What is Ayurveda and why is it good for your health?
Ayurveda, which means “knowledge of life,” is a 5,000 year old ancient, holistic system of medicine from India that seeks to balance an individual’s constitution (dosha) with food and lifestyle practices. The foundation of the Ayurveda is that health and wellness are dependent on the balance between mind, body and spirit. The body is healthy and well, the mind is calm and sharp, and the spirit is inspired and connected.
Ayurvedic practices rely on diet, yoga, meditation, and self-care practices. Experimenting with practices that balance your doshas (vata, pitta, kapha) is considered the key to optimal health and longevity.
Here are 10 key practices in the ayurvedic tradition to begin to balance your mind, body and spirit.
Meditation is the act of not necessarily quieting the mind, because that is nearly impossible, but observing thought patterns without attaching judgment to them. It’s about separating your true self from your thoughts. You are not your thoughts, you can observe your thoughts and from that place of detached observation can you then chose how to handle thoughts. It gives you the tremendous opportunity to choose what to believe and respond to. It empowers you to connect to your higher, true self.
Practice: Candle gazing meditation
Sit in a quiet spot and light your favorite candle. Place it just below eye level so you can comfortably gaze down at it with soft eyes and relaxed facial muscles. Begin to observe your thoughts without attachment while focusing on the flicker of the flame.
Pranayama is the practice of deep diaphragmic breathwork. Deep belly breathing not only increases oxygen flow to your body resulting in more energy, it also massages your internal organs which benefits digestion and elimination. Breathwork, like the practice below, is excellent when you feel the stress response in your body, fight/flight/freeze, or when you are triggered.
Practice: Ujayii breathing
Sit in an upright, comfortable position. Open your mouth and exhale slowly, softly whispering “haaaaaaaaaaaaa” for 5 counts. Then inhale slowly, softly whispering “haaaaaaaaaaaaa” for 5 counts. Notice the sound of your breath. What does is remind you of? Continue for 5 more rounds. Now, close your mouth and repeat the sequence for 5 more rounds. Use the breath to regulate the inhales and exhales while being sure to bring the breath to your belly. It may help to place your hands on your belly to feel the expansion and contraction with each breath.
Massage, according to many studies, helps reduce stress, lower blood pressure, eliminate toxins from the tissue, supports healthy muscle tone, and reduces inflammation in the body by increasing lymphatic flow. While going to a professional massage therapist is beneficial, you can also get the benefits from a DYI massage at home.
Practice: Self-massage (Abhyanga)
Warm a bottle of your favorite organic oil (sesame or coconut oil is recommended). Starting with your scalp, massage the oil thoroughly with your fingertips. Wrap your hair in a towel (it’s a great deep conditioner!). Next move to your feet. Massage each foot with the warm oil being sure to focus on your toes. Put socks on your feet to avoid slipping. The hands are next. Spend time on each hand then work your way up your arms, shoulders and neck. When you get to a joint rub the oil in circular motions which aids in circulation. For your abdomen, rub the oil in circular, clockwise motions to aid in digestion. Work your way down your legs to your ankles. Following your self-massage, you may do a quiet activity to let the oil soak in further, or you can shower/take a hot bath.
Sweating (Swedana) is the practice of sweating to release toxins from the body’s largest organ, the skin. It is believed that sweating is an efficient way to detoxify the body and release impurities.
Try a sauna or steam room at your local gym or health club. Many communities also have infrared sauna spas where you can not only get the benefits of a sweat detox, but also the anti-aging benefits of the LED lights. Remember, it’s very important to stay hydrated during and after a sweat session. So, be sure to have a full water bottle on hand and if you have a medical condition, check in with your doctor first.
5. Prioritizing your sleep is a critical component of the Ayurvedic tradition. It is advised for the average person to consistently get between 7-8 hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep most nights. Create an environment conducive to good sleep. Check your darkened room for any lights from other electronics or light sources that may be a distraction. Simple black electrical tape works great to cover over little lights that cast a big glow. Be sure your mattress, pillows and bedding are comfortable. The room should be quiet and free of disrupting sounds. Earplugs and/or a white noise machine can help for city-dwellers. Aim to turn off the light each night at roughly the same time, as well as wake in the mornings at about the same time. This helps the body regulate its circadian rhythm.
Practice: A bedtime routine
Each night before bed, power off all devices an hour before you plan to turn off the light. If you must be on a device, wear blue blocker glasses. Amazon has them for around $25. Practice calming breathwork, journal thoughts, meditate, read a book, practice a soothing yoga flow, take a warm bath. Find a sequence of relaxing activities that soothe you and ready your mind and body for sleep.
Eating your meals while in a calm, and relaxed manner helps you to not only enjoy your food more, but it also aids in optimal digestion. Try to chew each bite of food 10-20 times so it is the consistency of mush. The digestive process begins in the mouth and best prepares the stomach to process food to the large and small intestines where vital nutrients are absorbed and synthesized. Chewing slowly also gives your stomach more time to signal your brain when you’re full which prevents overeating. This practice can also stall emotional eating.
Practice: Mindful eating
Sit in silence during your largest meal of the day. Take in the color, texture, smell and characteristics of the food on your plate. Take 5 deep breaths before your first bite to ensure your body-mind is relaxed. For the first bit, chew slowly and be mindful of the flavors, and texture of the food you’re chewing. Wait a moment before the next bite and repeat the mindful eating practice. Try to eat your whole meal this way and see how you feel afterwards.
Using the 6 tastes at every meal is thought to be the most balanced way to eat in Ayurveda. Every food is considered to fall into one of these 6 tastes- Sweet, Salty, Sour, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent.
Practice: Add in the 6 tastes at every meal
Tongue cleaning is a practice that uses a tool you can purchase at health food stores for under $6.00. It is often a metal U-Shaped device that you drag along your tongue, from back to front, first thing in the morning before your brush your teeth. The practice reduces toxins and bacteria on the tongue, enhances taste, improves digestion and stimulates internal organs.
Practice: Tongue scrapping each morning, before you eat, drink or brush your teeth.
Dry brushing is a ritual of using a brush with stiff bristles against the skin. The benefits include exfoliation, increased blood circulation, reduction of cellulite, and the stimulation of the lymphatic system, which helps to eliminate cellular waste.
Practice: Dry brushing 1-2 times a day.
The ideal time is before bathing or before a workout as it can be invigorating. You want to use a brush with natural bristles and a long handle so you can reach your back. Gently brush your skin in long, firm strokes toward your heart, going over each area 2 or 3 times. For your abdomen, brush clockwise to encourage healthy digestion and elimination.
Oil Pulling (Gundusha) is an ancient Ayurvedic dental technique that involves swishing a tablespoon of oil in your mouth on an empty stomach for around 20 minutes. The benefits include whiter teeth, cavity and gingivitis prevention, reduction of bad breath, and stronger teeth and gums.
Practice: Gundusha every morning and/or evening.
Choose an oil, coconut oil or sesame oil work well, and begin swishing for 5 minutes for a couple days, then bump up to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, until you get comfortable with 20 minutes. When you are finished, spit the oil in a trash can. The oil can create clogs in your drain over time so avoid spitting it out in your sink or toilet. It’s a practice that takes time to get comfortable with as your mouth and jaw will initially feel fatigued by it.
You don’t need a fancy studio, or to be able to put your leg behind your neck to reap the benefits of a regular yoga practice. Yoga is free. It can be practiced anytime, anywhere, for any length of time. It’s truly the most versatile form of movement with maximum health benefits.
The benefits of yoga include increased flexibility, muscle strength and tone. Yoga promotes improved respiration, energy and vitality. It helps with weight reduction, cardio and circulatory health and a balanced metabolism. A regular practice also promotes a healthy mind-body connection and decreases stress. It may reduce anxiety, depression and systemic inflammation as well.
Practice: Yoga each day
Consider adding in a yoga practice, flow or series of stretches each day. Just 5-10 minutes a day will benefit your health and wellness.
Ayurveda is an ancient tradition that is complex and multi-faceted. These practices are intended to give you a feel for the some of the rituals that are believed to promote ultimate health, wellness and balance. Try a few out and see what resonates with you!
As an integrative health coach, I help busy women like you move beyond limiting beliefs, self-sabotaging behaviors and bad habits to create a healthy, balanced, aligned life that allows you to show up each day feeling your best!
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