“Ayurveda” is a word that often comes up on spa menus, but it’s actually an ancient Indian practice that encompasses many different aspects of life to promote health and well-being. Here, Felicia Marie Tomasko, an Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher, explains some of the basic tenets.
Q: What is Ayurveda? Can anyone follow an Ayurvedic plan, or is it better for some over others?
A: Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that means science of life. The science and philosophy of Ayurveda contains information related to how we can live a life in balance with our true nature and with the cycles of the natural world around us and within us. Part of the essence of Ayurveda is that we are all unique individuals and different types of routines, relationships with food and even the numbers of hours of sleep that we need or ounces of water we need to drink is related to that uniqueness. From this point of view, there isn’t one right plan or program that works for everyone the world over, at every age, in every climate or geographic location. In some ways, this frees us.
If the latest diet plan didn’t work for us, no matter how much we stuck to the letter of the law, it could mean that we did not choose the routine that worked best for who we are –our own true nature. What often happens is that someone finds a way of eating, or sleeping or being that helps them feel healthy, or allows them to cure a long-standing disease or imbalance and then they try to teach it to everyone, everywhere. It works for some people, but not for everyone.
The true secret is to be given permission to deeply listen to the self, with honest compassion and make choices that promote true health and well-being — of body, mind, heart and spirit. Not just well-being where we may feel a rush, a surge in blood sugar from too many refined carbohydrates, a jolt of energy from a double espresso or a temporary high, but the kind of well-being that allows us to feel at home in our bodies. Since Ayurveda more than acknowledges, but encourages, individual expression, it is possible to find a plan that suits each person’s needs. For example, some people thrive best on a gluten-free diet, some people need to drink more water than others and some people need to sleep more or fewer hours each night.
Q: How does an Ayurvedic eating plan vary from other other eating plans? Are there certain things you must consume and others you must steer clear of?
A: First, an Ayurvedic eating plan emphasizes the needs of the individual. Second, the health of the digestion influences the health of the entire body. After all, whatever we eat literally becomes us, and our digestion is the process by which this occurs. So in any Ayurvedic eating plan, healthy digestion is encouraged and cultivated. For example, some Ayurvedic recommendations include limiting the drinking of ice water during meals since ice water cools the digestive fire that is optimal at body temperature. It is important to leave enough time between meals (approximately three hours) for one meal to be digested before the next one is eaten. And, eat enough at each sitting to be satisfied, but not enough so that you are so full that the digestive fire is nearly quashed.
In general, Ayurveda favors foods that are described as being sattvic, foods that have a peaceful and nourishing quality. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other whole foods. Foods that are old, highly-processed, rancid (such as oils often used for deep frying), artificial (artificial sweeteners), overly sweet and salty or so on are not considered to be sattvic foods. Sattvic foods promote clarity of body, mind, heart and spirit.
Q: What kinds of physical exercise are encouraged?
A: Physical exercise engaged in from fifty to seventy-five percent of one’s capacity is the most important. If we exercise at or beyond our capacity, then we are putting our body into fight-or-flight mode and cause greater stress. Even though we may ask, “How can we progress?” when we are exercising below our capacity, the truth is that our capacity will increase through persistence and consistent practice. Any type of physical exercise that is suitable to the individual and is appropriate to the season and the climate is encouraged. For example, swimming in the summer in Southern California for a very fiery person would be more Ayurvedically recommended than running 10 miles in the noonday sun in the desert for someone who is very fiery.
Q: Is meditation a part of an Ayurvedic practice?
A: Meditation is an important part of Ayurveda because health and well-being is seen as encompassing not only our physical self, but our mind, thoughts, emotions, heart and even spirit. There are numerous meditation practices from traditions around the world. Ayurveda does not necessarily recommend one specific type of mediation, but encourages people to work with a teacher to discover and learn the practice most appropriate for their individual mindset and predilection. Many modern research studies are confirming what Ayurveda has emphasized — meditation actually helps to promote health on many levels, from assisting concentration, promoting increased feelings of happiness, contentment and compassion and even influencing our gene expression.
Q: What is skin brushing and why is it encouraged?
A: Skin or dry brushing is done before the shower or bath with a natural-bristled brush fires up inner heat through the skin, encourages lymphatic drainage and stimulates the immune system. It also awakens the body’s internal fires, can help alleviate depression or the blues, wake us up and even stimulate the digestive fire. It is good for helping to remove toxins from the skin and the lymphatic system. After dry brushing, massage with warm oil provides nourishment to dry winter skin assaulted by cold air and dehydrating central heat.
Q: What are the benefits of following an Ayurvedic plan?
A: The benefits include the promotion of overall health and well-being-from feeling awake and happy when first waking up in the morning, to sleeping better at night. Many people have even found relief from long-standing health conditions as a result of discovering and living by plans that help them to engage in daily practices that actually promote health and well-being. Every day, in every single one of our choices, we have the ability to choose activities that help us to feel healthier — body, mind, heart and spirit, or we can choose activities that increase our perceived stress level and break down our tissues and our spirit. The heart of Ayurveda is the science of rejuvenation-helping us to enjoy vitality no matter our chronological age.