Yesterday I drove my brother to the airport after a short 2 day visit from NYC. After we said our goodbyes I welled up with emotions of loneliness and began to cry. I usually have this reaction after a visit from my close family. We all live on opposite corners of the continent so unfortunately, I only get to see them a few times a year.
As I had a little cry on my drive home from the airport I reflected on how much I love my family and how heartbroken I would be if I lost any of them. Then I began to worry, what if something happens to my brother and I never see him again? And my kids, what if something were to happen to them? A wave of anxiety swept over me.
Ayurveda is a holistic medicine that looks for the root cause of disease. To effectively address the symptom, we need to explore the underlying cause. In my case, my bout of anxiety surfaced on the heels of a few days off my regular routine. We had spent the night at a cabin on the lake where we ate late, I didn't sleep well and it was cold. Looking at it from my Ayurvedic lens it all became clear – all those things increased vata dosha which triggered anxiety and spiraled into needless worrying. Once I got home and got settled back into my routine I was fine.
Vata is the energy of movement and is made up of the elements of air and space. These lighter elements are naturally light, cold, dry, rough, mobile, subtle, and clear. When we're exposed to those qualities, whether it be through food (cold drinks, dry or light foods), or lifestyle (being overly busy), or environment (cold weather) it increases that energy inside our body and mind. When too much vata accumulates, we suffer from fear, anxiety, worry, and loneliness. Because of vata's mobile nature, it swings out of balance easily. But on the upside, little tweaks can make a world of difference.
The following is a list of common ways vata gets increased and causes anxiety:
- Fall and winter season
- Dry and/or windy climate
- Lack of sleep
- Staying up too late
- Lack of routine
- Skipping meals
- Poor diet choices
- Raw, cold food and beverages
- Caffeine and other stimulants
- Overworking, overexertion, being too busy
- Excessive aerobic activity such as jumping, jogging and extreme cardio
- Excessive use of electronics such as computer, cell phones, etc
- Excessive talking and social activity
- Past trauma (PTSD)
- Major life changes such as marriage, divorce, moves and job changes
- Loss of a loved one
Once we identify what may have triggered our anxiety, we can take measures to chill out and calm down.
The daily routine of Ayurveda, or dina charya is a series of habits done daily which is extremely grounding to the nervous system. Not only are the habits themselves deeply nurturing, but having a routine in general balances vata dosha and allows the mind to relax into ease. Simple things like going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, eating at regular meal times and having consistent morning and evening routines is very supportive to our physiology on all levels.
Meditation is the ultimate antidote to a busy mind. Although when we sit it might feel like our thoughts are just getting louder and the monkey mind busier – we're actually just becoming aware of what was already happening. Once we have the awareness, with consistent practice we get better at creating space between our thoughts and enjoying moments of peace. Start with a few minutes a day and work your way up. Try one of the one minute or less stress relievers below.
Pranayama is a powerful practice that directly affects the mind. Prana, or life force energy is the refined essence of vata dosha so it makes sense that what we do with our breath has an impact on our mind. The saying goes that our mind is the kite and our breath is the string. In yoga, we practice controlling the breath to direct the mind. My favorite balancing breath is a few rounds of deep belly breathing followed by alternate nostril breathing. Instructions here.
Abhyanga is the daily practice of self-massage with oil. It's a loving act of self-care that insulates and calms our nerves and nourishes our bodily tissues. Even a simple foot massage helps to bring the energy down and is incredibly grounding.
Diet is one of the most powerful ways to balance our doshas. Soups, stews, root vegetables, and other warm, simple, grounding foods are excellent for balancing vata dosha. The health and quality of our digestive fire lies at the root of our health. When we're anxious we don't digest as well so eating easy-to-digest whole foods prevents further imbalances from taking root.
Last but not least, simple things like taking a bath, going for a walk, spending time in nature, decluttering your space, restorative yoga or yoga nidra might be just what the doctor ordered.
The power of the Ayurvedic approach to body-mind health is more than a prescription of recommended foods and strict daily routines. It lies in our ability to observe our experience, to intuit what is throwing us off, and then through simple wisdom of what helps our body thrive, taking sweet care of ourselves.