Prakriti, Vikruti, and the Ayurvedic Clock

This article is the fourth in a series leading us into the Ayurveda Immersion at Yoga Center of Columbia beginning in January.

Prakriti

Prakriti on the one hand means “Nature, She who is the first creation.” (Svoboda, Prakriti, Your Ayurvedic Constitution, p. 27)  It also refers to your innate physical constitution, your personal metabolic pattern, or in other words your dosha signature.  You may recall kapha, pitta, and vata from our first post.   Your unique constitution depends upon many factors — some of them including genetics, your mother’s health habits during pregnancy, or any abnormal events that may have occurred surrounding your birth.  The amount of each dosha present within you offers the framework for your life experience.  At birth you had certain characteristics that define you, your prakriti, and that tends to not change throughout your lifetime.

There are eight different body constitutions according to ayurveda: kapha, pitta, vata, kapha-pitta, kapha-vata, pitta-vata, vata, and the eighth is much more rare, it is called tridoshic and refers to when kapha-pitta-vata are all of equal amounts.  Everyone has one or more doshas predominant at the time of birth, but as life unfolds, it is possible and even likely that one or more of the doshas will go out of balance.  In other words there may be accumulations or deficiencies of the different qualities.

A common misunderstanding is that when we attempt to bring ourselves back into balance, that means we want to maintain kapha, pitta, and vata in equal amounts within the body-mind structure.  This is not true.  Balance means that kapha, pitta, and vata are restored to your unique prakritic level.

Vikruti

There are many tests you may take to determine your constitution.  You may find examples here and here.  But the question really is, what is currently out of balance within me?  The current state of your health is your Vikruti.  You may be a Pitta-Vata but lately you have been incredibly hangry and have no patience with your family.  Sounds like your pitta is a little excessive.  To restore balance, remember the principle of “like increases like and opposites balance,” and you might want to take up swimming for example, an activity that has a cooling quality.  You might add more cooling foods and herbs to your diet like melons, cucumber, or cilantro.  Or, you may be a straight-up Vata, but you have a lot of congestion in your sinuses and lungs.  In that case, Kapha is out of balance and so you might choose to add more warming foods and spices like cayenne pepper to your diet to help decrease the excess earthy-watery mucous.

Ayurveda suggests gentle ways to deal with imbalances before they get out of control and turn in to disease.  Changing foods or exercise habits to meet your needs are excellent places to begin.  There are many ways to look at vikruti, a current imbalance, and to restore your doshas back to your prakritic level.  This is a longer discussion, no doubt.

Doshas may be in or out of balance based on other factors too.  The time of day, the season of the year, the stage of life, all of these have an effect on the doshas as well.

Ayurvedic Clock

In Ayurveda, 10, 2, and 6 are important transitions to the day, AM or PM.  6 0’clock is a little more fluid, one might refer to that time as sunrise or sunset instead.  From 6am (sunrise) to 10am and also 6pm (sunset) to 10pm, the elements of earth and water, Kapha dosha, are predominant.  This is the time of the day that we might feel more loving, more grounded, or more sleepy for example.  It is a good idea to get to bed by 10pm to ride the coattails of Kapha’s sleepiness into a delightful slumber.

10am to 2pm and 10pm to 2am are fire and water predominant, Pitta dosha.  Therefore, lunchtime is ideal for your biggest meal of the day, when the outer fire, the sun shines brightest, our inner fire is most ready to digest the foods we eat.  This might also account for the desire for a midnight snack.  However, at night when we are sleeping is really the best time to digest not only excess food already consumed previously during the day but also our daily sense impressions, so better to be sleeping from 10pm to 2am.  Says your mother.  In a loving way.

2am to 6am and 2pm to 6pm are air and space predominant, related to Vata dosha.  This is a lighter, drier, more mobile time of the day.  It is also a more subtle time.  In the morning before or around sunrise is an excellent time for meditation or spiritual practice.  Likewise at sunset.  If you can at least arise out of bed by sunrise, quite often you’ll notice a “spring in your step” or just a sense of being awake and alert in a calm manner, as opposed to when you sleep in until the kapha time of day and then the rest of the day you feel logy and sluggish.  Says your mother.  In a loving way.  But there is a reason for it, see?

The seasons also correspond to the doshas.  In Ayurveda, we think of the year as containing three seasons.  Kapha occurs in late winter and early spring when it is cold and wet outside.  Pitta is related to summer, no question; and Vata is related to autumn and early winter when things are drying out and turning cool again.  So you might be a Pitta who gets acid indigestion, but in winter a few hotter, spicier foods may be available to you without discomfort.  You might be a Kapha, but in summertime when it is hot outside, having some ice cream may be good for you.

Time of life corresponds to the doshas as well.  From birth to puberty, Kapha is predominant.  Think of how babies are chubby and full of love.  At puberty, a bit of hormonal fire kicks in and Pitta arises. From the teen years to middle age is when we study hard, find a fulfilling career, and start a family.  These are all very active, busy activities.  Pitta is the one who is motivated to get things done.  Middle age to end of life is associated with Vata.  In Ayurveda there is a saying that the process of aging is the process of drying out.  This is why there are so many practices that involve oils.  Sesame oil swishing in the mouth, self-massage with a doshic balancing oil, or even shirodhara, the process of dripping warm oil on the eyebrow center for relaxation and purification.  Oil counters the drying out and keeps one looking young and beautiful.  (with radiant skin!)  😉

So when we talk about Ayurveda being the study of aligning with Nature’s rhythms, these are some ways to be aware of Her rhythm.  This is a long and complex discussion, but I think a fun one because it opens up so many possibilities for self care.  To me, it is extremely fulfilling to flow with the rhythm of Nature, and in studying Ayurveda we learn how to do that.  When you feel balanced and healthy, you make the world a more balanced and healthy place.  We all owe that to ourselves!!!

In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on nature’s rhythms, prakriti, vikruti, and the ayurvedic clock.  The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better.  If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!

Agni and Ama

This article is the third in a series leading us into the Ayurveda Immersion at Yoga Center of Columbia beginning in January.

If the subtle essences of prana, tejas, and ojas are the reward for living a healthy lifestyle, just how do we increase these qualities in our lives?

AGNI  

“It is the inextinguishable flame, the witness behind all our states of consciousness, the ever-wakeful seer.” (Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda, p.105-6)

While there are specific ways to encourage more prana, tejas, and ojas, it all comes down to fire.  Agni in Sanskrit means fire, and Hinduism deifies Agni into an anthropomorphic form because they consider it that important.  Fire metabolizes, fire changes, fire transforms.  It is the transforming force of the universe.  It is not simply fire as we know it, but fire with all of its potential — heat, light, electricity.

The yogis tell us that this divine fire is the origin of all life and the impulse to love.  They say it is the “power of the soul that motivates us from within.” (Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda, p.105)  Without fire there would be no warmth to cook our food nor warmth with which to hug and offer love.  According to Ayurveda, there are over 40 different types of fire in the body.  A few examples would be the digestive fire that transforms food into nutrients; the fire of awareness that helps us understand the difference between what is real and meaningful and what is not; the fire that affects body heat and fever when we are fighting off illness; there is even an agni representing cellular metabolism and functioning.

Cue the happy music:  Agni is the force necessary for evolution to occur.  This concept of fire in Ayurveda represents how the elements combine and convert into doshas which are refined into the subtle essences.  The yogis advise us to cultivate balanced agni whenever and wherever possible.

Types of Agni Related to Digestion

Jatharagni is located in the stomach and duodenum.  This is the one responsible for digestion.  There are four types:

  1. Samagni – a balanced digestive fire; this is the ideal, when food is digested and absorbed well; one will have a good appetite for nutritious food and very little gas, colic, or constipation
  2. Tikshnagni – sharp or excessive digestive fire; in this case one may develop heart burn, diarrhea, or a host of other things involved with hyperacidity of the stomach
  3. Mandagni – weak digestive fire; one may have a poor appetite, feel sluggish, or have a tendency toward weight gain
  4. Vishamagni – variable digestive fire; there are alternating cycles of strong appetite and loss of appetite; one may be affected by gas, constipation, diarrhea, or a host of other things

We can use food, herbs, and spices to help regulate jatharagni.  If one has a predominantly earth-water constitution of Kapha, Ayurveda suggests this person eat lighter drier foods like leafy greens and hotter spices like ginger or cayenne pepper to balance that.  If one has the predominantly fire-water constitution of Pitta, she should consume more cooling foods like cucumbers, sweet melons, cilantro, or turmeric.  Likewise if one has a predominantly air-space constitution of Vata, then he would favor foods with more earth element in them like root vegetables, avocado, or coconut.  The principle of “opposites balance” is at play here.

When agni is balanced, one will experience nourishment, proper energy level, contentment, regular elimination, strong immunity, a clear radiant complexion, excellent circulation, and overall strength and vitality.  Who would not want to cultivate proper agni?

But, what happens if agni is weak and food is not digested properly?

AMA

Cue the scary music here:  Ama is the Sanskrit word for undigested food, sense impressions, thoughts, and actions; it is a toxic, sticky sludge that forms in the body and creates cloudiness, confusion, and excess weight.  Ama can lead to fatigue and a feeling of heaviness.  It may induce indigestion, bad breath, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and mental confusion.  When ama is present, one might experience excessive mucous production, clammy skin, loss of appetite, hypertension, diabetes, or obesity.

So, it really does pay to support agni because agni is the fire that burns away impurities; it helps rid the body of ama or excess gunk.  It enhances our experience of the subtle essences of prana, tejas, and ojas which we now know creates the experiences of creativity, inner radiance, peacefulness, contentment, and joy.  Balanced agni is our friend in good health.  Cue the fireworks!

In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on how to cultivate agni and reduce ama.  The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better.  If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!

The Subtle Essences

This article is the second in a series leading us into the Ayurveda Immersion at Yoga Center of Columbia beginning in January.

Last week we talked about the three doshas or body constitutions, the six tastes known as sat rasa, and the principle of how “like increases like and opposites balance each other.”  This week we will discuss what happens when the body-mind structure is in balance.

According to ayurveda, there are three subtle essences that arise within the body from the doshas.

Ojas

Kapha is the constitution related to water and earth.  When kapha is out of balance, one may feel heaviness, sadness, or depression; one may be sluggish, lethargic or carry excess weight.  When kapha is in balance, a person feels love and compassion for oneself and the world, she feels at peace and in harmony with herself and those around her.  Ojas arises.

Ojas is the first of the subtle essences.  Ojas is the lubricating part of the body that nourishes all of the tissues, such as blood, lymph, muscles, and bones.  It is the stuff responsible for a strong immune system, vigor, longevity, and overall well being of an individual.  We cannot have ojas without balanced kapha dosha.  When ojas is present, one has a radiant complexion, youthfulness, cheerfulness, a high threshold for stress, and mental clarity.  If ojas is weak or low, one may be timid, insecure, have poor appetite, or have feelings of worthlessness.

A few ways to protect ojas would be to eat a balanced meal which, according to ayurveda, contains all of the six tastes as discussed last week.  Do not rush your meal or eat on the go in the car or on the run.  In other words, sit and enjoy your meal, taste your food and keep good company when you eat.  Nourishing your mind through meditation or quiet walks in nature also protects and increases ojas.  There are more ways to support ojas, but this is a good start.

Tejas

Tejas is the second of the subtle essences.  Tejas is the inner radiance that shines in the luster of one’s eyes and the glow of one’s skin.  Tejas brings clarity to the mind, will-power, courage and fearlessness to one’s demeanor.  It is a type of fire that transforms food into nutrients the body can use and it transforms sensory experiences into knowledge and even wisdom.   One cannot have tejas without balanced pitta dosha.

Pitta dosha is the constitution related to fire and secondarily water.  When pitta is out of balance, one may feel sharp emotions like anger, jealousy, irritation, frustration.  In the extreme, pitta becomes the “type A” personality.  When pitta is in balance, one has energy to accomplish things, one has a healthy sense of competition, and there is a warmth to one’s personality that is highly attractive.

Keeping pitta in balance will stoke the subtle fire of tejas in a healthy way.  Avoid excessive talking about menial things or gossip to strengthen tejas.  A regular meditation practice or even chanting mantras will keep the inner radiance shining brightly.  Long slow deep breathing and mindful awareness are also helpful.

Prana

The third of the vital essences arises from Vata dosha.  It is known as prana.  Vata dosha forms from the elements of air and space so a person with a vata dominant constitution will have qualities of lightness, mobility, tendency toward dryness, and plenty of creativity.  Vata dosha is the primary biological force because it is the one that creates and supports movement.  Without movement of any fashion there is no life.  The key to managing all doshas and subtle essences is to care for vata.

When vata is out of balance, one may feel mentally scattered or ungrounded; one may be anxious, nervous, or fearful; and one’s behavior may be erratic.  When vata is in balance, one is creative and open-minded; one is a powerful speaker with an enthusiastic personality and the ability to understand a broad range of topics quickly.  When vata is in balance, prana is unblocked and flows freely.

Prana moves in five directions in the body: downward and inward like an inhalation, downward and outward like an exhalation, metabolizing or support during transformation, upward and outward as in speech, and circulating throughout the entire body-mind structure.  When prana is unblocked and flows freely, one has abundant vitality and is a source of inspiration.

A few suggestions to keep vata in balance are to keep a regular schedule for your daily routine: wake at the same time every day, eat meals at the same time, and go to bed at the same time every day.  This sets up a rhythm for life so one’s body-mind knows what to expect and even prepares for food or sleep so that one may gain more nourishment from those experiences.  Turning off all electronics, including television and phone, one hour before bedtime to have a more sound sleep is another way; one could use that time for reading, quiet contemplation, or meditation.  Third but not lastly, increasing one’s intake of root vegetables in the diet may have a grounding, soothing effect on one’s system to help balance vata.

Conclusion

So you can see that cultivating the subtle essences can be a very positive force in one’s life.  Ayurveda practice offers techniques to enhance ojas, tejas, and prana to restore balance in one’s life but also to live life fully and to thrive.

In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on how to cultivate the subtle essences.  The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better.  If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!

 

Why Study Ayurveda?

This article is the first in a series leading us into the Ayurveda Immersion at Yoga Center of Columbia beginning in January.

The word Ayurveda means the knowledge of life.  Ayur means life or vital power, and Veda means knowledge or science.  It offers a way of approaching life that encourages good health and well-being.  I think of it as a handbook for living well.  Ayurveda is considered a sister-practice of yoga because they both developed around the same time, several thousand years ago, in the same place, India.  Yoga and other meditative practices are a part of Ayurveda, and there is so much more.

So, how does it work?  In Ayurveda, one tries to align oneself with the rhythms of nature, and nature consists of five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space.  These elements are the stuff of the universe and therefore are within our own bodies as well as in animals, plants, and everything we experience in life.  Our senses perceive these elements in different forms, we smell the earth, we taste with liquids, we feel warmth, we see color, and we hear vibration.  Ayurveda wants to find balance in all that we perceive, think, and do.

If all things are made of these five elements, then so are our bodies.  Earth represents the density of our bones, and any physical tangible part of us that we can see, touch, and smell.  Water is in the fluids of our bodies, blood, lymph, saliva, sexual fluid, gastric juices.  Fire is found in body heat, and in the act of processing and digestion.  Gastric juices are fluid but they also contain acids which are a type of fire that help us digest food.  There are many types of fire, called agni, within the body, and each one is responsible for some type of processing or transformation.  Think: once we take in some kind of sensory information, then we have to make sense of it, the making sense is the processing.  Of course we breathe air and it provides vital life force for us to live — one can go weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air.  And space is more ephemeral, it is more difficult to recognize, but space exists, and if we did not have space we would not be here.

In our bodies, these five elements dance together in different ways and each of us has one or two predominant elements that provide our constitutional make-up.  There are three main constitutions that arise and they may combine in seven different ways to describe one’s particular essence and predilections.  The three main constitutions are known as doshas.  Dosha literally translates as “that which darkens,” or even “defect,” but this is referring specifically to the qualifying of the infinite, universal stuff that according to yoga is our True Nature.  So, we all come from this infinite, expansive, universal consciousness, but Consciousness, or Light, chooses to embody, and it does so through the elements, appearing in the manifest world by way of the doshas, that which darkens the Infinite Light, so to speak.  Here they are:

Kapha (kahp’-ha) – predominantly water and earth; kapha is nourishing, soft, related to the emotion of love, and a kapha person is someone you want to hug; some of its qualities include heaviness, coldness, tenderness, and slowness

Pitta (pit’-ta) – predominantly fire and water; pitta is a driving force that makes us competitive and compels us to do more, a pitta person gets things done; pitta metabolizes, and some of its qualities include hotness, moistness, sharpness, and of a spreading nature

Vata (vah’-tah) – predominantly air and space elements; vata is highly mobile, all movement in the body is because of vata, creativity is associated with this dosha; some of its qualities include dryness, lightness, coldness, and volatility

There are also subtle essences of these doshas.  When a person is in balance, a more subtle form of these qualities or doshas arise, and that is typically when one feels healthy, vital, and connected to others in community.  Stay tuned for another blog post on the subtle essences.

Life is centrifugal – as we live and grow, things tend to expand and change, nothing stays the same.  We gain more life experiences and therefore (hopefully) we gain wisdom.  Inevitably, life circumstances will pull us out of balance.  Ayurveda looks at the five elements and how they are found in nature and offers ways to maintain balance within your own constitution.  One of the ways it does this is by identifying six tastes.  I will list them here:

Sweet – made of earth and water; builds bodily tissues; examples include of course sugar and honey, but sweet taste is also found in butter, cream, grains like wheat and rice, some beans and fruits like mangos or bananas

Salty – made of water and fire; builds bodily tissues; examples will include salt itself, sea salt, rock salt, and also sea vegetables like seaweed and kelp; foods like nuts, chips, and pickles have plenty of salt added to them also

Sour – made of earth and fire; builds bodily tissues; sour taste is found in citrus fruits like lemon and lime; sour milk products like yogurt, cheese, and sour cream; and fermented foods like sauerkraut, vinegar, wine, and soy sauce

Bitter – made of air and space; depletes bodily tissues; examples of foods with bitter taste are leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, and cabbage; herbs and spices like turmeric, fenugreek, and dandelion root; and coffee

Pungent – made of air and fire; depletes bodily tissues; pungent taste makes food spicy — garlic, onion, and chili peppers for example and also spices like black pepper, ginger, and cumin

Astringent – made of earth and air; depletes bodily tissues; this taste is more difficult to discern, but think of kidney, black, or navy beans, or lentils; vegetables like artichoke, broccoli, cauliflower, and turnips; and grains like rye or quinoa

So the principle in Ayurveda is that “Like increases like and opposites balance each other.”  When you have too much fire element within you, which might manifest as heartburn, then back off of the fiery tastes.  Eat more cooling foods like sweet juicy melon or leafy green vegetables.  If you feel too ungrounded or your mind is spacey or racing, eat more root vegetables.  This is an over-simplification but the examples do hold.

We can work with foods, herbs, and spices in Ayurveda to restore balance, but there are other daily practices that also help to bring equanimity too.  In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on many of these practices.  The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better.  If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!

22 Hearts and 44 Eyes

This is the third year that Rimmi Singh, her sister Pammi, and I have taken a group of yogi travelers, yatri, to India.  Each time the trip is to somewhat different places, and this time 22 of us had an amazing tour of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  South India is quite different from north India in terms of the food, spices, language, and landscape.  Perhaps there is a slight difference in the people too, as a whole.  In the whole of the subcontinent, there is just a mind-boggling amount of variety in everyday life as the sacred sits right next to the mundane which sits right next to riches which sits right next to poverty.  It is all mixed up in a colorful stew.  Quite often when one thinks of India, I believe it is common to first think of the third world and poverty, but what we experienced was a great depth of culture and progressive ideas.

Pondicherry

This city has a heavily French influence as it was founded in 1674 by the French East India Company.  It is home to Auroville of Sri Aurobindo fame and the famous flower market.  All of India seems to be covered in flower petals; they seem to always be blossoming and are ever fragrant, and the flower market here begins early in the morning to avoid the midday heat.  It is more like a wholesale place, where people come to buy in bulk and then sew the flowers up into beautiful garlands to wear or offer at the many temples.  It stands in the midst of fish sellers and vegetable sellers and there is an amazing amount of activity even before 7am.

Sri Aurobindo is a famous guru at the turn of the 20th century who had a great influence on Indian and even American culture based on his teachings and the books that he wrote.  The Mother was also quite prevalent as she was his spiritual equal who helped found the Auroville ashram.  About Auroville:

Auroville (City of Dawn) is an ‘experimental’ township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India near Puducherry in South India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Richard (since her definitive settling in India called ‘[The] Mother’) and designed by architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.

Some words from the Mother:

Be courageous, enduring, and vigilant and above all, be sincere, with perfect honesty. Then you will be able to face all difficulties.

The Ganesha Temple in Pondi was our first elephant sighting, the first of several more.  Here I am receiving a blessing from Lakshmi.

Our hotel was right on the Bay of Bengal and I swear people were up all night long walking the promenade, feeding the cows and dogs, and chanting by the sea.

Chidambaram

I visited here with Douglas Brooks just a few weeks previous, and this is my third time to this temple.  It is the Nataraja Temple, Shiva in his form as Lord of the Dance.  Each time I arrive here, it feels like home.  Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the temple, so memories will have to do, but I will say that this temple, like many in south India, is arranged in such a way so that when you step inside its walls, it is as though you are stepping into your own Self.  The concentric circles of walls lead you through the layers, koshas, of your own mind until you get to the inner sanctum, where Nataraja resides, and where your innermost Self resides.

At most temples, there is a “flagpole” outside of the main sanctum, sometimes it is brass or wood, sometimes it is covered in gold.  There is no flag on top, but the pole itself is often ornately carved.  It rises higher than the roof or if indoors, usually goes through the ceiling.  This post represents your spine and the spiritual energy, kundalini shakti, held within it.  To me, just gazing at the pole brings a sense of power.  It is taller than the ceiling to represent the fact that the kundalini energy or power rises up from the base of the spine to the crown of your head, which leads the yogi into a more expansive state of awareness.

We experienced a sacred abishekam ritual with the crystal lingam, “the formless form of Shiva,” in which the priests known as dikshitars would pour many substances like milk, yogurt, ghee, sandalwood paste, rice, honey, sometimes even flower petals, over the lingam, washing it clean after each substance.  It is a strange practice, but when you observe it, it is quite evocative, you cannot help but feel something inside.  This ritual is concluded with an aarti, the waving of light from a candle flame, around a ruby Nataraja statue.  This little statue I’m guessing is about a foot high, and it is pure ruby, so when they shine the light behind it, it glows a brilliant red and takes my breath away.

As my friend Bharati, who assisted us at the temple, said:  there are three main parts to Tamil culture, wearing a sari is sacred for women, also the bindi placed on the third eye, and jasmine flowers strung in one’s hair.  There is nothing like the smell of jasmine in your hair in south India.

Tanjore

We had a brief stay at Svatma Hotel.  This place is a must stay because it is a converted Brahmin home that is so elegant and completely welcoming.  The staff meets your every need, and one may experience yogic rituals like morning chanting and yoga, even dance performances in the evenings.  My good friends Michael and Karen Levin treated me to a sound immersion — in the spa, there is an entire room dedicated to creating different sounds and tones so that one might bathe in the vibrations of gongs, chimes, a thunder-making instrument, a table that has harp strings underneath the bed that one lies upon while someone plucks the strings and the vibrations move through your entire being.  It is a complete vibrational experience that left me feeling refreshed and cleansed.

We saw a fascinating and beautiful traditional Indian dancer perform too.

Madurai

In Madurai we visited the Meenakshi Temple.  This little lady’s claim to fame is that she was born with three breasts.  As a princess, her father the king was so very proud of her, and there was an oracle that said when she met her match, her mate for life, that the third breast would disappear.  As luck would have it, the only match for her was the great lord himself, Shiva.  This temple and the Chidambaram temple have some ethereal connection for this reason.  A god is never far from a goddess.

As with many south Indian temples, this one owns an elephant.  She greets pilgrims and offers blessings, and each morning, her keepers take her out for a walk around the town.  Tamil people love their elephants, and for six weeks out of the year she goes on “vacation” to an elephant preserve.  We all have to blow off a little stress once in a while.

At any temple, there is a daily schedule.  The priests wake the gods in the morning, they bathe them, they clothe and feed them, and in the evening, they get put to bed.  A few of us took part in this night ceremony.  First, only Hindus are allowed in the main inner sanctum, so Bela was the only one of our small group to enter there to receive darshan.  But when she emerged from the sight of Meenakshi, she was so radiant, we received her darshan by osmosis.  As she rejoined us then we walked over to the Shiva shrine where the night ceremony begins.  The priests take out a Shivalingam from this sanctum and carry it over to the opening of Meenakshi’s sanctum, where her shoes are brought out as a symbol of her whole self.  The lingam and the shoes mingle side by side for a few moments as the priests chant, and then the lingam and shoes are put to bed.  Again, such an odd thing to do, but at the same time there is a visceral sense that something deeper is happening.  Inner spiritual structure is reorganizing somehow.  As Douglas Brooks puts it, either grown men are playing with dolls here or something visceral and deep is going on.  In reality, it is both.

Thekkady, Periyar National Park

Spice Village is a progressive property that does not allow any plastic on the premises.  The hotel is a series of cottages spread out over many acres on a mountain in the Western Ghat range.  Did I mention most of this trip has been in the 90-100° range?  This was the coolest portion of our trip.

Naturalists provide nature and bird walks, they filter their own water and make paper here.  The bags to hold receipts or souvenirs from the store are made of newsprint being reused.  They compost in several different ways and have a beautiful garden from which they use the food in their restaurants.  It is so close to nature, there are guinea fowl that roam freely on the property and only occasionally get eaten by the monkeys.  And so many birds!  After the busy-ness of the cities in Tamil Nadu, this was a great time to unwind.

Upon leaving Spice Village, we stopped at a tea plantation school.  This may have been one of the most moving parts of our trip as the elementary age children were overjoyed to see us.  We brought pencils, notepads, erasers, pens, stickers, and candy to the kids and everyone wanted to get their pictures taken.  We sang songs together and treated the kids to ice cream dessert after lunch that day.  It was truly precious.  Being around the kids brought thoughts of my sister in North Carolina, who daily works with children facing great challenges regarding their ability to learn,  homelife, and poverty.  These children at least have homes, food, and schooling, but poverty is there, and they have unique challenges due to culture and climate too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Kumarakom, Vembanad Lake

Here we stayed at the largest lake in Kerala, known as Vembanad and famous for its houseboats.  Seeing these things on the water made me think of some creature from the 80s television program Fraggle Rock.  We had a whole day tour on a house boat which was really wonderful.  The crew fed us lunch and after lunch our guide, Raj, set up his playlist, which of course was American golden oldies type music and the main deck of the houseboat became a dance floor.  His comment to me was unforgettable, “this is the true yoga, when people are happy and laughing and dancing.”

Kay, tour guide Raj, and Liz setting off on a three hour tour

We stayed at Coconut Lagoon, which is another CGH Earth property like Spice Village, so no plastic anywhere.  I haven’t mentioned the food yet — I will never tire of dosa or idly and sambar.  Delicious.  You have to take a boat to get to the property, and there are canals throughout the property to help manage the landscape, which is filled with flowers and fruit trees and butterflies.  The canals gave me a strong memory of growing up with my grandparents in the summers in South Bethany Beach Delaware the way the canals were in the backyards of the beach houses and you could boat around and see people’s intimate backyard lives or head to the bay to enjoy nature.  And waterskiing.  These memories are some that seemed long gone and therefore gave me a greater sense of integration with my life, connecting past to present.

There is an Ayurvedic spa here with two doctors on hand to treat your every need based on your ayurvedic constitution and life habits.  And plenty of swings for relaxing and watching the sunset over the lake.  The meditation teacher here, Naveed, seemed to be trained in the Shivananda style, I never asked him but his practices leaned that way.  Morning yoga and evening meditation daily was a real treat.

 

Cochin

Finally, we landed at the Taj Malabar resort in Cochin or Kochi, two names for the same place.  We were right on the water across from a huge port.  Again, a memory of childhood and family, in particular my brother who I am so proud of as he is now Chief Engineer for the Virginia Port Authority and works at a location just like this one.  Seeing the whale of a huge ship entering the inland waterway and docking at the port and watching the cranes add to or remove cargo was like a connection across the planet to family.

Some of our group attended a Kathakali Dance performance.  This ancient technique involves only men, and lots of make-up.  One of the dancers demonstrated the different emotions used in Indian cultural dances; the subtle control of his facial muscles is like I’ve never seen.  Kathakali uses mudras, hand or even body gestures, to tell a story, in the same way Classical Indian Dance does, but it certainly has its unique south-Indian flavor.

Chinese fishing nets are an amazing sight at the waterside.  Made of wood and hand-tied ropes, this ancient fishing practice stands side-by-side to modern buildings and technology of the city.  Case in point: the Cochin airport is the first in the world to be 100% solar powered.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Twenty two intrepid yoga yatri, travelers.  Twenty two hearts and forty four eyes from which to experience this vast and rich culture and country.  And each moment leads me back to my new family of these travelers, my lifetime family at home, and my own Self.

Rimmi, Kathy, and me
Ganesh’s brother
At Taj Madurai
Love me some elephant
Working lady
Our tour guide Raj
Brihadeshwara Temple
Lady Police

Chidambaram musicians

Yes, we did do yoga

Refreshing Summertime Cooler

During summer, the sun is at its highest, the days are long, the air is hot and humid (in our area).  We can love this time for the outdoor opportunities to enjoy the beauty of nature, but it may also lead us to overheat.  Ayurveda, yoga’s sister practice, offers tips to keep cool.  

Wear light, comfortable clothing, do not go out in direct sun in midday, or if you do, wear a hat to cover your head and shade your eyes, enjoy activities involving water — swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking — and try this yummy lassi!  Lassi is a yogurt-drink inspired by Indian cooking.  Yogurt has beneficial enzymes to aid your digestion, keep you cool, and it pairs well with so many flavors.  This recipe is a summertime crowd pleaser.

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Mint and Cinnamon Lassi
5 cups filtered water
1 cup organic plain yogurt
¾ cup raw organic sugar or sucanat
40 fresh mint leaves
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

Put the water, yogurt, sugar, mint leaves, and cinnamon in a blender and blend until frothy. Pour into tall glasses and garnish each serving with a dusting of cinnamon powder.
(From Eat, Taste, Heal)
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Pitta is the ayurvedic constitution made from the elements fire and secondarily water. Summer is the fiery time of year, and 10am – 2pm is the fiery time of day. When we get overheated, we might experience that as heartburn, red eyes, skin rashes, irritability or anger. If any of these symptoms are occurring for you, consider sipping this Mint and Cinnamon Lassi, or even taking a cool bath with several drops of rose essential oil.

In ayurveda, the principle is that opposites balance each other. If there is too much fire, apply something cooling and soothing. In that way, heat dissipates and you will find less discomfort during the hot, dog days. If you would like a consultation regarding your constitution and appropriate habits to keep you in balance, please contact me!

The Depth of Great Taste

Veggie KormaLast night we just finished season 4 of Mad Men. SPOILER ALERT! It ends with Don Draper getting engaged to his secretary and he has to break up with Dr. Faye. Dr. Faye is quite distraught on the phone with him and her comment to Don was to make sure that the secretary knows that he only likes the beginnings of things. Yes, we are playing catch up on episodes, but thank you very much Netflix.

Who doesn’t like the beginnings of things? Springtime, learning about the other person in a new relationship, your first stand-up paddleboard yoga class. The promise of adventure awaits. It’s like that with food too… the first thing you notice is how it tastes. Smell and presentation play an important role as does the setting in which you eat. Have you noticed when you eat in a relaxed setting, everything just tastes better? When you are comfortable, not in a rush, and food looks, smells, and tastes delicious, your digestion is much better too.

In my last post we discussed the beginnings of digestion — taste. The sat rasa, the concept of six tastes, is an important component of Ayurveda and is helpful in encouraging good digestion too. But if we only care about beginnings, that is superficial and not sustainable over the long term. Food has a taste, but as it moves through your system, it also has a virya, potent energy, and a vipaka, post-digestive effect. Both are important components to good health.

Virya
SUP headstand
Virya means energy, strength, potency, or power. After food is chewed well and swallowed, it moves to your stomach and small intestine. What does the energy from the food feel like in your body then? Generally, it can be described using pairs of opposites, in particular hot-cold, heavy-light, oily-dry, and soft-sharp. Regarding virya, hot and cold will be the dominant pair. You may have a tangible experience or even intuitively be able to guess what sort of effect certain foods will have inside you. For example, sweet foods generally have a cooling quality which would pacify pitta dosha but perhaps aggravate kapha dosha. Pungent foods generally have a heating energy that can improve digestive fire if that happens to be only smoldering inside you.

There are exceptions to these. Honey and molasses are sweet, but they both have a heating effect. Raw sugar, maple syrup, or brown rice syrup are cooling sweeteners. Limes are sour and sour taste is usually heating, but limes have a cooling energy to them.

A normal amount of food with a heating virya generally promotes metabolic activity, therefore it increases your metabolism and body temperature, enhances circulation, and can promote strong agni and digestion. Too much heating virya can cause “burn-out” or even acid indigestion, hypoglycemia, and inflammation.

A normal amount of food with a cooling virya usually stimulates anabolic activity, meaning growth or in ayurvedic terms it will build bodily tissue. It will slow agni or digestion, relieve burning, irritation, and inflammation, and decrease body temperature. Too much of the cooling virya can cause abnormal growth, dull digestive fire, poor digestion and malabsorption and ultimately increase ama.

Vipaka
As food moves into the colon, rasa continues to unfold with a post-digestive effect. Vipaka is what brings rasa to its conclusion. Either the nutrients and other components of food are absorbed in the system or they are excreted, and this is how we tell what effect the vipaka has on a body. Ayurveda uses three of the six tastes to describe the post digestive effect: sweet, sour, and pungent. Generally sweet and salty rasas have a sweet vipaka, sour rasa has sour vipaka, and pungent, bitter, and astringent rasas have pungent vipaka.

Sweet vipaka promotes tissue growth and anabolic functions of the body, so it can be said that sweet vipaka has a building function and increases kapha. It also aids in proper elimination through feces, urine, and sweat.

Sour vipaka promotes metabolic function and therefore increases pitta. It can create acidic pH in bodily secretions and has a reducing quality on tissues in the body. This one can cause loose stools if there is too much heat.

Pungent vipaka increases catabolic activity in the body. What you say? I had to look it up — catabolic activity encourages the breakdown of complex molecules into simpler ones and often creates energy during the process. Pungent vipaka increases vata dosha, which is the energetic, mobile, creative quality in the body. In excess, this one can cause constipation.

Conclusion
So ultimately, we are looking for what can maintain healthy balance of all the functions within the human body ecosystem. We want to enjoy the beginnings of our food — does it look, taste, and smell appetizing? But it doesn’t end there. How does food feel once it enters your stomach? If it causes gas, bloating, indigestion, or other discomfort, there may be some imbalance in its virya, perhaps due to improper food combining. That’s a whole ‘nother post. And what about the end result of rasa — vipaka? Does the food you eat help you maintain a healthy weight and provide enough energy for you to carry out your daily activities? If so congratulations to you, that is no easy task in this fast-food culture.

Meanwhile, can Don Draper dig beneath the surface of a relationship to make this marriage last? It takes more than an exciting beginning to maintain something lasting. (Don’t tell me… we start season 5 tonight!)

Next up: Mantra Wisdom.
Return to: Balanced Diet = Balanced Taste.

Balanced Diet = Balanced Tastes

Photo by Kathryn Andrews
Photo by Kathryn Andrews
Good morning. Last week I mentioned the tenth suggestion for fascial fitness is to keep active and eat a balanced diet. Seems like there are so many theories out there on how to eat well and maintain proper weight. Despite the fact that I love numbers, I abhor counting calories, and so the Ayurvedic approach to eating well is much more appealing to me.

A balanced diet according to Ayurveda has much nuance based on your own personal constitution, but a good starting point is knowing about the Sat Rasa, the six tastes.

“Our tastebuds do much more than simply identify tastes; they unlock the nutritive value of foods and provide the initial spark to the entire digestive process.” [Eat, Taste, Heal, Thomas Yarema et al, p.43] As they say in Ayurveda, you are what you digest.

The starting point of the six tastes is the Ayurvedic paradigm of the world being composed of five basic elements — earth, water, fire, air, and space. Each taste is a combination of two of these five and therefore have corresponding qualities to match:

1. Sweet – earth and water; heavy, moist, cooling
2. Sour – earth and fire; light, moist, heating
3. Salty – water and fire; heavy, moist, heating
4. Pungent – air and fire; light, dry, heating
5. Bitter – space and air; light, dry, cooling
6. Astringent – air and earth; heavy, dry, cooling

To be completely satisfied, one should include all six tastes during every meal. Practically speaking, for me personally this is often a challenge, so I make myself content attempting to get all six tastes in any particular day. Some days are better than others, and some tastes are easier to come by then others.

Sweet is the first, and the most abundant. This does not mean simply sugar. Other “sweet” foods are most grains like wheat and rice, milk, butter, and cream, some beans like limas, sweet fruits, and some vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, and beets.

Sour foods include citrus fruits like lemon, lime and grapefruit, yogurt, cheeses, sour cream, and fermented products like wine, vinegar, sauerkraut, and soy sauce.

Salty foods might be more obvious, anything that you add salt to, like nuts, chips, or pickles, sea vegetables like kelp or nori, and even celery is considered salty. (Sometimes the taste is very subtle.)

These three tastes are considered building tastes. If you eat a lot of them, you will build tissue in your body — all kinds of tissue, including muscle and fat.

The second set of three tastes are considered reducing tastes. If you eat more of these, there is a cleansing effect that helps your body reduce stored energy, generally in the form of adipose tissue.

Pungent foods are spicy, think chili peppers, garlic, onions, and spices themselves, black pepper, ginger, cumin.

Bitter foods include leafy green veggies such as spinach, kale, green cabbage, chard, zucchini, eggplant, as well as turmeric, fenugreek, and dandelion roots and leaves. Cate Stillman of yogahealer.com says that wild foods like dandelion are superfoods that can replace long lost minerals from your body and also detox your liver, blood, and fat.

Astringent foods generally are harder to name because astringent taste is harder to identify. You know how after you eat cranberries or pomegranates your mouth tends to pucker a little and feel dry? That helps to identify astringent taste. Other examples would be certain beans again like lentils and chickpeas, and also pears, dried fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, asparagus, turnip, rye, buckwheat, quinoa, coffee and tea.

Many foods are a combination of tastes. I’m thinking of coffee here, it is astringent but it is also bitter. Beans are sweet and astringent. Oranges are sour and sweet.

Photo by Kathryn Andrews
Photo by Kathryn Andrews
The authors of Eat, Taste, Heal tell us, “Food speaks to us directly through taste. A juicy pear may call out to us with a gentle message of delight, while the flaming chili pepper cries out in warning. As we tune into the tastes naturally desired by the body, we tap into the body’s innate wisdom regarding food and nutrition.” [p.43]

Yoga practice including asana and meditation helps one tune in to the wisdom of the body. This takes time and dedication, but it is possible to attune yourself to your health needs. When you slow down and listen to your body, appetite and cravings mellow to the point where they do not dominate your life and you can make proper choices based on desire rather than denying yourself the pleasure of taste.

“If you observe no other guidelines, at least do not eat too fast or too often.” [Prakriti, Robert Svoboda, p.87] They say your stomach should be full with 1/2 food, 1/4 water, and 1/4 air. Slow down and TASTE your food.

Next up: The Depth of Great Taste.
Return to Fascianation: CTF V.

Fascianation: CTF V

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of the 10 Steps to Fascial Fitness. Special thanks to Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains.

7. Gentle Perseverance A: You can go far when you go consciously.

This is perfect for yoga practitioners. Work and family commitments often cause one to rush without thinking from one activity to the next. A week, a month, a year, moves rapidly by when one is continually over-scheduled. If you move quickly and without thinking in yoga, you may find some benefit, but when you slow things down in order to really get to know the sensation within a posture, that is when your connective tissue becomes your friend, and your yoga experience truly blossoms.

Think of Virabhadrasana II for example. When you take the outer form of the pose, it helps to build strength in your ankles, feet, legs, and hips, while you experience a greater sense of lift and lengthening in the spine and openness of the upper body in general. If you linger in the pose, yes, your muscles will feel more intensity, but your awareness will sink deeper. You notice a certain grounding stability through the lower body that leads to a sense of spaciousness around your heart. It is a warrior pose, the yogi is battling lethargy or fatigue (among other things perhaps), in order to access her own birthright — consciousness and freedom and happiness. Linger further and the breath opens up in a way that allows you to reap the benefits of clarity in the pranic channels called nadi. This is much more fun when felt — it’s the hit you get when you reach the sweet spot in a pose. (akin to Runner’s high, perhaps?)

Photo by Erik Dunham
Photo by Erik Dunham
Especially in more challenging postures like eka pada rajakapotasana, slowing your movements down to be fully aware in each moment will help tremendously in allowing you to deepen your experience.

A note about coming out of a pose: most injury in yoga occurs when releasing a posture. This is often because the yogi figures the work is done, I can let go without thinking. But the moment you let go of conscious movement is the moment you become most vulnerable. A posture is not complete until you safely dismount, to use a gymnastics term. As one of my teachers used to say, it is not about how far you go… it is about how you go far.

8. Gentle perseverance B: Think long-term progress. The tortoise wins the race.

In very real physical terms, muscles can reshape in a matter of weeks. It takes six to 24 months for fascia to reshape. Patience and perseverance will be helpful, and necessary.

Our culture has trained us to want things right now, when we want them. If something is wrong, you can usually buy something to make it better — or better yet, take a pill for what ails you. But these are short-term fixes that often only treat symptoms and not the cause. It takes patience and perseverance to address an issue at its core. And, if you don’t treat the underlying cause of the issue, whether physical or psychological, it will keep recurring until you do. You can count on that.

In considering long term progress, the first step to me is to recognize that you are already perfect just the way you are. You are how you are because of all of the things that have happened to lead you to this point. Perfect. Nobody else is exactly like you. The yogis have a term for that, purna, which means fullness and it also means perfection. This to me means that if you are experiencing life to the fullest, if you are doing your best, then everything is already perfect. Your job then becomes to reveal more and more of your self. Just do your best. What a concept, huh?

There is no need to rush. The hare ran and ran and got tired and burnt out. Set an intention to live fully as you are and simply allow things to unfold. Do your yoga practice and “all is coming.” Thank you Shri K. Pattabhi Jois.

And finally,
10. Move it or lose it. Be active and eat a good diet.

The human body is a marvelous machine. It is a conduit for vital energy. If we continuously sit still, joints get creaky and stiff, you know how it is. Your body is meant to move. Walking, dancing, riding a bike, playing sports, practicing yoga… whatever it may be for you, movement lubricates the joints and the connective tissue. Your heart pumps blood throughout your body so cells and tissues can be nourished, but what moves the water through the fascia? Movement. What allows lymph to circulate to improve your immunity? Movement. What keeps muscles supple and strong? Movement. What feels good when we do it? Movement.

Are you sensing a theme here?

Eating a good diet is a more complicated matter. There are many theories on how to eat. Ayurveda has lots of good suggestions for the proper diet for your dosha, or body constitution. I think that will be the next blog post. For now, let’s stick with plenty of fresh, preferably local, fruits and vegetables, rice and other whole grains, and legumes. Take less dairy, and even less still of meat and processed foods.

See you on the mat!

Next Up: Balanced Diet = Balanced Tastes.
Return to: Fascianation: CTF IV.

Fascianation: CTF IV

Snelson Tensegrity sculpture7. You are unique. Respect your body.

In many ways we humans are the same, but in many ways we humans are completely individual. The one-size-fits-all prescription for health and wellness is just not possible. You are fully in control of your own self, and more than that, your body has an innate wisdom that you would do well to listen to. I often witness how people, my students, my family, myself included, unconsciously act as if we have no control over our actions. A shift in perspective is sorely needed.

Expansive consciousness is the source of being. There is an underlying pattern in all things and we are all subject to that rhythm, that pulsation. Animals and plants in nature have no choice but to follow this underlying structure. But lucky us, we humans have the ability to choose whether we want to align with nature or whether we want to completely and rebelliously strike out on our own.

I like to think balance is the key, asserting your own freedom, but knowing why you make that choice. Maintaining that balance is a big part of yoga practice, the more you practice, the more you understand yourself — who you are and why you do what you do. Choices are no longer unconscious.

So, regarding fascia, Tom Myers explains physiological differences based on the “Viking” or the “temple dancer” models. A Viking comes from a northern climate, is relatively strong, with thicker skin and a hearty, tougher constitution. A temple dancer hails from a southern warmer climate and is more lithe and flexible. In this scenario, very broadly speaking, Vikings would do exercise that helps them become more limber and temple dancers would do exercise to help them become stronger.

Ayurveda is more specific in its description of different body types. There are three main categories, called dosha, in which human bodies can be described. These dosha develop out of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and space. I will list them here:

Vata Dosha
Consisting of air and space elements, a Vata person has a relatively slender build, loses weight easily and has trouble gaining weight. Her energy level is variable and comes in short bursts, her appetite is unpredictable and her skin tends toward dryness and is darker in tone. She is a light sleeper and often has difficulty falling asleep, and she prefers weather that is warm and moist as opposed to cool and dry.

Pitta Dosha
Consisting of fire and water elements, a Pitta person has a medium build and can gain or lose weight relatively easily. Her energy and activity level is high, her appetite is strong and she eliminates well. Her skin tends toward oily and is ruddy in tone. Her sleep varies and she tends to prefer cooler weather; hot weather can cause her irritability.

Kapha Dosha
Consisting of earth and water elements, a Kapha person has a full build and has trouble losing weight. Her energy level may be slow to get going but she has plenty of long-term stamina. Digestion might be weak and she might often feel heavy after meals. Her skin is paler and will be smooth and more oily. She generally has deep, sound sleep, and she prefers hot weather over cold or damp.

Most of us are some combination of the three dosha. If you did not take the constitution quiz with the last post, you may find it here.

What does this mean for fascial fitness? If you listen to your own body, you will notice on certain days you have more or less energy, appetite, and so on. Let your exercise be guided by this awareness.

If Vata is dominant, you would want your yoga to balance those qualities, slower movements and longer holds of postures, things that build heat in the body. Practice poses that have a more grounding quality, like forward bends, hip openers and twists.

For Pitta, your yoga practice can include poses with more cooling and calming effect. Side bending and rhythmic flows will be helpful. Slow, deep breathing during postures held for a medium amount of time will encourage the calming effects of practice.

And for Kapha, let your practice be more energizing. Sun salutations and other poses that will get you moving with shorter holds are ideal. Backward bending poses can help move the water element and break up the stagnancy the earth element can cause.

Again, most of us are some combination of these body types. Generally speaking, getting up with the sunrise to meditate and exercise for at least 20 minutes – doing yoga or even walking – to get your circulation going will work wonders for the fascia. One of my yoga teachers once said, “After lunch rest a while, after dinner walk a mile.”

Balance is key in all things. Practice listening to your intuition. Do not work too hard and take time each day to be thankful for your own unique and wonder-filled gifts.

Next up: Fascianation: CTF V.
Go back to Fascianation: CTF III.

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