Do you often feel stressed, unwell or out of balance keeping up with the daily pace and expectations of modern life? Introducing small, achievable lifestyle habits following the principles of Ayurveda could make a huge improvement to your physical health and emotional wellbeing.
Ayurveda is the classic Indian philosophy of living that has been trusted and passed down for centuries. As a sister science to yoga, together they explain a lifestyle that promotes holistic health for the body, mind and spirit.
Ayurveda considers the being as a whole and teaches ways to avoid illness or ‘dis- ease’ in the body. Eating according to Ayurvedic principles and following a daily routine increases your prana, life energy, and through yoga you will learn to stabilize this energy through physical postures, breathing and mediation.
1. Understanding your doshas
Ayurveda considers us to be made up of three energies, doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. We all have differing elements of each dosha within us which form our character and physicality.
When you know what your constitution is made up of, you can make changes in your diet and daily routine to bring balance. If one or two doshas are particularly dominant, you can pacify them and then build up other doshas. Try taking an online quiz like this one, or better yet, visit a Ayurveda health practitioner, to discover your dosha make up.
Vata, Pitta and Kapha
Vata: air and ether (space). In the body vata is responsible for movement and activities of the nervous system. Those with a lot of Vata are sensitive and creative, able to think outside the box and full of energy. They may get easily distracted however and can be prone to anxiety and depression. Their mood is highly dependent on the weather, people around them and foods they eat. If unbalanced, vata can contribute to physical ailments such as arthritis, restlessness and stomach or digestive issues.
To pacify a dominance of Vata, Ayurveda suggests:
- Maintaining a daily routine.
- Relaxing through restorative yoga and meditation.
- Taking walks in nature with (safe) exposure to the sun.
- Avoiding too much caffeine.
- Getting plenty of sleep.
- Avoiding situations that lead to sensory overload.
- Oil massage.
- Strength exercises for stability.
- Drinking warm drinks and cooked, soupy food.
Pitta: fire and water. In the body, the Pitta dosha controls digestion, metabolism and energy production. Those with dominant Pitta can be ambitious, sharp-witted, direct and practical. They can also be hot headed, emotional and argumentative. If out of balance, health ailments such as inflammation of the joints, acid reflux and indigestion, and excessive heat the body may occur.
To pacify a dominance of Pitta, Ayurveda suggests:
- Cool nature walks.
- Avoiding direct heat from the sun and saunas.
- Avoid competitive sports and situations of conflict.
- Eat smaller regular meals of cool and raw foods,
- Make time to meditate and reflect.
Kapha: is responsible for the structure and stability within the body, Those with high kapha energy are typically strong with healthy stamina and good digestion. They are often warm, loving and thoughtful. Out of balance they may become stubborn and unreasonable. Physically, ailments such as heaviness, lethargy, laziness, constipation and excessive sleep are possible.
To pacify dominant Kapha, Ayurveda suggest:
- Stay physically active exercising regularly. Fun activities like dancing or team sports may be of most interest.
- Challenge yourself with new experiences and changing up your routine to keep things fresh.
- Avoid too much sleep or a sedentary lifestyle.
- Stay warm with cosy clothes and drink warm herbal teas throughout the day.
- Eat light, warming foods and avoid oily or heavy meals. A detox day each week with juices, soups and herbal tea will help boost metabolism.
2. Create a daily routine
Ayurveda places importance on our daily routine. At different times of the day, the doshas, energies within us have differing strengths and dominance so can impact digestion of food and sleeping. Here is a schedule that aims to work with our natural rhythm.
- Rise before 6am when vata energy is strong. Have a glass of warm water with lemon or ginger.
- Have a light breakfast as the agni, our digestive fire, is light.
- Exercise in the morning if possible.
- Have a main meal during pitta time 10am- 2pm.
- Eat a smaller warm, nourishing dinner around 6pm so it’s fully digested before bed.
- Do a calming activity during evening kapha time avoiding too much screen time.
- Sleep before 10pm before Pitta energy kicks in.
- Those with dominant vata need the most sleep, 8- 9 hours, and will benefit from a warm bath or oil massage to calm before sleeping.
- Those with more pitta 7- 8 hours can try breathing or meditation before sleeping to relax.
- Those with more kapha need less sleep, 7 hours and should rise early before 6am and have an active morning.
Of course, in reality it’s not always easy to follow a strict routine and get the optimum sleep levels with young children or work commitments. But being more mindful of what you do at different times of the day and taking steps towards finding a rhythm that you can stick to will help your energy levels and mood.
3. Follow Ayurvedic diet
“Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”Hippocrates
Ayurveda presents us with a lot of information about how and what to eat in order to help digestion, nourish our bodies and keep our mental state positive. Knowing whether you have a dominant dosha could be helpful in making food choices that would be of most benefit to you as an individual.
Agni is the body’s digestive fire. Healthy agni allows food to be digested effectively to form strong tissues, Dhatus, and avoid the build up of undigested food. Malas, waste, should be removed from the body through excretion quickly to stop toxins to build up which may lead to illness.
To keep agni strong, eat light meals at the same times each day of easily digested food. Consider periods of fasting such as an early dinner followed by a later, or no, breakfast. Don’t eat when you are not hungry and find ways to reduce stress levels in the body which really impact effective digestion. Ginger tea and plenty of warm water helps keeping things moving.
Principles of eating
Food is celebrated and enjoyed following an ayurvedic diet so it should be delicious and appeal to your senses. However, it must also be nourishing and well balanced.
- Look for food in season. In winter go for warm and rich foods and in summer cooler and light choices. Aim for whole foods grown organically, locally or with the least amount of chemicals possible.
- Avoid drinking too much during eating, sip warm water and avoid cold drinks. The blood vessels will restrict in the tummy making nutrient absorption less effective.
- Don’t eat too much, aim to only fill your stomach half with food, and then a quarter liquids and a quarter empty if you can.
- Consider intermittent fasting to give your system a break. Those with dominant vata energy should only do this for up to 16 hours. Those with pita and Kapha could benefit for longer periods. However, please never starve yourself. A healthy relationship with food and your body is more important that restrictive eating. Be kind to yourself.
- Prepare food and eat in a positive and calm environment where possible.
I think deep down we all know these concepts work, it is putting it into practice that’s the tricky part. Taking some time to meal plan or researching easy takeaways that are prepared using these principles can be a good step forward.
Eating for your dosha
Ayurveda is quite specific when it comes to the foods that should be eaten to pacify dominant doshas and balance energy. A great overview can be found here with detailed information. https://goop.com/food/recipes/ayurveda-how-to-eat-for-your-dosha/.
Some broad tips:
Vata is cold and dry so foods that are warm, oily, moist, smooth and nourishing can negate the an imbalance in the body. Avoid sugars and excess salt and focus seasoning on pungent spices like pepper, mustard seeds, ginger, cloves and cayenne which help stimulate the digestive system. Eat lighter meals, vegetarian or white meat and fish.
Pitta is represented by heat so favour cool foods over hot. Nourishing, light and dry food will be best received and drinking cool drinks like juices helps. Include lots of legumes and you can eat a small amount of chicken, seafood but avoid red meat. Bitter, sweet, and astringent tastes work well.
For Kapha, warm, light, and dry food and lightly cooked meals works well. Hotter spices will boost the metabolism. Those with kapha should avoid sweet, fried and fatty foods. Salt should be reduced and dairy avoided. Stick to light evenings meals.
For all doshas it is recommended to consider which foods are eaten together. It gets a little complicated here! For a detailed overview this is a great resource https://www.ayurveda.com/2021/08/24/incompatible-food-combining/
Foods that give us positive energy in the body are considered ‘sattvic‘ foods. Wholegrains, fresh vegetables, ripe fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes, organic dairy, mild spices and natural sweeteners such as honey and jaggery are all considered sattvic foods. A plant based or vegetarian diet is optimal and considered more nourishing, less likely to cause disease and environmentally friendlier. Even cutting down on meat will make a difference to your body and the planet. Just make sure you keep protein and iron levels up from other sources. I aim for a 80/20 mentality. If you are getting it right 80% of the time, a treat here and there is OK.
I could fill this page with recipes but for now I’ll link to a wonderful collection of happy, healthy meals:
4. Practice Yoga regularly
The practice of Yoga includes breathing exercises (pranayama), movement and relaxation that aim to benefit the physical body and our minds. As a beginner to yoga, it’s best to attend some foundation classes to understand the correct physical posture alignment and breathing exercises.
There are a wide range of Yoga styles and classes that concentrate on different elements and will suit different people. Those with vata energy will lean towards movement and flow, but will also benefit from more relaxing styles such as yin as well as building strength and stability. Those with Pitta will enjoy the energetic elements of ashtanga and strengthening postures. They could add in a more relaxed flow to their practice. And those with kapha, could chose more dynamic movement to increase metabolism and boost their energy levels with vinyasa.
Here is an overview of the physical practices to consider.
- Hatha is the foundation of yoga and covers physical sun salutations, postures held for a moderate amount of time, breathing and relaxation.
- Ashtanga is a variation of Hatha that has broadened the postures with a complete 60 or 90 physical routine of sun salutations, asanas and relaxation
- Yin is slower where seated postures are held for 2-10 minutes in order to release tension in the joints and connective tissue more deeply and rest the mind.
- Restorative yoga is more restful that holds yoga poses for a longer duration using props like yoga blocks, blankets, and bolsters. It is a practice of deep relaxation that emphasizes the meditative aspect of yoga.
- Iyengar yoga was developed by B.K.S Iyengar and emphasizes the detail and precision of the poses, often using props to help achieve the correct alignment.
- Bikram yoga, or often now referred to as hot yoga, is a series of 26 poses performed in a warm and humid room. The heat helps with flexibility and detoxification.
- Many new and fun styles, hip hop, aerial, have developed over the years with teachers enjoying keeping the practice fresh.
5. Promoting positive mental health
Ayurveda philosophy teaches us that the mind reacts to the information we receive from our physical senses and conditioning learned from our lives and interactions.
We can be in one of three states, or gunas. Sattva is the natural, healthy state of mind which is harmonious, stable and clear. We feel strong, positive and enthusiastic with a sattva mind.
Reacting to negative thoughts or unhealthy food choices, the mind can become in a state of rajas which turns into agitation and tension and looks outwards to material gains to achieve happiness, rather than finding balance within. We may feel anxious, aggressive, jealous and restless.
The mind may also move towards tamas which may make us feel depressed, lethargic, destructive and judgmental. We may feel unable to focus on our own and others wellbeing and resistant to positive change.
The goal of an Ayurvedic lifestyle is to promote sattva to calm and uplift the mind through meditation and positive thinking. Gunas impact personality and thoughts in conjunction with the doshas of the body. For example, someone who is predominantly of Vata dosha may be enthusiastic in sattva but anxious in rajas state, or depressed in tamas state.
Ayurveda and yoga suggests that we are not defined by our thoughts, but we are a separate consciousness called the self. Practicing yoga helps to still or slow down our daily thoughts whizzing around and discover our true selves. Through meditation we can train our ‘chitta’, the chatter in our mind to be quieter bringing with it a state of peace.
There are many excellent guided mediations online, or better yet find a practitioner who you can connect with in person. Effective meditation allows you to observe thoughts and feelings passing through your mind, accept the emotions these bring up, but try to separate yourself from them so they don’t overwhelm you. This isn’t easy and won’t happen immediately. However being able to balance your emotions has been proven to have huge psychological and physical benefits.
Although it doesn’t always feel like it, we are in control with how we feel by the way we react to the world around us. Strive for positive sensory experiences and avoid negative situations where possible. It may not be realistic to live day to day purely in positive environments, but by recognising what helps you find calm and harmony and introducing more of that where you can, these positive experience will leave a good impression on the mind.
Try to focus on connecting with nature, spending time with people that lift you up and engage in creative art or music in whichever form speaks to you. Limit your exposure to media and influential people who are negative in outlook as it will impact your vision of the world.
“Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds.
You can plant flowers or you can plant weeds”
Listen to your thought process and try to reframe your thoughts into positive statements and affirmations. You could practice mantras, repeating short statements over again to help steer and focus the mind. This may sound ‘out there’ but in yoga we believe the vibrations positive statements bring out loud actually impacts the physical body from a cellular level.
Life is meant to give us positive and negative situations and traumatic things will happen to us in many forms. It’s all part of the human experience. There will be times when it’s impossible to think positively, and that’s OK. But if you feel trapped in a tamas state where the world feels bleak without much hope, reach out for help either from loved ones around you or professional councilors in whatever way is possible for you. Know that storms can and will pass, but sometimes you need help to see that.
The Ayuveda philosophy has much to teach us, and whilst following it completely may not feel achievable, take some time to reflect on what in your life you think needs the most attention. Take small steps every day, introduce habits slowly and you are more likely to achieve long term change. And always look to your community or find people that can support you with the changes you want to make. Time with a Ayurvedic practitioner would be extremely valuable if that is an open for you. And as ever, show yourself kindness in this journey called living.
Credits and for a more reading:
- Practical Ayuveda Sivananda Yoga, Vedanta Centre, DK books.