Where balance is a question of health

I'll admit it: I've been avoiding ayurveda. Several of my friends - mostly yoga buddies - have suggested I look into this ancient Indian system of medicine. But whenever I tried to read up on ayurveda, my eyes glazed over. Jennifer LaRue Huget takes a deep breath.

It's not the Sanskrit terminology: I've practiced yoga long enough not to be put off by the language in which both disciplines' core texts are written.

But to my Western brain, descriptions of ayurveda have seemed, frankly, kind of flaky, at once complicated and simplistic - and far removed from my own experience. What I really needed was for someone to explain the system to me in straightforward terms that made clear how it might be useful in my life.

So I was happy for the chance last week to visit the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, and listen to a presentation by Hilary Garivaltis, dean of curriculum for Kripalu's school of ayurveda.

Here are the basics:
In the ayurvedic scheme of things ("ayur" being Sanskrit for life, and "veda" for science or knowledge), every aspect of life is governed by five elements: ether (the element of space), air (movement), fire (transformation), water (chemical energy) and earth (structure or form).

Those elements combine in different configurations to form doshas, the three life energies that characterise every individual and everything else, from seasons and times of day to the foods we eat and the manner in which we live our lives.

Keeping one's doshas in balance is the cornerstone of physical and psychological health, and imbalances can lead to everything from anxiety, grouchiness and exhaustion to serious disease.

Balancing those energies (called vata, pitta and kapha) requires daily vigilance, as our doshas shift according to what we are doing and what's going on around us.

Although, for most people, all the life energies are present in varying degrees, one usually dominates.

Vata, the combination of ether and air, is all about lightness, dryness, quickness and cold; vata-dominated people are thin and tendon-y, active and restless.

Pitta, combining fire and water, is hot, sharp, oily; pittas can be stubborn and tend to be driven, workaholic types.

Kapha, comprising water and earth, is cool and damp; kapha is common among people with larger, round body types, who tend to be laid-back, even lethargic.

Still with me? Whether you're self-administering ayurveda or following guidance from a pro such as Garivaltis, the practice starts with evaluating your own mix of doshas.

Any book or website about ayurveda is likely to offer a questionnaire to help pinpoint which dosha is dominant in your makeup at the moment: Are you irritated by loud noise? (That's a vata trait.) Do you anger easily? (That's pitta for you.) Do you feel sluggish? (Your kapha is showing.) Doshas are governed in part by things beyond our control, such as the change of seasons - vata rules in winter time, while summer is pitta's season - or one's stage of life. (Teens tend towards pitta, while post-menopause might be vata time for many women.) But one of the main tools by which doshas are regulated - and the reason I'm writing about ayurveda here - is nutrition.

As with all else in ayurveda, foods have their own energies.

Each of six key tastes - sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent - exerts influence on the doshas and can be used to help restore balance among them.

Pungent, salty and sour foods ("the bad-American-diet kind of foods," Garivaltis says) aggravate pitta, for instance, while sweet, bitter and astringent ones calm it down.

Eat too much of a pitta-promoting food such as fast-food burgers, ayurvedics say, and you might find yourself feeling hot and acting rude and domineering.

But if you've got too much vata going, you may be eating too much cold, raw and dry food, and consequently you may experience dry skin, constipation, insomnia and anxiety.

You can curb that tendency by eating and drinking moist, warm foods and beverages, those whose qualities are opposite to vata's dryness and cold.

The trick, though, is that the labels attached to foods aren't literal, at least not by Western definitions.

So these "warm" and "sweet" foods include such things as butter, beef and beets.

Ayurvedic practice encourages maintaining a regular schedule, rising before sunrise and going to sleep between 10 and 11pm.

Lunch, eaten between 11 am and 2 pm, should be your main meal of the day; dinner should be lighter and eaten between 5 and 7pm.

Sipping lukewarm water during meals and throughout the day helps maintain bowel regularity, one of the key measures of health in ayurveda.

Other ayurvedic tips sound remarkably like what many American nutritionists preach: Eat freshly cooked meals.

Chew food carefully, being mindful of its tastes, smells and textures. Focus on eating, not on talking, watching TV or reading.

Eat only when you feel hungry; allow your last meal to be fully digested before consuming the next one.

Like many other practices that we label complementary or alternative medicine, ayurveda has not received conventional medicine's warm embrace.

Few physicians trained in Western medicine would explicitly espouse ayurveda because its precepts haven't been researched in such a way that they pass conventional scientific muster.

Garivaltis notes that Western scientific research typically demands focus on an isolated aspect of a medical system; in ayurveda, the whole system depends on the interactions between elements, making it a hard protocol to study.

Without supporting science, conventional physicians are understandably skeptical.

Garivaltis is quick to say that ayurvedic practice is no substitute for Western medicine.

When she had to have her appendix removed a few years ago, she told me, she went to a regular hospital for surgery.

But she attributes her speedy recovery to her having adopted ayurveda, which she says prepared her body to weather the stress of illness, surgery and recuperation.

I can't say I'm ready to give myself over wholeheartedly to ayurveda.

But I do find myself thinking about my doshas, which two weeks ago I never knew existed.

And this morning as I poured my coffee, I found myself pausing to consider whether it might boost my pitta - something I don't need, thank you very much.

It just might, I concluded. But I drank it anyway.

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