Ayurveda in the West


Jenna Wolf, Nashville Ayurveda counselor and entrepreneur, suggests eating an easily digestible breakfast with garnishes like Ashwaganda Spiced Ghee that give the meal an added boost of antioxidants, healthy fats and many more digestive benefits. Recipe Courtesy of The Lotus Room. Photo Credit: Hannah Stalnaker.

By Amelia Epley

When an upscale boutique in trendy East Nashville hosts an event called “Managing Anxiety with Ayurveda,” they offer rosé.

I declined the rosé. Instead, I sipped on the herbal tea I bought at Ugly Mugs next door and explored the natural health and beauty merchandise, pausing at one particular Ayurvedic concoction promising to “improve mental cognition and make skin radiate,” with a mixture of turmeric, known for its anti-inflammatory effects, along with brahmi, maca and black pepper.

The event was a Q&A with Jenna Wolf, yoga instructor at Shakti Yoga and owner of The Lotus Room, a Ayurvedic massage studio that opened in 2012 and was voted Best Massage in the Nashville Scene’s Best of 2017. She started incorporating Ayurveda into their spa, massage, and wellness counseling in 2014.

Photo Credit: Hannah Stalnaker. Jenna Wolf (LEFT) explains how we can use ritualized meal times and adequate sleep to manage anxiety with Ayurveda in a Q&A session with Laura Lemon, owner of Lemon Laine (RIGHT).

At 25, after a particularly rough and “catalytic” breakup with her fiancé, Wolf described going through an awakening during which she contemplated who she was on a soul level and how to just “be” in life moving forward without him.

“You know what’s it like. You’re young and in love. It was heartbreaking, and I think I felt like I lost myself but then I realized that I didn’t really know who I was,” she said.

Her interest in East Asian philosophy, massage and yoga took her to India where she was first introduced to Ayurveda through its most intense healing modality, panchakarma detox and rejuvenation.

“I think what inspired me then to move forward with Ayurveda as more of an integrative practice, with nutrition and herbology and the lifestyle routines, was that they actually really work and it didn’t feel like medicine,” she said. “It felt like rituals. It felt sacred. It felt natural.”

Wolf described yoga and Ayurveda coming together in her life as a “cosmic dance” because they are intimately linked as “sister sciences.” It was during her journey of self-discovery that she realized there is a great deal of responsibility that comes with being a healed person: you must then heal others.

At the event, there were about 30 women in the room dressed in clean, stylish lines and great shoes; many of them knew each other. Most, if not all, of the women wore makeup and their hair was styled. The few men in the room were dressed casually but respectable. I felt out of place in a faded and oversized black top I have been wearing for years, tennis shoes and my only pair of jeans.

After laying a brief foundation of knowledge about the history of Ayurveda and the concept of the doshas for finding your body’s unique composition, Wolf suggested to us that the first step in using Ayurveda to relieve stress is to begin “ritualizing your meals.”

I was intrigued by this idea of ritualizing what I eat in order to manage my mental state. I knew what I ate had an impact but I never thought how I ate would be just as important.

I have been fat since I was a teenager, and I don’t mean baby fat but BMI indexes in the thirties. By the time I was 20, I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and self-medicating my depression and low self-esteem with marijuana, nicotine and alcohol. Doctors would agree that I am on a fast track to developing one or more of the major chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity.

The Center for Disease Control says that 86 percent of the $2.7 trillion in U.S. healthcare expenditures is spent on patients with chronic diseases, most of which are preventable, caused by prolonged stress and can be drastically reduced.

Now, at 27, I have developed a new awareness of the power and responsibility I have over my own health, and I am open to new ideas of how to change my current outlook on what it means to be healthy. This, combined with my interest in ancient cultures and practices, led me to what is roughly translated from Sanskrit as the “knowledge of longevity” or “science of life.”


According to the practitioners, educators and counselors I spoke with, Ayurveda’s approach to health involves viewing the human body as a microcosm of systems and structures that ultimately make up and affect the macrocosm that is our society and physical Earth. The role of an Ayurvedic physician is to detect that which is lacking within the microcosm of the individual human body and replace it with what is available from the macrocosm, for everything in and around us operate as a single existence.

Using this information taken from Svoboda’s book Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution, you can see the differences between the three dosas and how they translate to the individual. Graphic by Amelia Epley.

A fundamental belief of Ayurveda is the idea that there are five basic elements that create the world in and around us. Everything on Earth is created by and contains any combination of these five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether, or space. Every substance we consume and every action that we take will strengthen or deplete the forces behind every biological function in our bodies. These forces are called doshas, or, “a thing that can go out of whack.”

The basic principle of Tridosha considers how these five elements combine and interact in the human body itself and provides the individual with a unique mind-body constitution, or prakriti, that was assigned to them at conception. These forces are what guides the nature of the individual’s state of health and disease. They are expressed as Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (earth and water).

The basic quality of vata is movement, pitta is expressed as heat or form, and kapha is fluidity. A closer examination of these qualities will show how the dosas are forces behind every form and function within the human body. There is movement of air through the lungs and food through the intestines. Heat exists as digestive fire and form as the structure of the organs. Fluidity is the lubrication that keeps everything moving.

Laursen says that even though some scholars say that Ayurveda began as early as 8000 BC, there is no clear way of knowing exactly and it is widely accepted that by at least 3000 BC, with the rise of the Aryan and Indus Valley Civilizations of modern day India, knowledge of human longevity and health had been manifested by the rishis, or mystics, during their austerity practices in the mountains. The knowledge was preserved first through oral recitation by the Brahmin, or priestly caste, of India and was later recorded into written history in the form of Sanskrit poetry.

In “The Roots of Ayurveda,” Dominik Wujastyk, a leading scholar of Sanskrit linguistics and classical Indian society at the University of Alberta, introduces Fa Hsien, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim living at the turn of the 5th century whose description of a medical clinic in India is considered to be one of the earliest accounts of an organized, institution-based medical system. It was a place where “all who are diseased” are provided with charity and medicine. By the time Fa Hsien visited India, Ayurveda was at least a thousand years old.

During the centuries of British rule and the rise of medical science, Ayurvedic practice dwindled and Western medicine prevailed in the country. Though this ancient medical system thrived in India during the many millennia before British occupation, which ended in 1947, it wasn’t until 2014 that India officially established the Ministry of AYUSH, which oversees the development and propagation of such systems of medicine as Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy.

Following the Transcendental Meditation Movement of the seventies and eighties, some Indian physicians immigrating to the U.S. found an audience for their Eastern philosophies on healing and yoga, Ayurveda’s “sister science.” Then, in 1990, mainstream America got a taste of Ayurveda with the publication of Deepak Chopra’s book, “Perfect Health,” which remained below the radar until Oprah featured his books on her show. His ideas on “quantum healing,” the theory that a mind made strong through the power of meditation has power to stop aging and heal the body of cancer, have faced much criticism.

Now, global market projections have the Indian Ayurvedic Market growing at a compound annual growth rate of 16 percent over the next decade.

Wolf, the Nashville Ayurvedic counselor, believes that health has too long been put into the hands of medical professionals and the idea that “I am only as healthy as my insurance will pay for” is changing.

Ayurveda can allow an individual to take the power back by using individually recommended diet, routine and lifestyle practices to prevent disease while remaining flexible enough to take advantage of allopathic medicine when needed, giving it its classification as a form of “complementary” medicine.

“It acknowledges our uniqueness instead of lumping everything into, ‘this is what health is,’” she said.


In an article released by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a government agency charged with researching the many forms of alternative medicine, the authors answer important scientific and public health questions about Ayurveda. Determining whether or not the practice is both safe and effective in conjunction with Western medicine are their two key points.

The NCCIH recognizes Ayurveda’s key concepts as universal connectedness, the body’s constitution, and life forces. These key concepts aid Ayurvedic physicians in the diagnosis of disease and prescription of treatment that includes specific herbs, diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. Though there may be Ayurvedic schools in the United States, there are no states that license Ayurvedic practitioners and most are licensed in other fields such as massage or midwifery.

The NCCIH also references few clinical trials regarding specific diseases like schizophrenia, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as testing on herbs such as turmeric and boswellia.

However, they found that there is a definitive lack of research and clinical trials in testing the effectiveness of the Ayurvedic system as of now.

In addition to the lack of research, the NCCIH funded a study in 2008 that tested 193 Ayurvedic products, mostly made either of herbs only or a combination of herbs, metals or minerals, and found that 21 percent of the products contained levels of lead, mercury and arsenic too high to be acceptable for daily intake.

NCCIH warns that other Ayurvedic products and services such as massage, diets, and cleansing techniques could also have side effects and urges readers to be honest with healthcare providers about any products, practices or other health approaches they choose in order to avoid negative reactions between traditional and biomedical treatments.

Dr. David Forbes is a holistic integrative medical doctor in Nashville who is complementing his patient’s care with holistic practices like acupuncture, reiki and meditation.

“The West and the East have two completely different perspectives on the human system, and they are complementary. They are like two sides of the same coin,” he said. “One emphasizes how we are all the same; one emphasizes how we are all different.”

Pan Nalin’s 2001 documentary on Ayurveda, “The Art of Being,” confronts one of the most asked questions about Ayurveda and considers how a 3,500-year-old tradition could translate into our modern society. Scott Gerson of the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine in New York said he thinks that the answer is an important one.

Modern society is not in sync with the rhythms of nature, nor are we trained in using the mind to promote healing. The diseases he had encountered over his 20 years of experience are, for the most part, diseases of accumulation and excess caused by stress.

“It’s all about over consumption, and not only about foods, but of impressions, of sensations. There’s too much stimulation,” Gerson said in the documentary. “There’s too much being offered and, in a sense, we are a world, a society, of over-nourishment.”

Marisa Laursen is lead faculty at the California College of Ayurveda in Nevada City, California and has been teaching there for 15 years. She works closely with CCA founder, Dr. Marc Halpern, to develop curriculum and provide support for students and graduates. In addition to these responsibilities, she is also writing a children’s book on Ayurveda.

She claims that Ayurveda has endured for thousands of years because of the nature of its wisdom.

“Ayurveda is a paradigm that helps us to understand the laws of nature and how to apply it to our own health and healing based on the patterns, forces and rhythms that exist in the natural world,” she said.

Wolf and Laursen agree that these natural rhythms are not limited to the rhythms within the body, but exist within the laws of nature as well, including time and seasons. The Ayurvedic clock is broken into six, four-hour intervals and each of the three doshas are experienced twice a day. Our bodies are synced to this flow of time and when we perform actions out of time, it further knocks off the natural balance of forces within our body.


The Ayurvedic Clock

KAPHA

Earth and Water
6 a.m.- 10 a.m.

Kapha represents the potential energy contained within the body and since Kapha time starts at sunrise, the potential energy of the day ahead. It is stability and lubrication for the body and mind. It gives the body the start it needs to take on the day by waking us up slowly and calmly.

On a cellular level, the kapha forces govern the structure of a cell. Within the mind, it provides the stability and organization needed for the mind to experience one thought at a time. Kapha is also what keeps the body’s solids (earth), suspended in its liquids (water).

After you wake at sunrise, it is time to use  the bathroom and get rid of the waste that accumulated overnight, perform a nasal rinse and tongue scraping, do yoga stretches or dosha-recommended exercise program, take a warm shower, meditate and then eat a light breakfast based on your dosha nutrition guidelines.

PITTA

Fire and Water
10 a.m.- 2 p.m.

Pitta regulates the potential energy of kapha and kinetic energy of vata, holding the two at balance within the body. It is the digestion of thoughts and food just as it is the force behind the way our cells digest nutrients into waste. In the mind, it is what processes new information and makes conclusions.

It is the force containing the fires of the body within water. When they are out of balance, a stomach ulcer may appear if the fire is too hot and result in indigestion when the fire is too low to transform the food into nutrients.

When you eat lunch at noon, the sun is directly above you, aligned with agni and at its most effective. This is why your biggest meal should be lunch while breakfast and dinner are lighter. This is also a great time to work or study because you are also processing and digesting information efficiently.

VATA
Air and Ether
2 p.m.- 6 p.m.

Vata is the kinetic energy that controls the nervous system and bodily movement. It is what makes us walk and talk and express ourselves. It is the change of ideas into action. Vata is the force that moves nutrients and waste in and out of cells and how the brain stores new memories.

Biologically, vata is what makes sure there is plenty of space for air to move. Someone with an unbalanced vata may develop bad joints due to osteoporosis or inflamed lungs due to emphysema.

This is also the part of the day when you are at your most creative. This is a time to brainstorm, problem solve or start a new project because the kinetic energy of vata is spurring you on to create new experiences. Once the stability of kapha has allowed smooth pitta digestion, the information or food is ready to be transformed into new energy.

Kapha
Earth and Water
6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Now that the energy of the day has been primed, digested and transformed, it is time for the body to stabilize and nourish itself after a hectic day and prepare you for the night ahead. This is when you should start slowing down and getting ready for bed.

It is helpful to eat a light dinner, as opposed to the heavy lunch from earlier in the day, and then take a short walk to help aid that food’s digestion. After dinner, do activities that slow you down like listening to music, reading or socializing with friends.

It is important to eat before 6:30 p.m. so that your body has plenty of time to digest the food before you sleep. Most importantly, bedtime is 10 p.m. and preferably no later because your body now must enter into sleep and pitta time. If your body is too busy digesting the late meal you ate, it does not have enough time to get a truly restful sleep.

Pitta
Fire and Water
10 p.m.– 2 a.m.

Pitta at this time is an act of balancing the energy within the body and allowing the body and mind to get restorative sleep. However, if you do not get to bed on time, you run the risk of getting a “second wind” because your body is being primed, as it was at noon, for when we are at our most productive. Night owls will say that they do their best work at night, but that’s just because they are caught in the energy forces of pitta and are losing out on the most effective hours for subconscious thought digestion.

Vata
Air and Ether
2 a.m.– 6 a.m.

The kinetic energy of vata transforms the digested thoughts and memories of the day into dreams that help us solve issues from the day within our subconscious. We hear this all of the time about dreams and sleep.

According to the dosha clock, the energy forces of vata are storing digested information in our subconscious, healing our mind and in turn, healing our body as well.


Leah King, owner of Kali Yuga Yoga in Nashville, has attended numerous Ayurvedic workshops and seminars on Ayurveda but is mostly self-taught. She strives to bring doshic qualities into the practices she offers at the studio as well as give her yoga students and teachers a chance to experience many different types of yoga.

King believes that Western society has a “one size fits all” mentality when it comes to diet, exercise and productivity, and we forget that each of us is a unique individual with unique physical, mental and spiritual needs.

King says that Ayurveda should be used to recognize what is and isn’t good for us so that we may feel empowered to tailor our own lives by recognizing the changing seasons and cycles of the year and by adjusting, modifying and retaining what works for us and what does not.

Her studio’s schedule is divided into dosha classifications. There are classes to enhance or strengthen one’s kapha, pitta or vata. Whereas most Ayurvedic practitioners will prescribe remedies or lifestyle changes to bring the doshas into balance, King has chosen to approach the doshas by looking at their opposites.

Someone suffering from imbalanced vata (air) will experience symptoms such as extreme anxiety or loss of energy, and might find a pitta (fire) class helpful. The energy and intensity found in a heated pitta class will channel the excess vata energy that comes with anxiety, or encourage movement and creativity when the vata energy is too low. The teacher acts as a cheerleader and speaks with a directive tone to encourage the students to be ambitious.

Similarly, if the pitta energy is out of balance and too intense, a kapha (water) class would be a way to calm the fire within the body by providing a more nurturing, restorative and methodical practice. The kapha class needs a gentle voice and a mellow tone. The teacher may use phrases like, “If you need to…” “If you feel like…” and “Listen to your body…”

The vata energy is more playful and funny. The teacher creates a lighter atmosphere and isn’t pushy or ambitious like pitta energy but will highlight the importance of meditation and sweeping away negative thoughts. The goal is to use a yoga vinyasa flow to open the student up and allow energy to flow more easily through the body.

King wants to provide as many opportunities as she can for people to be better stewards to their own worlds because peace and harmony within the body can be felt outside the body as well.

“I am here to live to my fullest potential,” she said. “By doing that, I hope that it radiates outwards into my community.”


Leah King, Jenna Wolf and Marisa Laursen are three women who are committed to spreading the knowledge of Ayurveda in their communities and in Laursen’s case, educating thousands of students with both campus and online courses.

Believers say that even though Ayurvedic medicine may take longer that allopathic medicine to show improvements, the results are without side effects and longer lasting than taking pharmaceuticals because the individual has begun living a more conscious lifestyle and taking full responsibility for what they consume, curbing the development of chronic disease.

According to Laursen, of the California College of Ayurveda, Ayurveda asks you to reflect on your life and to make lifestyle changes. This means confronting old habits that are no longer serving us and that can be tough, but this is what she loves about Ayurveda. It empowers the individual to take control of their own health by providing them with the knowledge that could help them find their optimal state of balance.

Following Ayurvedic principles, she was able to transform her own digestive health problems in ways she didn’t know she could.

“Recognizing that many of the things that I was doing with my diet was contributing to my problem. One of the things that Ayurveda teaches, which is deeply profound, truly, is that ill health begins within the digestive tract,” she said. “Digestion is the number one place to treat if you are seeking to treat the root cause of disease.”

Laursen, just like Wolf and other practitioners, emphasized that Ayurveda doesn’t just consider what you eat, but how you eat. It is important to become aware of the digestive fire within your gut and how to keep it burning at a healthy rate. She said it was important to eat around the same times every day, giving your digestive fire plenty of time to burn, and to really sit down with your meal to fully experience digestion, almost meditatively.

Laursen says if that sounds strange, then it isn’t necessary to make such big changes so soon. She began healing her digestive problems by cutting cold food and drinks out of her diet. The cold, sugary drinks have an effective way of dousing the digestive fire within us.

“All I had to do was cut that out and my digestion changed. It was something so simple and yet so extraordinarily profound,” she said. “That’s just one of a lot of examples.”

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