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What is Ayurveda?

by Hilary Garivaltis

Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is the oldest continuously practiced health-care system in the world. Drawn from an understanding of nature’s rhythms and laws, Ayurveda is built around the five elements of ether, air, fire, water, and earth.

It is understood in Ayurveda that humans, as natural beings, are governed by the same rules and laws as all other natural beings. If we choose to ignore these laws, then imbalances will begin to appear. These imbalances are the precursor to disharmony and disease in the mind and body. This system of medicine understands our deepest connections with the whole universe and the influences of the energies that make up this universe. We are considered a microcosm of the macrocosm.

The Ayurvedic worldview is based on the archetypical elements of ether (space), air, fire, water, and earth. Ether and earth are static in nature while air, fire, and water are dynamic and ever changing. These elements have inherent energies that govern their functions. We are all made up of all of these energies, but each individual has slightly different proportions of the individual elements, making everyone unique in their own constitutional makeup.

An Ayurvedic approach treats each individual, taking into account his/her own unique psychological, emotional, and physical conditions. Imbalances in the body are evaluated through the system of the elements. Because our world and bodies are constantly adjusting to new environments, when these environments become imbalanced we feel it in some way.

Ayurvedic medicine concentrates on prevention and understanding one’s own makeup and focuses on how the outer world and environments affect one’s daily life. The goal of Ayurveda is to teach people how to attain optimal health through a deeper understanding of themselves and their own particular nature in relationship to the world around them. It is a system based on natural healing through strengthening the body, mind, and spirit and allowing the body’s own natural healing mechanisms to work to their fullest potential.

Ayurvedic Tips for Balanced Living

Beneficial Daily Routines

  • Rise before the sunrise.
  • Drink a full glass (8 oz.) of room temperature or warm water.
  • Clean your face, mouth and nasal passages and gargle with salt water.
  • Do some light yoga or stretching exercises.
  • Meditate for 20 minutes.
  • Take a walk or run for ½ hour, 3–4 times per week.
  • Have a nutritional breakfast according to your body type.
  • Have a relaxing or complete meal at lunchtime. 11–2 pm.
  • Relax for ½ hour after lunch.
  • Meditate in late afternoon before evening meal for 20 minutes.
  • Eat dinner between 5:00 and 7:00 pm. This should not be a heavy meal.
  • Allow two hours after your dinner before going to bed.
  • Bedtime 10:00–11:00 pm.
  • Give thanks.

Daily Ayurvedic Regimens

Our bodies naturally work on clearing excess toxins out of our body during the nighttime hours. These toxins are deposited in our colon and skin. That is why it is important to take care of personal hygiene first thing in the morning. We must remove these toxins from the body by bathing and eliminating to prevent them from backing up and becoming reabsorbed by the body.

The following routines are very helpful in clearing these excesses from our body and preventing toxic build-up.

Abhyanga (Oil Massage)

Choose an oil for your body type i.e. Vata, Pitta or Kapha (these are herbalized and blended oils) or get a good organic cold pressed base oil - sesame for Vata and Kapha, coconut or sunflower for Pitta.

Keep your oil in a bottle or jar in your bathroom. You can warm it if you like in some warm water in the sink or just apply at room temperature. Start your application before your shower or bath. Starting at the feet doing circular motions around the joints and long up and down motions on the long bones and torso. You can even apply it to your scalp if you intend to wash your hair that day. Once it is applied, let it stay on for a few minutes before you go into the shower or tub. Once in the warm water do not soap it off, just let the warmth of the shower drive the oil into the skin. You can soap and wash the hair portions of your body and just pat dry with a towel at the end.

Netti And Nasya (Nasal Rinse And Oil/Herb Lubrication)

Netti: Fill the netti pot with warm water and add a pinch of sea salt. Bring to sink. Tilt your head over the sink and place the spout into one nostril, breathing out of your mouth, allow the water to flow into nostril and out the other nostril. Repeat on the other side. Blow your nose if necessary and gargle with a little salt water.

Nasya: You can use a formulated nasya oil, ghee or sesame oil. Apply by placing the oil on your small finger and inserting into one nostril while closing the other nostril. You can also use a dropper or a squirt type bottle. Sniff the oil up into the nose until you feel it drip into the back of your throat a bit. Repeat the procedure on the other side.

Ginger Paste Nasya: This can be done when you're feeling some sinus congestion coming on. Prepare: 1/8 tsp dried ginger, ¼ tsp raw sugar, 2 T water - Boil down to ½. Coat nose with sesame oil first and then do ginger drops in one nostril at a time. Do not do more than 2–3 days in a row.

Promotion of Morning Evacuation

Drink a full glass of room temperature or warm water (can add lemon) upon rising. Do some gentle yoga or stretching and twisting to stimulate the body and circulation. Take time and sit on the toilet (even if you don't yet have the urge). Don't hurry through your morning routines. Wake earlier if necessary to accommodate yourself.

Herbal Supplements

The herbal formula Triphala is a gentle and balanced formula for all types. It can be taken each evening before bed with warm water.

Tips for Improving Digestion

  • Eat in a calm and settled environment.
  • Never eat and run—allow a few minutes after eating to relax or take a gentle walk.
  • Sip warm water throughout your meal.
  • Eat freshly cooked or prepared meals.
  • Chew your food well and be mindful of its smells, tastes, and textures.
  • Focus on eating, not on conversation, TV, reading, etc.
  • Leave ⅓ of your stomach empty using your hands as your guide—cupping both hands together is a guide to the amount of food to ingest with an equal amount of liquid leaving an equal amount empty.
  • Avoid ice-cold food or drink.
  • Eat only when you feel hungry.
  • Eat at a moderate pace.
  • Allow a few hours between meals and bedtime.
  • Try to eat the bulk of your food at mid-day and lighter amounts at night.
  • Sip warm water or ginger tea throughout the day.
  • Give thanks.

Hilary Garivaltis is the former Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. She received her training at the New England Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine, with advanced training in India from the Rishikesh College of Ayurveda and the Jiva Institute.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Winter 2004–2005 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail