The Ayurvedic healing system (a 5,000-year-old science that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India) recognises that human beings are part of nature and are therefore affected by the cycles of nature.
Ayurveda discusses three fundamental energies that affect our inner and outer environments: movement, transformation, and structure. Known in Sanskrit as Vata (Air), Pitta (Fire), and Kapha (Earth/Water), these elemental forces shape and influence our mind and body. Each person has a unique proportion of these three forces that shapes our nature. If a person’s dominant dosha is Vata, we tend to be thin, light, enthusiastic, energetic, and changeable. If Pitta predominates in our nature, we tend to be intense, intelligent, and goal-oriented and we have a strong appetite for life. When Kapha prevails, we tend to be easy-going, methodical, and nurturing. Although each of us has all three forces, most people have one or two elements that predominate.
For each element, there is a balanced and imbalance expression. When Vata is balanced, a person is lively and creative, but when there is too much movement in the system, a person tends to experience anxiety, insomnia, dry skin, constipation, and difficulty focusing. When Pitta is functioning in a balanced manner, a person is warm, friendly, disciplined, a good leader, and a good speaker. When Pitta is out of balance, a person tends to be compulsive and irritable and may suffer from indigestion or an inflammatory condition. When Kapha is balanced, a person is sweet, supportive, and stable but when Kapha is out of balance, a person may experience sluggishness, weight gain, and sinus congestion.
For the purpose of this article we’ll focus on how to keep the doshas in balance during winter. During the winter months, Vata dosha tends to become more predominant and we need to be aware that we are adjusting our diet and lifestyle to accommodate this change in climate and season to keep our body-mind system harmonious.
Some signs that you need to bring your Vata energy into balance may be:
• Feeling worried, anxious, and overwhelmed
• Feeling tired but unable to slow down and relax
• Dry skin and dry hair
• Feeling like you cannot sit still and that you need to be constantly moving
• Feeling “spaced out” and having a short attention span
If you are experiencing many of the symptoms above try following a Vata-balancing diet and lifestyle to restore balance.
Introduce foods that are liquid or unctuous in your daily diet to balance dryness, some “heavy” foods to ground you and give sustained nourishment, foods that are smooth in texture to offset roughness and foods that are warm or hot to balance the cool nature of Vata. Here are some examples:
- If you need to balance Vata, it is encouraged to include healthy fats. Cook foods with some ghee (clarified butter) or add healthy oils such as olive oil, hemp oil, macadamia nut, or coconut oil to your diet each day. Avoid too many dry foods such as crackers, dry cold cereal and raw foods and cold salads at this time of year. Avocado is very beneficial.
- Cooked foods, served hot or warm, are ideal for balancing Vata. Pureed soups, kitchari, hot cereal and warm rice pudding are excellent “comfort” foods and help pacify Vata.
- The three Ayurvedic tastes that help balance Vata are sweet (natural sugars, not refined white sugar – think apricots, nectarines, mango, etc.), sour and salty. So include more of these tastes in your daily diet. Eat less of the bitter, pungent and astringent tastes.
- Nuts are fantastic Vata-pacifiers. Soak a handful of almonds overnight (to dissolve the prohibitive digestive enzyme) and eat throughout the day when you need a healthy burst of energy.
- Carrots, asparagus, tender leafy greens, beets, sweet potatoes, squash and zucchini are the best vegetable choices. They become more digestible when chopped and cooked with Vata-pacifying spices such as of turmeric, cumin, coriander, dried ginger, black pepper and saffron.
- Basmati rice and quinoa are ideal for balancing Vata. Cook it with a little sea salt and ghee/coconut oil for added flavour.
- Ayurvedic spices such as cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, coriander, dried ginger, black pepper and saffron offer flavour, aroma and therapeutic qualities.
- Opt for drinking warm water instead of chilled or carbonated water and choose teas such as Fennel, Chamomile and Lavender.
- Because Vata dosha is characterised as movement and restlessness, the key lifestyle recommendation to bring balance is to follow a regular routine. Rising and going to bed at roughly the same times each day, eating three meals at about the same times each day, and following a similar pattern of work and rest from day to day are all recommended.
- Try not to miss meals. Eat a nourishing lunch at midday and lighter meals at breakfast and dinner.
- To pamper dry skin, to promote circulation and to nourish and tone muscles and nerves, indulge in an Ayurvedic massage with sesame oil as often as possible before you bathe or shower.
- Protect yourself from the cold and wind. Stay warm and toasty in cold weather by wearing several layers of clothing.
- Walking is the ideal exercise for balancing Vata. Walk in the early morning, for about 20 minutes every day.
- You may have to nurture sleep if Vata dosha is aggravated. Try doing a relaxation exercise or some gentle asana before bed to relax the nervous system and promote a deep restful sleep. It is important to get to bed early, so that you can get adequate rest each night. Being overtired increases Vata dosha.
- Set aside some time each day for yoga and meditation if you can, to help calm the mind and nervous system. Remember to do Savasana (relaxation) at the end of yoga practice.
Yoga Asana For Balancing Vata
Start with a couple of rounds of Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations) to burn off adrenaline already released in your system and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend): From Tadasana, fold forward from the hips. If your hamstrings are tight, it’s OK to gently bend the knees. Remember to press strongly through your legs and feet, even as the upper body completely lets go. Hold for one minute.
Vrkasana (Tree Pose): From Tadasana ground your left foot and bring the sole of your right foot to your upper left thigh, calf or ankle (avoiding the knee). Evenly press the four corners of that foot into the thigh, and use it to encourage internal rotation of the thigh. Place your palms together in front of your chest. Hold for one minute on each side.
Ardha Matsyendasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose): From a cross-legged seated position, bring your right leg over the left and place the sole of the right foot on the floor outside the left thigh. As you twist to the right, try to keep your spine vertical, leaning neither forward nor back. Avoid any temptation to use your arm to crank yourself more deeply into the pose. Instead twist more deeply only as your body and breath allow. Hold for one minute, then switch sides.
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend): In this and the following pose, use any combination of blankets, blocks, or chairs to comfortably support the forehead, and strongly internally rotate your thighs while keeping the toes pointing up. Sit on the floor with your buttocks supported on a folded blanket and your legs straight in front of you. Press actively through your heels. Lift the top of the sternum and, keeping the front torso long, lean forward over your legs from the hip joints, not the waist. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of your pelvis. With each inhalation, lift and lengthen the front torso just slightly; with each exhalation release a little more fully into the forward bend. Stay from one to three minutes.
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend): Starting in Dandasana separate your feet to slightly more than 90 degrees, if possible. With the toes pointing up, fold forward from the hips down to the floor, or as far as is comfortable. Make sure your knees stay directly facing the ceiling to avoid damaging knee ligaments. Hold for one minute or longer. Breathe deeply.
Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose): Place a bolster (or cushion so your pelvis is elevated) parallel to and approximately six inches away from a wall. Sit sideways on its edge, and swing your legs up the wall as you lower your upper back, shoulders, and arms to the ground. Stay five minutes or longer.
Savasana (Corpse Pose): Lie comfortably on the floor, legs slightly apart, palms facing upwards, using a blanket or other covering to keep warm. Close your eyes and perform a body scan to relax each part of the body from down upwards. Hold for 5 to 15 minutes, the longer the better.
Recipe for Vata Balancing Sweet Potato Soup
¼ cup Basmati Rice
6-8 cups water
1 cup kale, chopped
1 cup sweet potato cut into small thin pieces
½ cup carrots, chopped into small thin round pieces
3-4 Tbs daikon grated
1/8 tsp black pepper
1/8 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp ground coriander
1/8 tsp turmeric
1 tsp fresh coriander chopped
½ tsp fresh ginger root grated
¼ tsp sea salt or to taste
Wash and drain the rice. Boil the water in a large, heavy bottomed stainless steel pot. Add all the ingredients, except the coriander and kale. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover the pot and let simmer for 20-30 minutes. Then reduce to low heat and add the kale and cook another 30 mins. Remove from heat. Mix in the fresh coriander, cover and let sit for five minutes. Add salt to taste.
Lad, Dr. Vasant. Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 1984
Nibodhi. Annapurna’s Prasad: Ayurvedic Cooking For Health And Longevity. Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust, 2009
Asana: Mata Amritanandamayi Ashram Yoga