Centuries-old Ayurvedic practices may be the key to better health in the here and now.
by Rachel Strutt
About a year ago, my friend Gareth introduced me to “swamp juice,” a smoothie of sorts that he’d invented using spinach, apples, and almond milk. Gareth cheerily told me he hadn’t been sick in four years as a result of downing this green liquid every morning. No colds, flus, stomach bugs—nada. Eager to follow his lead and boost my immunity, I developed a variation on the swamp theme, replacing apple with avocado and adding organic peppermint extract. I dubbed these smoothies “healthy Shamrock Shakes,” and for several months, I gulped down about five per week.
Determined to get out of the cycle of catching a cold every few months, I also increased my visits to the gym, aimed for eight hours of sleep a night, and became a fastidious hand washer. Yet, despite my efforts, I still felt run down, I caught another cold, and my fibromyalgia continued to keep me up at night with achey legs. I felt betrayed by my body. Frustrated, and recognizing that my minty elixers might not be the ultimate panacea, I signed up for the Immunity-Boosting Silence and Yoga Retreat at Kripalu.
Several months later, on a gray Sunday afternoon, our retreat group gathers in a spacious room with a serene view of the Berkshires in the distance. Because this is a silent retreat, we exchange only small smiles and polite nods as we settle into a circle. Soon, our program leader, Larissa Hall Carlson, a pretty young woman with a mellifluous voice, introduces herself and her trio of assistants.
After a brief introduction, Larissa, a Kripalu Yoga teacher and Ayurvedic specialist, leads us into our first activity: a self-massage, or abhyanga. Following her cues, I pour a small pool of organic sesame oil into one palm and then rub both palms together to generate some heat, or “fire” in Ayurvedic terminology. We rub our lower backs, then our calves, then our feet. Next we massage our arms, hands, and fingers. Slowly. Methodically. This practice, Larrisa tells us, hydrates the skin (our body’s largest organ and first defense against illness), improves circulation, and promotes good sleep. I begin to notice that the stress of racing from Boston to the Berkshires after a late start has dissolved. I feel energized yet blissfully calm—in a word, balanced.
Balance, as I learn over the next few days, is a key tenet of Ayurveda, a practice that promotes a long, healthy, and balanced life through natural healing techniques, abhyanga being one of many. Although Ayurveda has been practiced in India for the past 5,000 years, only recently has it started to find traction within Western culture. Larissa explains the concept of the doshas—different types of energy that course through our bodies. None of the Sanskrit terminology is familiar to me, yet the crux of what Larissa relays is tangible, not arcane; much of Ayurveda sounds like good old-fashioned common sense.
For example, Ayurveda finds balance between opposing qualities. Often, achieving such balance is instinctual. If you’re cold, put on a jacket. If a winter stew is comforting but lackluster, add some piquant black pepper. If you’re exhausting yourself with intense aerobic workouts, scale back and try long walks or gentle yoga.
I quickly recognize that, for me, finding balance requires tempering speed and intensity with slowness and relaxation. Thankfully, our retreat offers ample opportunity to put on the brakes. We share gentle yoga sessions, ending with heavenly Savasanas as the assistants tiptoe around the room tucking blankets snuggly around our toes. We explore yoga nidra (yogic sleep), meditative walks, and yogic breathing techniques such as ujjayi (ocean-sounding breath), nadi shodhana (alternate-nostril breath) and my favorite, dirgha (three-part breath).
The languid pace of our retreat makes me feel fidgety at times—going this slow is hard. Yet it’s sinking in: less can mean more. In my daily life, I pack my hours with productivity. At work, I take calls while simultaneously answering e-mails. At home, I follow a Spanish-language yoga show so I can learn how to say things like “Downward Dog” in Español while strengthening my core. I used to think this multitasking was efficient and clever. Yet here at Kripalu, I realize I find it very difficult to focus on one thing—and virtually impossible to focus on nothing. So I vow to incorporate abyanga, Savasana, and dirgha into my day-to-day life. I also note Larissa’s advice on how to quiet the mind in a modern world: She suggests turning off the car radio sometimes, and ending your television watching and computer use by 9:00 pm. Apparently, overstimulation of the sense organs not only hinders sleep, it can exhaust the nervous and endocrine system—and, ultimately, weaken immunity.
Beyond balance, another key tenet of Ayurveda is following the rhythms of nature. We should rise with the sun, go to bed at a reasonable hour, eat root vegetables and warm hearty soups in the winter and lighter fare like salads and fruits in the summer. And when it comes to food, it’s not just what you eat, but how you eat. When we eat slowly and mindfully, our bodies can better digest food so its nutrients can be fully absorbed, which also boosts immunity. The when of eating is crucial, too. The pitta dosha, Larissa explains, governs digestion. Because pitta’s digestive fire is strongest around noon, this is when we should consume our largest meal.
I came to Kripalu thinking I would pick up a few key immunity-boosting practices—beyond the basics like “wash your hands more” and “drink lots of orange juice.” What I found instead was a complete lifestyle shift. Yet it’s a shift that’s gentle and logical—one that I can realistically incorporate into my life.
As our retreat comes to a close, I realize that not talking has saved a lot of energy. Although the group’s presence has been comforting—I am not alone in my quest for better health—it’s a relief not to engage in chitchat for a change. It has cleared out a vast swath of psychic space so that I can focus on wellness and shushing my ever-chatty mind. Here at Kripalu, I have found a sea of calm and clarity.
Back in the “real world,” I’ve changed my lifestyle to elicit more of this calm—through abyhanga, dirgha, mindful eating and a “no screens after 10:00 pm” rule. I’m still drinking several Shamrock Shakes a week—but now I actually sit down to drink them. This is progress!
Paradoxically, now that my life chugs along at a slightly slower pace, I feel more energized—and that goes for my revved-up immune system, too. I’m happy to report that, since the retreat, I’ve been sniffle-free!
Rachel Strutt writes about yoga, art and culture and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.