I’m on a global search to unveil the world’s secrets to wellbeing. I want to find out how we can all live healthier, more connected lives. To start my search, I’ve come all the way to India.
When arriving in India, it’s difficult to envisage how such a densely populated and heavily polluted country could contribute, on any level, to the sphere of wellbeing. To uncover India’s secrets to wellbeing, I imagine I will have to look beyond the pandemonium and into its ancient roots.
During the initial two days of my trip, I see and hear a lot about the concept of Ayurveda. Ayurveda, I’m told, is an Ancient Indian tradition of holistic medicine that strives to correct individual imbalances through diet, yoga, meditation and various natural treatments.
To find out more about the principles of Ayurveda, I’ve come to the Ashiyana Ayurvedic Retreat and Spa in North Goa. I’m intrigued to learn about how these principles can be used to better health. Set back from the hustle and bustle of the Mandrem streets, this Ayurvedic resort can only be described as a little oasis, a diamond in the rough. Nestled into luscious green gardens, I’m truly at one with nature here. It’s hard not to feel relaxed in such a tranquil setting.
During my time at the retreat, I meet with resident Ayurvedic Practitioner, Dr. Suvira. She explains to me the significance of the five Ayurveda elements; Ether (space), Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Ayurveda believes that the whole universe and everything in it is made up of these five elements, including all eatables. Within the body, each element is associated with different functions and within the mind, the elements are associated with certain characteristics. Joined together as pairs of opposites, these elements come together to form three Doshas; Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Ayurveda works to balance these three Doshas. According to Ayurvedic principles, understanding these elements is the key to Dosha balance and to preventing and eliminating illness. To enhance my understanding of these elements and Doshas, Dr. Suvira explains to me the following:
Referred to as space, Ether represents emptiness, ‘the space occupied by all other elements’. It’s the hollowness of blood vessels, the lungs and the emptiness of our intestines, as well as any open cavity. Ether is cold, light, subtle and immobile. A dominance in this element can be corrected by nourishment from satisfying foods that occupy the empty spaces of the digestive system. As Ayurvedic texts recommend the principle of opposites for reducing the level of a dominant dosha, bitter foods should be avoided to correct an Ether dominance, as they contain the highest levels of the Ether element. On an emotional level, love is the desired form of nourishment to fill excess ’emptiness’.
Air, I’m told, signifies a capacity for movement and for life. Air is cool, light, dry, rough, sharp and clear. Though subtle, its influences are visible and, as a result, we have an appreciation of its presence. Problems arise when the movement of air is either too fast or too slow. For instance, excess movement in the bowels can result in diarrhoea and reduced movement in constipation. In the circulatory system, excess motion can result in high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The Vata Dosha consists of the elements Air and Ether. A dominant Vata should focus more on the foods and lifestyle habits of Pitta and Kapha in order to achieve Dosha balance.
On the contrary, fire is hot. Fire ignites intelligence and passion and allows for greater understanding. Fire is warming, energising and invigorating. Fire supports metabolism and helps us to digest food, as well as ideas. Fire, when out of balance, however, can be destructive. Excess fire results in a build up of heat, which physiologically can lead to inflammation in the body. Individuals with excess fire can become too powerful and irate. A lack of Fire, however, results in low libido, lack of intelligence and a feeling of being cold. It is imperative, therefore, to balance fire with water; nature’s extinguisher. With regards to the fire element and our dietary habits, Dr. Suvira advises me that spicy, sour and salty foods contain the most fire, as well as foods that have been pickled. Spicy foods intensify the fire element more rapidly and sour foods prolong its effects. For individuals who are Pitta dominant (a combination of the Fire and Water elements), eating too much of these foods can result in a Dosha imbalance.
Water, I’m advised, represents fluidity, reduces inflammation within the body and soothes pain. Water extinguishes fire and reduces the intensity of its heat. Water is cool, moist, heavy and soft. The element of water is significant for those who feel too warm, dehydrated and irritable. It’s also important to those who are vulnerable and lack self-esteem. From a dietary point of view, cooked grains, oils, nuts, and various meats contain ample amounts of the water element. An individual with a dominant Pitta Dosha should therefore consider eating these foods in moderation.
Earth is robust, heavy, cool, dry and dull. The element of earth can oppose the effects of emaciation, overheating, feelings of insignificance and lack of self-esteem. The element of earth is predominantly found in dairy produce, grains, nuts, legumes and meats. Fruits and vegetables also contain a small amount of the earth element. When earth is dominant, the individual is susceptible to weight gain, thickened skin, large muscles, strong nails and coarse hair. During stress and vulnerability, the earth element is extremely important. A lack of this element can be addressed by walking bare foot on the ground. The Kapha dosha consists of both water and earth.
Following completion of an in-depth consultation form, my answers were scored accordingly. A balanced score across all three Doshas signifies optimal health. Stress, poor diet, surrounding environment and various lifestyle habits can cause significant imbalances in the Doshas. Dr. Suvira advised me that I’m a predominant Vata Pitta Dosha. In order to achieve optimal Dosha balance, she advised me that warm environments were preferable, but to avoid extreme heat. I was advised to avoid cold drinks and foods and to focus more on warming foods and drinks, such as hot water with lemon, hot soups and nourishing stews. I was also advised to avoid cold, crunchy foods and to opt instead for steamed vegetables and stewed fruits. The Vata Dosha is increased during the autumn season, during the afternoon time and the Pitta Dosha is increased during the summer season, at midday and midnight. Dr. Suvira advised me that mindfulness can be of particular benefit during these times.
I’m actually intrigued by the above outcome. As someone who suffers with cold hands and feet and always feel the cold, I’m naturally drawn towards warming foods and environments. I’m also drawn towards warm people, all of which ties in with my consultation feedback. Over the last year or so, mindfulness is something that I’ve tried to incorporate into my own life, taking part in regular yoga classes and in daily moments of solitude. I’d be interested to see if the timing of these activities really can make a difference to my health. It’s certainly something I will implement over the forthcoming weeks and months.
To amplify my knowledge and experience of Ayurvedic tradition, I was lucky enough to experience Shirodhara, an ancient Ayurvedic therapy that is said to calm the mind and support the nervous system. ‘Shiro’, I’m told refers to the head and ‘dhara’ to flow. During my treatment, warm oil was poured continually, from a height, onto my forehead and allowed to flow onto my scalp and into my hair. This treatment, I was told, helps to balance Vata and Pitta dominance. Following the oil treatment, I was taken into a natural steam room to help encourage penetration of the nourishing oils. For such a simple treatment, I have to say that this stands out as one of the most relaxing treatments I’ve ever had. My initial concern was that the continual flow of oil would become aggravating, but quite the contrary. I found myself drifting off into a restful and deep thought space, a feeling I imagine is comparable to that of deep meditation. Sadly, this treatment is not readily available within the UK, but comes highly recommended.
To determine your own Ayurvedic constitution, you can take a test online, if seeing an Ayurvedic Doctor is not possible. Ayurveda is of course a belief system that may defy any knowledge you currently have of correcting illness. It’s certainly a different school of thought to my own knowledge of nutrition. Having said that, it’s basic principles of balance comply with most schools of thought when it comes to optimal health and there is certainly a focus on wholesome natural foods and preparation techniques. Furthermore, the way in which its treatments and disciplines (yoga and meditation) promote emotional self-awareness, can only be a positive step in the direction towards improved health.