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How ayurveda can heal the body and mind


middle age woman doing yoga meditation

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Long before modern scientists discovered that poor diet, lack of regular exercise and stress can have adverse effects on your health and wellbeing, Ayurvedic practitioners in India had a complete system of treatment that could bring balance to the mind, body and spirit.

One of the reasons Ayurveda has gained momentum over the past few years is it not only offers a holistic approach to wellness, providing valuable insights into the foods, exercises and relaxation techniques that will balance your particular constitution, but it also offers a way to love and accept yourself.

“When we live life on the basis of being balanced in the body and mind, the face and skin look naturally vital and we literally radiate a fresh, happy, peaceful feeling from within,” says Pratima Raichur in her Ayurvedic beauty book, Absolute Beauty (published by Harper Perennial).

Through the eyes of an Ayurvedic physician, you are beautiful and perfect simply because you’re you.

The Western notion that to be beautiful you must have a Barbie-doll body and Hollywood hair is completely at odds with the Ayurvedic idea of beauty. Through the eyes of an Ayurvedic physician, you are beautiful and perfect simply because you’re you.

One of the key tenets of Ayurveda is your body shape and size as well as your hair colour and even facial features are all determined at birth by your constitutional type (see below). It means that if your body type is vata, you’ll probably always be on the skinny side, while kapha types will always find it hard to achieve the rail-thin American size zero the media presents as our modern ideal of the perfect body. The idea is that when you balance your body type and eat, exercise and live in ways that keep you in tune with nature, then self-esteem and self-love automatically flow.

Following an Ayurvedic health program helps you give up the self-beatings and feelings of low self-esteem that come with the belief that you should be a different shape or size or look a certain way. Living in tune with your type gives you the freedom to accept yourself — just the way you are.

Discover your constitutional type

Are you predominantly vata (air), pitta (fire) or kapha (earth)? Try this quiz to discover your constitutional type. Once you’ve discovered your type, you can make positive changes to all aspects of your life, including health, energy, relaxation and self-esteem.

Choose the one answer that represents you best.

PHYSICAL

  AIR FIRE EARTH
Height Very short or      very tall Medium Tall
Weight Low Moderate Overweight
Frame or bone structure Thin Medium Thick
Joints Knobbly, dry Well-proportioned Big, well-formed, lubricated
Musculature Slight, prominent tendons Medium firm Solid
Skin Dry, rough, cool, brownish or blackish yellow Soft, oily, warm, freckles, fair, moles, reddish Thick oily, pale, white, cold
Hair Thin, dark, coarse, kinky, curly Fine, soft, fair, oily, yellow, red, early grey Thick, plentiful, lustrous, dark or light
Teeth Protruding, big, crooked, receding gums Medium-sized, yellowish, soft gums Strong, white
Eye size Small, narrow or deep-set Average size, penetrating Large, attractive, prominent
Eye colour Dark brown, grey Light blue, grey, hazel Dark blue or light brown
Eye lustre Dull Intense, bright Attractive, lustrous
Mouth Small, dry, thin lips Medium Large, full lips
Sweat Minimal Profuse when hot Moderate and sometimes present even when not exercising
Elimination Dry, hard, constipated Regular, loose, soft, oily Thick, heavy, slow
Temperature Craves warmth Loves coolness Dislikes cold
Sleep Scanty, interrupted Sound but short Deep and prolonged
Appetite Variable, scanty Good, excessive, irritable without food Slow, steady
Taste Sweet, sour, saline, astringent Sweet, bitter, astringent Pungent, bitter
Thirst Variable Excessive Scanty
Endurance Expends energy quickly and is exhausted Manages energy moderately well Good stamina
Activity level Busy, fidgety, unfocused Moderate Lethargic, lackadaisical
Speech Fast talking Sharp, clear, precise Slow, sometimes laboured
Sex Intense, quickly, expended, fantasises often Strong desires and actions Slow, passion maintained
 TOTAL SCORE

PSYCHOLOGICAL

  AIR FIRE EARTH
Mind Restless, superficial, more thoughts than deeds Aggressive, intelligent, precise, logical, good follow- through Calm, slow, steady, good organiser
Memory Poor long-term Good, quick, sharp Good retention
Faith Changeable Strong convictions Steady, not easily changed
Dreams Fearful, flying, jumping, running Fiery, sometimes violent, vivid Watery, romantic, not very vivid
Emotions — positive Creative, motivated, charming, mutable Leadership qualities, clear-minded, witty, engaging Loving, serene, graceful manner
Emotions —negative Fearful, anxious, insecure Aggressive, jealous, judgemental Greedy, possessive
Work Creative, flexible Intellectual, problem-solving Caring, diligent
Financial status Poor, spends quickly on trifles Moderate, spends on luxuries Rich, saves money
TOTAL SCORE

Mostly air

Vata type

As constitutional types, vata people are changeable, mercurial and sometimes quite challenging. They are unpredictable but their variability in size, shape, mood and action is also their trademark. Vata types can be funny and spirited. Mental and physical energy is delivered in bursts with vata types. Many are prone to worry and persistent negative thoughts. A vata child may wake in the middle of the night, screaming from a nightmare. They characteristically sleep little and sleep is often interrupted.

When vata is in balance, these types are happy, fun, enthusiastic and creative. They have clear, agile minds and are very sensitive to changes in their environment. Vata types respond readily to smells and touch and generally hate loud noise. A tendency to impulsiveness can cause vata people to over-extend themselves and you can find them collapsed in a heap after a busy day.

The best advice for a vata type is to get plenty of rest. Vata types benefit from regular practices such as yoga, meditation and gentle walks, although they are likely to resist anything that demands consistent, focused attention.

Vata types generally have light, thin builds, sometimes with very small breasts and, conversely, sometimes with very large breasts. They lose weight quickly and rarely feel ravenously hungry. When they settle their energies, vata types can achieve improvements in their health quite quickly.

Mostly fire

Pitta type

One of the first things you will notice about a pitta type is their penetrating gaze. They have sharp minds and acute perceptions and are not easily swayed. Pitta people suffer from the crash-and-burn syndrome. They don’t tolerate long and arduous periods of hard work too well. While they can fire on all cylinders for a while, the flame eventually snuffs out and they need time for R&R.

Pitta people are often recognisable by their hair and skin. The hair is usually straight, fine, blonde, sandy brown or red and it can grey early. Baldness, thinning hair and a receding hairline can be a sign of a strong pitta element. Pitta skin is often yellowish or reddish and often has a smattering of freckles and moles.

Physically, pitta types are medium-sized, athletic and well-proportioned. When they are in a balanced state, they maintain their weight without dramatic fluctuations and maintain a positive, upbeat and focused frame of mind. Pitta types have a strong metabolism, good digestion and, as a result, a strong appetite. It’s not unusual for a Pitta type to get irritated if they are not fed on time or have to go without a meal.

These types like to consume large quantities of food and cold drinks and have a natural craving for sweet, bitter and astringent tastes (astringent is something like tea or asparagus). Pitta types are passionate people with strong cravings and intense opinions. You generally know where you stand with a pitta person.

Mostly earth

Kapha type

Of the three types, kapha people generally enjoy robust, good health. And on top of that, they most often have serene, happy and contented natures. The quality that probably most defines a kapha type is slowness. They are reluctant to move in the mornings, speak slowly and deliberately and often have sluggish digestion. Physically, kapha types are well-built with broad hips and shoulders. They have a tendency to put on weight that usually appears on the hips, thighs and bottom. In fact, putting on weight is often a given for kapha types, who are naturally inclined to enjoy lounging around.

Kapha people most often have smooth, pale, thick skin that is prone to oiliness. Large, soft, doe-like eyes are also typical. Kapha women have a “Botticelli angel” sort of quality that manifests itself in a curvaceous body and a tranquil and seductive demeanour. Kapha men often have a cuddly bear-like quality about them and present emotionally as pillars of strength.

When kapha is in balance, these people are strong, serene, diligent and hard-working. When they’re out of balance, they tend to laziness, possessiveness and lethargy. Often, the first sign of imbalance in kapha is a sluggish digestive system and constipation. While kapha types are not generally enthusiastic about exercise, it turns out that it’s the best medicine for these types — kick-starting the metabolism and ridding the body of toxins.

Kapha types hate cold, damp weather and often get depressed in such conditions. Kapha types sleep long and deeply and crave at least a good eight hours per night. After a slow start to the day, kapha people have energy long into the night and have the reserves to burn the midnight oil.

Balancing your type

In Ayurveda anything you do, think, consume or imbibe can have a healing or harmful effect on your particular body and mind. For example, some people find that eating spicy food is health-giving while for others it can cause ulcers and heartburn. Understanding that we all have different needs helps us design a health plan that is tailor-made to suit our individual natures. Ayurveda contends that when you live in a way that is in tune with your nature, then self-esteem, self-acceptance, love, compassion, kindness and serenity increase and flow in your body and mind.

Vata balancing plan

  • Daily routine
  • Regular gentle exercise
  • Soothing mantra meditation
  • Sweet, sour and salty foods
  • Warmth
  • Early nights
  • Nourishing oily self massages — daily if possible
  • Bubble baths
  • Lots of rest, especially when tired
  • Wearing bright, warming colours such as gold, orange and green

Affirmation: Repeat daily to help balance the mind, body and spirit:

“I am in tune with nature and at peace with myself. I love and accept myself and am safe in my world.”

Avoid:

  • Overwork
  • Too much worry
  • Too many stimulants
  • Late nights
  • Too much sex
  • Cold in general
  • Icy-cold food
  • Dry, windy weather
  • Extra-spicy foods

Pitta balancing plan

  • Daily time-out to relax
  • Creative visualisation meditation
  • Hatha yoga
  • Weekly non-competitive sports
  • Daily swimming
  • Laughter
  • Cool, shady places
  • Weekly gentle aromatherapy massage
  • Sweet and astringent foods
  • Wearing soft, pastel shades

Affirmation: Repeat daily to help balance the mind, body and spirit:

“I am a loving and compassionate person. I radiate love and attract loving energy in return. I am calm, cool and collected.”

Avoid:

  • Spicy foods
  • Too much sun exposure
  • Too much exercise
  • Overwork
  • Too much red meat and alcohol (especially red wine), caffeine
  • Too much competition

Kapha balancing plan

  • Mental, emotional and physical stimulation
  • Travel
  • Change
  • Daily aerobic exercise
  • Daily fresh air and bushwalks
  • Daily dry-skin brushing
  • Warm, spicy foods
  • Wearing vivid colours such as red, orange and gold
  • Weekly stimulating massages

Affirmation: Repeat daily to help balance the mind, body and spirit:

“I have all the energy I need to accomplish all my goals. The universe supports me and gives me everything I need at any given moment.”

Avoid:

  • Cold and damp weather
  • Too much sleep
  • Lethargy
  • Heavy, fatty foods
  • Lack of exercise
  • Lack of mental stimulation

Your constitution and your digestion

Ayurvedic practitioners believe that many of the diseases common to humans are the result of poor digestion. They contend that a buildup of toxins, known as ama, accumulates in the digestive system and eventually lodges in the tissues, causing states of imbalance and eventually disease.

The three types, vata, pitta and kapha have very different powers of digestion and it’s helpful to know how your body is predisposed to digesting food:

  • Vata types often have delicate systems with erratic digestion.
  • Pitta types tend to have powerful digestive systems that are intense and less vulnerable to digestive disorders.
  • Kapha types, who can gain weight easily, have slow and sluggish digestive systems.

While everyone is different and we all have different and variable powers of digestion, there are some general Ayurvedic rules that help all types cultivate healthy digestion. Follow these guidelines to assist your digestive system:

  • Raw and cooked food should not be mixed at the same meal, unless the amount of one is small, such as a small amount of raw alfalfa as a garnish. Nor should fresh food and leftovers be consumed together.
  • Avoid processed foods, fried foods and overcooked, undercooked, burnt, bad-tasting, unripe, overripe, putrefied or stale food as well as cold leftovers.
  • Only people with exceptionally strong digestive fires (generally only balanced pitta types) can make raw food their sole diet.
  • Eat mainly heated food to stimulate digestion. Hot food enhances the digestive fire, while cold foods reduce it.
  • Dairy foods (such as milk, butter and ghee) kindle the digestive fire and nourish the tissues.
  • Stroll about a hundred steps after a meal to assist the digestive process. But do not exercise, have sex, study or sleep within an hour of eating.
  • Do not eat heavy foods such as yoghurt or sesame after sunset.
  • Do not eat within two hours of going to bed at night.
  • Ayurveda contends the best foods for all types to become accustomed to eating regularly are ginger, buttermilk, rice, wheat, barley, white daikon radishes, grapes, mung beans, pomegranates, onion, garlic, rock salt, wild game, goat’s meat, goat’s milk, cow’s milk, cow’s ghee and honey.
  • Foods for all types to eat in moderation are yoghurt, dried meat of any kind, sheep’s milk, safflower oil, dried vegetables, molasses, cheese, processed foods and frozen foods.
  • A pinch of grated fresh ginger with a pinch of salt will stimulate digestion.
  • A teaspoon of ghee with rice helps digestion.
  • Do not overeat or under-eat.
  • Drinking water immediately before or after eating will adversely affect digestion.
  • A glass of warm milk with ginger taken at bedtime is nourishing for the body and calms the mind.

Organic and Ayurveda

Many thousands of years ago, when the Ayurvedic sages and practitioners were working out the foods that were right for particular constitutional types, all foods were grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers or chemicals. Any food could be considered “organic” because it was unadulterated by chemical processes. Today, the term “organic” is bandied around so much that it’s almost impossible to get a clear sense of what it really means.

Because Ayurvedic practitioners believe that all foods can be considered either medicine or poison (depending on how they’re used), generally they will recommend foods that are whole, fresh, unprocessed, not microwaved, not reheated, cooked with loving hands, free of toxic chemicals and organically grown and produced.

The central aim of Ayurveda is to reduce toxins in the body and mind. In this context, organic crops that have been grown without the use of artificial chemicals are considered the best for our health.

When you buy your food, it’s worth noting that chemicals such as aldicarb, a highly toxic insecticide used on potatoes, citrus fruits and soybeans, and trifliurin, a known carcinogen and catalyst for chronic disease that is used on carrots, cannot be washed off. These chemicals find their way into every part of the fruit or vegetable and are consumed by us, sometimes in large amounts.

In a perfect world, all the produce we eat would be organic. However, that’s not always possible. The following three steps will help reduce the adverse effects of dangerous chemicals:

  • Wash thoroughly: Washing produce can remove at least 29 per cent of and as much as 98 per cent of residues, depending on the type. Because some pesticides are oil-based, washing produce with a mild soap can further reduce the residues.
  • Buy seasonal produce: Many fruits and vegetables are sprayed with pesticides before shipping. Buying summer fruits during winter poses the greatest hazard.
  • Look for certification: Most organic green grocers label their produce and pre-packed organic foods will always show the logo of the body to which they belong. If you’re interested, you can ring the organic organisation in your state or territory.


 

Nikki Goldstein

Nikki Goldstein is the author of Lifeforce and GirlForce: A Girl’s Guidebook for the Body and Soul (ABC Books), which are based on the ancient Indian life science of Ayurveda.