The practice places a strong emphasis on overall lifestyle, explains Kulreet Chaudhary, MD, director of Neurology at Scripps Memorial Hospital in California. Ayurveda takes into account your daily Starbucks habit, those tiffs with your boss, and those times you skipped SoulCycle in favor of happy hour. The concepts behind Ayurveda can sound a bit New Agey, but make no mistake: Some of these methods have serious research to back them up. Ahead, we’ve put together a guide to this ancient tradition, complete with tips on how to eat better, work out more effectively, de-stress, and beat seasonal allergies.
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In general, Western medicine is pretty compartmentalized. If your skin is broken out, you book it to the derm. If you’re feeling down after a breakup, you call a therapist. Ayurveda, however, is more about putting all the pieces together: "It is very important to consider a person in their entirety — meaning as physical, emotional, and spiritual beings,” says Jyothi Bhatt, faculty member at the Kripalu School of Ayurveda in Massachusetts. Ayurvedic practitioners are not a one-stop shop, but they do help you address several aspects of your life. “You find that problems can begin way before the symptoms manifest themselves," Bhatt explains.
How will a practitioner make these connections? “Initial visits can be up to 90 minutes. You’ll discuss medical history, diet, bowel movements, weather that upsets you, the state of your social relationships, sleep patterns, and stress levels,” says Chaudhary. Then there’s a physical examination, which includes an inspection of your eyes, tongue, skin, nails, speech patterns, and pulse. Afterward, you'll chat about recommended dietary changes, herbal remedies, body massage, yoga postures, and meditation. “It's a multi-prong approach to healing,” adds Bhatt.
During the initial visit, you’ll find out your dosha, a unique Ayurvedic constitution made up of three different types of energies called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. "Everyone has all three energies," says Ayurvedic practitioner Anisha Durve, L.Ac, "but one or two are usually more prominent, even when you are in balance." Although only a practitioner can give you the most accurate breakdown of your constitution, you can take this quiz to get a sense.
The tradition holds that Vata people are super creative, ambitious, lively, and always on the go, says Durve. When out of balance, however, Vatas have a tendency to become fatigued and very vulnerable to stress. Ayurvedic tradition recommends pairing certain foods with certain imbalances.
“Vatas are put back into balance by eating warm foods, avoiding raw foods, and engaging in lots of yoga and meditation to beat anxiety,” says Siri Chand Khalsa, MD, a faculty member at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.
The Pitta crew is bright, determined, and sharp, says Durve. If thrown out of whack, though, they can become edgy, angry, and moody.
Choosing cooling foods— such as cucumber, mango, and celery — and keeping a level head can help Pittas mellow out. “Since they have a tendency to get agitated and overheat, I really recommend cooling exercises to balance,” says Chaudhary. So, Pittas: Leave the emotional outbursts to The Maury Show, and take up swimming, hiking, or sunset yoga to soothe that fiery nature.
“Individuals who are Kapha dominant are calm, patient, and physically and mentally strong,” says Durve. “When out of balance they have too much of the heavy 'earth' element and become depressed, unmotivated, or stubborn.”
To keep up the pep, Kaphas are advised to try new things (Naked Yoga, anyone?), to be mindful of portions, and to ditch napping after meals, says Khalsa. “The Kapha crew can really turn up the intensity on their workouts, too,” says Chaudhary. Enlist a buddy to hit up a Bikram session or sign up for a half marathon; you’re the one dosha who does well with endurance exercise, so take advantage!
Wouldn't it be nice to relocate to the desert for all of allergy season? Luckily, there’s an easy Ayurvedic way to battle the runny noses and itchy eyes caused by all that spring pollen: a neti pot. “Use it in the morning and evening to cleanse the nasal tract of mucus and other debris," suggests Bhatt. "After, apply some coconut oil to the inside of the nose. This acts as a protective barrier preventing allergens from coming into direct contact with the nasal mucosa.”
Several studies have found that using this system of nasal irrigation reduced allergies and cut participants’ use of antibiotics and nasal sprays. Use filtered or distilled water for your neti, and make sure you're diligent about keeping the pot clean and dry; otherwise, you put yourself at risk for serious infections.
Modern society is constantly fighting against oil — rigorously mattifying oily complexions and frowning upon the slightest slick of hair. Ayurveda, on the other hand, is oil friendly.
Abhayanga, or self-massage, uses warmed oils to slowly stroke the body for 15 minutes daily, followed by a 15-minute rest and a warm shower. "Physiologically, it promotes circulation and lymphatic drainage. Plus, massage is a very relaxing ritual, so people report falling asleep quicker and thus are more energized during the day," says Bhatt. A pilot study found that daily Abhyanga lowered heart rate and blood pressure and reduced overall stress. Since scheduling regular rubdowns can certainly cut into your weekend bottomless brunch funds, this can be an easy and cheap alternative.
Oil pulling — the act of swishing an oil (commonly sesame or coconut) in the mouth for 15 minutes per day and then spitting it out — is another oily ritual that has the entire Internet abuzz. Devotees swear it can clear skin, remove toxins, cure migraines, and improve digestion. While most of these claims still need more research, both Ayurvedic and Western medicine agree that it’s pretty effective for keeping chompers clean. “[Oil pulling] maintains the health of the oral cavity, strengthens the teeth, and reduces bacteria in the mouth," says Bhatt. One study found that it reduced mouth bacteria and plaque after just two weeks; another reported it reduced gingivitis after 10 days.
Regardless of your dosha, digestion is key. According to Ayurveda, many health issues stem from poor metabolism and elimination. Bhatt notes that “if you don’t digest properly, you get a buildup of waste products,” which can cause issues such as acne or depression.
This close relationship between your health and your gut is much more than a mystic oddity. Recently, an influx of research has emerged supporting the ancient concept of gut-brain connection, which Harvard scientists have said is so strong that the two should be viewed as one system. The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” and contains more than 100 million neurons — that's more than the spinal cord.
Besides adhering to the particular diet prescribed to your dosha, Ayurveda offers tips to keep digestion in tip-top shape.
The first is making sure lunch — not dinner — is your biggest meal. “Digestive ‘fire’ is the strongest between noon and 2 p.m., so you are able to process food quicker and more efficiently,” says Chaudhary. Research from the International Journal of Obesity found that people whose biggest meal was lunch burned calories quicker and lost more weight overall.
And Eat Mindfully
Mindful eating is also key, and studies have found that how we eat is just as important as what we eat. “Make sure you eat in a calm manner," Khalsa advises, "away from electronic devices. And, take a deep breath to develop full awareness." So, time to power down your MacBook and spend some quality time with your macaroni.
More and more of us are looking to alternative therapies to supplement traditional medical treatments, and Ayurveda offers some easy natural remedies. Still, it’s important to note that you can’t eat a crappy diet or skimp on sleep and expect to fix things with one herb or yoga posture. “Nothing ever changes with that approach. You have to include multiple interventions. It’s a gradual and multifaceted change,” says Chaudhary.
And while some elements of Ayuveda operate on a more spiritual level, many of the tradition's aspects (digestion, preventative healthcare, and de-stressing techniques) have earned support from the scientific community. All in all, this ancient practice is alive and well — and worth a deeper look.