By Emily J. Weitz
Ayurveda, which means the science of life, is a thousands-year-old tradition of healing that originated in India and is used to bring balance and wellbeing to the whole person. In Ayurveda, there are three different categories, or doshas, that help to define not only individuals, but foods, seasons, postures, lifestyle choices — everything. When we understand the doshas and how they coexist in our bodies, we’re able to actively seek balance in each moment of our lives.
As I write these words, I am in an airplane, flying through the clouds at 10,000 feet. If I were to identify an element that corresponds to this moment, what would it be? Earth, water, fire, air? Of course, with no piece of me touching the earth or its waters, this moment is dominated by air. Not only am I physically up in the air, but when we travel, we are in a state of flux. We are obviously not grounded physically, but there’s an emotional component to it too. I’m away from my home, sleeping in a strange bed, running from one friend to the next; I am experiencing a Vata imbalance.
Vata is the dosha that corresponds to air, to dryness, to wind, to flight. And just as we may experience a Vata imbalance from choices we make in our lives, we are also influenced by cultural norms.
“Our cultural imbalance is that we are moving all the time,” said Kimberley Larsen, an Ayurvedic consultant and bodyworker in the Berkshires and Amagansett who is just finishing up a book on Ayurveda (out next January). “We are encouraged to be stimulated, active, and productive all the time.”
Ayurveda teaches that the answer to everything is balance. So if you’re feeling a lot of stimulation, which may manifest in dry skin or stress or sleeplessness, the opposite will be healing.
“The first thing for people experiencing Vata imbalance is to slow down,” said Larsen. “To take a little bit of time to ground.”
There are many ways to do this, and they don’t all have to do with getting hands-on treatments or practicing yoga, though those are great tools. Taking time to ground, though, might mean spending some time in the garden with your hands in the soil. It might mean eating a warm, slow-cooked meal.
“Warm oils are very grounding to the skin,” said Larsen, “so doing a regular self-massage can be healing. Another access to calming Vata is through the breath. By creating a deep belly breath that expands the lower lobes of the lungs, this will relax the nervous system and create grounding.”
The other major component to identifying your imbalance is recognizing your constitution: what you were born with. The seasons, life choices, and culture all affect us, but we are also born with certain tendencies.
“Your constitution is the dominance you were born with,” said Larsen. “Your natural strengths and weaknesses. This comes from our parents’ constitutions, the foods our mother ate in utero, the environments we were born and created in, and our own soul. We come out with a certain combination of the three doshas.”
In the heat of summer, the fiery element can flare up for all of us, even those without a Pitta imbalance in their constitution. Keywords for Pitta include intensity, drive, unstoppable. People with Pitta imbalances often achieve great things, but they can err towards working far too hard for their wellbeing.
“For the person who has this drive like a forest fire,” said Jolie Parcher an Ayurvedic consultant and owner of Mandala Yoga and Healing Arts in Amagansett, “it’s all about surrender. They need to relax, to let go, to cool. I might recommend a walk in the moonlight instead of running midday, or having coconut water instead of coffee.”
Interestingly, foods that balance the doshas are available in nature when they are most needed. So, during the hot summer months, when Pitta is flaring up, that’s when you can find cucumbers and watermelons to cool the digestive fire.
Even though our culture may celebrate the virtues of Vata (movement) and Pitta (drive), we’ve all experienced the pull of Kapha. The heavy, earth energy of this dosha is in control when we feel like we can’t peel ourselves off the couch, like we could stay in bed all day. When Kapha is in balance, it’s a grounding, centering energy of home and contentment. But when it’s out of balance, there’s a tendency towards sluggishness, overeating and depression.
“If you’re inactive and sedentary, if you haven’t done vigorous exercise, you’re gaining weight, retaining water, feeling a dullness of the mind,” said Larsen, “these are all signs of a Kapha imbalance.”
To balance the stillness of Kapha, you want movement. Spices like ginger, activities like vigorous yoga, foods that are light like leafy greens: these are all good choices when looking to balance Kapha.
“Excessive heavy, moist qualities can be lifted by either creating movement or finding foods and practices that are lightening,” said Larsen. “The fastest route, again, is through the breath.”
Kaphala Bhati, or breath of fire, is a yoga breath that stimulates the digestive fire. Sharp, continuous exhales through the nose have the effect of getting things moving inside, clearing out stagnancy.
There’s a subtle point that’s important to make as the wisdom of Ayurveda is revealed. People love to label themselves, as if identifying as Vata or Pitta or Kapha not only explains everything but excuses everything. Both Larsen and Parcher warn against this human tendency.
“Labeling is often used as an excuse,” said Larsen. “For a Pitta person who gets angry and expresses themselves strongly, they may just say ‘Oh that’s how I am. I’m fiery.’ But the idea is to express more compassion for ourselves and others.”
So if you see someone raging, you may understand that their Pitta dosha is out of balance, that they need something cooling to quell that fire.
“You can see the doshas at play,” said Larsen. “You can see when someone’s fire is up, and say, ‘I know what I feel like when my fire is up.’ It makes relating to each other much easier because there’s compassion and understanding.”
What kind of remedies can be used to quell the fire, or lift the stagnation, or calm the anxiety? Anything, depending on the moment.
“Ayurveda says that anything in the universe can be medicine for someone at a particular time,” said Larsen.
This might mean incorporating new exercises into your day, or it might mean just simply shifting around your routines so they assist you in finding balance. For one client of Larsen’s who lived a very high-stress Vata lifestyle in Manhattan, the only initial change she made was having her drink her coffee after breakfast instead of before.
“That alone,” she said, “can make a big difference.”
Larsen believes that, through Ayurveda, people can genuinely slow down the drying effects of aging.
“Ayurveda and oils are the fountain of youth,” she said. “They can give us 100 healthy years to live this life in balance.”
Kimberly Larson offers three recipes from her forthcoming book “The Nourishing Cleanse,” which is expected out next January.
“I love the fall harvest and savor the last burst of brilliance from the sunset-colored root vegetables, buttery squashes, and dark, rich green vegetables. “
Sweetness Of Fall [Insert photo FW7491_008]
Yields six servings, one cup each
1 cup basmati rice
2 cups water
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped acorn squash
1 cup chopped butternut squash
10 Brussels sprouts, cut in half
1 Tbs. sesame oil
1 tsp. whole black mustard seeds
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1 tsp. whole fennel seeds
1 Tbs. water
pinch of salt
squeeze of lemon
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place all chopped vegetables in a baking dish and drizzle half of the sesame oil over them. Mix the vegetables and oil thoroughly, then add one tablespoon of water to the dish and bake for 50 minutes.
Pour the remaining sesame oil into a small pot and add the seeds. Cook on medium-low for 5-7 minutes. Look for a light browning of the fennel and cumin seeds, notice a nutty aroma, and listen for small popping sounds of the mustard seeds to signal they are complete. Add two cups of water to the pot and bring to a boil, then add the basmati rice. Cook for one minute on high, then stir the rice, reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until all the water is absorbed.
Combine the rice and vegetables, then add a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon and stir together.
“My morning ritual in the summer starts with a sunrise at the beach and a bowl of fresh fruits, nuts, seeds, and coconut milk to keep me cool and nourished. If you don’t have the beach, you can still have the sunrise in your bowl.”
Summer Sunrise Pudding [Insert photo FW7491_042]
Yields four 1-cup servings
6 fresh figs (when available)
3/4 cup sweet berries
1 mango, sliced
3/4 cup coconut milk
3/4 cup oat milk
1/4 cup chia seed
1 cup granola (preferably with almonds and pumpkin seeds) or instead spouted grains
Fresh coconut meat for garnish
Combine coconut milk, oat milk, and 1/2 cup of fresh fruit in a blender and puree on high for one minute. Pour into a quart-sized container with lid and mix in granola or sprouted grains and chia seed. Refrigerate overnight and serve in the morning topped with an assortment of berries, mango or figs and fresh coconut for garnish. You can also warm the pudding on low heat for a few minutes to counter the refrigerated cold.
“The first precious little green plants that sprout up in the spring are the perfect food-medicine provided by Mother Nature to cleanse the body of accumulations from the winter season.”
Grilled Vegetables with Spring Bitters Salad and Sesame Garlic Dressing [Insert photo FW7491_035]
Yields four 1½-cup servings of grilled vegetables; four 1-cup servings of salad greens; 1½ cups dressing
1 bundle of asparagus (approximately 30 thin stalks)
1½ cups sweet pea pods
6-8 Spanish black radishes, thinly sliced
1 large red or orange bell pepper
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/2 oz. dandelion greens
1/2 oz. watercress
2 oz. spinach
2 oz. baby kale
2 Tbs. chopped scallions or green onions
1/2 cup sesame seeds, soaked
1/2 cup sunflower seeds, soaked
1 Tbs. grated or finely chopped turmeric root
1 Tbs. grated or finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 large lemon, squeezed
1 Tbs. flax or sesame oil
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 cup water
1 tsp. liquid aminos
Coat the vegetables in a light layer of sesame oil and gently massage by hand to evenly distribute the oil. Place on a cast iron grill pan on medium-high heat or on an outdoor grill for a few minutes until the vegetables soften and lightly brown along the grill lines. Turn the vegetables over and cook for a few more minutes. Then remove from the heat and let cool. Combine the washed and chopped salad greens in a large serving bowl and place the grilled vegetables over the greens. To serve, place one packed cup of salad greens on a plate, cover with 1½ cups of grilled vegetables, and top with 1-2 tablespoons of dressing.
Note: The greens can also be lightly steamed for easier digestion.
For dressing: Place all ingredients in a blender and puree on high until smooth.