How to increase your energy and vitality with Ayurveda

written by Mascha Coetzee

How to increase your energy and vitality with Ayurveda

Credit: Getty Images

Do you often feel drained, fatigued, energy-depleted and in need of solid rest and deep relaxation? Your body may be trying to tell you something — and applying Ayurvedic and yogic principles to your lifestyle can help revitalise you.

Ayurveda teaches four key concepts that manifest as energy in your body and govern your health and vitality: agni, ojas, tejas and prana. These work closely together to sustain essential energy and life. Internationally recognised Vedic and Ayurvedic scholar Acharya Shunya explains, “Agni comprehends the body’s various biophysical and biochemical processes by which ingested food is converted into vitality (tejas), immunity (ojas) and energy (prana).”

Understanding these principles and how they interact is essential in discussing how Ayurveda and yoga can increase your vitality and stoke your life-force energy. Let’s examine each.

Prana

Prana is the vital life force of the body and mind that flows through the body by way of nadis, your body’s energy channels. It affects your physical health together with the state of your mind and consciousness. Prana also exists in the water you drink, the food you consume and the air you breathe, and governs respiration and circulation.

Prana is fluid, and associated with vata dosha (air and ether elements of the body’s constitution). Ayurveda and yoga both advocate enhancing the quality and mobility of prana through multiple practices to keep it nourished and free from stagnation.

How to enrich prana

Prana is supported by breath and it can be balanced out through eating foods rich in prana and practising various pranayamas, or yogic breathing exercises.

Agni

Agni is your digestive fire (enkindled by prana), which supplies your body and mind with the energy essential to living. Agni rules the digestion, absorption and assimilation of the food you choose to eat, metabolising and transmuting it into your cells and tissues, your thoughts and your emotions.

Ojas controls your life functions and it is the essence of your being, a force of strong immunity, health, mental strength, vigour and happiness.

It is the fire of transformation, the link between the gross and the subtle, converting gross matter into energy and nutrients from food into bodily tissues. None of this would be possible without agni.

Agni is linked to pitta dosha (fire and water elements) and, when weakened, results in imbalance.

How to kindle agni

Your internal fire needs tending to and protecting in order to keep supplying the energy for your vitality and health, your physical and mental strength, as well as your longevity and enthusiasm.

If your agni has dimmed, Ayurveda teaches that you can rekindle it with changes in the way you eat, cleanse, clear out ama, rest and exercise.

Ama is disease-causing toxic matter — including undigested foods, unprocessed emotions, negative thinking patterns and life experiences — that can impair your digestive fire and result in stagnation, mood swings and brain fog.

To support your agni, try to avoid eating on the go and choose to eat mindfully, slowly and in moderation. Chew your food thoroughly and with gratitude, and stay hydrated. This will help to expel ama from your body and assist in the smooth flow of energy.

Tejas

The essence of vitality, inner radiance and intelligence, tejas is linked to the solar energy in your body and is considered a subtle form of pitta dosha (fire element), the fire of the consciousness. A more nuanced expression of agni, it is a driving force of metabolism, discipline, focus, motivation, transformation and willpower.

How to stoke tejas

Tejas can be nourished by agni-protective practices addressed earlier.

Ojas

Ojas controls your life functions and it is the essence of your being, a force of strong immunity, health, mental strength, vigour and happiness. It is associated with kapha dosha (earth and water elements) and connected to the heart and all seven bodily tissues: blood, bone, bone marrow, fat, muscle, plasma and reproductive tissues.

The quality of ojas is directly connected to the quality of your metabolic fire (agni). Ojas can be negatively affected and depleted by sensory overstimulation and an overwhelming lifestyle. Repeated distress together with adrenal fatigue, more correctly known as hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) dysfunction, are other conditions attributed in Ayurvedic medicine to a deficiency of ojas and diminished vitality.

If your agni has dimmed, Ayurveda teaches that you can rekindle it with changes in the way you eat, cleanse, clear out ama, rest and exercise.

The HPA axis is one of the body’s main stress response pathways and comprises three hormone-regulating glands: the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands in the brain, and the adrenal glands located above the kidneys. Chronic stress keeps these glands activated, leading to the constant release of hormones that trigger the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response and associated health problems.

Many Australians experience constant, low-level stress all too often. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Health Survey 2014-2015, 2.1 million adult Australians (11.7 per cent) report experiencing high or very high psychological distress (based on their level of nervousness, agitation and psychological fatigue). Females reported higher levels of psychological distress (13.5 per cent versus 9.9 per cent of males).

This is an issue for our overall health, energy and vitality, considering that some common symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction include exhaustion, lack of energy, apathy, anxiety, feeling sleepy and having concentration and memory difficulties. These tax your nervous, hormonal, immune and digestive systems, and correspond to the signs of depleted ojas. Chronic fatigue is another condition that can develop if high levels of stress are left unattended.

Diminished ojas may also manifest as skin dryness, constipation, inflammation, irritation, negative thoughts and anxiety. In contrast, when your ojas is nurtured, you feel nourished and relaxed, your skin glows, your mind is clear and you are filled with vitality, creativity, happiness and compassion.

Yoga has been shown to help reduce the body’s stress response. In a study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2012, author Pallav Sengupta of the University of Calcutta concluded, “Yoga integrates sustained muscular activity with internally directed focus, producing a temporary self-contemplative mental state. It also triggers neurohormonal mechanisms that bring about health benefits, evidenced by the suppression of sympathetic activity. Thus, it reduces stress and anxiety, and improves autonomic and higher neural centre functioning.”

This study also provides multiple references to a body of research backing up the hypothesis that yoga, breathing and meditation practices may enhance the health of practitioners by down-regulating the HPA axis and the sympathetic nervous system.

How to nourish ojas

Happy nurturing relationships, joyful experiences, practices to support the heart centre, activities that bring contentment into your life, good sleep, immunity-strengthening foods rich in prana, abhyanga (Ayurvedic self-massage) and meditation practice will nourish and preserve your ojas.

Practices to amplify your energy

Ayurvedic doctor Robert Svoboda writes: “Prana is the life force, equivalent to the chi in oriental medicine. It strings body, mind and spirit together … and causes them to act together as a single organism. Tejas is the force of transmutation, which permits body, mind and spirit to influence each other. Ojas, the subtlest manifestation of the force of immunity, is the glue that cements these pieces together and integrates your being. [Together], prana, tejas and ojas unite body, mind and spirit.”

In order to maintain your vigour, innate intelligence and life energy, you need to conserve these vital essences — prana, tejas and ojas — and maintain them in balance.

The energy-amplifying practices that follow have their roots in Ayurvedic and yogic traditions, and will help to stoke your energy supply, enhance your wellbeing, rejuvenate your body, reduce fatigue and boost your vitality.

Eat your way to energy

Ayurveda teaches that the foods you consume not only provide you with physical energy and satiety but also shape your mind, affecting your emotions and ability to think clearly.

Vedic philosophy introduces the concept of three gunas, primal forces of nature, the energies underlying matter, mind consciousness and all life. These forces are: sattva (purity, joy and balance), tamas (darkness, heaviness and inertia) and rajas (agitation and desire), and also apply to diet.

Sattvic foods carry the most prana, revitalising energy, and include fresh seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs that are in alignment with the cycles of nature and locally grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Nuts, raw honey, ghee, grass-fed butter and whole grains are all considered sattvic, and enrich the body with strength and vitality.

When it comes to sattvic cooking methods, Ayurveda suggests lightly cooking fruits and vegetables to enhance their digestibility.

Together with these foods, you may consider including the following Ayurvedic herbal supplements to boost your energy and vitality: ashwagandha, brahmi, chyavanprash and shatavari. These are available from local Ayurvedic practitioners or Australian online stores specialising in Ayurvedic products.

A vitalising bevvy

To enhance your vitality, a traditional Ayurvedic drink made of warm almond milk with powdered cardamom, cinnamon and ginger (a pinch of each) with raw honey or dates is delicious — and ojas-enhancing, too! To make, place all of the ingredients to taste in a saucepan and bring to a boil on low heat. If using dates to sweeten, once it has boiled, blend the mixture in a blender. Serve warm.

Revitalising dirgha pranayama

Dirgha pranayama (three-part yogic breath) is a simple, rejuvenating breathing practice that will increase the supply of prana — including oxygen — in your body, help reduce stress and anxiety and enhance your overall vitality and wellbeing, calming your body and mind and leaving you feeling refreshed. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start in a comfortable seated position sitting on the floor, a cushion or a folded blanket with your legs crossed, or on a chair. Relax your shoulders and keep your spine elongated with your upper torso above the hips. Gently close your eyes.
  2. Place one hand on your lower abdomen and the other on your upper chest and take a few breaths, noticing the movements of the body with incoming and outgoing breaths. Keep your breath smooth, relaxed and unstrained throughout this practice.
  3. Now, begin the three-part-yogic breath. As you start to inhale, your lower belly rises against your hand; as you continue inhaling, feel your lower chest and ribcage expand; as you keep on inhaling, feel the breath moving into your upper chest, top of the sternum and all the way to the collarbones where your inhalation finishes. These are the three parts: the abdomen, ribcage and upper chest.
  4. On exhalation, the movements of the abdomen, ribcage and upper chest are reversed. As you begin to exhale, your collarbones float down, your chest relaxes and your belly deflates.
  5. Continue for three minutes, feeling the breath rising and falling in your body against your hands. Spend a few moments feeling the impact of this pranayama before opening your eyes.

So hum meditation

This meditation involves synchronisation of your breath with the silent repetition of the mantra so hum, which translates as “I am that” and, in its expanded definition, “I am one with the universal consciousness, the ultimate reality”.

The so hum mantra relaxes the body and mind, helps you cultivate inner peace and joy, and facilitates better awareness and focus. According to well-known Ayurvedic doctor Vasant Lad, “When you inhale ‘so’, you are inhaling life. When you exhale ‘hum’, you are exhaling ego and limitation.”

To practice, follow these steps:

  1. Come into a seated position as described in the pranayama practice section. Relax your hands onto your thighs. Spend the first moments of your meditation practice observing your incoming and outgoing breaths.
  2. Take an unforced natural breath in through your nose, silently repeating to yourself the word “so”. When you breathe out, say the word “hum”.
  3. Allowing your breath to flow with ease, continue to silently repeat to yourself “so” on inhalation and “hum” on exhalation. As you settle into this mantra meditation practice, a short retention may naturally happen at the end of your breaths; allow it, if it feels effortless and unstrained.
  4. When you get distracted by the influx of thoughts, physical sensations, sounds or emotions, kindly acknowledge to yourself that your mind has drifted away and return gently to your breath and the repletion of the so hum mantra.
  5. Continue this way for five to 15 minutes. When you complete the mantra practice, give yourself a few moments to observe the after-effects.

Yoga for vibrant living

The modern lifestyle is very yang in nature (for example, active, outward, fast), so balancing it out with yin and restorative yoga practices may help you increase your vitality and reduce fatigue, rejuvenate your adrenal glands and replenish drained energy.

When your ojas is nurtured, you feel nourished and relaxed, your skin glows, your mind is clear and you are filled with vitality, creativity, happiness and compassion.

“Yin yoga works wonders in so many ways and, when practised by students who are suffering from fatigue and low energy, the results we see are outstanding!” effuses Mysan Sidbo, a senior yoga teacher, teacher’s trainer and the founder of Mysan Yoga — The Sanctuary on the NSW Central Coast.

“When we come in to the stillness in a yin yoga class, we work to nurture, hydrate and free up the physical body and its fascia,” Sidbo explains. “Gradually, we start to reset our energy flow and calm our minds. There is almost an immediate positive result of increasing energy and decreasing the sensations of fatigue for the students as they embark on a regular yin practice. Working to elongate the area of our spine to release stagnation around the spinal canal, nerves, glands and our vital life systems is a great way to start.”

For an enlivening asana (posture) practice, include long-held yin poses such as butterfly and caterpillar (seated forward folds) sphinx and saddle (backbends) as well as twisted roots (supine twist). Remain in each for at least three minutes, resting between poses for at least one minute in savasana or prone on the floor.

Conclude with viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) held for at least five minutes followed by longer relaxation in savasana.


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Mascha Coetzee

Mascha Coetzee is a yoga teacher, holistic health coach, nutrition assistant and linguist, and a practitioner of hatha yoga, inclusive of ashtanga, vinyasa and yin yoga. She integrates the wisdom of yoga, Ayurveda, CTM and modern research in her lifestyle and teachings. Mascha is based in Launceston, Tasmania.