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Posts Tagged ‘Ayurveda’

In a previous Foundations post, I described the main qualities of Kapha dosha (the energy of Earth and Water): heavy, slow, cool, oily, liquid, slippery/smooth, dense, soft, and stable.

In human beings, Kapha’s primary responsibility is creating structure, stability and lubrication. When Kapha is in balance (i.e., when it is maintained at the original baseline level set at an individual’s birth), then that person enjoys a sense of groundedness, stamina and compassion.

A two-toed sloth at the San Diego Zoo.

When Kapha dosha gets elevated, however, then excess mass or liquid can start to cause problems. Imbalances connected to the element of Water such as congestion, excess mucus, edema, and weight gain can occur, as can Earth element issues like cysts, tumors, gallstones, diabetes, and kidney stones.

In the mind and heart, excess Kapha can make a person feel lethargy, fatigue, “stuck in a rut,” a lack of clarity, or overly attached, greedy and possessive.

What causes Kapha dosha to elevate? Exposure to Kapha’s qualities (in the immediate environment around you, in foods consumed, or in the environment of the mind) will cause Kapha to rise in accordance with the law of “like increases like.”

Kapha-increasing foods are heavy, oily and sweet, like dairy, fried foods, meat, cake and ice cream. Cold and moist climates, iced drinks, sedentary lifestyles, napping during the day and sleeping in a soft bed can all increase Kapha.

Kapha is most present in the early years of childhood when our bodies are responsible for growth and building. Kapha is also high in the damp, wet season of Spring, when allergies often unleash a torrent of Kapha phlegm.

The best “medicine” for Kapha contains its opposite qualities: light, sharp, fast, warm, dry, rough, and mobile. It is of the utmost importance for Kapha types to engage in plenty of exercise and movement, avoid cold and heavy food, cook with ginger, chilis and black pepper, and cultivate devotion through chanting and yoga.

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Join me for a free webinar “Deepen Your Yoga with Ayurveda” on Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 7pm CDT (8pm EDT, 5pm PDT). Register and get more information here: http://ivyingram.com/free-webinars/

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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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Om gung Ganapataye namaha!

In Vedic tradition, at the start of new undertakings it is customary to honor and invoke Ganesha, also known as Ganapati. Ganesha represents that energy or force that clears the way before us, removing any obstacles that may be in our path.

He is depicted as the elephant-headed god in the Hindu pantheon, a powerful force to be reckoned with, but also a gentle soul whose dear companion is a mouse. A scribe himself, he is especially fond of academic endeavors, so I invite him to smile brightly on our virtual gathering here and bestow his gifts of reliability, dedication and brilliance. May our studies be filled with light!

What Is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is commonly translated as “the science of life.” With such a broad scope, Ayurveda offers an incredibly diverse set of teachings on how to maintain longevity so that we can fulfill our dharma, the mission or purpose that we are called to serve on this planet.

Established in the region that is now India some time between 2000 and 5000 years ago (depending on which expert you consult), Ayurveda is the oldest continuously practiced health system still in use today. More than a regional set of practices, it is built upon a coherent cosmology and set of principles that underpins local variations observed in different areas.

The word Ayurveda comes from the roots ayuh, which means “life,” and veda, which means “science or knowledge.” As a health system, Ayurveda includes the knowledge not only of how to address illness or disease, but of how to live well.

“Ayurveda” is a Sanskrit word, an ancient language that is not in common usage anywhere today. It continues to be studied, however, because so many ancient wisdom practices are preserved in Sanskrit texts, including many meditation traditions, Yoga and Ayurveda.

Ayurveda offers guidance on many lifestyle practices including dietary choices, food preparation, herbal remedies, methods for detoxification, behaviors to attain desired outcomes, yogic practices, appropriate exercise, and much, much more.

In my next post, I’ll cover the incredibly important concept of the tridosha, one of the pillars of the Ayurveda system. Stay tuned! Use the “subscribe” button at the top right of this page to have future posts sent to your In Box.

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And I do mean hot!

Today is the full moon, so my June Full Moon Newsletter is now available. Topics include:

  • Key strategies to manage the heat of summer
  • The Venus transit across the sun (from our earth-bound perspective)
  • Details on my free teleseminar, “Stop PMS and Menstrual Pain: How to Create Boundless Energy and Feel Great All Month Long with Ayurveda,” on June 26.

Let me know what lights you up in this issue, and what other topics you want to learn about!

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We’re going to Rishikesh! We just found out yesterday, and we fly out tomorrow – for ten enormous days. We are beset with laundry and packing pandemonium, interspersed with incredulous laughter and open-mouthed amazement at our good fortune. Some fairy godmother must be in charge around here.

I mentioned in a recent post that Vaidyagrama’s parent organization is organizing a conference in Rishikesh next week, and here at the last minute they have bent over backwards to make it possible for us to join them. The conference is five days long, and we are going to arrive about three days early for some sightseeing and to help set up. We’ll get to participate in the conference sessions as well as help out behind the scenes as needed. As one of the doctors here put it, “It is a golden opportunity.” Dr. Ramdas will not be coming but has given us recommendations on which speakers to hear – “You’ll have to come back and explain it all to me,” he laughed. I had no expectation of getting to the north of India at all during these six months, and now, with hardly a moment’s notice we are off to dive into yet another community of Ayurvedic scholarship. There is an air of magic to it all.

What I know about Rishikesh could fit in a thimble – or a blog post, as the case may be. Located near the northern border of India in the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh is home to a number of ashrams with deep spiritual roots and history, a mecca for yoga and meditation. Rishikesh itself is only about 1500 feet in elevation – not too high but enough to require a different wardrobe than we have acquired here in the south with our 90 degree afternoons. In Rishikesh, the highs will be in the 70s and it will get down to the 50s at night. We’ll need to make an early shopping excursion to purchase warmer clothes.

We will be staying at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, which would be a tremendous experience in itself even if there wasn’t a pool of Ayurvedic inspiration swirling around us. The five day conference is jam-packed with lectures, yoga classes, and roundtable discussions, with about 350 attendees, mostly Indian students, scholars and practitioners. Aside from hearing Dr. Robert Svoboda’s last lecture before his retirement from public life, I am also looking forward to being with Mother Maya, previously known as Maya Tiwari. She has written several books on Ayurveda and women, a rare focus in this ancient science, and I am eager to feel her presence and hear what she has to share.

Even with all of that, the most thrilling thing to me is that I will get to see the Ganges River. Such a central focus of Indian devotion, considered an actual goddess incarnate, I am eager to stand next to the mighty Ganga as she throws herself down from her source in the Himalayas, flowing right in front of the ashram. There are nightly aarti ceremonies in which candles are floated down the river, spreading the light. I can scarcely wait.

I will not be taking my computer with me, so there will be silence from my direction for the next twelve days or so. I have been ruminating on the effect of remaining tied to the internet while I am here – holding on to the familiar through email and websites – and have been wondering what it would be like to take yet a further step away in mental space, so this time in Rishikesh is an unexpected opportunity to take a technology sabbatical. I will write again once I am back and have had a chance to digest a bit.

Here at Vaidyagrama, it was announced this morning that, in light of our eminent departure, tonight there will be a “cultural entertainment” party. All are invited – patients, students, and staff – and all are encouraged to perform in some way, such as singing a song that represents your home country’s culture. I plan to sing “Amazing Grace,” with thoughts of my late grandmother Naomi, as it was one of her favorite songs. The gathering will be a sweet send-off and an apt reflection of the grace that is so palpable here. Sometimes it’s too easy to forget it surrounds us all.

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The Grown Ups’ Table

This past weekend, I chose to stay put while my classmates returned to Isha, a temple and meditation center that we all went to last weekend. I enjoyed myself thoroughly the first time we were there, but I didn’t want to leave Vaidyagrama again, at least not for awhile. In so many ways, this place feels like home. Deeply home.

In addition to that gravitational pull, there are other reasons to stay put. We are currently surrounded by the most amazing community of teachers, practitioners and Ayurvedic luminaries who seem to have flocked to Vaidyagrama en masse to receive treatment. Two weeks ago, our very dear teacher from the Institute, Dr. Claudia Welch, arrived with her husband Jim to go through treatment for a month. She was the one who originally recommended Vaidyagrama to all of us, and by a wonderful coincidence, we have ended up here at the same time as her. It is so sweet to see her here and to catch the occasional conversation with her on the pathways. Her very presence is inspirational, and to feel her presence here makes a sweet connection between our lives at the Institute and our education here. It really is all connected anyway.

Dr. Svoboda and Dr. Welch talking with a friend visiting from Brazil after a puja in which Dr. Svoboda played a priestly role (hence the garb).

And if we needed further evidence that this place is exceptional, the renowned American Ayurvedic scholar and teacher Dr. Robert Svoboda arrived shortly after Claudia and has taken up residence here in the very same building as us. We’ve all been to his workshops and lectures and read his books (I am actually reading one right now), so when we pass him on the pathways, it’s like passing a celebrity. We try to play it cool. More than once, though, I wished I had a camera on me when I saw my shoes sitting next to his by the building entrance.

I have also met a patient, Kathleen, who works at Banyan Botanicals, the fantastic Ayurvedic herb importer/supplier based in Albuquerque that was started by graduates of the Institute there. There has been some publicity in recent years about heavy metal contamination of herbs imported from India, as well as some herbs driven close to extinction by unethical harvesting practices here, so having a safe, ethical and sustainability-oriented importer in the U.S. is a tremendous thing. Last week, I was wondering if I could find a particular herb in the States that Dr. Ramdas suggested for my sister-in-law Jeri Lynn’s morning sickness, and it was just too coincidental to be able to simply walk down the path here in Southern India and ask Kathleen if Banyan carries it. (They do). It’s like the epi-center of the Western Ayurveda scene has picked up and moved to Vaidyagrama.

Dr. Svoboda and Claudia have been close friends ever since they met here in India decades ago as two of the few white people studying Ayurveda here. We hear them periodically playing cards in his room and chanting on the roof. Dr. Svoboda recently announced his retirement from public life and gave his last Stateside lecture in Austin in December, which I attended just before leaving for India myself. His last lecture in India will be next week in Rishikesh at a conference that Punarnava Ayurveda (Vaidyagrama’s parent company) has organized. We felt even luckier, therefore, a few days ago when Claudia brought Dr. Svoboda in to our classroom/dining room after dinner to talk with us about jyotisha (vedic astrology) and Barack Obama’s chart. According to Dr. Svoboda, President Obama’s chart is remarkable in a number of ways revealing a propensity for power, good judgment and intelligence. In jyotish, there is an aspect of chart-reading that lays a person’s life against a timeline and allows rather precise prediction of events and states of mind. In July 2012, apparently President Obama will enter a period marked by self-doubt and second-guessing. However, he will come out of it quickly, and it appears that by October – just before the election – he will be in a position of power again. Here’s hoping.

After Dr. Svoboda left the room, we all looked around at each other with stars in our eyes. To have a mini lecture from one of the biggest names in Ayurvedic scholarship while kicking back after dinner…  it’s like somehow we graduated from the kids’ table at Thanksgiving and got invited to the grown-ups’ table. In more ways than one, it continues to feel like a Thanksgiving feast around here.

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Every last Sunday of the month, Vaidyagrama hosts a “medical camp” in one of the nearby villages, offering free herbal medications and medical advice. This past weekend, we got to come along to help and to pick up what we could by observing since we certainly wouldn’t understand what was being said.

We arrived around 10:00 am to set up at the village administrator’s building, which was next door to the school and the bus stop on the main road. Dr. Vasant, one of the junior doctors, was the only staff person, plus four of us students. As Dr. Vasant innocently put it, “You all have white skin, while the villagers are mostly brownish in color, so you will attract some attention.” Indeed. We began to wonder if the entertainment of seeing us may have been a bigger draw than the medical help.

The first thing Dr. Vasant did when we arrived was to set up a sri Dhanvantari figure (the god of healing) on the table outside along with a small ghee lamp, and the village administrator lit two sticks of incense. Even here, spirit comes first. Dr. Vasant then asked us to alphabetize the bags of herbs and to familiarize ourselves with their names. He started seeing patients in the office, sending them out to us with a “prescription” for one or more herbs. The villagers tend to be manual laborers in the surrounding area, so the most common complaints were muscle and joint pain, along with some respiratory issues, colds and coughs, and a variety of bodily discharges. We took turns serving at the herb table and observing in the consult room, standing behind Dr. Vasant to try to read his patient notes, which were in English. Unfortunately, the illegibility of physician’s handwriting appears to be consistent across cultures.

There was no concept of privacy. People crowded in the room while patients told the doctor their concerns, and children roamed in and out playing games. Family members sat down one after the other, with the mother collecting all the herbs at the end. I felt intrusive at first being in the office observing, but after awhile, I felt like part of the crowd just listening in. It seemed no one was concerned about sharing the details of their ailments.

Ayurveda teaches that there are three main methods of assessment: observation, palpation and questioning. Questioning is certainly easiest for us novices, while observation and palpation require more training and experience. Not understanding a lick of what was being spoken provided a great opportunity to use my eyes and ears more intently. I tried to guess what the complaint was just from watching how the patients moved or their expressions. Occasionally Dr. Vasant would ask a patient to stick out his tongue, and the color or marks there would give useful information. I found myself trying to guess how old the patients were, and they were often as much as ten years younger than I thought – striking evidence of the toll their hard lives were taking on their bodies.

Around lunch time, a woman came into the office whom I recognized from Vaidyagrama. She smiled at me and came over and took my hand and started to lead me wordlessly out of the room. Dr. Vasant stopped talking to a patient and explained, “She lives in this village and she is going to make us some tea and snacks – you will accompany her to her house.” If you aren’t good at going with the flow around here, you’ll get more proficient pretty quickly! Emily and Lynn came along leaving Ras at the herb table, and off we went.

The woman kept hold of my hand as she led us down the street, attracting a trail of children as we went. Her name was Vali, and the few words of English she knew were, “Work Vaidyagrama – garden and kitchen.” Somehow, that was enough. She led us down a small side street to her one-room house with a cement floor and corrugated metal roof. There was a boy sleeping on the bare floor when we arrived, who rolled over to the side but remained prone the entire time we were there. Vali unfurled a mat for us to sit on and then brought us three orange sodas each in a different brand bottle and some sweet snacks that appeared to be store-bought. None of us really wanted orange soda, and I remembered all the warnings about drinking from a bottle you haven’t opened yourself, but it felt too rude not to take a few sips.

The children seemed to multiply around us, all smiles. Kavia was Vali’s daughter and appeared to be about 8. Emily had brought her camera, which provided unlimited entertainment. They all wanted to be in pictures with us, and then to see the picture in the digital display of the camera. Then they wanted to take the pictures. There was a lot of laughing. At one point, they turned on a TV (a remarkable thing to see in these surroundings), which we think was for our benefit, but when we ignored it to watch Vali cook, someone eventually turned it off.

Lunch was amazing, all cooked on one burner with a propane tank from a squatting position on the floor. We feasted on uttapam (savory spongy pancakes) with cooked cabbage, dal curry and coconut chutney. The one word of Tamil I’ve learned came in handy – “Nandri,” which means, “Thank you.” We repeated it several times.

At one point, a relation of Vali’s came by who spoke a bit more English and he helped translate a few more basic facts. Vali got out four prized photographs from a weathered envelope and showed us her family – twin boys, now about 15, Rohan and Lakshman, one of whom was the sleeping boy on the floor – her relative explained that he had been working all night (in addition to going to school), thus his sleepiness. She has another boy a bit younger than the twins who we don’t think was there at that time, and then Kavia, the youngest. There was also a father evident in the photo, and the relative explained he had left when Kavia was a baby and now had a wife in another town. Vali teared up as he explained that she was the sole provider now, and then she went back to cooking.

After we finished eating, Vali packed up food for Dr. Vasant and Ras and we headed back to the camp. There were no patients at that moment, so she served them both, including pouring water from a cup to rinse their hands when they were done. Then, with hugs all around, she headed back to her life – and I marveled again at how I ended up with mine. Dr. Vasant later commented, “She doesn’t own her house. Her rent is 750 rupees a month” (about $17 US). We could only guess what her income is. “Amazing hospitality, isn’t it?” Dr. Vasant said. We are still pondering what to do to thank her adequately.

Dr. Vasant and Kavia

For the last hour of the day, it was quiet, so we got to learn more about Dr. Vasant himself.  Thirty-one years old, he got married two years ago to a woman he met in school. She is a naturopath. Her parents were not enthusiastic about their marriage, because he is from a lower caste than her family. They decided to get married in secret, and then once her family warmed up to him, they had another wedding last year. He gives a very serious first impression, but his sharp sense of humor and joking streak catches you by surprise. I think he looks like a 1930’s Hollywood star.

At about 3 pm, we loaded the supplies into the jeep along with the four of us and the driver, and Dr. Vasant got on his motorcycle. However, instead of heading back to Vaidyagrama, Dr. Vasant led the way into the woods. Our driver didn’t speak English, so we couldn’t ask where we were headed. After ten minutes of winding down a rocky and increasingly impassable road, the vista opened up in front of us revealing a lake and the string of mountains we can see far in the distance from Vaidyagrama. Dr. Vasant flashed his winning smile and said, “I thought we should have a picnic,” and waved a bag of fried snacks in the air. It’s hard to know what to do with all the impressions made in just one day here….

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