Ayurveda and the City: Five Tips for Thriving in an Urban Environment

by Kristen Rae Stevens

Let’s face it—regardless of where you live, stress will be a part of your life. But city dwellers often experience a particular brand of stress that emerges from sensory overload, a sense of compressed time, and the pressure to go, go, go! As a longtime yoga practitioner and teacher, I arrived in New York City with tools to work with, and a move from my tiny studio sublet in NoLita to Brooklyn calmed me down and gave me more space. But, after a difficult injury and recovery, the city felt like my nemesis—little things like grocery shopping became a major feat. Even when you’re not dealing with a particular challenge like this, your energy and enthusiasm can wane when the body and senses are frazzled.

Ayurveda offers self-care routines for supporting, nourishing, and rejuvenating mind, body, and spirit. Here are five tips that are beneficial for everyone, but especially city dwellers.

  1. Eat lunch. Who knew that eating a good lunch could make such a difference in your life? Like many New Yorkers I know, I used to skip lunch all the time. It seemed so much more convenient: I could power through my day at work, grab a yogurt or energy bar, keep on cruising through, and save up my calories for a good dinner. But Ayurveda teaches that we should eat our main meal in the middle of the day, when the digestive fires are at their strongest. Once I adopted this natural habit, I found that my body and brain felt more nourished, and I was able to be more effective and focused throughout the day.
  2. Take in the sky, trees, flowers, and natural light. So many urbanites spend their days traveling underground and working eight-plus hours in buildings with temperature control and fluorescent lighting. Ayurveda teaches that it’s our nature to be with nature. Getting outdoors to take a walk in a nearby park, sit in a garden, or just inhale fresh air can improve our outlook, calm the nervous system, and bring greater clarity. If I have errands to run, I often book appointments or look for establishments near a park or along the waterfront. It’s not always the closest place I could go, but it gives me a reason to walk through Central Park with my dog after a vet visit, or take in the Battery Park waterfront after a meeting with my accountant. Along with setting aside larger blocks of time to connect with nature, find a few minutes throughout your day to simply gaze at a tree outside your window, or to cultivate houseplants at the office.
  3. Drink warm water. In Ayurveda, the key to good health is through the care of the digestive system. This requires a good look at the foods and liquids we consume. Water consumption has always been a hot topic, and I’ve worked with many clients who thought they were doing their bodies a favor by drinking glass upon glass of ice-cold water. That’s easy to do on those sweltering summer days in the city, or while you’re waiting for your meal at a restaurant. But the digestive system is hot by nature, and we need these acids to thrive in order to properly digest and assimilate our food. Ayurveda suggests sipping warm water during a meal to aid digestion, and not chugging a glassful of water prior to eating as it cools down the agni (digestive fire).
  4. Take a loving-kindness commute. It’s rush hour, and your subway car is packed. Or someone just grabbed that cab that you were desperately hailing, and you’re already late. This is the opportunity to put meditation and deep breathing into practice. Every conscious slow breath will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response. As you exhale and allow your body to soften rather than stiffen, you’ll feel more open to those around you and begin to realize that we’re all just trying to get somewhere together.
  5. Pay attention to your feet. In Ayurveda, a hugely important self-care practice consists of a daily self-massage, or abhyanga, using oil. If you don’t have time to massage your whole body, focus on your feet, which get a daily workout pounding the city sidewalks. As a former ballet dancer, I was familiar with self-massage (our feet don’t really fit into those pointe shoes as gracefully as one might think) but the addition of warm oil was a game changer. Sesame oil is the recommended choice for cool weather, and coconut oil for warm. After a long day of hustle and bustle, a foot rub with warm oil will relieve stress and relax you before bed. Ideally, start your day this way, too, and take on the city feeling balanced and nurtured from head to toe.

Kristen Rae Stevens, E-RYT, trained at Kripalu as an Ayurvedic Health Coach and Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist. She is a contributing lecturer on Ayurveda for medical students and primary care doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital and for herbalists-in-training at the ArborVitae School.

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