|Ah, winter is upon us. It is often challenging to keep spirits up during these colder months of shorter days, so I like to look toward time-tested wisdom for support during the weeks and months ahead. Here are five things to consider to maintain positive vibes for the winter-time.|
1. Develop a morning routine. This sounds so simple but cannot be underestimated. Because the nights are longer at this time of year, it is natural to want to sleep a bit more. Going to bed at the same time each evening and awaking at the same time each morning helps to set your body-clock to encourage greater energy and alertness during the day. What you do when you wake up sets the tone for the rest of your day, so help yourself in the mornings! Ayurveda suggests that upon waking scrape your tongue and brush your teeth. Use a neti pot to clear out your sinuses and then practice a little yoga, meditation, or both. Drink a mug or two of hot water with lemon to prepare your digestive system for nourishment.
2. Move your body until you sweat. Exercising to get your heart rate up is another great morning activity, but really it can be done at any time of the day. Increasing your heart rate and moving until you sweat stokes Agni, the inner fire of digestion and assimilation. When you sweat, the heat of Agni moves through each of the seven tissues, Dhatus, more thoroughly, so that you feel cleansed, energized, and refreshed. Don a warm coat and boots and get outside if you can.
3. Eat hot foods with warming spices. Ayurveda considers winter time to be predominant with earth and water elements. These elements tend to be denser, colder, and slower, so it is easy to be lethargic during the cold months. The principle in Ayurveda is that opposite qualities will create balance. Hot foods heat up the cold earth element and move the fluids of the body. They support digestive Agni and help your body to absorb the nutrients it needs. Warming spices like ginger, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves combat the cold of winter and provide nourishment.
4. Drink hot Golden Milk. Golden Milk contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatories like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper to support your good health and pain-free living. You can use dairy or non-dairy milk for this recipe, and add a little ghee to support nutrient absorption. The optimal time to drink Golden Milk is about an hour before bedtime to help you have a good night’s rest. This stuff truly is amazing.
5. Get a massage, or give yourself a massage. If you have the opportunity, get a massage! It encourages circulation for blood and lymph and promotes relaxation on all levels. For a quick fix, give yourself an oil massage in the morning using sesame oil which has warming properties. Self oil massage is called Abhyanga in Ayurveda. Warm about 3 ounces of sesame oil by dipping the bottle in some warm water first, and then massage the oil into your skin. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes — this is a great time to practice meditation — and then shower off the excess. It is a rejuvenating practice that feels so luxurious.
Yoga is uniquely suited to support people who have experienced trauma. Given the last 18 months, this country and the world has had its share of traumatic experience due to the pandemic, and that just overshadows all of the daily challenges many people face continuously.
As the title of Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book says, “The Body Keeps The Score,” and yoga moves us directly into physical, embodied awareness. When someone has experienced trauma that becomes embedded in their body-mind experience, mindful movement is a pathway to relief.
Yoga practice involves observation of the mind and the body while creating different physical shapes. Through connecting to the breath while embodying a variety of forms, one is able to breathe through the experience of the moment — whether it involves anxious or worrisome thoughts, self-denigrating thoughts, or simply a challenging physical shape. Being present to that experience and breathing with it, rather than forcing oneself to “just get over it” or “just relax” for example, helps to process the experience rather than denying it or pushing it away.
For these reasons, I am so excited to announce our annual Teaching Trauma Sensitive Yoga workshop online. Details below. And also, *coming soon* a Trauma Sensitive Yoga series of short classes, designed to fit into your busy schedule that you may access on demand at any time you need them. This series includes Yoga For Anxiety, Yoga For Restful Sleep, and Yoga For Empowerment. Stay tuned for details.
Peace and love, Kelly
Happy Summer Solstice! Do you love this time of year or dread the heat? The sun is the source of all life as its heat and light provide the energy for plants to grow so we have food to eat. Since ancient times, yogis have offered gratitude for the sun’s life-giving qualities, through sun salutations, surya namaskar, and even singing or chanting the Gayatri mantra. Yoga’s sister science of life, Ayurveda, considers the heat of summer the Pitta time of year and offers suggestions to help keep you cool and make the most of the long, leisurely, sunny days ahead. Here are a few to keep in mind.
Stay hydrated – the extra heat of the summer dries up the plants and things in nature, as well as our own bodies. It is extra important to drink plenty of water, the measure is to drink half your body’s weight in ounces. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds then drink 70 ounces of water per day. Add a little splash of lime for its extra cooling properties.
Enjoy cooling foods – cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, asparagus, avocado, coconut, cilantro, blueberries, parsley, lettuces, alfalfa sprouts. The foods that are in plenty this time of year are great food choices for summer. They help to cool the body from the inside.
Avoid extra spicy foods as they can have a heating effect on the body and lead to Pitta-type imbalances such as acid indigestion, skin rashes, and inflammation.
Exercise in the morning to enjoy the relative coolness of the morning sun while avoiding the more extreme midday heat. Swimming or other water sports are a great way to keep cool.
Apply a few drops of essential oil such as jasmine, rose, or sandalwood to the point between the eyebrows to encourage a calm mind and nervous system. The throat and the navel are other places that can get overheated, so a few drops there can be helpful too.
Try turning off all electronics an hour before bedtime and enjoy reading an actual physical book or stargazing. This is a great way to settle busy, overheated thoughts and prepare yourself for a sound sleep.
And of course, cooling yoga poses can help combat the heat of summer. Try a forward bending pose slowly and with full breaths, keeping a long spine as you hinge from your hips. Or, legs up the wall pose is a great one to practice anytime of day for its calming, cooling effects.
See you on the mat!
Warmly (but not too hot),
As mentioned in my previous newsletter, during this pandemic I have been dealing with a different health issue, hyperparathyroidism. The surgeon had to make an incision at the base of my throat to remove the “offending gland.” With that surgery behind me, I was able to get to the task of healing. It took a week before I really felt like moving again, I even had to support my head with my hand as I would transition from sitting to lying down for example. Once I felt stronger and ready to move, I really wanted to do some yoga! Practice was slow at first, with lots of full breaths and no hurrying. It involved much stretching and breathing from a seated position. And then, Child’s Pose, Balasana. I would bring big toes together and take my knees wider, fold forward from the hips and rest my forehead on my stacked hands.
Pre-surgery, balasana was a resting pose for me, but post-surgery it became respite; in Yoga Nidra terms, it became my Inner Resource. If you know anything about fascia, you know that if there is an injury or trauma in one part of the body, it can affect the rest of the body in a three-dimensional matrix. Because my neck was intensely healing, the rest of my muscles felt compressed, pulled toward the incision like covered wagons in a circle to protect the precious humans inside. Child’s pose helped those muscles to lengthen again; the sweet release of elongating my spinal extensors was better than a hot bath. The gentle opening through hip muscles was like my body exhaling, gently easing back to a state of normalcy. These inner sensations helped to remind me that all is well and on the path to healing, it just takes time and patience.
If you are feeling out of sorts, please make time in your day for a “yoga snack” and take balasana for several deep breaths — as many as you need until you feel your nervous system settle and you return to a state of calm.
Today is Global Yoga Therapy Day!
Yoga Therapy uses yogic techniques — yoga postures, breath work, meditation, mantra, mudra — to support a wholistic approach to life, good health, and mental and emotional prosperity. In honor of Global Yoga Therapy Day, I created a video about coping with the global (and local) crises and anxieties of the moment. Enjoy!
This past weekend I had the great good pleasure of meeting Dr. Loren Fishman when he came to Yoga Center of Columbia to offer his certification training on Yoga for Back Care to a full house of yoga teachers and therapists. It was just about 20 hours worth of sciatica, scoliosis, piriformis, quadratus lumborum, facets, herniated disc discussion, and more. I continue to be amazed at just how supportive yoga can be to one’s good health.
As you may know, I became a Certified Yoga Therapist in September of 2016 (three years ago!) when IAYT first began certifying yoga teachers. This is the highest level of certification a teacher may receive. It is a fascinating prospect to me because, my yoga practice has been so healing in my own life journey, and it is an honor to be able to offer similar healing to others. When drugs and conventional medicine fail, yoga offers hope without the side effects. The main issue is, one has to practice! This is the hardest part, just getting onto the mat every morning (or at least at some point during the day). But if you can discipline yourself for a regular practice, the benefits can be immense.
I once heard the phrase that indulgences like sweets, alcohol, and other recreational activities are elixir at first, and poison later on. Whereas, yoga may feel like poison in the beginning, but it is elixir in the end. And, I am here to say, it only gets better with age. My practice has been 28 years running and I only want to do more yoga, not less.
Some students were asking about his books. He has many, including: Healing Yoga; Yoga for Back Pain; Yoga for Arthritis; Yoga for Osteoporosis.
His website is a great resource, also. You may purchase his books there.
Or, you may contact me. I will be happy to meet with you to create a home practice specific to your needs. One on one with a qualified therapist is really the best way to make the most of your own practice.
Nelson Mandela once said “When you let your own light shine, you unconsciously give others permission to do the same.” Dr. Fishman spent many years with his teacher, BKS Iyengar, and that light is being passed along even today.
This article is the fourth in a series leading us into the Ayurveda Immersion at Yoga Center of Columbia beginning in January.
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.
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.
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!
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?
“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:
- 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
- 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
- Mandagni – weak digestive fire; one may have a poor appetite, feel sluggish, or have a tendency toward weight gain
- 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?
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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!