Ayurveda Day 9: Yoga

Let’s talk about Yoga!

This is a sensitive subject for me. The truth is, yoga as it is done in the west is predominately only a sliver of what yoga actually is. The poses, or asanas, are what dominates the western image of yoga. This is undoubtedly a part of it, but is only one part amongst and eight-fold process towards yoga’s ultimate intention: union. Even though I know that these poses can be a window into a much larger practice, I do feel too much of it is lost in our unfortunate desire for body image.

But before I dive into defining yoga, you may be asking
“What does Yoga have to do with Ayurveda?”

Great question! In fact, both are sister sciences and overlap.
Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India and the medicinal side of yoga.
Yoga is any practice that helps us move towards self-realization.

Fairly broad definitions, and rightfully so. There are countless different styles of yoga practiced in India, and here in the west, most manifest in the form of the poses. The emphasis has been on fitness here, but without trying to shed more and more of our ego to move towards peace and stillness in our hearts, it is not yoga. Even if it’s got Bikram’s name on it (again, don’t get me started).

To better understand yoga, we need to know the four yogic paths:

- Karma Yoga
– Bhakti Yoga
– Jnana Yoga
– Raja Yoga

I could talk about all of these in depth, but today we will focus on the Yoga you all know and partially practice, which is Raja Yoga, codified by Sri Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.

In Sanskrit, the foundation of yoga is known as Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha. Translated, this means “to eradicate the disturbances of the mind to attain union”.

My instructor had great metaphor for this. Imagine that yoga is a clear body of water, still and unmoving. In it’s stillness, it reflects the sunlight, the trees, the mountains, and more. Yet even though it reflects a lot, the water is so clear and deep; you can see all that lies within the water as well. However, drop a single pebble into the water, and the ripples will obscure all of this clarity.

The water is the union within us, the peace, the clarity, the tranquility. Whenever we think a thought, good or bad, it generates a karmic effect. Those ripples disturb us and confuse us, creating much of our suffering. The more thoughts we have, the more tumultuous and undulating the effect on us.

Here is the eight fold path one can take to achieve Self-realization as outlined by Patanjali:

1: Yamas – to restrain or control (discipline of the senses)
2: Niyamas – restraint of the mind (internal discipline)
3: Asanas – poses or postures
4: Pranayama – breathing practices
5: Pratyahara – sensory withdrawals (less distractions)
6: Dharana – focus of concentration
7: Dhyana – sustaining your dharana
8: Samadhi – oneness

If you already practice asanas, that’s great! But also realize this path is best followed in order (but better followed in any order than not at all). See if you can incorporate the other parts of this path as well. All the others take place within our thought pattern anyway, so by practicing and combining all of these together with your asanas, you can create that pristine lake within you and find that peace.

With gratitude,

S

Ayurveda Day 8: The Raging River

I do not even know where to begin today.

Today’s class was very in depth. We spoke of the philosophy and history of Ayurveda (and subsequently India). It was very interesting for me as both an Indian and a student who grew up in the west to be learning about all of this, and hearing other people’s interpretations. My soul feels great being around so many people that are interested in my culture and what it has to offer, and my ego feels possessive of it as though being an Indian somehow means others can never truly understand it as deeply as I can (yes I know how narcissistic that sounds, but that’s what you get when you let your ego do the talking!).

There is a story that is central to the symbolism of the struggle everyone faces inside their heart and mind (I won’t get into the story as that could be a whole essay in and of itself). Essentially boiled down it talks about the conflict within us all to make harmonious or disharmonious decisions.

There is a quiet whisper always within us telling us the right path to take. Then there is the loud cacophony of our ego that is a master at manipulating and rationalizing our disharmonious choices. Our ego seeks desires, and will do anything to get them. Our soul will only be patient and wait, and when we are willing to listen, it will always be there. This relationship between these two sides of ourselves was what this story was speaking to, and it spawned great discussion.

I’m starting to see why so many people are so attracted to religion. It’s partly because of the stories.

Let me state clearly:

Ayurveda is not a religion! Nor do you need to be religious to benefit from it.
Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit words ayus, meaning life, and vedas, meaning knowledge. Ayurveda is the knowledge of life!

Ayurveda however is so old that it predates even written text. It was passed down through countless generations via stories before every being recorded. Stories were a primary method of communication and preserving knowledge before there even was written language. A lot of those stories still contain within them the knowledge we use in Ayurveda today, although we can easily translate those stories into more linear forms now. Still, the stories are important to know to honour and respect Ayurveda’s roots, and because there is a lot to be gained from analyzing and reflecting on a story vs reading an answer in a textbook. Plus stories are fun! They spark dialogue. It is pretty difficult to talk about Ayurveda without talking about all this history and all these stories.

But these stories are just a tool. They are a tool we can use on our path to self discovery and better health. Indeed, every experience we have in life is just an opportunity. But if we hold on too tightly to these stories, these tools, these experiences, they become attachments and weigh us down.

Let me put it this way (in a story!):

There is a man who has been living his whole life on one side of a river. He has known nothing but his life on this side of the river. He has not even stopped to think of what may be across the river.

But for some reason, one day, he sees something across the river that makes him curious. He can’t say what it is, can’t quite make it out, but knows he must get across this river one way or another. He feels if he could just get to this thing, whatever it is, it will be what he has felt was missing in him his whole life.

He does not own a boat nor can he afford one, but he decides that he will make one. He has never made a boat before, and spends months building one. It goes through several iterations and he makes mistake after mistake. Still, eventually, he makes his little boat and paddles across the river, proud and with an adventurous spirit in his heart. The river is dangerous and he almost doesn’t survive the journey as the weather rained hard on him and the river was raging.

But he makes it across the raging river, exhausted and purged, having proven something to himself. He looks for what caught his eye and inspired his journey in the first place and sees that it is across a desert now, and at the edge of that desert lays a mountain.

Tell me, should the man take this boat with him, knowing what lies ahead?

The man feels attached to his boat. He worked so hard on it. He developed a connection with it as he paddled alone across the raging river. The boat understands something about him that no one else can. He panics and feels that he needs some reason to keep the boat. He thinks about tying it and leaving it there, but worries that someone may steal it. He soon concludes that it is too precious to leave alone and even though he may not need it again, he should keep it in case across that mountain lays another river.

And so, he straps it to his back, and walks across a desert carrying a useless boat.

There are many tools we can use in this life to conquer the rivers we keep in our hearts and minds that separate us from our true nature and feed our ego. But those same tools that help liberate us can also be our anchors if we do not learn to let them go when the time comes.

In the meantime, we all sometimes feel like we’re up the creek without a paddle, so let’s paddle together as my course continues.

With gratitude,

S

Ayurveda Day 7: Perfect Health

Today we had our first class with our new instructor, Marisa Laursen. We discussed more on the meaning of Ayurveda and Svastha. Simply translated from sanskrit, Svastha means “perfect health”. The word comes from the words Sva (Self) and Stha (Established, steady, solid). To be in perfect health in the ayurvedic sense is to be solid in the knowing of one’s own Self.
There are two distinctions to be made in the word “Self”:
– one is self, lowercase, meaning the ego or our lower nature
– two is Self, capital “S”, meaning the soul, or higher nature.

Now what do I mean when I say soul? Most of us can conjure up an image or a definition in our mind pretty quickly. But not all of us believe in such things. I need to preface that whether or not you believe in god or the soul, or practice any religion, truly does not matter from an ayurvedic perspective.

What matters is that everyone is on a personal journey towards their own inner truth. You do not need to be a theist to feel connected to all of existence.

I bring this up only because someone in class had a great question today. So much of Ayurveda does talk about the soul. How do we help someone who does not believe in god, or things that seem so related to religion?

As someone who identifies pretty strongly as an atheist, it may seem odd to people that know me that I have chosen such a seemingly spiritual path. But being an atheist has no bearing on my ability to discover truth when I meditate, or feel stillness when watching a sunset, or to realize how infinitely insignificant and tiny I am when looking up at the stars. Anyone on a personal path of self discovery can do Ayurveda. Ayurveda is for everyone, regardless of what they believe. It is only our own labels like “Atheist” and “Theist” that serve to segregate us more. These labels really compartmentalize us and separate us into having arguments about things we can’t prove or disprove. These discussions can be simultaneously entertaining and aggravating, but are merely a distraction and only serve to make us feel more disconnected.

I will say it again: Ayurveda is for everyone. And anyone can achieve Svastha.

There are certain things we need to understand if we want to be healthy. Knowing what causes disease will help us to understand how to reach Svastha.

From an ayurvedic approach, there are 3 causes of disease:

1) Misuse of Senses, or Asatmendyartha Samyoga
– taking in disharmonious sights, sounds, foods, smells, and sensations (ie – stress caused by a violent environment)
2) Failure of the Intellect, or Prajnaparadha
– knowing what is healthy but choosing to misuse the senses anyway (ie – choosing to eat fast food even though we all know it’s extremely unhealthy)
3) Transformation, or Parinama
– linear time and motion changes in nature (ie- seasons changing) that are beyond our control
– dynamic changes in our perception of biological time (ie- dwelling on thoughts of past or future) that can be within our control

There is also one higher cause of disease, which is forgetting our true self. Regardless, if we can understand these three causes of illness, we can then figure out how to heal.

I have made a flowchart to help better illustrate:
Flowchart

We will delve more into details on this as time goes on, and until then as always I wish you good health.

With gratitude,

S

Ayurveda Day 6: Food

There are many subjects I could have talked about today. The first two weeks of my course are now over and I get a new instructor next week. Dr. Halpern has been a great guide and has really helped us to incorporate self care into our daily lives. I have learned so much philosophically to help with my personal growth. I have learned much about the history of Ayurveda, and therefore part of the history of India, which I am grateful for. I am even more grateful that I still have two more years of learning and this was only a tickle of what is to come.

Amongst the myriad of those topics that I could write about to summarize my past two weeks, I thought I would write about something we all relate to: food.

Before I even took this course, I knew about the Ayurvedic way of eating. Luckily, a lot of Ayurvedic practices are just regular practices in India, and my parents have knowingly or unknowingly incorporated them into our lives growing up as children. But I am not going to talk about the kinds of foods my mom would make when we were sick, or what teas to drink to strengthen our immune system, or anything else like that (although valuable). Rather than talking about what to eat, we are going to talk about how to eat.

How to eat is in many ways more important than what you eat. This may surprise you. There are certain Ayurvedic guidelines that teach us how to eat in order to reduce or eliminate problems in digestion. Having done these practices, I can honestly say they work amazingly insofar as how disciplined you are in following them.

Before I talk about these guidelines, I need to preface:

You are what you eat. Quite literally in fact.
When you consume food, it becomes you. That food becomes the cells and tissues in your body. You absorb the nutrients, and those serve to make you who you are, in a very real and tangible sense.
Food also connects us to all of existence. Every piece of food we eat was made in a recycled process. From the moment of the creation of the universe to when all matter spread throughout the universe, our solar system was made. Our sun was forged and our planet welded by gravity. All the matter on our planet has made up everything – from the mountains to the trees to the animals and plants we eat. Whether or not you believe the food we consume has a consciousness, it is an incredibly grounding thought to realize that consuming food connects us with all of existence. If we are what we eat, then to quote Carl Sagan, we are starstuff. We are consuming starstuff! By consuming it, we are becoming it again and again! That is a revelation worth paying some more attention to, and a poetic enough perspective to inspire a new discipline of eating.
Unfortunately, we rarely if ever acknowledge what we put into our bodies as anything more than a necessary inconvenience or a guilty desire ridden pleasure. If we become more mindful of how we eat and why we eat, it will in return improve our health. From an Ayurvedic perspective, there are Ten Healthy Eating Guidelines that will optimize your digestion. If you are ready to step into a larger world, click the link. The consumption of food will no longer seem a chore and will become something of it’s own meditation, a path towards one’s inner truth. Let’s turn eating food into a cosmic journey.

With gratitude,

S

Ten Healthy Eating Guidelines

    As referenced in my previous article, here are ten Ayurvedic guidelines to optimize your digestion:
    1) Eat in a clean, beautiful, and calm environment
    Have a clean space to eat in. Remove anything that isn’t necessary for your eating or that fails to provide calmness (papers, clutter, junk, dead plants, etc). If you are in a cluttered space you will become distracted, and it will create a cluttered mind. Devoting your mind to the act of eating will prevent indigestion as your whole body will be working in harmony to digest the food.
    2) Say Grace Before Eating
    Some of us believe in god, some of us don’t. You do not need to thank god before you eat if you don’t want to. The idea is to express gratitude. Gratitude is a great way to ground ones self and reduce drama. My professor recommends taking three breaths before eating: One is for the food and all those involved in getting it to your table. Two is for your body for taking the time to digest and to be healthy. Three is to connect you to the divine, the universe, or to life itself. Whatever works for you. You do not need to be a theist in order to express gratitude.
    3) Chew your food slowly
    Digestion begins in the mouth. If it is not chewed properly, large chunks will not be digested correctly and will cause gas and bloating (amongst other things). Take your time. Chew food until it is an even consistency and then swallow. This is a very important step.
    4) Eat without distraction
    Being distracted has many bad side effects. Our mind will drag us into drama, emotion, the past, the future, and more. It will move our focus off eating and we will forget to follow other steps, like chewing slowly. Also, when the mind is focused solely on the purpose of digestion, you will increase the effectiveness of your digestion. Digestion is much better as a thoughtful process than a passive function. Avoid TV, talking too much, reading, or straying into thoughts. Eat as a form of meditation and your experience will become more profound and efficient.
    5) Eat until you are satisfied, not full
    There is a difference between being satisfied and being full. One should not feel heavy or weighed down after eating. Overeating causes these symptoms, and it impairs digestion, creating accumulation of toxins in the body along with gas and bloating. Part of being mindful when eating will be that you will be able to listen to your body and know when you are satisfied. Eating too much or too little is not optimal. A good rule of thumb is to eat until 75% full.
    6) Take only half a cup of fluid with meals
    Fluid helps us to digest our food. A small amount can lubricate our throats. But if we have too much, it dilutes important enzymes and acids that aid us in our digestion. It is best just to have a little water before hand. If the meal is already moist enough, no water at all may be necessary. Water is great, but it has it’s time and place and is best between meals. Make sure to give some time before drinking water after a meal is complete.
    7) Avoid cold liquids
    Room Temperature is best for liquids. Cold drinks weaken digestion.
    8) Rest after meals before the next activity
    Perhaps the old adage of “wait 30 minutes before swimming” was on the right track. The enzymes that are secreted that aid in digestion and the blood that flows to the digestive system after we eat need rest in order to function properly. Physical and mental activity will result in a decrease of enzyme production and cause blood to flow away from our digestive system. We won’t be able to absorb nutrients properly or as efficiently. Wait at least 20 minutes before engaging in other activities.
    9) Wait at least three hours between meals
    We should eat only when we have an appetite. There is no need to eat exactly 3 meals a day. It vastly depends on the person. When your appetite is diminished, forcing yourself to eat just because it’s “dinner time” isn’t necessary. Your appetite will return when it returns. Similarly, eating too much between meals because we desire them is also not healthy. We must try to notice the natural rhythm of our appetite to avoid eating too much or too little. Waiting between meals helps prevent us from being too full or from upsetting this natural rhythm.
    10) Eat your largest meal at noon
    Eating larger meals when we awake or when we are about to sleep contribute to indigestion. Smaller meals at breakfast and dinner (if you are hungry) will keep your appetite most strong at midday, allowing it to coincide with biologically when your digestion is at it’s strongest.

    Most of these guidelines are easy to follow and take place before or after eating with little to no effort. You may find some guidelines more difficult than others. I find it difficult personally not to get distracted or to chew more slowly. Be patient and the practice will turn into a routine. I wish you well on your path to healthy digestion!

    With gratitude,

    S

    reference of these guidelines is credit to “An Introduction to Ayurvedic Lifestyle” by Dr. Marc Halpern

Ayurveda Day 5: Witness

Yesterday I said Ayurveda is a science of health. But I need to clarify this point even further:

Ayurveda is a science of personal responsibility.

In order for something to qualify as Ayurvedic, we must know three things:
– the nature of the patient
– the nature of the imbalance or disease
– the nature of the medicine

If we do not look at all three of these criteria, then it is not Ayurveda. There is no miracle panacea that will cure all. Those that proclaim such things are the ones that truly give Ayurveda the stigmas it has in the west. My professor always says, and I am paraphrasing:

“Nothing is right for everyone. Everyone is right for something”.

Without knowing the three natures I stated above, we cannot really help people. What works for you may or may not work for your brother, and what works for your mother may or may not work for you. We have to always look at those three criteria before helping people. In this sense, information from the patient becomes exceedingly important, and knowing our patient is key. This is where it becomes tricky.

It is impossible to truly know another human being. Sure, there are ways I can assess your physical body. But I can never know what is truly going on in you mentally or emotionally unless you are truthful, and you cannot be truthful to me unless you forgo ego and judgment. You have to know yourself by bringing awareness to yourself. You must become an observer of your own health, a witness.

The problem here lies in that we do not like to think about our various shortcomings. We don’t like to admit to our choices as being the cause for our suffering, and when we do, we become apologetic, stubborn, angry, dismissive…judgment rules us.

However, if we can bring awareness to ourselves, we can overcome this judgment. We can witness our own health without blame or credit and simply become more in tune with our true nature. We can find that peace and balance that is so elusive in today’s society. But we must get out of the way of ourselves first. “Man is something that must be overcome” as Nietzsche wrote.

But how do we stop judging ourselves? How do we stop from getting in the way of our own healing? It is so much easier to expect someone to just “fix” us. But what use is finding a cure for what ails you if you continue to do that which gave you the disease in the first place? I will say it again: Ayurveda is a science of personal responsibility.

Our health is largely defined by our choices. These choices come in two flavours if you will: conscious and unconscious. Another way to say that is our tendencies vs our free will.

In Ayurveda we can help assess a person’s tendencies, be it physical, mental, or emotional. These are the responses we tend towards in life, and they are not right or wrong. Some people prefer being hot to being cold. Some people get angry when stressed, others become anxious and worry. The beauty is that we always have the ability to make a choice that overwrites those tendencies which cause us imbalance by exerting our free will. You may tend towards being critical of yourself or others when stressed, but you can still make a choice to let go of that judgment in favour of acceptance and compassion. With physical tendencies that create imbalance, there are Ayurvedic treatments that you can choose to do that will help as well.

Without the ability to take a step back from our tendencies, our habits, our reactions to life, we have lost all free will and are shackled to our suffering, doomed to repeat it over and over. This is what most of us unconsciously do. We make excuses to be unhealthy, be it in body, mind, or emotionally. But if you can understand that your tendencies don’t make you a bad person, can forgive yourself, and exert your free will instead – now you have become that witness to your own existence, and can truly know yourself. You will become more mindful of yourself. Slowly through practicing and creating better habits or disciplines, you will remove those obstacles within you. It takes patience and practice.

Part of our homework has been to slowly incorporate practices of self care into our daily routines. Involving but not limited to meditation, oral and nasal hygiene, self massage, etc. We are taught to journal these practices, even if we only approximate them or rush them, or even to journal the fact that we did not do them. This a tool we can use to bring more mindfulness to our routines, and slowly, through time, that mindfulness will evolve those practices into being as common as brushing our teeth every day. Without practice, knowledge simply becomes a lot of stuff you know how to talk about but always swear to practice tomorrow. Tomorrow is always one day away though isn’t it?

“An ounce of practice is worth a ton of knowledge” – Swami Shivananda

With gratitude,

S

Ayurveda Day 4: Addiction

A large intention of mine before starting this program was to be healthy. Ayurveda is a science of health, and in order to help other people as a healer, it is important I understand how to be healthy myself. It would be the equivalent of having a personal trainer who is not physically fit, or a doctor who recommends you quit smoking, but who is themselves a smoker. Being healthy is not a bad byproduct of getting an education, especially when so many people suffer from stress and pressure in their schooling due to the balancing act that must take place between it, health, sleep, social engagements, work, etc. I am quite fortunate to be studying in this field.

One of the challenges posed to us last week was to practice meditation daily and keep a journal, and also to recognize our addictions and start to quit them. I have been learning that meditation can help to curb those addictions.

But how do we recognize addiction? Addictions can manifest in many ways, and aren’t always as obvious as the person who smokes everyday, or the person who has a drug habit. The reality is, almost certainly all of us are addicted to something in our lives, and it has an adverse affect on our health.

For example, many of us are addicted to coffee. We have it every day, thinking nothing of it. Although it doesn’t seemingly have many side effects and is touted as a healthy stimulant, it does create dependance, upsets digestion, and creates symptoms of withdrawal when removed from our system. The same can be said for sugars (ones occurring naturally in our foods withstanding). Sugar has been linked to so many health problems, from obesity to heart disease and more. But so many of us over-consume it nearly every day without thinking twice.

I decided to quit coffee last week, and limit my sugar intake. Luckily, this wasn’t that hard as I don’t drink coffee that often and have never had much of a sweet tooth. But many in my class have been struggling with it. One person in my course shared her struggle of trying to quit sugar and having almost no will power. It truly can be a problem we are unaware of until we make an effort to bring awareness to ourselves.

But addictions aren’t always things we put into our body. They can be anything that upsets our system on a regular and habitual basis. Many of us are addicted to TV, our phones, and the internet, using distraction as a vice. Maybe we are addicted to negativity, complaining about too much in our lives without expressing gratitude. Perhaps we are addicted to drama and feeding our egos.

Bringing awareness to one’s own bad habits is a key aspect of moving towards healthiness. I myself have many addictions I will need to address as time goes on. And although I felt tired this morning in class choosing to forgo all caffeine, there are always healthy alternatives. Deciding to eat some fresh vegetables woke me up much better than coffee ever has, and without any negative side effects. I can always go to bed earlier as well.

My worst habit though is distracting myself to decompress – video games, internet, netflix, etc. I often get irritable without “me” time spent in this way. My goal is to practice meditation daily after work in order to decompress, hoping to become less dependent on my electronic vices. It’s still “me” time, but just far more healthy.

I’ve got two options – one, be the Clinical Ayurveda Specialist who can’t practice what he preaches, or two, embody what I am learning and lead by becoming a healthy example of what Ayurveda can do for people.

With gratitude,

S



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