An Ayurvedic Experiment in Pacifying Vata

As part  of Denver-based Axis Yoga Teacher Training Program, students learn about the 5,000 year old science of Aurvedic Medicine and are guided through a self-experiment based on its principles. This student identified an imbalnce in himself which he attributes to excess vata– the dosha responsible for cold, brittle, dry and anxious conditions. By eliminating sugar and coffee from his diet over a two-week period, this student began to open up to a more healthy and beneficial lifestyle.

Pacifying Vata: Introduction

Review of the Ayurvedic dosha attributes and subsequently taking the test in, The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies, confirmed my inclination that my dosha is predominately vata.  To summarize, several the characteristics I found compelling to come to this assessment related to my vikruti, including the physically imbalanced condition of dry skin, accented with cracked heals and cuticles particularly in the winter time, dry hair, and constipation.  Of the body types attributable to vatas, I am on the lean side with protruding veins.  Further confirming my vata prakruti is my strong dislike of cold weather from which I tend to quickly develop cold feet and hands.  Other common denominators I share with this dosha include my tendency to be in a hurry, constantly busy, walking quickly, and feeling out of sorts if I don’t exercise.  My sleep patterns are restless as I often wake up several times through the night and generally sleep between 6 to 7 hours.  Going to sleep and when I wake are about only routine behaviors I exhibit, which is approximately 10 and 4:30, respectively.

Of my imbalance issues, I decided to address my digestive issues and eating patterns.  In particular, I have had constipation issues for many years.  Often my bowel movements are a torment, as I sit for 10 plus minutes only to return to the bathroom again one or more times since I wasn’t able to clear myself.  My diet is indeed quite variable and tends not to be overly healthy.  Typical mornings for breakfast include 4 to 5 cups of coffee and anything with sugar (donuts, cake, chocolate, pastries).  Lunch generally consists of a sandwich and chips.  Snacks throughout the day are more of the sugar treats noted at breakfast.  Dinners vary in times and tend not to be organized.  Occasionally I will skip a lunch or formal dinner as I feel the need to get other things done, like exercise, and then just nibble on a few items.  On top of all this, I don’t drink a lot of water and favor soda.   I think my tendency to exercise incessantly is in part due to my bad eating habits as I rationalize that exercise will offset the unhealthy food items I put into my body.

Pacifying Vata: Change in Diet

My experiment centered around changing various elements of my daily diet.  I eliminated coffee and all caffeine from my diet for two weeks, replacing this with a goal to drink at least 64 ounces of water at work and water during dinner.  In the morning I had a vitamin supplement and glass of Metamucil.  During the first week I had kitchuri at least once a day and replaced my processed sugar items with fruit such as bananas, cuties, and carrots as breakfast items and snacks.  During the second week my breakfasts were the same as the first week while lunches and dinners were kitcuari.  Snacks consisted of fruit, carrots, and paneer cheese.  My primary goal during the experiment period was to hopefully improve my digestive process.

Pacifying Vata: Observations

During the latter part of the first week I noticed that my bowel movements change a little, but I was still having constipation related issues with movements lasting in excess of 10 minutes and feeling unfinished.  During this period I also noted that I wasn’t overly hungry as I thought I would be despite cutting out a lot of sugar, but was sleepy during the day.  Towards the end of the week I was still able to maintain my sleep patterns but still woke up several times during the night.  Through the two week period and continued my routine to either swim or jog on the treadmill for approximately 35 minutes in the morning.

In the second week I found my energy level increasing.  My bowel movements seemed to be more concentrated entering to the latter part of the week, with a shorter amount of time on the toilet and two to three productive movements during the course of the day.  Another interesting observation I found during the week was my craving for sweets and salty foods seemed to be dissipating.  There were plenty of temptations in the office for these snacks, but I resisted eating these, instead eating fruit or carrots.

Pacifying Vata: Conclusion

As I completed the two week Ayurveda experiment, I feel a positive impact from the dietary changes made.  At this point it is difficult to discern if it was a combination of the incremental changes or predominately from the kitchuri fasting.  My increased energy level was rather surprising as I moved through the two week period.   Not that I was trying to lose weight but over the two week period I lost 6 pounds.  One important reflection as I wrote down daily what I ate and what I subsequently experienced was how nasty my eating habits were prior.  Just writing my pre-experiment dietary habits down was an eye-opening experience.  I intend to continue my dietary changes and assessing my digestive issues beyond this two-week period.  Although I have experienced some positive changes relative to my digestive imbalance issues, I would like to further develop eating habits which foster a healthy lifestyle and a balanced vata.

Going forward I am going to concentrate eating foods and daily practices, which calm and center the vata in me.  Review of the recommended foods for my predominate dosha revealed that some changes are in order with a leaning towards warm and cooked foods.  One habit already changed is from my morning ritual of coffee and sweets to herbal teas and fruits.  I will attempt to add a little more routine into meals; however, this may be difficult given the hectic activities with my two boys.  In conclusion, the experiment was fun and beneficial given its potential to make a long lasting difference in my health.

Putting Together the Ayurvedic Puzzle

Ayurveda, the sister-science to yoga, has many pieces for preventing disease and prolonging life. Axis Yoga Teacher Training students have the opportunity to begin their Ayurvedic journey through a personal experiment. This student, like most, began with a few changes and plans to continue embracing more Ayurvedic principles in the future.

The Ayurvedic Puzzle: Sleep

with great curiosity and delight the following three-part experiment was undertaken from thursday the 28th of april 2011 until today, friday the 13th of may 2011.

the first part of my experiment was aligning my sleep schedule with the natural cycle of day and night. my goal was to be in bed at least eight hours before the sunrise in order to support deep, healthy sleep. having spent the last four years on a very noisy street corner, i felt consistent sleeping habits may be an easy place to experience a notable difference in my energy levels and perception of wellbeing.

this goal proved to be very difficult to achieve. in order to be asleep at least eight hours before sunrise, i would have to be in bed by 9 pm. the challenging part was that in addition to the regular oddities of life that keep us up later than we expect, each tuesday, wednesday and thursday evening classes, make-up classes and practice sessions were scheduled until 9 pm every week. occasionally, some went later, even as late as 9:45 pm. as i now commute 45 minutes one way from lafayette, this made my regular bedtime closer to 11 pm on most nights. regardless, i seem to wake about 15 – 30 minutes before the sun rises, which varied from 6:11 am to 5:52 am during the course of the experiment. i soon realized the vanity of trying to stick to my goal of sleeping a full eight hours per night every night by going to bed early. i tried to stay asleep longer by blacking out my extremely large bedroom windows first with dark blankets. the blankets proved too translucent, allowing enough light to easily wake me as soon as morning tiptoed over the horizon. next, i made giant cardboard cut outs (they are reeeeeeally large windows) and both nailed and duct-taped them up. exact fitting proved difficult and light streamed through the sides and seams of my corrugated franken-blind, though it did block much more light than the blankets. now, after the end of the official experiment, i am going to put up aluminum foil. it should be much easier to fit the odd a-frame shape, is much easier to attach than heavy card board, and blocks light much more effectively than blankets or cardboard.

even with my sleep schedule regularly disrupted, most nights i averaged around 7 hours of much higher quality sleep than i have had for years. before moving into the apartment on downing i could easily sleep 9 hours at time. while living in the apartment it was rare for me to sleep more than 6 hours a night. now in lafayette, the quiet and lovely surroundings make going to sleep much easier. waking up also is much easier and has not been accompanied by the sharp aching around my eyes and temples that has characterized my mornings for the last several years. i plan on continuing my cultivation of healthy sleep as it appears to be the single most effective variable i have found to change my experience of consciousness from challenging to vibrant. i am committed to rising early enough to complete sadhana and meditation practice during the sunrise. there does seem to be some energetic benefit, at least in my experience so far, to practicing during twilight.

The Ayurvedic Puzzle: Diet

the second part of my experiment was to follow ayurvedic dietetic principles for a vata dosha. when i first read the text’s sections on discerning one’s dosha, it seemed every single characteristic of vata was something i had lifelong experience in. upon completing the two weeks, i now have some doubts as to whether i am actually vata, or some other combination that is vata-aggravated. i have scheduled with alakananda ma to get some kind of professional guidance in general. i am really looking forward to meeting her, also.

for most of my life, i have prepared and cooked my own food. it has always been a blessing to be able to cook healthy food both for health reasons and just because its fun to share and offer home-made gifts with meaning to loved ones. there were several long-time staples that i culled: 1-2 daily servings of fresh greens, frequently snacking on home-made gorp of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and berries, 2-3 fuji apples a week, raw, home-made chocolates (ouch!!), frequent teas, kefir and fruit as a snack or meal, eating things quickly and often cold, avoiding the foundational trifecta of the american diet, meat, wheat and dairy. for this experiment, meat, wheat and dairy became dietary centerpieces once again. well, not much meat, but it certainly showed up at least three times a week. i began heating everything and finding ways to make formerly cold things hot. for years i have made a tasty gruel (sounds awful, tastes delicious!) of steel cut oats and amaranth in a nut or grain milk, with thick orange zest, and loaded with spices: cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and vanilla. i made it with various grains, always with amaranth, tho. it was always my go-to snack in a hurry, and i never bothered to heat it because the spices were very tasty and warming themselves.

after just a few days of heating, i found i could really feel and really enjoyed the warmth of the spices and grains when they are heated up. i was surprised how much i looked forward to the warm gruel instead of just grabbing it and heading out. it didn’t take much to heat either, just toss a little milk in a pot with some gruel. so it’s easy to maintain the change. i also found instead of eating cold sandwiches, i really enjoyed open faced broiled melts with high quality, organic cheeses. eating hot foods was something my belly looked forward to…this is one part of the experiment that has definitely made an impression on me.

sitting and relaxing after eating has also taken some patience. i found i was wanting to immediately get up and start doing dishes, preparing some other dish, attending to other people’s needs…it was challenging to keep in my seat, allowing dirty dishes to set and other’s to attend to their own interests. this principle of resting after eating, not rushing around, but settling and processing, gives me other opportunities to examine my health and relationships, too.

over all, i found i gained a huge amount of weight in this experiment and am going to go back to eating more greens and plants, less wheat and meat. i feel really heavy in general right now. and not just weight-wise. i feel slow and clunky in my head and thoughts. overall, the diet portion of my experiment was very interesting. i have a lot of new questions now!

The Ayurvedic Puzzle: Surroundings

the last part of my experiment was to spend time outside in nature. i now live near a wildlife refuge north of lake waneka. its about 45 min. to one hour at a brisk clip to walk around the lake and back to home. sometimes i sit and listen to the songbirds or watch the pelicans land gracefully on the water. this part was the easiest to maintain as i find i am super-highly motivated to be outside, watching animals, plants, clouds, anything without a silicone circuit, and simply enjoying it…the rain was such a gift the last few days!! how fresh and lovely she poured her gifts out in abundance over all the land!

being outside, away from synthetic structures, surrounded by the patterns, rhythms, cycles, impressions and details of an unselfconscious wilderness, this has always been a blessing, and feels like a gift to me. while i am still surrounded by suburbia here in lafayette, there is a bumper, a bit of space around it. any day i missed walking waneka felt very much like missing pranayama practice, or asana practice. i felt hard, sharp, ‘activated’. the days i walked, i found it was easier to spot and release a destructive thought pattern and easier to engage in new perspectives or ways of approaching challenges. in general, i am less grumpy when outside. i also realized that while i do practice self-massage in general, it is not the quality of massage that would counter the flighty effects of a vata constitution. i have not spent the time or energy on my own self as i would for another person. this was under my nose, but until now, not directly in my sight, so to speak.

The Ayurvedic Puzzle: Conclusion

over all, i find there is ample reason to continue exploring the principles of ayurveda. i am curious what a delicious dosha-satisfying menu would do for my friends and loved ones…thank you for creating this particular opportunity for discovery.