. Ayurveda allows a person to pinpoint habits that may be contributing to sleep problems and address any physiological imbalances that have resulted. Treatment involves a twofold approach:
First, strengthen the body’s ability to handle stress by incorporating some of the following treatments:
- Herbs that calm and strengthen the mind and nervous system
- Appropriate diet and eating routines
- Stress reducing techniques, such as meditation and pranayam (breathwork)
- Self-massage with warm, dosha-specific oil
- Shirodhara, or third eye oil stream therapy
- Calming essential oils
- Gentle to moderate regular exercise
- Grounding, rejuvenating yoga poses such as forward bends and seated postures and gentle or restorative-style yoga
Second, remove or reduce the causes of the aggravation:
- Work to reduce unnecessary “screen time” or incorporate periods of mental rest throughout the day
- Address lifestyle factors that aggravate the mobile quality of the mind, such as multitasking, excess travel, irregular routines, etc.
- Adjust bedtime/wake time to flow with the rhythms of nature, which in turn supports the body’s optimal rhythms.
As with any Ayurvedic treatment, an individual should meet with a practitioner who can tailor this approach to his or her specific needs. As good sleep is one of the primary foundations of health, addressing sleep disturbances, insufficient sleep or improper bedtime/wake time can result in a tremendous shift in physical, mental and emotional wellness. I encourage each of you to make good quality and sufficient sleep a priority, and watch your health transform as a result!
Post-holidays we hear plenty about weight loss. The typical message we receive about how to lose weight is to work out more (the harder, the better) and eat less (the lighter, the better). Indeed, for some people this approach is the ticket, but in Ayurveda we look at weight loss differently because even with weight loss there’s no “one size fits all.” In this article I’ll discuss a scenario for weight gain that has become increasingly prevalent in our society as a result of high levels of stress, and how it would be addressed through Ayurvedic Medicine.
Fat tissue, called “medas dhatu” in Ayurveda, is ruled by the Kapha dosha. Kapha is composed of the water and earth elements and thus has the qualities of those elements – it’s heavy, moist, soft, cool, slow and stable. Kapha is the bodily humor that provides stability, stamina, grounding, protection and lubrication. When we put on weight it means that there has been an increase in the Kapha dosha in our body. But is Kapha alone always the culprit? The answer is “no” and it’s extremely important for us to understand the root cause of weight gain in order to truly heal the imbalance. Below are two common examples of weight gain and how they differ.
A purely Kapha form of weight gain often results from a lifestyle and diet that contain too many of the heavy and stable qualities of Kapha – eating too much heavy, oily and/or sweet food in conjunction with sedentary habits. Because we treat with opposite qualities in Ayurveda, reducing the excess weight would require the opposite qualities of Kapha – lighter foods, reducing herbs and a more mobile lifestyle, among other things.
The second scenario, which has become more prevalent in our society, is when a person gains weight as a result of becoming too depleted or ungrounded. In response, the body puts on weight in order to stabilize the system. In this case, Vata dosha is the root of the imbalance and this type of weight gain is referred to as “Vata pushing Kapha.” In this instance, a lifestyle that is too stressful, ungrounded, mobile, overwhelming or driven depletes the body and mind (a Vata imbalance). In order to protect the depleted system, Kapha dosha tries to ground and stabilize the body, resulting in weight gain. (For example, many cases of hypothyroidism/low thyroid functioning – of which fatigue and weight gain are symptoms – are manifestations of this scenario.)
In recognizing the weight gain, the person may do increasingly rigorous workouts and eat light foods or restrict diet in order to combat the excess weight. But Vata is already too mobile and light, and “like increases like” so these habits further increase Vata dosha and can actually aggravate the root cause of what’s feeding the weight gain to begin with. In addition, for an already depleted system, the increased activity and lighter diet can serve to cause further depletion, fatigue, “burnout”, etc. leading to a scenario in which the person continues to feel frustrated by the excess weight, but is also increasingly more fatigued and depleted.
For those who notice weight gain and are also dealing with issues such as fatigue, burnout, anxiety, overwhelm or high stress levels, a gentler, more rejuvenating approach that addresses the underlying Vata imbalance is the key to weight loss. Gentle to moderate exercise and yoga, moderately grounding foods, stabilized routines, bodywork and practices that calm the mind are just a few examples of the treatment approach most beneficial for Vata pushing Kapha weight gain. As with all imbalances, a weight loss program should be customized to you. When you nurture the specific needs of your unique constitution, you will find your equilibrium.
In the last three posts I’ve discussed the three main causes of disease from an Ayurvedic perspective – the misuse of the senses, failure of the intellect and motion/time. But there is one cause of disease that is the essential root of even these causes. Referred to as the “primordial” cause of disease, it is the root source of suffering in body and mind. That primordial cause of disease is: forgetting our true nature as spirit.
When we disconnect from the spirit, we live only as if we were body and mind. We become wrapped up in the dramas of the physical world. This results in disturbances in the mind. These fluctuations are called vrittis, which can be likened to turbulence in the mind. A turbulent mind causes the prana, or life force energy of the body, to become agitated. Prana, or qi as it is called in Chinese Medicine, is essentially the blueprint upon which the physical body is built. Mental and emotional agitation causes agitation in the flow of prana. Agitation in the prana subsequently causes the biological humors and tissues of the body to react as well, which creates imbalance in the physical body.
Forgetting our true nature as spirit means we live disproportionately through the ego - the part of us that sees the world in terms of “I” and separation, rather than in terms of unity and oneness. The ego lives through the senses, and as we become more attached to the ego we become more attached to the pleasures of the senses and overindulge, which causes a multitude of imbalances in the body, mind and emotions.
There are many ways in which we can cultivate this connection to spirit, but meditation is one of the most important tools. Through repeated practice, meditation allows us to gradually calm the vrittis of the mind. As the movement of the mind diminishes we become aware of something deeper that resides within that tells us about our true needs. Our true nature. Our Spirit.
For the past two posts I’ve been discussing the three causes of disease from an Ayurvedic perspective. Those three causes are:
- The misuse of the 5 senses
- The failure of the intellect
In this post I’ll discuss the concept of time – both linear and biological – and its impact on our health and wellness.
We’re all familiar with the passage of linear time, the ticking of the clock. The forward movement of time innately leads to aging, to which we are all subject. In the cycle of birth, life and death, no one is exempt. But from an Ayurvedic perspective, this isn’t the only form of time that has an effect on our bodies. Yes, we will all age as the clock ticks, but the rate at which we age is also largely determined by biological time, which has to do with motion of both the body and of the mind. Linear time – the forward movement of time – is static. Biological time – the deterioration resulting from the motion of mind and body – is dynamic.
To put the concept of biological time more simply, the faster we move, the more quickly our body deteriorates. This pertains not only to the movement of our physical body, but it also pertains largely to the movement of our minds. When the mind is still, we perceive the subtle nuances of our existence and each moment passes slowly. When our mind is active, our external world appears to be moving at warp speed, and our body usually follows suit. In other words, the faster thoughts pass through our minds, the faster biological time moves. This transformation or decay due to time and motion is referred to as Parinama in Ayurveda.
The practice of Ayurveda recognizes the deep impact the state of the mind has on the health and wellness of the body. Ayurveda utilizes both yoga and meditation as means to calm and control the movements of the mind. When the mind calms, the body does as well. We become more deliberate and conscious of our thought, speech and action. We expend less energy because we are connected to our deepest purpose and as a result, our movements are an extension of that deep awareness. Meditation and yoga allow the mind to cultivate a single-pointed focus, or drishthi – a point of concentrated attention. This focus allows the mind to stay in the present moment without drifting to the past or future. Time slows, stress reduces, and the body and mind are at peace.
Last month I touched upon the first of three main causes of disease from an Ayurvedic perspective. To recap, those three causes are:
- The misuse of the 5 senses
- The failure of the intellect
This month, I’m continuing with the second cause of disease: failure of the intellect. To put it more simply, it’s when we know what we need to do to take care of ourselves, but we don’t do it!
We all know that if we went to bed at a decent hour, ate according to our body type, exercised regularly, etc. we would experience better health. Yet, despite knowing all this we may continue to make choices that go against this knowledge, and as a result we suffer or do not experience optimal physical, mental and emotional health. This is what is meant by “failure of the intellect.”
We’ve all done this, but why? What is the cause of not wanting to let go of habits and patterns that we know are not supportive for our mental, physical and emotional health and well-being? The answer is: the ego. The ego is attached to how we act now based upon the input from our senses. It is attached to the world through the senses and makes choices based upon immediate sensory pleasure or pain. Most of the time, the ego opts for pleasure. But the ego is not only negative – it serves a purpose. We are all spiritual beings connected to one Source – whether we call that God, the Divine, the Universe, etc. – we are all interconnected and One. We are all manifestations of this “oneness” but we each have a unique path to fulfill in the material world. In order to fulfill our life purpose we have to differentiate ourselves as individuals. The ego serves this purpose of differentiating me from you. In other words, the part of us that is connected to the larger spiritual energy of our existence is the higher Self or Soul. Our ego is the part connected to the physical world and differentiates us as individuals. We need both, but when we over-identify with the ego and neglect the needs of the higher Self, we become over-attached to our sensory experience in the world. We make choices based solely on the immediate pleasure that results from the sensory experience rather than on the choices that would bring about the greatest harmony and well-being for body, mind and spirit. The higher Self, or Soul, is focused on the highest ideals, which lead one to make choices based upon spiritual growth and liberation from suffering, rather than on short-term gratification.
So, what does this mean for us in a practical sense? We suffer when our mind is restless, anxious, angry. We suffer when our body is ailing, tired, heavy, and in pain. We suffer when our emotions are turbulent. The choices we make on a daily basis can either exacerbate those symptoms or alleviate those symptoms. You have the power to heal all of these symptoms and states of suffering. But we must make choices regarding our day-to-day actions in order to reap the rewards. What I see time and again is that once people begin to make choices based upon their health and well-being and experience the benefits of that, letting go of those short-term pleasure-based sensory experiences does not feel like a sacrifice because the benefits outweigh the costs.
These choices do not have to be a complete overhaul that happens overnight. I work with my patients on taking small steps overtime. You may not be ready to give up certain habits, but there are probably healthy practices you’re willing to incorporate. The path to healing is paved with one step at a time – sometimes those steps are leaps and sometimes they’re just baby steps. Using your intellect to make one healthy choice per day, no matter how small, will help to lay the foundation of a long-term practice, resulting in a healthy body and mind. Here are a few “baby steps” that you can choose to start today. I encourage you to pick just one and try practicing this every day for the next week:
- Scrape your tongue with a tongue scraper every morning before brushing your teeth
- Drink one 8-oz cup of warm water upon waking
- Go to bed by 10pm
- Wake with the sunrise. Keep your blinds open so that the sunlight shines through in the morning. This will help you to wake early.
- Upon waking, do 5 minutes of deep belly breathing
- For one meal per day, take 3-5 slow breaths or say grace beforehand
A choice leads to action. One small action repeated over time becomes habit. Once you’ve incorporated this and feel the benefits of it, you’ll be ready for the next one. The first step is to use your intellect to make the choice that favors the higher Self, which leads to optimal mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being. With clarity of mind and strength of body, you become more aligned with your higher Self and your day-to-day life becomes a manifestation of your Soul’s purpose.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, there are 3 fundamental causes of disease, which are:
- The misuse of the 5 senses
- The failure of the intellect
To simplify this, we can say that the causes of disease are:
- Feeding our senses of taste, sight, sound, touch, and smell in ways that are inappropriate for our specific mind-body constitution, or in ways that are excessive or generally harmful.
- Knowing what we need to do to be healthy and balanced, but not doing it.
- The more rapidly our body and mind moves, the more quickly our body deteriorates.
In this article I’d like to discuss the first cause of disease – the misuse of the 5 senses – and talk about how treating ourselves through the 5 senses is one of the most important ways to heal our body, mind and spirit.
Thus far, we’ve learned that each person has a very specific mind-body constitution. To simplify, most people tend to be predominant in one or more of the 3 doshas:
- Vata types – air/ether
- Pitta types – fire (mostly)/water (small amount)
- Kapha types – water/earth
The basic principle of treatment in Ayurveda is that “like increases like, and opposites balance.” If someone is a Vata, or air type, we can know that air is cold, light, dry and mobile. Therefore, those qualities of cold, light, dry and mobile are predominant in their system, so for treatment we give them the opposite qualities, which are warm, heavy, moist and stable. But how do we actually give a person the opposite qualities? This is where the 5 senses come in, which is one of the most critical aspects of Ayurvedic treatment.
We give the opposite qualities to the body and mind through feeding those opposite qualities through the 5 senses of taste, sight, sound, touch, and smell. As everything in the world is composed of the 5 elements (or 3 doshas), the Ayurvedic practitioner has been trained to understand the nature of the world around us in terms of its qualities and elemental make-up. For instance, there are warm, heavy, moist and stable foods, herbs, colors, sounds, smells, and forms of touch, so the Ayurvedic Practitioner would create a treatment program for the Vata type person that incorporates all of those and more. Therefore, a practitioner is creating a treatment plan for you that provides you with a comprehensive method of healing through all of your senses. Some tools used in Ayurveda to do this are:
- Taste: A dosha-specific food program; mindful eating habits; herbal formulas
- Touch: Massage and body therapies; self-massage; healing physical contact with supportive friends, family or partners
- Smell: Aromatherapy; being in nature
- Sound: Soothing music; silence; limiting exposure to loud or irritating forms of music or noise; mantra
- Sight: Color therapy, such as wearing clothing in colors that are supportive for your constitution, or decorating your home with supportive colors; limiting exposure to TV, internet, and/or disturbing and overly dramatic media.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of 5 sense therapies in healing. Ayurveda is one of few current forms of medicine practiced in the U.S. that concerns itself with the full picture of what the patient does on a day-to-day basis outside of the treatment office. We know that if we eat an improper diet we will not experience good health, so why would that also not apply to the rest of the senses as well?
Just to give an analogy, imagine that your body is a car and there are specific roads that the car should be driven on in order to avoid damage and to maintain itself properly. What happens when you take that car off-roading every time you get it back from the shop? No matter how often it gets “fixed,” if you regularly drive it on a road that it’s ill-equipped for, you’ll continue to wear it down. But when you drive it on the right path, it will function well and the less you’ll need to bring it into the shop. The difference is that as humans we can’t simply sell “the car” or trade it in when too much damage has been done!
The most supportive “road” for each person is a lifestyle that allows us to envelope ourselves with the stimuli and practices that are most balancing for our mind/body type. The more you invest in feeding your body, mind and spirit with the food, herbs, sights, sounds, colors, smells, body therapies, etc. that balance your constitution, and likewise, the less you expose yourself to stimuli that are harmful or inappropriate for your mind/body constitution, the more your body will be supported to heal itself. Remember that the the body is always moving in the direction of healing, but when we regularly feed our five senses with non-supportive forms of stimuli, we create obstacles to that innate healing potential. When we feed our body, mind and spirit with the best forms of stimuli, we remove those obstacles and our body is able to do the healing it inherently wants to do.
Take a moment to consider how you might be feeding your senses by asking yourself these questions:
- Do I know what kinds of foods are supportive for my specific mind/body constitution?
- Am I eating mindfully, away from my computer, TV, or phone?
- When was the last time I received a massage or body therapies?
- Do I value silence?
- How often do I detach from phone, TV, computer for at least several hours per day, particularly leading up to bedtime?
- Is my home decorated in a way that supports me emotionally?
- How often to do I spend time in nature?
These are just a few ways to identify how we’re feeding our senses on a daily basis.
The Ayurvedic treatment program, which is a process that is carried out over time, is a comprehensive “map” guiding you back to that road that is ideal for your constitution. Through regular consultations, the Ayurvedic Practitioner guides you through 5 Sense Therapies, as well as other practices, until you have all the tools you need to carrying out these practices on your own. In this way, Ayurveda is a way to fully empower you to know your constitution and feed it accordingly, giving you the ability to nurture your own healing on a daily basis.
In the article “Urban Renewal” on The Bold Italic, author Tienlon Ho writes about her experience doing an Ayurvedic cleanse and receiving Ayurvedic massage from yours truly!
On Saturday, I went to see Courtney LaCava at Dakini Ayurveda in Noe Valley for an abhyanga massage, an Ayurvedic technique that uses custom herb-infused oils to release toxins and, as Courtney put it, “help reduce your dependence on unstable bolsters” – like alcohol and coffee – “for relaxation and energy.” Technically, my evening sesame oil rubdowns were doing the same thing, but in Courtney’s hands, this was a massage unlike any other.
She met with me to receive Ayurvedic bodywork and to learn more from me about Ayurveda and how it helps people to heal on a deep level, understand their physical, mental and emotional patterns, and create more balance in their lives on a day-to-day basis. If you’re interested in doing what Tienlon did, through cleansing, consultations, bodywork or all three, feel free to contact me.
If I were to ask a roomful of people the question, “Who would like to have more vitality and greater resistance to stress?” every hand in the room would go up, right? We all want to feel energetic, vital, happy, and healthy. Ayurveda recognizes that preserving vitality and resisting stress and disease are critical to our sense of wellness, and that some people are able to do so better than others. Why is this? I’d like to introduce you to the concept of ojas, which is the stabilizing essence in the body and mind that allows us to resist stress, prevent disease, and gives us strength, immunity and endurance. Through this article I offer insight into why preserving and building ojas is critical to your health and well-being. I also offer some simple ways in which you can do so.
Ojasis one of the most important concepts in Ayurvedic treatment and is essentially an end goal of Ayurvedic healing. Deepak Chopra gives a wonderful definition of ojas as “the pure and subtle substance that’s extracted from food that has been completely digested. Ojas circulates throughout the bodily tissues and heart, sustaining the physical self, bringing clarity to the mind and balancing the emotions. In short, when the body produces ojas, the vital nectar of life, we feel blissful. The cells sing with happiness because both the mind and the body are receiving the nourishment they need.”When we have strong ojas, we experience healthy tissues as well as mental and emotional stability. We also resist stress and disease, and experience strong immunity, endurance and vitality. When we have a depletion of ojas in the physical body, we experience lowered immunity, fatigue, weakness and, ultimately, disease. In the mind, ojas plays the role of providing stability. A stable mind means we are less affected by day-to-day stress and stimulation. There is a solid mental “container” for thought and emotion. Symptoms of low mental ojas reflect an ungrounded mind in which a person can lose control of thoughts and emotions, or experience mood swings and other forms of mental imbalance. The good news is that Ayurveda provides specific protocol for preserving and rebuilding our vitality and immunity through natural means.
There are several ways to build and preserve ojas, but I’ll touch upon a few:
- Healthy digestion: Ojas is the end result of healthy digestion. When we are able to break down food properly, we’re able to cultivate this essence that protects and preserves the functioning of every cell.
- Understanding your mind-body constitution: When one understands the nature of his or her inherent constitution, s/he is able to eat and live in a way that preserves and cultivates vitality and immunity, rather than depletes it.
- Eating appropriate ojas-building foods: Specific, nourishing foods are better at building ojas than others. Healthy digestion is key for breaking these foods down properly, but eating the appropriate foods to build the proper vital essence is the other half of the equation.
- Sufficient mental and physical rest: One of the primary causes of low ojas is continual over-exertion or over-stimulation. Mental or physical “burnout” or chronic fatigue are examples in which a person has depleted their ojas as a result of too much mental and physical activity.
- Meditation: I can’t emphasize the importance of meditation enough! In our modern day and age, our senses are constantly bombarded with stimulation, which can easily deplete our systems and destabilize the mind.
- Time in nature: The sensory impressions in nature are key to preserving ojas and are incredibly healing to body, mind and spirit.
When I first started on my Ayurvedic journey, I was a classic example of someone with depleted ojas. I was dealing with chronic fatigue, pain, weakness and unstable moods as a result of having depleted my ojas from a lifestyle and diet that were inappropriate for my constitution. After having dealt with these chronic issues for so many years, a light bulb went off when I began learning about the concept of ojas, how this vital, protective essence becomes depleted and how it can be rebuilt through Ayurveda.
Through my years studying and practicing Ayurveda, I’ve encountered so many people with stories like mine, who suffered from poor health and chronic conditions, but now experience robust health, vitality and a sense of peace and contentment. This potential exists for all of us. Through conscious effort we all have the power to cultivate optimal physical, mental and emotional health through returning to the medicine of Mother Nature.
My wonderful Ayurveda teacher, Dr. Marc Halpern, will be in San Francisco for events this week and next! He’ll be highlighting his work from his recently published book Healing Your Life. Dr. Halpern is an incredibly inspirational speaker…any opportunity to listen to him share the wisdom of healing through Ayurveda is a blessing. Anyone who has heard him speak knows of his own profound healing journey that started with an extremely debilitating illness and chronic fatigue. Through his suffering he discovered the path of Ayurveda, healed himself and has since gone on to spread the wisdom of Ayurveda and to open California College of Ayurveda, the first official college outside of India to train practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine.
Healing Your Life Book Signing
When: Thursday, April 5th @ 7pm
Where: Books, Inc., 601 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco
Dr. MARC HALPERN is the founder and president of the California College of Ayurveda, and is one of a few Westerners recognized in both the United States and India as an authority on Ayurveda healing. In Healing Your Life, Dr. Halpern discusses how he came to heal himself following a diagnosis of a crippling autoimmune disorder. After suffering from chronic fatigue for seven years he found peace and good health through Ayurveda. He shares how to unlock each persons healing potential to be healthy in both body and mind.
Heal Your Life Workshop
When: Saturday, April 7th @ 10am
Where: The Flood Building, Conf room #1185 on 11th floor, 870 Market Street, San Francisco
During this program, Dr. Halpern will help you to understand why we become ill and then teach you about your Ayurvedic constitution and the lifestyle, diet and sensory therapies that will support your body to reach its full potential. When you leave this special program, you will have a clear direction for what you can do to Heal Your Life.