Health is, in a sense, a synonym for integration: It refers to totality and whether or not a system is in harmony or discord. It’s no wonder, then, that many of the world’s most time-honored medicinal practices, like the three included in our Get Well series, are rooted in holism, treating our individual systems in relation to the larger system that connects us—how we are integrated with nature.
Ayurveda illuminates the dynamism of our personal microcosms within the macrocosm, using fundamental principles rooted in nature.
The origin of this ancient Indian science is best elucidated by the roots of the word itself: Ayur means “life” and veda means “science,” capturing the understanding that we are, as human beings, the expression of life in totality. Ayurveda is founded on the belief that pure consciousness animates all life and offers a subjective knowing by which we—and all of existence—generate and regenerate. By evoking this consciousness (the underlying intelligence of the elements), we may understand the quality of our own equilibrium. Ayurveda helps us manage the interplay of forces within and without by teaching us how to listen for rhythms in nature.
When the gaseous composition of a star is out of balance, it explodes into a brilliant supernova that scatters new life. Bits and pieces of the star spontaneously gather to create everything else in the material universe—including us. Per Ayurvedic principle, we are the universe contained: a microcosm made up of star stuff—more specifically, the five elements. Space, air, fire, water, and earth craft inimitable, unique states of homeostasis within each of us.
KAPHA is made up of earth and water, a muddy mixture that governs late winter and spring. The densest of the constitutions, it is associated with coalescence, steadiness, and stagnation when in excess. It represents the anabolic (generative) aspect of nature.
Doshas are the tendency of one or more of these elements to be a governing force and by definition, in dysfunction. Three doshas—Vata, Pitta, and Kapha—define our constitution. Vata is the combination of air and space, Pitta of fire and water, and Kapha of water and earth. Each dosha is a different imbalanced state of the five elements, and all are dynamic. Per Vedic principle, it is impossible to cultivate a state of fixed balance when the elements, and nature itself, are always in flux. Vedic principle contends that our capacity to regenerate depends on how well we adapt and nurture balance amid the flux. This is why Ayurvedic doctors devote generous time to investigating a patient’s conditions, medical history, and physical systems, all in relation to their environment. Time spent understanding the constitution of elements within a person helps doctors diagnose, reduce, pacify, and rebalance the doshas to restore positive states of equanimity.
PITTA is a combination of water and fire, which together make steam–fitting for its association with our digestive engine. In balance, it is energizing; in excess, it can cause burn out. It corresponds to summer and the metabolic (transformative) aspect of nature.
Ayurveda teaches us that there is a dynamic evolution of the elements with the passing of each season and that we, like nature, experience a myriad of constitutions in accordance with the rhythm of the environment. Spring brings promise of wet, earthly meditations as melting snow feeds rivers that volatilize into fog and rain. Heavy, cold liquid combines with a softness in spring that makes us feel the weight, cohesion, and anabolic experience of Kapha. Summer offers a humid, sticky bloom layered with sharp, fiery heat. These warmer months call upon a mobile, metabolic, transformative energy that we associate with Pitta. Autumn arrives as nature’s way of conserving energy and retracting life force. Fallen leaves paint the Earth’s cold, dry floor with scattered color, and we experience the mobile, catabolic, connecting energy of Vata. Winter finally brings a frigid, hard Earth: a container of both Vata and Kapha. All together, space, air, fire, water, and earth design our constitutions in chorus with the sumptuous, symphonic song of the Earth.
VATA is comprised of air and ether, and it stands for the intangible. It is associated with autumn and early winter, a time for turning inward and examining one’s spiritual life. The lightest of the constitutions, it is akin to the catabolic (deconstructive) aspect of nature.
Therefore, achieving states of equilibrium within our microcosm is requisite for our well-being. While most of us may not be able to change our lifestyles completely, there are basic Ayurvedic principles that we can incorporate daily. These principles empower us to make choices that sustain and nourish the body, mind, and spirit—like Abhyanga (oil massage), Ayurvedic chai (tea), Kavala (oil pulling), Jihwa Prakshalana (tongue scraping), Nimbu Pani (lemon water), and Sattvic (harmonious, seasonal eating). And for those of us who desire a complete Ayurvedic reset, there’s Panchakarma.
Panchakarma is a practical, powerful, and achievable way for us to restore balance. Five (pancha) actions (karma) offer a comprehensive, integrative detoxification treatment of the mind, body, and consciousness: vamana (emesis), virechana (purgation), nasya (nasal purgation), basti (enema), and raktamokshana (blood-letting). While raktamokshana is no longer practiced today, the remaining four are, and they’re integrated with herbal massage, steam baths, and a Vedic diet. Each year, Somatheeram, the world-renowned Ayurvedic hospital located on Chowara Beach in Kerala, India, draws a global community in search of rejuvenating treatment. But whether you integrate Ayurveda at home or seek an immersive experience, this ancient science will help you harness the wisdom of the elements, within and without.
Below are five treatments you can try at home.
Abhyanga (oil massage)
WHAT: Self massage using ¼-½ cup of warm oil
Pitta: sunflower or coconut oil
Vata: sesame oil
Kapha: sesame, almond, or corn oil
WHEN: In the morning or evening before taking a shower
HOW: For five to twenty minutes, massage your body in the direction of hair growth. Use long strokes to massage from shoulder to fingertip or from hip to foot and a circular motion to massage the abdomen, chest, and joints. Once a week, offer extra love and attention by massaging oil into the scalp, ears, and feet.
WHY: Our sense of touch is so important. It is one of the first senses to become functional, and an oil massage can have tremendous psychological and physiological impact.
Chai (Ayurvedic tea)
WHAT: Herbal tea
Pitta: equal parts ground cumin, coriander, and fennel
Vata: equal parts ground cumin, coriander, and ginger
Kapha: equal parts ground cinnamon and ginger with a pinch of ground clove
HOW: Grind the fresh herbs using a mortar and pestle and steep in eight ounces of hot water for at least five minutes before drinking.
WHY: Tea with spices can help pacify and balance the doshas within the gut—also known as the brain of the body—to improve the immune system.
Kavala (oil pulling)
WHAT: Gargling or swishing coconut oil in your mouth
WHEN: Anytime, but preferably first thing in the morning on an empty stomach or two to three hours after eating
HOW: Measure one tablespoon of oil, swish it around your mouth for one to eight minutes, then spit the oil into a trash can. Rinse your mouth and/or brush your teeth after oil pulling but not before.
WHY: Your mouth hosts an array of toxins that can interfere with taste, impact unhealthy cravings, and affect digestive health. Oil pulling extracts toxins and supports dental health.
Jihwa Prakshalana (tongue scraping)
WHAT: Scraping the surface of the tongue with a stainless steel or copper tongue scraper
WHEN: First thing in the morning before drinking water
HOW: Stick your tongue out and refrain from holding any tension in it. Work the scraper back to front three to six times, rinsing each time. Follow with flossing, brushing, and a tall glass of warm water.
WHY: The tongue is considered a map of the entire body, and each section of the tongue corresponds to a different part of the body. Tongue scraping allows us to remove toxins, stimulate our GI system, and massage our internal organs.
Nimbu Pani (lemon water)
WHAT: Warm lemon water
WHEN: In the morning
HOW: Squeeze ¼ of a lemon into an eight ounce glass of warm water and add ¼ teaspoon of baking soda, then immediately drink it all down.
WHY: Lemons offer many benefits including rehydration, removal of toxins, improved digestion, lower blood pressure, and an improved immune system.
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In the face of the climate crisis, one thing is clear: we will only get to an ecologically just future by way of working together. If humankind is to heal its relationship to the rest of creation, it must restore harmony—which cannot exist without collaboration. And what could be more emblematic of holism and harmony than a hive?