Ayurveda in the Garden

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IMG_0987I find few things more enjoyable than spending time in my gardens. From the first frenzied cleaning in April to the melancholy mop-up in late October, there is always something to be done.  This summer, my time in the gardens found me musing about the way all three doshas were pacified by the various activities that go into creating a pleasant garden space.

I am Vata-Pitta by nature, with distinctive moments of Kapha imbalance that come in the form of lethargic procrastination.  This doshic combination highlights my light, breezy nature, but makes follow-through and project resolution somewhat difficult.  Putting my hands in the dirt is LITERALLY the most grounding of activities.  Rich soil under my feet and the satisfaction of being outdoors allows the positive Vata qualities of imagination, creativity, and spiritual connectedness to flourish. 

Vata attention enjoys constant stimulation, and will wander unimpeded in a garden space.  I can move from project to project like a busy bee, putzing and fiddling with the plants to my heart’s content.  Engaging in small yet valuable garden chores gives me a sense of purpose and focus.  My mind moves from spacey to spacious, and I find myself feeling calmer and more peaceful by the end of a productive stint.

The Pitta aspects of my personality are similarly soothed by being outside, but these qualities appreciate a more structured experience, and drive the activities of arranging, weeding, pruning, and edging.  This is exercise with an objective, and I enjoy using my body and muscles to such positive effect.  Pitta breathes a sigh of satisfaction to see a neat and cooperative garden, with flowers that yield color and fragrance to be harvested with the eyes time and time again.  Also gratifying to my Pitta is the produce garden, which efficiently supplies greens and veggies right to the table and stomach without the fuss of grocery stores or money exchange.  If there is one thing Pittas love, it’s FOOD!

Kapha’s pleasure is held in the sensual experience of gardening. Vigorous sweating that comes from digging, lifting, hauling, and cleaning hold the line for keeping Kapha’s channels clear and flowing, but it is beauty that makes the Kapha heart soar.  Kaphas love reveling in the senses, enjoying the color, fragrance, sound, and feel of garden work.  And not least is the taste of those efforts!  The Kapha in me surges at every Farmer’s market, nursery and roadside stand.  I’ll admit it, I love to buy plants and add that abundance to my already teeming patch of earth.  Growth is the province of Kapha, and a garden is nothing if not a place for exactly that!

In all, each dosha is happy outdoors, and take turns driving the garden project forward.  Vata imagines and dreams of the perfect scene, Pitta organizes and gathers the necessary details and ingredients, and Kapha sweats through the labor and implementation.  All three doshas can delight in the fruits of this work, and revel in a job well-accomplished.

My challenge now is to find a way to draw these healing activities indoors to provide much-needed amusement and purpose during colder weather.  Perhaps an indoor salad garden under grow lights?  What do you gardeners do during the winter months to keep your thumbs green, hearts happy, and doshas balanced?

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Highest First

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It was probably about 5 years ago when I was big into Deepak Chopra that I came across the concept of Highest First.  He has a book called “Creating Affluence: The A-to-Z Steps to a Richer Life”.  Though I found it to be gimmicky, going through each letter of the alphabet and espousing some nugget of wisdom, I was also impressed by his expansive definition of affluence.  It was in letter ‘B’ that I found the concept of Highest First:

“B stands for better and best.  Evolution implies getting better and better in every way with time, ultimately getting for ourselves the best of everything.  People with wealth consciousness settle only for the best.  This is also called the principle of highest first.  Go first class all the way, and the universe will respond by giving you the best.”

This was revolutionary for me, coming from the protestant probity of my upbringing.  According to the unspoken teachings of my family, I should humbly accept what is offered to me, and never strive to snatch more than I deserve.  Do I deserve to have the highest first in all things? I wondered.  Yes!  I determined. But deciding I was worth the best that life has to offer, just like those people with “wealth consciousness”, was not has hard as putting the principle into practice.  There was something in me that felt I should wait for my true desires, perhaps thinking that delayed gratification was the noble or honorable thing to do.  I secretly thought I wasn’t worth having the best.

Every day, we are faced with dozens of decisions for which we have to calculate the best response.  Sometimes it is not always clear what Highest First is.  It takes some getting used to.  There were times when I would lie to myself, or pretend that I wanted something else when I was scared to ask for Highest First.  But with time, the practice has grown with me and become a natural tool for discovering who I am, moment to moment, and decision to decision.  As of this moment, it has never led me astray.

Children

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Although I have been practicing an Ayurvedic lifestyle for over 10 years, I am still working out how to integrate this information into my family life.  I have two kids, ages 6 and 4.  They’re incredible, they drive me nuts, and they are an amazing backdrop to the drama that plays out through the doshas.

Sanza is the 6-year-old, and she is a Pitta-Kapha: fire, earth, water.  She is fiery, solid as a rock, and her will has the strength of a raging river.  The energy of fire is action, earth’s is stability, and water, emotion.  Pitta-Kapha is a GREAT constitution to have, because you have that solid kapha core, but the fire of Pitta doesn’t let it go to sloth.  Pitta-Kaphas can do ANYTHING they set their minds to.  However, these doshas hallmark the tendencies of anger and stubbornness when they are out of balance.  Yeah, she and I have had our share of “battle of will” moments in our household.

Sanza is a deep and heavy sleeper. (Kapha)  She takes her own sweet time with everything. (Kapha)  She has a very strong will and quick intelligence (Pitta).  She had childhood eczema (Pitta). She runs hot (Pitta).  She is creative (Vata) and interested in math (Pitta).  She can get lost in her own little world (Kapha-Vata).

My youngest, Marzden, is more of a Vata-Pitta guy. This is space, air, and fire;  in Ayurvedic terms, connection, movement, and action. He is awake and chirpy at 5:30 in the morning, directing me and my husband in elaborate roles, and building things with legos, blocks, tinker toys.  Marz is a chatterbox when he is in relaxed company (Vata), and can be very charismatic when he wants to be (Pitta).  He is into building things (Pitta) and loves to make up detailed stories about his creations (Vata).  He tends towards anxiety and constipation when he is out of balance (Vata). He is a light, even scanty, sleeper (Vata).

Just as my two kids can have a… shall we say, less-than-companionable time with each other, all three doshas within each of us aggravate each other.  No matter what our doshic makeup, when our Vata increases, we feel anxiety, insecurity, and fear. It’s like a blustery wind enters our hearts and we can’t settle.  We need to be soothed, assured, and taken care of during that time.  But that increased wind can act like a bellows to a fire- flaring it up.  The Pitta in us may react by heating our system, causing irritability, headaches, or indigestion.

In another scenario, Vata may be so high that subconsciously, a person feels ungrounded.  The body then responds by literally trying to create more of itself, resulting in symptoms like cysts, fibroids, or tumors, sinus congestion, and weight gain- all Kapha conditions.  This is how a person who is of Vata constitution may be overweight.  We call this Vata pushing Kapha.  Even the language we use evokes the image of naughty siblings trying to exert themselves!

Watching my kids and watching my doshas can sometimes feel like the same thing.  They can seriously have a will of their own!  But unlike my children, I can control how I balance my doshas through what I eat, my sleep times, and my choices throughout the day.  It is a welcome relief to know that I can exert my OWN will in the matter, and take steps to gain the outcome I want.  If only there were Ayurvedic remedies for getting your kids to clean their rooms!

Back to Center

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I gotta come clean with you if you are starting to get interested in Ayurveda:  it’s not sexy.  There is no wild roller coaster of emotions, no cliffhanger, or dramatic foreshadowing about how it’s all going to turn out.  Ayurveda starts off where “Happily Ever After” leaves us.  In other words, how does life turn out happily, not to mention ever after?

One of the main thrusts of Ayurveda is called the “Dinacharya”, or daily routine.  This routine is meant to be followed every day according to your prominent dosha, and entails what time you wake up, morning ablutions, times for meals, rest, work, socializing, and bedtime.  No matter what, you are meant to rise upon waking, and get to by by 10 pm.  (This is a huge struggle for many of my clients:  some cannot get out of bed before 8 am, some can’t get to bed before 2 am.)

It is hard to convince people that the dinacharya is the cornerstone to good health.  It’s not a “Lose 10 LBS In 1 Week!” kind of sensation, but rather employs a quiet, steady determination.  Consider the analogy:  even though you go to the dentist once or twice a year for a deep cleaning,  you still gotta brush your teeth every single day to have a healthy mouth.  Ayurveda works in the same way- the idea is that if you do many small things every day that are good for you, the result will be one big happy healthy life.  Each positive action you take is one turn of the mighty barge of your life in the right trajectory.

Ayurveda doesn’t just want you healthy NOW, it wants you healthy when you are in your 80s, and just starting to get an idea what life is supposed to be about.  The crux of it is that we are all striving for Enlightenment, but it’s going to take a heck of a long time- lifetimes even- to reach that goal.  Our only hope is to learn enough and expunge enough karma in each lifetime to give us a shot at getting off the wheel. To that end, we need to live to be quite old in each lifetime to get a leg up next time around.  It is common knowledge that we cannot truly embrace spirit when we are diseased or in pain.  Thus, we must keep the body strong, healthy, vital, vibrant.  How?  The Dinacharya. It’s not immediately obvious, but over time, the positive effects are undeniable.

Here is an example of a Dinacharya to keep Vata healthy and in balance:

Make sure you have a schedule for each day- preferably the same one.  Although Vatas love adventure and spontaneity, they really do best with a regular routine.  Wake early and do some gentle stretches or yoga, do some breathing or meditation, and then perform an abhyanga (oiling the body).  Have a warm, hearty breakfast, and then get engaged with the day.  If you can, take plenty of time for a full lunch, and then a stroll around the block.  Use the afternoon to be creative, social, and productive, but give yourself a break for tea in the afternoon to gather yourself.  Without this moment out of your busy day, you can easily crash and feel exhausted by 5-6, right about the time dinner should be prepared.  Dinner should be warm and light, but with plenty of protein.  Lentil soup and steamed greens comes to mind.  Wind up the evening with quiet music, reading, or gentle enjoyable hobbies, and get in bed by 10.  So nice, eh?  One client looked at me incredulously, saying, “Um, this is a schedule for summer camp.”  I know, nobody comes by this schedule easily, but it is something to strive for.

Pittas and Kaphas have approximately the same framework, with more or less vigorous exercise, amount of food, and evening activity level.  That’s it folks: the great secret to living a long and healthy life is moderation, sleep, and eating consciously.  Is it exciting, hip, or hot?  Ehh, not so much.  But when you take this dinacharya into your life, accompanied by the diet that works for your dosha, subtle and powerful health changes start to occur. By relinquishing a stressful and extreme life in the present we receive the greatest boon to any life:  youthfulness in old age.  Friends! when we are very old, we will be oh so very wise.  And what an incredible gift we will give to our future selves to arrive at that place full of joy, health, vibrancy, clarity, and peace.  This is the road map Ayurveda gives us.  Life is going to unfold so beautifully!

The Call of the Sirens

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I have been studying and practicing Ayurveda for a little over 12 years now, and I am only just starting to come to what I think is a profound realization: being out of balance can feel really good!  It’s not always the case, but each dosha has a quality that, when out of balance, wants to keep itself out of balance.  The literal translation of the Sanskrit word dosha is “that which contaminates”, so we never want to increase a dosha’s presence in our bodies, only balance it.  And let’s face it, sometimes it feels good to be bad. Not just in the way it can taste good to eat foods that we know are “bad” for us, but also because of the devil-may-care attitude that comes with such a flagrant action.

Here’s how it works for each dosha:

When Vata starts going high there may be a sense of euphoria or “irrational exuberance”:  the creative juices are flowing, productivity gets a shot of adrenaline, and bodily signs like hunger or fatigue start to wane.  We feel excited, inspired, energized- like we could keep going for days and days.  Man, it feels good!  We scoff at the mere mortals who have to eat three times a day, and opt instead for that cup of coffee which is enough to keep us going.  Project after project gets under way, and we zoom like a whirling dervish from one task to the next, leaving astounded colleagues or family in our wake.  This is when Vata is peaking and we feel exhilarated, confident, electrified, and yes, intoxicated at the possibilities of our own minds. Never mind that we can’t fall asleep until 4 in the morning.

Now imagine trying to convince this Vata-disturbed person to scale it back, tone it down, and keep it in check. Imagine telling yourself that as you are starting to spiral up.  Do you really want to hear that you are headed for a crash and you might want to moderate yourself a bit?   “Why do you want to crush my spirit?”, “But I’m doing all of this for YOU!” and , “Thanks, but I feel GREAT!” may be some of the responses.  *shaking my head sadly*  Oh Vatas, don’t you know where this is headed?  The Vata crash is legendary, and the higher you go, the harder you fall.  What does this crash look like?  Complete and utter exhaustion, depression, apathy, and a host of physical symptoms that I won’t go into.

Pittas take a different path to their own heights and depths, but it is equally alluring.  When Pitta starts creeping up, again, it can feel really good.  The mind is sharp and clear, jokes and banter just roll off the tongue.  Everyone around you is in stitches before you skip out of the room to your next appointment.  With Pitta, effectiveness and productivity are the name of the game, though it is more often significant progress on ONE project, or a breakthrough of insight for something that has been troubling you.

Everybody admires the staggering efficiency and intellect of the Pitta person, and that affords a sense of leverage and control. Subordinates become minions, trembling and cowering as they scramble to do your bidding.  Everyone wants a piece of this mighty force, and the feeling of power can be gripping.   Family members quiver at your approaching footsteps, and hastily scan the room to make sure all is in order.  It’s a heady mixture of righteousness and authority, and it’s a hard thing to walk away from.  But seriously, cool it Pittas!  Take it down a notch.  You’re not god’s gift to the world, and yes, even you are not 100% right all of the time.

The path to Kapha imbalance can be the most enticing of all.  The kapha seeks neither creativity nor power;  they are after comfort.  And who doesn’t want, nay, need that?  Who can argue with the right to sit on the couch and veg out after a long day at work?  And while I’m here I might just have a little bit of a snack, and watch just a little t.v.  And I might as well  just put my feet up and adjust the pillow for maximum comfort… and.. zzzzzzzzzzzz.  The problem is that life still has to go on, and things still need to get done.  In the immortal words of Lauryn Hill, “Every man wanna act like he’s exempt/  Need to get down on his knees and repent.”  Oh how I wish I had an exemption card for all of the demands of life!  But I’m willing to bet that just like me, all of you have someone in your life who is counting on you to pull your own weight.  So take your moment, and then up and at ’em Kaphas! This house isn’t gonna clean itself!

Ahh, now that I have had my little soap box, and revealed more about myself than you would want to know, take a minute to ask yourself where your tendencies lie.  The Siren’s call of each one is compelling and destructive.  It really is better in the long run to stay balanced.  I am guilty of all three, and have slowly been trying to catch myself in the early stages when I am going out of balance.  Sometimes it can’t be helped.  Life must be lived.  But luckily Ayurveda has lovely, systematic, and deliberate approaches to countering each one.

Eat THIS

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There are a million quotes out there about “You are what you eat” and “Your food is your medicine” and so forth, but have you ever stopped to think about what that really means?  Have you considered how the food that you take from your plate and into your mouth becomes your actual bodily tissues?  The truth is, eating is the most literal way that we take in the world.  We are literally eating the world each time we put food into our mouths.  What we choose to eat is the language we use to communicate with our own bodies.  How do those conversations go?  Yes a candy bar may taste delicious, and lord knows I love a good candy bar, but what is the silent message we are sending to our bodies?  We show a lot of preferential treatment to the small surface area of the tongue, letting IT decide which tastes and foods we are going to eat.  But what about the rest of our body?  Is it possible that all of our other organs might be desperately praying, “Please, god, let her eat a beet!”?

Who Are You?

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This is the central question in Ayurveda.  Okay, honestly, when isn’t this the central question?  But in this case, we are looking for an actual answer, and the answer is in the elements.  As told by the ancient sages, everything in the world is made up of five elements:  space, air, fire, water, and earth.  And these are in order of their density.  We combine these elements in three different ways, called doshas, to understand how energy moves in the world, according to the laws of nature.

When we combine space and air, we get wind- air moving through space.  We call this combination Vata dosha, and it’s qualities are light, cold, clear, and rough.  Imagine a frosty wind, blowing across the rough, icy plains of the tundra- this is a picture  of a Vata landscape.  Our next combo is fire and water, the dosha we call Pitta.  This landscape would be a rainforest:  hot, dripping, muggy.  Pitta dosha is hot, sharp, and has a sort of unctuous quality, like melted wax.  This heat has a transformative effect, the way we transform our food by cooking or digesting it.  The last blend is the mixture of earth and water, and we call this Kapha dosha.  Kapha is cool, soft, and heavy.  Imagine for this dosha a vast redwood forest, with huge thick trunks and a canopy so high and dense the temperature stays cool and lush even in the heat of summer.  Kapha has strength, structure, and lubrication.

For each of us, the energies of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha play an important role.  We have form and structure in our tissues (Kapha), we metabolize and assimilate food, thoughts, emotions (Pitta), and we enjoy the movement of fluids, nutrients, and thoughts through the spaces inside us (Vata).  But each one of us has a difference preponderance of these elements, and it leads to differences in our bodies, personalities, and imbalances.

Okay, this is all well and good, but where does the YOU come in?  Well, just as we find all of these elements in the world, we also have all of them in our bodies, in different proportions.  Are you creative, exuberant, scattered, and expressive?  Do you run around a lot and have a million things going on?  Do you get easily stressed out?  Then you probably have some Vata in you.  Are you decisive, and organized, charismatic and generous?  Do you get totally pissed off at all “those idiot drivers” out there?  We’re gonna go with Pitta for you.  Are you sentimental, sensual, and incredibly kind?  Do you go out of your way to do nice things for your friends, family, and colleagues?  Do you have a rough time getting up in the morning or maybe have a killer sweet tooth?  That’s going to be the Kapha club for you.  Do you have a combination of all or some of these traits?

Most people have mainly one or two doshas that are prominent, ie., Vata-Pitta, Pitta-Kapha, or Vata-Kapha.  Some folks have all three doshas in more or less equal proportions, and we call them Tridoshic.  You can take your own dosha test HERE, and begin to get to know who you are in an entirely new way.