Though it is 5,000 years old, many people have not heard of the ancient art of Ayurveda, which can be a boon to the aging process. And unlike many modern medications, this alternative approach doesn’t have unpleasant side effects. Ayurveda utilizes herbal remedies, spices, dietary guidelines, oil therapies and lifestyle advice to achieve effects that may be subtle in the beginning, but eventually can lead to profound improvements and aging well. Once people learn a little about the principles of Ayurveda, it usually begins makes an enormous amount of sense to them, according to Beth Biegler, a Manhattan Ayurvedic practitioner who studied with famed Vasant Lad, founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico.
In Ayurvedic philosophy, she explained, humans are seen as part of—not apart from—nature. The human body is constantly interacting with the outside environment. For instance, if you are exposed to a cold, windy environment, your lips get chapped and your skin dries out. If you are standing on a tilting ship in a stormy sea, your body will behave differently than it does on dry land. Ayurveda helps keep the body’s systems in balance with the natural environment, especially important to aging well.
In Ayurveda, humans are comprised of five elements. The first is space (sky). Examples of space inside the body include the digestive tubes, the chambers of heart and the lungs. Without space, these systems would not work (consider what happens if people become constipated). The second element, air, refers to the essential gases in the blood and all movement, either physical or mental, as in passing moods. Water includes anything that exists as fluid in the body, such as saliva, lymph, blood and urine. Fire is the body’s heating system in the form of the digestive system, and can also refer to the fire of the mind. Earth is represented by our bones and teeth. From these basic principles arise “doshas,” or paired qualities of elements acting through a living system. They are:
- Vata, which is cold, moveable and dry. “Think of how you feel in a high desert in winter, which is airy and cold,” Biegler explained. “People will say, ‘Oh yeah, my skin was really dry.’” Vata represents space, changeability and motion. Vata is aggravated by travel, wind and cold, dry weather or food. Imbalanced Vata can leave you feeling spaced out, sleepless and constipated; balanced Vata is creative, imaginative and adaptable.
- Pitta, which is fiery, dynamic and transformative and would be conjured by hot rain forest in summer. “Think of how you feel on a really muggy day,” said Biegler. Pitta is aggravated by heat, overly vigorous exercise or spicy food. Raging Pitta can lead to irritability, sour stomach and inflammation; balanced Pitta is organized, dynamic and radiant.
- Kapha represents solidity, stability and cohesion. “Think of how you feel on a cold, damp day,” said Biegler. “You could be a couch potato eating bonbons, not wanting to move from inertia.” Too much kapha leads to lethargy, water retention and weight gain. Balanced Kapha is grounded, sturdy and well-lubricated.
The doshas predominate during three key phases of human life regardless of your primary constitution. Kapha is the time of childhood and adolescence, when you are young, supple and juicy; Pitta rises in late adolescence and lends energy and drive through middle age; and Vata, which is dry and cold, rises after age 50. This is why the elderly are so affected by constipation, gas and susceptibility to cold. When the doshas are in balance, your health is good, but if one or more goes out of balance, various symptoms or illnesses can result. Biegler said keeping your doshas in harmony allows you to flow through the process of aging more easily.
In this alternative approach, some remedies can be as close as your kitchen cabinet. Meals become good medicine when Ayurvedic knowledge is skillfully applied. “Most traditional foods have recipes are remedial,” she said. “Eating ginger with sushi helps you digest it. The wasabi horseradish also aids digestion and is anti-microbial and ginger has an anti-parasite action.” From the Ayurvedic perspective, keeping the digestive tract healthy is essential to health. Ginger, curry, fennel, coriander and cinnamon help digestion. Garlic is thought to kill parasites and lower cholesterol. Salt is an appetite stimulant, which, according to Biegler is why there is so much in fast food: “It makes you eat and drink more,” she explained. In future articles, we will look at how Ayurveda addresses common problems such as gas and bloating, constipation, arthritis, poor memory, anxiety and insomnia.