Why you need to know about Ayurveda, the latest wellness craze

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Photo credit: MarynaYakovchuk/MILHRANDT YULIIA/Getty Images; Tiberius Catinas/Grateful

Ayurveda pronounced (eye-your-vayda) is one of the oldest wellness systems in the world, dating back thousands of years. However, in recent years, as yoga has gone more mainstream, Ayurveda has experienced a peak in popularity. Its purpose is to mindfully maintain a healthy and strong body through diet, exercise and overall lifestyle practices — something we could all use a little help with, right? In case you are curious about the ancient practice and how it can be applied to your life, here’s what you need to know.

What is Ayurveda?

The word Ayurveda is translated from Sanskrit as “the science of life.” It is the traditional natural medicine of India dating back over 5,000 years, making it the longest medical system in continual practice in the world. It is also the medical or healing branch of yoga, helping to prepare our bodies for long-term health. In addition to the physical body, Ayurveda refers to the subtle body, mind, soul and chakras.

“Yoga and Ayurveda are both Vedic sciences and were always practiced simultaneously,” Erin Casperson, Dean of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, told me. “If yoga is the path of self and spiritual realization, Ayurveda is the path of physical and mental well-being.”

The traditional science of Ayurvedic medicine is designed to bring the body back into balance so it can heal itself. I also talked to Larry Mangel, certified Ayurvedic practitioner at Shanti Yoga and Ayurveda in Philadelphia, and he said, “When our bodies are in balance according to Ayurvedic methodologies, and they are kept detoxified through an Ayurvedic diet with herbs and spices, we will experience sound mental and good physical health.”

Why it is beneficial?

Ayurveda is deeply rooted in diet. “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; when diet is correct, medicine is of no need,” reads one important Ayurvedic proverb. However, unlike other diets that simply restrict carbs, sugar or fat, Ayurveda is deeply rooted in wisdom, Casperson points out.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to diet from the Ayurvedic standpoint. To eat the Ayurvedic way, an individual must first take a deep look at themselves. “Ayurveda teaches that we are all a unique combination of five elements: air, space, fire, water and earth,” explains Mangel.”It is like our DNA and RNA.”

For simplification, Ayurveda breaks everyone down into three body types:

  • Vata dosha or winter: a combination of air and space. They are “what moves things in our body,” explains Mangel.
  • Pitta or summer: Fire and water make up this dosha, which is the energy of our metabolic functions and digestion.
  • Kapha or spring: Water and earth combine to “build things.”

According to Mangel, the idea is that Ayurveda heals our bodies by helping to keep the three doshas as close to where they were when we were born. Disease begins when the combination is disturbed by our lifestyle — say, when we don’t get enough sleep or are over-stressed — and diet. For example, each time we fly, it can increase Vata or the movement in our bodies. “Bringing our bodies back into balance will help us heal and be healthy,” he points out.

How to get started with Ayurveda

To determine your constitution, you must take an Ayurvedic dosha or constitution survey, which can be found online. However, the most effective method is visiting an Ayurvedic practitioner, whom you can find on the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) website.

Ultimately, Ayurveda is a practical and meaningful approach to living, explains Mangel. “We want a lifestyle, not just a diet, and Ayurveda delivers. It recognizes that we all have unique needs, and my experience with students and clients is a relief that their intuitive nature about what their bodies actually need is verified by Ayurveda.”

Adds Casperson, “What Ayurveda provides us is the opportunity to remember who we are as body, mind, senses and soul, and connecting with the natural world as we are meant to be.”

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Tips on incorporating Ayurveda into your life

Even if you aren’t willing to fully commit to an Ayurvedic lifestyle, there are still elements you can incorporate into your life. Here’s what the experts suggest.

Follow an Ayurvedic routine: Sometimes referred to as Dinacharya in Ayurveda, this routine will help bring balance to the body. According to Mangel, one of the most important parts of the routine is a daily oil self-massage called Abhyanga. Vata and Kapha should use warming sesame oil and Pitta should use coconut oil.

Learn your body type and eat for that type: “Ayurveda says, ‘We like what we are, which can cause imbalances,'” explains Mangel. For example, Pitta constitutions usually love hot spicy foods that disturb their constitutions, while Vata constitutions love raw foods that are not helpful. Unfortunately, in this system, opposites heal. Vata, being a cold and dry constitution, is best served eating warm and moist foods. Pitta’s strong metabolic fire can eat some raw foods and is balanced when cooking with cooling spices like cilantro, cumin, fennel and turmeric. Kapha, which usually has more mucus, should watch the amount of dairy they eat and cook with ginger and black pepper to help speed up their slow digestive qualities.

Eat relaxed: Avoid eating when you are stressed so that the nervous system can properly digest our food. “Eating relaxed means away from technology, stressful conversations, work meetings and on the go while walking or driving,” advises Casperson.

Promote good digestion: Mangel suggests consuming your biggest meal around noon, eating only natural organic unprocessed plant-based foods, and avoiding overeating and eating between meals and before bed to ensure better digestion. Also, avoid cold or iced beverages.

Develop a meditation practice and find yoga poses that help balance your constitution: For example, standing poses and balance poses help ground the restlessness of Vata. Those with high Kapha should do a hard and fast sweaty practice.

Slow down and disconnect: Casperson suggests taking time to be mindful outside or on your yoga mat so you have the opportunity to integrate the complexities and messiness of having a human spiritual experience called life. “We are spending an average of 11 hours a day connected to screens and not to ourselves and each other,” she points out. “Take time every day away from your screens, or take a half or full day technology fast.”

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Eat seasonal foods: “When we eat what is in season we can be assured that nature is giving us foods with qualities that are the antidote to the qualities of the season,” says Casperson. For example, when it’s hot in the summer season, eat cooling foods from the garden. When it is cold and dry in the winter, eat cooked root cellar foods. In the spring, when it is damp and cool, eat light invigorating green goods.

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