Burning Down the House (or, On My Introduction to Ayurveda)

Something wasn’t quite right. In meetings at work, I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to shoot down any suggestions that I might disagree with. At home, I would rush through meals so that I could get all of the household chores done. I felt as if I was living to get to the end of each day before it could get to me; my checklist served as my map and measure for success.

In Hindi films they refer to goal oriented types as ‘toppers’, as in, ‘top of the class.’ And if I played a part in a Hindi film, this would probably be it. After graduating with full marks, I was awarded a prestigious scholarship that allowed me to travel across the world with my family. It was intoxicating, and when we returned from a whirlwind year abroad, I continued to live at the same hectic pace. I accepted a job and was promoted three times in three years. With each promotion, I changed residences. I was divided between identities; mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, and at work my email signature had three titles beneath it. I hated to let anyone down, so I would take on whatever was asked of me: add it to the checklist!

I took up running to manage stress and to curb the effects of the caffeine and sugar I consumed to get through exhausted afternoons at the office. My morning run consisted of 3 miles every day at 5 AM. It was my meditation, and like all things on the list, it became so important for me to check off that when my knees began to ache and my shoulder froze up, I ignored my body. I would strap on a knee brace and would run while holding my arm over my head (good thing I ran under cover of darkness). The checklist made me feel as if I was keeping it all together, but one day it hit me: I couldn’t wake up to run. My knees, shoulders, and back ached. I was cold to the bone. It lasted for months. I felt like I was juggling life while trapped on a treadmill, trying to keep the balls in the air and to stay on the belt as it propelled me forward, and I was about to fall flat on my face.

Inspired by my love for Hindi movies, I took up cooking Indian food. It was an attempt to reconnect to the things that I enjoyed, and as fate would have it, while working my way through cookbooks I learned that Ayurveda is the foundation of Indian cuisine. I knew that Ayurveda had to be about more than local and seasonal cuisine, so this topper enrolled in Kripalu School of Ayurveda with very little knowledge about what Ayurveda actually was. I thought that I would learn about food and diet, and I did, but I also learned that diet isn’t just what we eat, but how, when, and why. Food is just one important element of the many things that impact the mind, body, and soul. According to Ayurveda, everything on earth consists of 5 elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. The elements exist as combinations, referred to as doṣas: vāta (air and space), pitta (fire and water), kapha (water and earth).  Everybody has all three doṣas present in them, but each person has their own unchanging base combination that is unique, called prakṛti. As life happens to us, the seasons change, experiences are absorbed by the body, the doṣas can become imbalanced, which, if left untreated, can manifest as disease.

For those who know a little about Ayurveda, it is probably obvious that pitta is my prominent dosha. Pittas tend to be determined people who are goal oriented, but when the flames of pitta become aggravated by the wind and space associated with excess vāta, they can burn without intention. And they can burn things down. It made sense: I was burning at both ends, metaphorically speaking, and was checking items off of my list without purpose. I was furiously bouncing from one item to the next, snapping at my colleagues, irritable, anxious, and completely stressed out.

This pitta had a vāta problem.

Vāta was affecting my body in other ways as well. The cold I was feeling, the pain in my bones, the cracking joints, was all due to excess vāta dosha. Vāta is stirred up by stress, and I imagined its onslaught as a dust storm. The winds stirring up dry earth, covering everything in sight, robbing it of moisture, and asphyxiating everything. My life was full of movement and stress, and my body, mind, and spirit were suffocating in the storm. The first step to recovery was to get grounded. How do you help the dust to settle during a storm? You quiet the winds and weigh the debris down. I went from eating kale for breakfast and salad for lunch and dinner to eating oatmeal, grains, and root vegetables like yams and potatoes covered in warming spices and ghee. It was late autumn, after all, and the cold in my body was telling me that it needed something heavier and warming. I just had to learn to listen to it. And to teach myself to listen, I started practicing meditative breathing exercises and a daily self-massage with oil known as abhyanga to put my mind and body in sync.

I immediately noticed a difference; I was warm for the first time in years, I was breathing, and I was approaching my list mindfully. Instead of just doing, I stopped to think about what I wanted to be doing and what my body needed. And the more that I worked on putting vāta in its place by filling the space it created in my body, the better I felt. Instead of just burning through life, I found that through understanding the role that the elements play in my body, I burned brighter. 

IMG_6339
Don’t fret – homemade banana bread will cure your vāta

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s