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Archive for the ‘Vata’ Category

In my last Ayurveda Foundations post, I described the main qualities of Vata dosha (the energy of Air and Space): dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile and clear.

In human beings, Vata’s primary responsibility is to coordinate movement and communication. When Vata is in balance (i.e., when it is maintained at the original baseline level set at an individual’s birth), then that person’s movements and communications are effective and healthy.

However, when Vata dosha gets elevated above an individual’s unique “norm,” then signs of Air and Space emerge: cracking joints, dry skin, constipation, weight loss, insomnia, poor circulation, pain, stiffness, tremors, irregular heart beat, fatigue, and ringing in the ears.

In the mental-emotional realm, aggravated Vata can create fear, anxiety, worry, forgetfulness, and an inability to focus. “Spaciness” is a sure sign of excess Space element, a component of Vata.

What causes Vata dosha to get elevated? According to the law of “like increases like,” exposure to Vata’s qualities will cause Vata to go up. Some common culprits include windy weather and eating leftovers (incarnations of the dry quality), high altitude and caffeine (light), cold weather and frozen food (cold), crunchy chips and granola (rough),  repetitive thought patterns and recreational drugs (subtle), excessive exercise and travel (mobile) and staying up late (clear).

Since Vata is responsible for movement and change, it plays a critical role in maintaining overall balance – and it is often implicated when balance is lost. According to the ancient texts, more diseases arise from an excess of Vata than from the other two doshas combined.

During the particularly changeable and dry seasons of autumn (and sometimes winter), Vata is high, as it is in our elder years. Considering our cultural tendency towards constant movement (with air travel, commuting, and multi-tasking as our norms), most Western city-dwellers consistently experience high Vata. The persistent influence of cyber-“space” doesn’t help.

Therefore, it is wise to take extra steps to keep Vata dosha from getting aggravated.  The best antidotes contain the opposite qualities to Vata: oily (moist), heavy, warm, smooth/slimy, gross (substantive), and stable. Bring on the oatmeal with ghee, slow walks on the earth, and a steady meditation practice!

In the next post, we will dive into the intricacies of Pitta dosha, the energy of Fire.

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As explained in the previous Foundations post, according to Ayurveda there are three organizing forces (or doshas) in Nature called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Each dosha is made up of two of the major elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether/Space) and expresses the qualities of those elements.

Vata – The Energy of Air and Space

The Sanskrit word vata is related to the verb vah, meaning vehicle, to carry or move. This meaning underlines the importance of mobility in describing Vata’s character. Like the Air element, Vata moves easily as it is light-weight and insubstantial. We can feel Vata’s presence in the wind and in the movements of our bodies and minds.

When Vata is present, it expresses its inherent qualities, causing the things around it to take on and reflect those same qualities. The qualities of Vata are dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, and clear. When these qualities are evident, we know Vata is involved.

For example, if someone has a thin body with dry skin, cold hands and feet, rough and irregular digestion, quick-moving thoughts and they can adapt easily to new environments, we would say Vata dosha is dominant in that person. If the weather is changeable or the seasons are transitioning from Summer to Autumn, Vata is dominant in the environment.

In the human body, Vata is responsible for all movement, circulation and rhythm. Its functions include speech, nerve impulses, flexibility, respiration, coughing, the heart beat, peristalsis, elimination, menstruation, labor, orgasm, clarity, and joy, to name just a few.

Vata brings forth the desire for change and is expressed in variability, ranging from a change in clothing style to a change in career, done so simply to keep from feeling bored. Vata detests routine, tending towards spontaneity and exuberant expressions of creativity. Vata is the life of the party, always ready for the next adventure – and perhaps a little spacey at times.

Stay tuned to learn what happens when Vata dosha gets out of balance.

(And until then, Happy Father’s Day!)

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A pivotal concept in Ayurveda is the theory of the tridosha. This theory explains how and why energy moves in nature in certain ways.

Since humans are part of nature, this system also describes us. For example, it gives a rationale for why some people always get heartburn after eating tomato sauce, while others don’t.

The word dosha refers to an organizing principle or pattern. The ancient teachers noticed that certain qualities show up in nature together like a constellation and move in predictable ways.

They observed three primary organizing patterns in the world, and they correspond to the major elements. Since there is no equivalent concept in the English language, we use the Sanskrit terms for these three forces: Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

Vata dosha is made of the elements Air and Space (or Ether). Vata is the most mobile dosha (like air), and it is involved whenever there is movement – when wind blows the trees, when a rabbit’s leg muscles contract and he leaps, or when someone sneezes a piece of dust out of their nose.

Pitta is made primarily of Fire (although there is a little Water in there, too). In any instance of heat or transformation, Pitta is at work – when the sun heats the desert floor, when an apple core decomposes in your compost, or when your face flushes as you step up to the karaoke mic.

Kapha includes the qualities of Water and Earth. The heaviest dosha, Kapha is present wherever there is stability and structure – in the form of a boulder, or the stillness of sleep. Kapha also governs lubrication, both the moisture in the atmosphere and the moisture in the body.

The three doshas interact and influence each other in nature to maintain an overall equilibrium, balancing out each others’ qualities. At times, one dosha will be dominant, and then naturally give way to another dosha, creating a dynamic yet balanced whole. It is a beautifully comprehensive and complex system, which becomes clearer the more you learn about it and look for it (I promise!).

In subsequent posts, I will dive deeper into each dosha and explore how they govern the activities of our bodies and minds. Until then, let me know if you have any questions in the comment section below. I look forward to hearing from you!

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As an entrepreneur stepping back into the world of figuring out how to make an income, I have been spending a lot of time these days trying to accomplish, to create outlines and spreadsheets and sequential to-do lists, and to cross things off – my Pitta energy has been hard at work. I can feel this activity in my brain, behind my eyes, driving forward without regard for anything below my neck. It is all about thinking things through, making a plan, striving towards perfection. It is hard work. As one of my teachers said, “Pitta gets the job done, dragging the bloody body behind it.” Body? What body?

As I tell my clients, however, we are born with access to many strategies to move through life, strategies inherent in the three doshas that we embody. Creating a list and crossing things off, you could say, is the Pitta strategy. (Perhaps my fellow Pitta-dominant folks out there are familiar with this method.) Blessedly, we can call upon our non-dominant doshas to step up if we are overusing one strategy and getting out of balance. I realized I had fallen into the mire when I literally could not remember the last time I went outside just to take a walk.

So this week, I am reminding myself of the Vata way to move forward in a project, a more creative and spontaneous method that is less organized, but can be equally (if not more) powerful when I have driven myself into the ground and all I can see are dreary numbered lists in front of me.

Vata dosha is composed of the air and ether qualities, and consequently it can’t be lined up or pinned down. It flows and moves effortlessly around obstacles rather than beating its head against a closed door. One of its qualities is lightness – the opposite of heaviness, which can be useful, but also full of illumination and brilliance. It is the unexpected flash of insight, the colorful spark. It is quick and mobile, darting around and escaping stagnation.

When I start depending on my Pitta one-track-mind to move through my life, I need to be shaken up a bit. By relying solely on one strategy for “making progress” in my fledgling business or indeed my fledgling life as a newcomer to Austin, I need a reminder of the restorative power of flow and spontaneity.

Nature offers an easy, instant system reboot. Surrounded by trees, plants and things that move in cycles, I am reminded that life exists outside of my head, that I have a place in the world, that I am already “there.”

Here.

Sometimes all it takes is remembering to look up as I get out of the car in the parking lot.

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It has been quite the season of transition.

I am getting my feet nestled in the earth here in Austin, lining up my most important sources of nourishment for the winter ahead. It has been unsettling –  to be expected while establishing a new home base. Add in a few unexpected curve balls life has thrown my way, and suffice it to say, it’s been a wind-tossed Autumn.

The best advice I’ve gotten from one of my teachers about weathering this transition is, “Stabilize. Stabilize everything you can stabilize.” So I am working on fixing my routines and my practices. The irony I am finding is that, at this time when my life is unfettered by many of the external commitments that have in the past limited my ability to create a healthy routine, my current flexibility does not lend itself easily to internally-enforced structure. Again, not surprising, as any self-employed person can attest. It’s part of the life-long effort to pacify vata dosha amidst the turmoil of our information age. It requires tapas, the internal fire of self-discipline, to establish and stick to the routines I know serve my own sanity and joy. This trial by fire is working – it burns away illusions and makes me appreciate even more deeply the tools I have been taught.

My new (physical, literal) home continues its evolution alongside my own. With beautiful cedar siding now in place, it’s beginning to look a lot more like home. I shall not tempt fate by estimating a move-in date, but it is definitely moving closer.

A few weeks ago, the monarch butterflies were migrating through Texas on their 2,500 mile journey. I looked out my window one morning and saw a colorful scattering of them passing by. Their improbable, tenacious journey south on such papery wings gave me encouragement.

On this Veterans Day, as so many of our country’s soldiers, present and past, struggle with their own journey home, I hope for the day when we adequately honor their sacrifices by not creating more opportunities for more sacrifice. May there be peace in our time.

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It seems everywhere I turned this week, someone was announcing the arrival of Transition. On Friday we passed the autumnal Equinox when the sun appears to cross the equator from north to south heralding the first day of fall. Even in Texas, recent days have brought a palpable change in the temperature and the quality of light. At these times of seasonal transition, the buzz is that we are experiencing a moment of shift, a time-sensitive opportunity to let go and to prepare for the next season of our life – out with the old and in with the new.

I’m the Transition poster child, here in my new hometown with my new nephew, building a new house and a new private practice – I’m even physically in transit as I type this, writing from 30,000 feet in the air. And in truth, it seems everyone I know is in the midst of some fairly large transitional turbulence – a new marriage, a new job, a major remodel, a father’s death, an imminent relocation. Either I’m hanging out with a self-selecting crowd of transitioners, or there is a larger trend at work here. Being in transition seems to be the new black.

The implication of all this transition talk is that it’s somehow contained: we’re passing through a discreet blip on the calendar, an unsettled moment sandwiched between some larger, more serene moments. Pretty soon, we’ll get through it and be on the other side. We’ll be in the MIDDLE of autumn, in the full swing of the school year, firmly established in the second year of home-ownership. Things are gonna settle down. Any minute now.

What struck me today is that this sense of turbulence isn’t remotely unique to this spot on the calendar. The transitions just keep coming. There isn’t a period up ahead when life promises to stop delivering tectonic shifts. While I have caught myself blaming this condition on our modern lifestyle (“…we’re so addicted to speed and excess information and multitasking and hasty decisions prompted by marketing campaigns, no one makes time for stillness any more…”), in reality, it’s a fact of the human experience, just part of the package. The ancient Buddhist teachings on impermanence underline the ever-present nature of change. The only constant really IS change, and that was true even back when Heraclitus first said it in the 5th century B.C.

As common as it is, that doesn’t diminish how uncomfortable it feels (to most of us) to be in transition for long. According to Ayurveda, as I wrote in my last post, transitions (even “good” ones) aggravate vata dosha, which can lead to a variety of discomforts like stress headaches, constipation, joint pain, indigestion, feeling off-center, ungrounded or outright panic-stricken. Teaching us how to pacify vata is one of the great gifts of Ayurveda as a health system, helping us to tolerate the turbulence of life’s passage with greater ease.

As I prepared to get on this plane (one of the most vata aggravating activities out there), I reminded myself what would help me feel grounded and comfy in my skin in the days ahead:

  • Stick to my routines – to the extent possible, get up at the same time, eat at the same time, do my morning routine as usual.
  • Eat vata-pacifying foods – warm, moist, soft comfort food. (Soup and oatmeal are good bets to seek out in the slim pickings of an airport.)
  • Ask myself regularly, “Am I thirsty?” and then drink something, preferably something warm. At the very least, avoid ice.
  • Stay warm. Keep a scarf in the car. Cover my head, and ears in particular, when it’s windy out.
  • For God’s sake, don’t stop abhyanga (applying oil to the skin before showering) – this is an easy one to let drop by the wayside while traveling or feeling time-deprived, and all the more potent at those times.
  • Create some mental stillness. People-watch instead of trying to accomplish something during my connection. Close my eyes and breathe. Look out the window and daydream.
  • Think of something I’m grateful for, and then tell the responsible people. Dwelling in gratitude is the best anti-anxiety medicine there is.

So, welcome to autumn, my friends. Welcome to this time of transition – and to the one that’s coming right after it. Plato’s surprisingly timely words of advice remind us that humanity has been engaged in this turbulence all along:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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The foundation of my future home

It’s hard to believe that a short two months ago, I was in India – or that one month ago, I was in Santa Fe. The 31-day span of August seemed to expand beyond its margins with more life-passage events than most months can handle. For starters, I picked up my life and relocated it to Austin, Texas; my brother and sister and I convened for our first-ever “sibling only” reunion (i.e., no parents, spouses or children); construction began on my future home behind my brother’s house; one of my dearest sister-friends celebrated her wedding; and last Monday, I witnessed the birth of my nephew, Marvel.

And marvel, I have. He was born at home, slipping into this world noiselessly and stunningly beautiful in a birthing tub in my brother’s home.  Equally beautiful were his parents working in coordinated single-pointed focus to bring him into this world of oxygen and gravity. That sight, the visual imprint of their powerful love for this new life and each other, will never leave my mind’s eye.

Since the time they discovered Jeri Lynn was pregnant right before I left for India, I have been planning to be here to support their family during this tumultuous transition. It seemed like too much of a happy coincidence that their second child would be born precisely when I would have no scheduled commitments and could devote a month to them. It is such a luxury in our culture to have a family member who can move in and help with the logistics of life maintenance for awhile after a child is born. The contrast is dramatic coming from India, where family members converge for weeks on end to help new parents. I honestly don’t know how any parents do it on their own.

In Ayurvedic terms, giving birth is one of the most significant disturbances of vata dosha that can occur in a woman’s body. When the uterus has grown to such an enormous size and then is suddenly vacated, the resulting empty space unsettles the tenuous balance the body has found. Vata dosha is the tangible expression in the body of the elements air and space, and since “like increases like,” this newly empty organ acts as an invitation to vata to move in and wreak havoc. Going through any major life change that disrupts order and predictability also increases vata dosha, so welcoming a new baby upsets vata for the whole family. The results of vata elevation can include digestive difficulties, constipation, pain, anxiety and fear, muscle spasms or tremors, insomnia or mania, and full blown panic. Ayurveda offers many specific recommendations in the days after birth to help comfort and restore balance.

One of the primary treatments for anyone experiencing a vata imbalance is abhyanga, the soothing oil treatment I learned at Vaidyagrama. While abhyanga is often translated as oil massage, a better translation is oil application. In Sanskrit, Abhy means “every” and anga means “limb” or “part,” referring to the application of oil to every body part. Massage is less important than completely covering the body, as oil has a direct calming effect on the tissues. Abhyanga effectively replenishes the buffer between the inside and outside world and quiets the nervous system.

While our plan was for Jeri Lynn to receive a daily abhyanga , we feel pretty accomplished when we fit one in every other day.  We leave the massage table set up right next to the changing table. I love doing it, knowing what an enormous difference it makes during this critical time. Jeri Lynn has said it is already restoring her strength and sense of reserve. We’ve only gotten Ian on the table once, but I hope to increase his time there too.

The second most important tool we’re finding to calm vata is establishing new routines. Jeri Lynn and Ian already swear by the sleep schedule they set for their two-year-old daughter.  When they are off by even fifteen minutes, they can feel it in her behavior and general disgruntlement. Routines communicate directly to the body and mind, creating a structure that helps everyone feel more in control and less anxious. Children are often more sensitive to the subtle movements of the doshas, and we would do well to take cues from them, knowing that our bodies are struggling with the same influences – we’re just more practiced at pushing through a sense of unease or feeling out of rhythm. We are trying to stick to the meal times they have already established, and new routines incorporating Marvel are already emerging.

My third focus in the past week, and my biggest joy, has been cooking. I feel so strongly about the power of food to heal and nurture, it has been incredibly satisfying to cook during this intense time. Food carries energy as well as nutrients, and the meals I’ve been preparing have been such a tangible receptacle in which to pour my love, knowing it would go straight to their cells and hearts. To calm vata, I’ve been cooking primarily warm, soft, moist, easily-digestible food like soups and stews, including the Ayurvedic wonder dish kitchari.

Another important part of our diet these days is ghee, which we put on everything. A form of clarified butter, ghee is an amazing nourisher – it boosts natural immunity, increases digestive power, lubricates all tissues, relieves and prevents constipation, calms vata and pitta dosha, and tastes like heaven. It is easy to make at home (try it!), so I have been keeping a ready supply on hand. Jeri Lynn gets a nightly cup of warm milk with powdered ginger and a spoonful of ghee.

Off to school

Stepping into this part of my sweet family has been an incredible inspiration for me. From my niece, Koruna, I have been learning courage. Not only has she gotten a new brother, she also started pre-school last week, just days after he was born. While her teachers confirm that she is having a good time during the day, each morning she has been anxious and tearful. But each day, she keeps putting one foot in front of the next. Her trust and courage in the face of her apprehension is so tender, it’s almost heart-breaking.

I have also been awed by my brother’s patience. While his wife recuperates, he has taken on the lion’s share of Runa duty – which he loves. It has been so touching to watch their relationship deepen overnight. Runa has been holding herself together incredibly well, but she has dissolved into angry explosions of tears and demands with a greater frequency than usual. My brother greets each outburst with the same steady, quiet patience. While not in the least surprising, it remains incredibly inspiring.

Marvel and his mama

From Jeri Lynn, I have been learning the depth of generosity that is possible even when one is completely spent. She continues to make room in her life (and in her bedroom) for people to come in and share their love with her family in such a physical way. From inviting me to be present at the birth, to inviting her neighbor’s children over hours after Marvel’s arrival, she just keeps opening the door wider. That generosity of self keeps rebounding, creating a loop of giving and receiving that fills a house up with warmth.

And Marvel. He’s teaching me to drop whatever I’m doing that’s so important, to sit still and be present with every fiber of my attention, to dip into the deep well of wonder that I tend to forget is our inborn gift. He is indeed well-named.

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