Living a Happy and Beneficial Life Through Ayurveda
My earliest recollection of falling in love with Ayurveda was around the age of seven. My father’s uncle, seeing my lovely mother during a visit to India bloated from steroid medications for eczema, had suggested a visit to an Ayurvedic vaidya (doctor) whom he knew to resolve her skin issues more holistically. For years, she stayed in touch with this vaidya, appropriately named Dr. Vaidya, and we received overseas packages on a regular basis of powders in tiny folded pieces of paper, Indian-style. I can only imagine that this experience remained indelibly etched on my young mind from a past-life relationship with Ayurveda though it took me years to connect that love with my preference for warm water and cooked food, and for Indian sweets with saffron and cardamom over ice cream (which I always asked to be “warmed” first, to the dismay of my elders!). By early adulthood, indigestion issues from years of eating frozen packaged foods – the bestowal of an immigrant Indian family delighting in modern conveniences that removed the need to cook! – motivated me in a lifelong search for Ayurvedic help. Through my own self-study and consultation with various practitioners, I began to cook for myself and regain my health. But I was still dependent on others for my physical well-being and unable to discover a way to heal myself more deeply that spoke to my soul.
One practitioner I had encountered on my journey was I knew the “real deal” – whose knowledge of Ayurveda was based on timeless fundamental principles – Shunya Pratichi Mathur. Blessed to have her both as a friend and as my Ayurvedic doctor, her authentic living of this wisdom had nurtured my quietly held dream to learn from her. Yet, though we never lost touch, our lives seemed to move in different directions. The opening came when I read her just-published Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom soon after my mother’s death and registered for her organization’s two-month Awakening Health course. As luck would have it, the two-month offering was canceled in favor of a completely online one-year self-care course.
By now, I will confess that I thought my home-schooled knowledge of Ayurveda just needed a little push in the right direction and that I was simply missing the deeper theory! My health was pretty good I thought – since I don’t eat salads, cook much more than the average American, always drink hot water and do abhyanga (oiling) before my shower. Yet I still had constant skin rashes and elimination problems. For the last decade, I had even followed a vegan diet, trying to “remove” whatever I thought I couldn’t tolerate, such as cow milk.
A year-long immersion
During the course, I spent every Tuesday evening in a two-and-a-half hour computer-based class, studying the fundamentals of Ayurvedic medicine, seasonal lifestyle protocols, pharmacology principles, and dosha theory, and then extra time watching and taking notes on one of the Ayurveda Ancestral Teachings Shunyaji had recorded along with her partner Chef Sanjai a few years earlier. We students made sankalpas (intentions) at the beginning of the year about what we hoped to learn. The course felt too slow in the beginning and too fast by the end. My brain didn’t think it could retain everything. Shunyaji often reminded us that we didn’t have to “get” it all at once but to trust that seeds were going deep into our minds. I also appreciated her recommendation to let our loved ones know to give us space during the upcoming year.
Now, more than two months since the course ended, I’m marveling at the inner change I’ve experienced. This was not a “mechanical” form of Ayurveda that we imbibed – it was a lived experience. First and foremost, we were reminded throughout the year that our core is pure health – we are not diseased and imperfect, we simply have to remember and wake up to a deeper place within us where health always abides: aham ārogyam, or “I am of the nature of health.” Within a couple of months into the course, I began to notice a difference in my internal conversations regarding health – instead of wanting to fix a “broken” part of my body, I could now observe and listen to it for clues about overall imbalance. What a shift from thinking of a body part as an isolated mechanical part to an interwoven member of an entire organism! Next, we learned specific diet and lifestyle tips that were easy to implement right away, though some needed explaining to other household members. “Did you mean to leave the thermos of water on the back porch?” asked my husband. “Yes,” I responded, “I’m letting it soak in the moonlight.” Learning that white clothes help the body stay cooler in fall, I stocked up on white apparel at a local thrift store. Pomegranates became my best friend and I was sad when they were finally out of season. And looking at the full moon might remind me to pick up organic unsalted butter to make ghee – month by month adding to my stock so that it ages for at least a year. Now I have an entire cupboard devoted to ghee!
Long wanting an organic garden, I started planting – a pomegranate tree, and herbs such as ashwagandha, shatavari, brahmi, and mandukaparni. Nearly every day now I go out and greet them. All this has come about because through the course I have begun to understand the bounty of Mother Nature and how she provides everything for our care. Originally from south India and blessed with some of my grandmother’s recipes, I am now gratefully acknowledging my debt to my ancestors for preserving this precious wisdom while understanding how to incorporate seasonal adjustments. How much power one has when one understands how to use the tools lying at one’s feet!
At the beginning of the year, Shunyaji advised us that we would not only learn how to manage our health but that we would even become more dharmic in our interactions with others. In fact, this did happen, not just because of my participation in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program, but also due to Ayurveda’s purifying effect on body and mind.
A straighter “dharma spine”
Ayurveda supports the healthy balance and flowering of the four purushārthas, or life goals. The most basic one – artha – relates to fulfillment of our material and emotional needs. Now, I shop more intelligently at the grocery store, knowing what is recommended for this season (macrocosm) and what specifically benefits my body (microcosm). Through the recipes I’ve learnt and knowledge of the pharmocological principles of my kitchen spices, I cook medicinally healthy dishes, which are simple to prepare. Comprehending my body’s signals gives me clues about how much to feed it and how to create more balance. Learning how to build our strength each winter and emphasizing the sweet taste while adjusting the balance of the six tastes based on the season satiates my body, mind, and nervous system. Shunyaji laughingly comments that Ayurveda makes us self-obsessed in a good way: we’re either preparing to eat, eating, or reading our body signals, which gives us less time to perform unhealthy actions, such as gossiping! From the artha standpoint, this body is the vehicle through which I navigate the world, and keeping it tuned up means I’m more likely to “drive” responsibly and achieve my other life goals. Even growing herbs allows me to make my own small contribution to the survival of the planet – an important commitment given that 95% of the Ayurvedic herbs are now endangered.
Artha also includes one’s emotional needs. Seeing Ishwara (God principle) as these beautiful foods and herbs and inculcating reverence towards them deepens my relationship with all of existence, The knowledge that everything I do and eat is medicinal – that my body is moving in alignment with a greater outer harmony of the universe and that my senses, while no longer in charge of my health, are not ignored – radiates peace through my being.
The next purushārtha – kāma or pleasure – is addressed through the sensual beauty of the meals we prepare and the overall care and luxury we give to our senses. In our modern world, we make the mistake of believing that sense attraction is either to be followed or to be ignored, but understanding the role of the senses to jumpstart the digestive process redefines them from wayward pilots to invaluable flight attendants.
Learning to cook both delicious and medicinal meals satisfies both artha and kāma goals of survival and pleasure. The ability to take care of these needs on my own frees me from feeling as dependent on others to fill me up. This gives me a true sense of sovereignty and enables me to focus on the next goal of dharma. The root dhr means dhārana, to support, and now I am supported to support others. My relationships have begun to transform – either waking up with me or rebelling against my waking up. Either way, my continually deepening understanding of the interconnectedness of all existence and my ability to manifest it through my daily habits gave me the power to walk away from unhealthy habits and people.
Ayurvedic psychology was a component of our course, and we learned how the three gunas (qualities) of the mind can be adjusted through thoughts, diet, and lifestyle. The subtle essence of what I ate thirty days ago has become my mind today, so reducing the heat in my food both minimizes skin rashes and nasal bleeding and grants me more patience. The gunas of rajas (activity) and tamas (inertia) are considered doshas or disturbances of the mind and our only goal becomes to increase sattva (clarity, peace). I find it fascinating that the Ayurvedic sages understood that not only are we not our body, but our equipment (which we are not) is interwoven and we have complete control over its nature.
It is when artha and kāma goals are unfulfilled that we compromise dharma. Instead, by dharmically satiating these goals through Ayurveda, and embodying a way of life that naturally increases sattva, my “dharma spine” became straighter and I can walk my own path, my svadharma. In one of Shunyaji’s satsanghas, we learned that the outermost area of the mind is impulsive and turbulent until it is purified through karma yoga, the middle layer is restless until purified through bhakti yoga, and the innermost layer is unconscious until we discover our real nature through jñāna yoga. Ayurveda helps me calm the outermost layer by giving me clear guidelines of how to take care of my body and mind, and nurtures the middle layer through deep inner contentment and a richer relationship with all of life. This leaves me more freedom to explore the fourth purushārtha, moksha, or discovering the truth of who I am.
Putting this all together
Over the course of the year, despite needing alone time and space to transform, some family events necessitated travel and outward engagement. Initially dreading these “interruptions” to my new routine and practices, I discovered instead that they became fabulous laboratories for discovering my “adaptive ability” emanating from a bedrock of Ayurvedic principles and lifestyle. Already used to renting a house and having a kitchen while traveling, I now packed lentils, cream of wheat, spices, and even Himalayan pink salt and homemade ghee, and then bought whole milk and yogurt at our destination. For the flight, I would take a thermos filled with upma (a savory cream of wheat dish that is Vata-balancing, since flight and travel aggravate Vata dosha) or sooji halwa (a sweet made from cream of wheat, balancing for the same reasons) and keep cumin seeds in my purse to make a balancing tea. Dealing with the challenge of restaurant food where my choices were more limited, I either ate in advance and drank tea at the venue, or brought my own homemade spice blend to sprinkle on my meal. Rather than finding me difficult to be around, my family and friends appreciated my authenticity and ability to balance my own needs while fully enjoying their company and not imposing my choices (even subtly) on them. I felt free and detached – able to participate and withdraw when needed. All four purushārthas were being met.
Sage Charaka, one of the three foundational seers and teachers of Ayurveda, gives us a beautiful definition of Ayurveda:
hitāhitam sukham dukham āyustasya hitāhitam mānam cha tachcha yatroktam āyurvedah sa uchyate
Ayurveda is that science of life which deals with what is beneficial and non-beneficial, what brings happiness and sorrow, what is beneficial and non-beneficial for life, as well as measurement and nature. (CS, sūtrasthānam, sloka 41).
Ayurveda is truly teaching me how to cultivate inner happiness as well as how to live a beneficial life.
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