Ayurveda, Yoga and Hormones

Understanding the Endocrine System

Together, the endocrine and the nervous systems regulate bodily activities. Endocrine glands produce and secrete 30 hormones into the blood stream. Each hormone has a specific affect upon the body, including the functions of other glands. The immune system also plays an integral role in maintaining emotional and hormonal balance. When our hormones are balanced and our immune system is strong, we have tapped into the fountain of life (ojas) and feel vital, calm and focused.

There are seven major endocrine glands with specific functions:

  • Pituitary – in the center of the skull. The hypothalamus in the forebrain coordinates the autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland. This portion of the brain helps the body maintain a stable and constant internal environment. The nervous system secretes neurohormones governing the secretion of pituitary hormones. In turn, the pituitary regulates the other glands as well as women’s reproductive cycles.  
  • Pineal – deep within the brain; controls sleep cycles and produces melatonin; still a bit mysterious and not fully understood.
  • Thyroid – in the throat; controls cell growth and development; maintains basal metabolic rate. The thyroid helps regulate appetite, muscle function, heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Parathyroid – also located in the throat; determines the amount of calcium and phosphate in the blood and transported to muscles and bones.
  • Thymus – located between the throat and sternum; center of the adaptive immune system; develops T-cells instrumental in attacking invasive viruses, bacteria and fungi. The thymus shrinks as we mature since most T-cells are created in our youth.
  • Adrenal – above the kidneys; balances our emotional and physical state; produces adrenaline, aldosterone and cortisol; also maintains body’s salt levels.
  • Pancreas – deep in the abdomen; controls body’s sugar level through secretion of insulin and glucagon.
  • Testes – secretes testosterone.
  • Ovaries – secretes estrogen and progesterone regulating female reproductive functions.

Out of Balance

Too little production of a specific hormone is known as hypo, while too much production is known as hyper. Both conditions affect other bodily systems. Symptoms of hormonal imbalance may include insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, irregular monthly cycles, blood sugar imbalances, digestive issues, hair loss or arthritis. A variety of factors can lead to hormonal imbalances. The most common contributors are stress, lack of exercise, lifestyle and diet.

Today’s modern lifestyle bombards us with information overload and constant deadlines increasing stress and anxiety levels. Stress can lead to hormonal imbalance and a weakened immune system. A diet lacking essential nutrients impacts the production of hormones. Excess sugars and carbohydrates can cause the pancreas to overproduce insulin. The lymphatic system relies upon body movements to push a milky fluid containing white blood cells throughout the body. A sedentary lifestyle leads to sluggish digestion and overworks the lymphatic system.

Returning to Balance with Ayurveda and Yoga

Ayurveda

Ayurveda provides the tools and knowledge to live a more balanced lifestyle in accordance with the rhythms of nature. Daily, weekly and seasonal routines elevate our awareness of subtle changes throughout the day and from season to season. Ayurveda helps us adjust to the fluctuations throughout our lives from childhood and puberty to adulthood and finally, into the forest years.

Ayurveda’s nutritional guidelines teach us how to eat according to our constitution, taking age, sex, and state of health into account. According to Ayurveda, we are what we absorb, not simply what we eat. Eating seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, etc. according to our constitution (prakriti) helps us maintain a strong, balanced metabolism and digestive fire (agni).

Ayurvedic herbs and formulae support, balance and invigorate digestion and other body systems. Rasayanas are a special type of rejuvenating tonics that help improve bodily tissues (rasa). Rich in antioxidants, they help boost our immune system, fight destructive free radicals, promote physical strength, improve cognitive function and prevent disease. Examples include amalaki, ashwagandha and shatavari – all of which I use.

Moment is a flower. Mindfulness is sipping the nectar of that flower.
~ Amit Ray

Yoga

A regular Yoga practice including breath control (pranayama), meditation, poses (asanas) followed by a period of rest (savasana) not only stretches and strengthens the body, but balances hormones and calms the central nervous system.

Pranayama supplies more oxygen to every cell in the body. Slow, full, even, deep breathing slows the emotional response produced by the hypothalamus and helps balance the endocrine system. The result is a calm, soothing state of mind and body.

A balancing method of breath control is alternate nasal breathing (nadi shodhana). I have practiced this every morning for 10 years. When I started the practice, I couldn’t believe how calm, yet energized I felt. That feeling has become the new norm. To practice nadi shodhana, sit comfortably, spine erect. Exhale completely, then press the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Retaining the breath, close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right. Repeat this process, inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left to complete one cycle. Alternate side to side and repeat up to 10 times. Complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.

According to Yogapedia, benefits of nadhi shodhana includes:

  • Calms the mind
  • Improves focus
  • Alleviates stress
  • Promotes mental clarity
  • Prepares the mind for meditation

Meditation, restorative poses and savasana all serve to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) while allowing the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to rest. SNS prepares the body for action. When activated, the body produces more adrenaline and cortisol, accelerating the heart rate, raising blood pressure, constricting blood vessels and slowing or stopping digestion. PNS calms the body and conserves energy; it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal activity, supports optimal digestion and relaxes muscles.

Asanas may improve endocrine gland functionality by increasing blood flow and activating the muscles around each gland.

  • Twists massage and stimulate kidneys, liver and pancreas.
  • Gentle inversions may increase blood flow to the brain, improving brain function as well as communication between the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
  • Poses that activate neck muscles, stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid.
  • Chest openers stimulate the thymus.
  • Core strengthening poses activate the pancreas.
  • Poses that stretch the groin, inner thighs and hips stimulate the reproductive glands.
  • Prone back bends strengthen the muscles along the spine and massage the adrenal glands.

Yoga has been called a “fountain of youth” because it brings health and vitality, but this is a misnomer. The search for a fountain of youth, whether through magic, drugs, or techniques, indicates a resistance to the aging process. I prefer to call yoga a “fountain of life.” Aging is inevitable. Yoga allows you to approach it awarely as a transformative process that can bring growth and new depths with maturation. Resisting aging is actually resisting transformation and growth. Paradoxically, the resistance to aging, which includes holding on to old, inappropriate ways of living, exacerbates the very aging process you fear.

~ Joel Kramer from 365 Daily Meditations by Julie Rappaport

Ayurveda and Herbs

Ayurveda includes a vast body of knowledge about herbs, plant medicines and preparations. Early Vedic texts describe the energies within plants and their use as medicine. Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, the two classic Ayurvedic texts classified all medicinal substances into three groups: vegetable, animal and mineral origin. The Ayurveda material medica are articulated in Astanga Hrdaya and Astanga Samgraha

Dravya is an herb, preparation, drug or substance taken internally or externally to maintain health, ease pain or treat disease. Herbal substances are uniquely administered to help restore or maintain balance using a thorough understanding of prakriti (constitution) and the doshas. For example, a person with a vata constitution may exhibit the same or similar symptoms as a person with a pitta dosha. However, they should not necessarily be given identical treatments. An Ayurvedic approach to herbology treats the whole person, not the symptom.

Preparations and Dosage

Herbalists learn preparations, including a knowledge of the parts of the plant used most effectively: roots, bark, trunk, gum, stems, juice, leaves, salt, pulp, fruit, flowers, ash, oil, spikes, rhizomes, seeds or in some cases, the entire plant. Flowers and leaves lend themselves to infusions in hot water, like the tulsi tea I am sipping. Medicines within roots and barks are released by boiling until most of the water has evaporated. This is known as a decoction. Other preparations include fresh juice, herbal pastes and powders, and medicated oils.

When choosing the right dosage, Ayurveda considers:

  • Strength, metabolism, age and other conditions of the patient
  • Strength and duration of the disease
  • Season of the year
  • Potency, energy, essence of the herb – known as virya
    • Is it cooling – containing the energy of water?
    • Is it heating – containing the energy of fire?
  • Special potency or prahbava of the herb

The time of day dravya is administered also influences its efficacy. For example, most people should not ingest medicines on an empty stomach in the morning. Exceptions may include healthy people with a strong, kapha constitution. Dravya may be taken before a meal to increase the digestive fire and tone intestinal muscles.

Energy vibrations

Energetics, doshas, tastes and more 

Ayurveda texts describe a set of specific plants, alone or in combination as rasayana (nourishing the essence of life). Each herb embodies energy vibrations that match an energy vibration in the human body. Nature uses the same materials when creating plants, minerals, and human bodies. According to the Vedic sages, the building blocks of nature (subtle vibrations) are universal. Due to this belief in the likeness within all of nature, herbs, sounds, gemstones, colors, aromas, and foods all act as medicine when used properly.

The taste or rasa of an herb is an indication of its properties. When we eat according to our constitution and by taste, we feel healthy and vital. Each taste is composed of two elements and effect doshas as follows:

  • Sweet (earth and water) – increases kapha; decreases vata and pitta
  • Sour (earth and fire) – increases kapha and pitta; decreases vata
  • Salty (water and fire) – increases kapha and pitta; decreases vata
  • Pungent (fire and air) – decreases kapha; increases vata and pitta
  • Bitter (air and ether) – decreases kapha and pitta; increases vata
  • Astringent (air and earth) – decreases kapha and pitta; increases vata

In addition to the taste we sense in our mouths, food and herbs are transformed by the digestive process. The first phase of digestion (kapha) is in the mouth and stomach and is dominated by a sweet taste. The second phase (pitta) occurs in the stomach and small intestine and is dominated by a sour taste. The final phase (vata) occurs in the colon and is predominately pungent. The post-digestive effect, known as vipaka relates to the process of absorption and elimination. Herbs tend to aggravate the dosha whose vipaka they possess. There are three categories: sweet and salty possess a sweet vipaka; sour has a sour vipaka; bitter, astringent and pungent all possess pungent vipaka.

There are qualities (gunas) inherent in every plant, animal and mineral. Each quality has an opposite quality. Ayurveda teaches us how to find our way back to balance by treating with opposites. For example, herbs with a light, sharp quality can treat heaviness and lethargy.

  • Heavy/Light
  • Cold/Hot
  • Oily/Dry
  • Dull/Sharp
  • Smooth/Rough
  • Dense/Liquid
  • Soft/Hard
  • Stable/Mobile
  • Gross/Subtle
  • Cloudy/Clear

Some of the qualities are easy to determine whereas other qualities are more nuanced. For example, food full of chili peppers is obviously hot. Mashed potatoes and gravy are heavy. Water with lemon and ginger is a relatively clear drink, whereas a milk shake is very cloudy. An example of a rough herb is guggul. This resin scrapes toxins from our body!

Body Systems, Tissues and Therapeutic Actions

Muscle tissue

Western medicine categorizes herbs and medicines based upon their effect on a specific body system. Ayurveda also considers the effect of dravya upon our tissues or dhatus. The dhatus are:

  • Rasa – plasma, lymphatic fluid
  • Rakta – blood
  • Mamsa – muscle
  • Meda – fat
  • Asthi – bone
  • Majja – bone marrow
  • Shakra – reproductive fluids
  • Ojas – the essence of all dhatus

Herbs can be categorized by their therapeutic actions upon body systems and tissues.

  • Alterative herbs cleanse and purify the blood.
  • Antiparasitic herbs kill and remove worms.
  • Astringent herbs are drying and firming and help avoid excessive discharges.
  • Bitter herbs are detoxifying, deplete tissues, suppress or sedate organic bodily functions
  • Carminative herbs relieve intestinal gas, pain and distention; they help promote peristalsis.
  •  Diaphoretic herbs induce perspiration; restore circulation, lower fever and eliminate toxins from the surface of the body.
  • Diuretic herbs increase urination and promote kidney and bladder function.
  • Emmenagogues help promote and regulate menstruation; help with PMS, uterine infections.
  • Expectorant and demulcent herbs promote the discharge of phlegm and mucus.
  • Laxative and purgative herbs promote bowel movements and help eliminate food accumulations and toxic build-up (ama) from the intestines.
  • Nervine and antispasmodic herbs strengthen the function activity of the nervous system. Include stimulants and sedatives.
  • Stimulant and digestive herbs stimulate digestion resulting in an increase in all organic functions.
  • Aphrodisiacs reinvigorate the sexual organs.
  • Tonics nurture the tissues of the body – rejuvenating tonics (rasayanas) promote physical strength, boost cognitive function and prevent disease.
Fennel

My story

When I began my studies in Ayurveda in 2009, I had acid indigestion, heartburn, pain and distension in my stomach. On my teachers’ recommendations, I stopped drinking orange juice, eating hot peppers (bowls of salsa with chips) and fruit with my yogurt. And I naturally stopped drinking wine. I traded cayenne and chili powder for cardamom and ajwain. And I learned the benefits of cumin, coriander and fennel tea. I also began taking triphala. My digestive problems were gone within a few months and have not returned. When I stray for a day or two – I still love a bowl of chili on a cold winter night – I notice the difference immediately. Simple changes can create a dramatic shift.


Earth, sky, worlds above, quarters and their halves;
Fire, air, sun, moon, and stars; water, herbs, trees,
Space, and entity are the elements.
Eye, ear, mind, tongue, and touch; skin, flesh, muscle,
Marrow, and skeleton; and the five
Vital forces constitute the body.
The sage, contemplating these sets of five,
Discovered that everything is holy.
Man can complete the inner with the outer.

From the Upanishads ~ Translated by Eknath Eawwaran

My herb garden, summer 2019

Sources:

Chopra, Deepak. 2001. Perfect health. London: Bantam.

Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. 2016. The yoga of herbs: an Ayurvedic guide to herbal medicine.

Celebrate Aging

Our Aging Population

Around the globe, fertility and infant mortality rates have decreased; meanwhile people are living longer, healthier lives. These changes have resulted in an unprecedented demographic shift towards an aging global population. Changes in demography are transforming societies, including medical research, public health, migration patterns, business, governmental policies and perhaps most importantly, our perceptions towards aging and elderhood.

From Ageism to Positive Aging

Most of us desire a long and healthy life, just not the experience of growing old so quickly. Modern society continues to idolize youth and marginalize elderhood. How many times have you heard, “you don’t look your age” or “you look great for 55”? Another favorite, “60 is the new 40 and 70 is the new 50”. Elderhood is associated with loss, loneliness, low energy, forgetfulness and so on. These are examples of ageism. As with all “ism’s”, ageism marginalizes elders – financially, socially and emotionally. And ageism affects our health! People with a positive attitude towards their own aging tend to live longer.

According to gerontologist, Louise Aronson, elderhood is a highly varied phase lasting 20 – 40 years. Why lump people in their 60’s with those in their 80’s?! We would never generalize about people in their 20’s and 40’s. People learn, grow and develop throughout life, well beyond childhood. And each phase of life is full of joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses.

Ideas about aging are changing as evidenced by the following trends:

Happiness and Aging

In the spring of 2017, I attended the ChangingAging Tour, a “nonfiction theater performance” presented by Dr. Bill Thomas and his traveling troupe. The performance included music, skits, art, storytelling, biography, and neuroscience. A large portion of the day was devoted to dementia. Several take-aways for me: I stopped using the expression, “senior moment” when I misplace something. We have forgetful moments throughout our lives, without blaming age. I enjoyed learning that young minds are better at memorization, while older minds excel at integration. And I loved the storytelling. Elders have many stories to tell and wisdom to share.

Embracing my 60’s

Who knew? Adulthood (the prime of life) is associated with the greatest anxiety levels and lowest happiness levels. Obligations are high and time is limited – many adults care for children and/or parents, while working a demanding job. Adults have more worries and stressors: from financial constraints to moves for career growth to divorce.   The grind of daily life might not match hopes and aspirations. Believe me, I have been there!

As people enter their early sixties, life satisfaction and happiness increase and remain high well into the nineties. Elders have a clearer sense of self-identity and worry less about what others think. Retired people have time to pursue old passions or explore new hobbies. I quit my full-time job after a 25-year career in student services to teach Yoga and volunteer. I now control my time. It took a while to slow down and savor extra “me” time each day. At first, I felt like I was playing hooky from work! I ask many people if they enjoy retirement and hear a resounding yes. It is exciting to witness the myriad of options played out during the Third Act.

From Anti-Aging to Healthy Aging

In hopes of reversing the aging process, many people experiment with a plethora of diet and fitness fads; consume numerous supplements; and regularly visit spas and wellness clinics. Massages, acupuncture, reflexology, facials, waxing and other treatments continue to rise in popularity. In 2018, more than $50 billion was spent on anti-aging worldwide – all to look and feel younger. Remedies may improve health or appearance in the short term. However, Ayurveda and Yoga practiced together, provide an integrated approach to wellness and contribute to healthy aging.

Ayurveda and Aging

Ayurveda and Yoga connect mind, body and energy while maintaining balance and wellness. Each person has a primary constitution (prakruti) which can change over time and manifest as our current state (vikruti). The branch of Ayurveda focused on longevity is known as rejuvenation (rasayana). There are three life stages: youth (Kapha), adulthood (Pitta), and elderhood (Vata). As Vata energy rises, skin and hair become dry, joints feel stiff and achy, digestion is erratic, and thoughts may become scattered.

Following an Ayurvedic lifestyle includes daily routines (dinacharya), with adjustments as we age. And as we attain elderhood, we should choose a gentler Yoga practice with more focus on pranayama and meditation. Learn more about the benefits of Yoga for practioners over 50 here.   

Serenity at the labyrinth, Victor Montana, 2019

Find Wellness in Elderhood with Ayurveda and Yoga

  • Each morning focus on the gift of life with each breath.
    • Notice how your body feels from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes.
    • With gratitude, notice where you feel softness and ease.
    • Without judgement, notice where you feel stiff, achy or fatigued.
    • Notice the natural rhythm of your breath.
  • Follow your heart – reach out to a loved one.
  • Pay attention to the present moment.
    • Experience each of your five senses.
    • Embrace the wise elder, rich with experiences.
    • Pause for inner reflection, meditation, mindfulness or prayer.
  • Practice self-care.
    • Massage with an oil or balm each morning.
    • Indulge in a hot oil hair and scalp treatment.
    • Soak in a warm tub, drink your favorite herbal tea or try golden milk.
    • Take a walk in a nearby park or forest and breathe in the aromas. If your access is limited, open a door or window, feel the fresh air, stretch and take a few breaths.
  • Eat soothing, warm foods including soups, stews, steamed vegetables.
    • Eat smaller meals more often.
    • Eat your main meal at midday when your digestive fire (Agni) is at its peak.
  • Drink plenty of water without ice.  
  • Movement is medicine!
    • Find an exercise you enjoy and practice several times a week… or more! Break it up into doable chunks of 5 – 15 minutes.
    • Find the best time for you – if you enjoy mornings, take a walk and/or stretch before you engage in other activities.
    • Spend 5 – 10 minutes to warm up joints and muscles, even longer in the cold, damp winter weather.
    • Take time for a full body stretch several times throughout the day.
  • Rest and rejuvenate! Get plenty of sleep.
    • Don’t be afraid to nap – rest in the early afternoon or pause for afternoon tea and conversation.
  • Stay engaged!
    • Choose one of your passions and find a volunteer opportunity.
    • Find others who share your hobby and join or start a group.
    • Check out the awesome classes and programs at your local Senior and Community Centers.
Hells Canyon, 2019

Here life goes on, even and monotonous on the surface, full of lightning, of summits and of despair, in its depths. We have now arrived at a stage in life so rich in new perceptions that cannot be transmitted to those at another stage – one feels at the same time full of so much gentleness and so much despair – the enigma of this life grows, grows, drowns one and crushes one, then all of a sudden in a supreme moment of light one becomes aware of the sacred.

~ May Sarton

Spring tonics

In the spring of the year,
When the blood is too thick,
There is nothing so rare
As the sassafras stick.
It cleans up the liver,
It strengthens the heart,
And to the whole system
New life doth impart.
Sassafras, oh sassafras!
Thou art the stuff for me!
And in the spring I love to sing
Sweet sassafras of thee.
~ Traditional

Beaver Creek State Park
Beaver Creek State Park, NE Ohio

When we were children, my mother took us on spring excursions into the woods beyond the houses and fields. We called this area, “The Territory”.  We gathered sassafras, may apples and other woodland plants that are now lost in the deep recesses of my memory.  But the sassafras has lingered. It has an earthy, sweet and lovely fragrance and the bark is red. These jaunts were thrilling and mysterious. We returned home with our saffafras and simmered it in water until we had tea. Sometimes mom added it to her homemade root beer. We did not drink commercial pop very often, but as a familly of tea-totalers, root beer and ginger ale were our guilty pleasures. Later in life, I made root beer and ginger ale with concentrates from the beer-making shop. Sassafras does not grow in the Pacific Northwest, so I did not add any to my brews. Originally most root beers contained sassafras along with other barks and roots (sarsaparilla and birch) but eventually wintergreen replaced sassafras. Most modern-day root beers are made with artificial flavors. There are still a few natural root beers that use a mixure of spices, roots and barks.

Blood purifiers (alteratives)

Modern herbalists describe specific plant medicines as alterative if they support the body’s natural defenses and help restore proper function. In other words, they help us bring our bodies back to wellness and balance. Alteratives may work through the lymphatic system, glands, or mucus membranes. In earlier times, these plants were known collectively as blood purifiers.

Cabin in Beaver Creek State Park
Cabin and cook pot in Beaver Creek State Park, Ohio

My mother’s maternal family were Pennsylvania Dutch and Swiss. The Penn­sylvania Dutch traditionally used herbs called blutreinigungsmittel, “blood purifiers” or spring tonics. To prepare for warmer weather, they ate wild greens ­including dandelion, lettuce, plantain, and watercress. Roots and barks including sassafras, sarsaparilla and burdock were used for the same purpose. My mother’s sassafras tea and my father’s spring salads passed our family traditions down to me. They also taught me to notice the natural cycles of the seasons and to appreciate earth’s abundance. This spring, I decided to buy sassafras at the local herb shop and recreate a spring tonic as of old. Tonic is not just something we mix with gin. In it’s broader use and meaning, it is a medicinal substance taken to give us a sense of well-being and vigor. I chose a recipe from renowned herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar:

Rosemary’s Root Beer Tonic

3 oz sassafras bark, dried
2 oz sarsaparilla, dried
1 oz burdock root, dried
1 oz dandelion root, dried
1/2 oz ground ginger
1/2 oz ground cinnamon
1/4 oz dried orange peel

Mix together all ingredients and store in a tightly closed container.  In a large pot combine 1 quart of water and 4 tablespoons of dry mixture. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain and sweeten with honey or stevia (also called “sweet herb”) if desired.

For iced tea, chill the simmered mixture, then dilute it with 1 quart of sparkling water. Serve over ice with a twist of orange peel. Makes about 4 cups.

Source: Vegetarian Times, April 1993 Shared by: Norman R. Brown

Making our spring tonic
Mixing my tonic while Sammie watches

Cooking my spring tonic this evening was pretty simple but not quite as exciting as our jaunts into the woods. I am now sipping my root beer tonic as I finish this post and it tastes quite invigorating and refreshing. My husband and brother liked it too. To learn more about the roots:

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is native to North America and has been used since time immemorial as a medicine and in cooking. In 1578 Sir Walter Raleigh took it to England and it soon became popular in teas and tonics.  The wood was also traded extensively from North America to Europe. For years it was used in root beer and in teas. It was discovered that the chemical constituent creating the taste and fragrance is safrole. It was lab-tested , then in 1960 the FDA banned sassafras oil from use in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs for health considerations.  (I am not an expert on this topic; there are plenty of sources if you want to delve deeper.) Sassafras bark is still sold in herb shops while the leaves are used to thicken gumbo in Louisiana creole cuisine. Sassafras continues to grow wild in many parts of the eastern U.S.

Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata) is a prickly vine native to Mexico, the Caribbean, parts of South America and India and China. The roots have long been used medicinally and in many cultures. The Spanish observed the indigenous people of South American drinking a tonic containing sarsaparilla. They returned to Europe with sarsaparilla where it was quickly adopted and used as a blood purifier and for other medicinal uses. Sarsaparilla was popular in the U.S. as a mass-produced commercial beverage as early as the 1840’s.

Burdock (Arctium lappa L.) has been an important plant medicine in Western herbalism and traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, primarily valued for its cleansing and skin smoothing properties. The entire plant is edible and is a popular vegetable in Asia, particularly in Japan. Burdock is highly effective yet gentle, and is useful in a variety of applications. It promotes the flow of bile and also increases circulation to the skin. Further, it is a mild diuretic and lymphatic. Burdock is used widely as an alterative and blood purifier.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is native to Eurasia and North America. The most common varieties in North America today came from Europe. Dandelions are entirely edible. The root is the part of the plant used in spring tonics. Although we consider it a weed in our gardens, it is produced commercially in parts of Europe. It was used in the medical and herbal traditions of China, Europe and North America and mentioned in an Arab medical text in the 10th century. It is widely believed to support and strengthen the liver and balance the menstrual cycle.

Thanks to Mountain Rose Herbs for helpful information about sassafras, sarsaparilla, burdock and dandelion roots. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seasons of Our Lives

from The Circle Game

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Joni Mitchell

acient-planet-1841699_960_720

Our lives are composed of a series of cycles: daily, seasonal and developmental. In each cycle, one dosha is more prevalent than the other two. To maintain balance, we follow daily and seasonal routines. Ayurveda teaches us to adjust our lifestyle according to our constitution (prakruti) as well as the time of day, season of the year and stage of life. For instance, even people with a pitta constituion should not eat heavy meals before bed when kapha energy is prevalent. Our goal is to develop a healthy regime for each cycle of life, adjust to each change, and age with joy, vibrancy and wisdom.

Daily Cycle

Each day begins at sunrise, with the cool, heavy, earthy kapha energy. The middle of the day is dominated by hot, sharp and fiery pitta. And light, dry, airy vata rules the afternoon. The cycle begins again as our day turns to night. The best time of day to eat our major meal is when pitta peaks at midday. Many people wake up and want a midnight snack when Pitta is elevated again. However, it is an important time for our bodies to absorb, transform, rejuvenate and restore.

6 am – 10 am – kapha
10 am – 2 pm – pitta
2 pm – 6 pm – vata
6 pm – 10 pm – kapha
10 pm – 2 am pitta
2 am – 6 am – vata

Seasonal Cycle

In autumn, vata energy is on the rise as the weather turns cold, winds blow, and the earth becomes dry, hard and rough. Watch for dry skin, irregular digestion, and frenetic, unpredictable energy. Late winter and early spring are ruled by kapha. The world feels dormant, then gradually mother earth begins to warm – snow melts, sap rises, buds form and the first shoots emerge. Nature builds heat all through pitta season from the abundance of late spring through the long, hot days of summer and ending with the harvest.

Autumn/Early Winter – vata
Late Winter/Early Spring – kapha
Late Spring/Summer – pitta

Three Stages of Life

From birth to puberty, kapha dosha is more predominant. Our bodies are growing and forming tissues vital to a healthy and long life. Babies and children need grounding and nourishing foods with an abundance of the earth element:  milk, nuts and grains are good examples. Children tend to be more flexible and resilient, but may experience congestion and a build-up of mucous. If a child has a sedentary lifestyle and eats junk food, the predisposition towards congestion may become elevated.

youthful-vibrance-collage
The bloom of youth

At about 20, we move into the second phase of life, dominated by pitta dosha. The “prime of life” is focused on action and service. We formulate, then begin to achieve our life and career goals. As our metabolism slows down, we should eat smaller portions or we may experience weight gain in middle age. Yes, this happened to me! The proportion of vegetables and fruits should increase and the heavier foods of childhood should decrease. People in the pitta stage are at their strongest, but may be prone to stress-related diseases.

Sometime in our 50’s, we enter the third and final phase of life dominated by the vata dosha. During this phase, we reflect upon our life and share our wisdom with others.  We should work less strenuously. Our appetites often decrease as we age and body tissues naturally begin to weaken. To sustain our bodies, it is important to eat nourishing foods. Eat small amounts three to five times per day, rather than two or three large meals. Eating too much may result in weight gain, while eating too little may result in weight loss and quicken the deterioration of healthy tissues.

Yoga at any age

Just as we adjust our diet and lifestyle to the time of day, season and stage of life, we also alter our Yoga practice. For example in the morning when kapha is prevalent, we want to warm up our bodies, making faster transitions between poses and including more standing postures. In the heat of summer when pitta is “full on”, avoid practicing in a heated room and slow down, adding more grounding calming poses. In young adulthood, when we are at our strongest, we may want to push ourselves. To stay vibrant as we age, our practice becomes gentler and more meditative. For a fuller description of Yoga over 50, see my article in Seattle Yoga News.

The Cycles of Womanhood

Women experience three major changes throughout our lives: menarchy, pregnancy & postpartum and menopause. (The majority of women become mothers, although the percentage is dropping in the US.) Each life stage is dramatic and is intertwined with our organs of reproduction: uterus, ovary and breast, as well as our hormonal balance. We can lessen the health effects of these dramatic biological changes by applying Ayurvedic principles. For instance, to prevent heavy bleeding during menstruation, a woman with a pitta constitution should avoid hot spicy, acidic foods, over-exposure to the sun, heat and anger.

Menopause and beyond

Many people equate menopause with the end of the menstrual cycle at about the age of 51. In reality, menopause is a long process beginning in our 30’s when our body reaches its peak. Many cultures believe women come into their full potential as they enter menopause. Societal attitudes have a strong effect upon the changes we experience in our own bodies.

vibrancy-collage-30s-40s-and-50s

Common menopausal “symptoms” include: dry skin, thinning hair, insomnia, hot flashes, mood swings, night sweats, depression, mental fogginess, irritability, and emotional disturbances. Vata increases during menopause, although an accumulation of pitta can lead to more severe and frequent hot flashes. A build-up of kapha can lead to weight gain and fluid retention. Self-care and support should increase during menopause including regular massage and nourishing food. Our diet should contain some fat, along with greens and minerals. Cut down on sweets, but do not abstain completely. Select sour, bitter and astringent foods. Almond milk, blended with 2 – 4 pieces of dates is a calming and rejuvenating drink. Exercise and meditate regularly to keep joints and muscles active and the mind calm.

Men’s and women’s bodies both contain testosterone and estrogen to varying amounts. During menopause, women’s estrogen levels lower. Ayurveda offers us specific herbs to balance  our male and female energy.

Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) – “she who possesses a hundred husbands” is the primary Ayurvedic herb for females. It contains phytoestrogen (precursor of estrogen) and balances our hormones during menopause by its cooling effect. By balancing the pitta dosha, Shatavari prevents hot flashes, insomnia and osteoporosis. It nourishes the female reproductive organs and helps regulate calcium absorption and bone density. It is a demulcent for dry and inflamed membranes of the lungs, stomach, kidneys and reproductive organs.This amazing herb is also good for ulcers, chronic diarrhea and dysentery. Preparation: milk decoction with ghee, honey or raw sugar and pippali (long pepper). 

Ashwagandha or Winter Cherry (Withania somnifera) – “that which gives the smell of the horse” is the best Ayurvedic rejuvenative herb and serves a similar purpose to ginseng in Chinese medicine. It contains testosterone and helps maintain a lower level of estrogen throughout menopause. Ashwagandha inhibits ageing and catalyzes the anabolic bodily processes. It nurtures and calms the mind, balances vata dosha and promotes deep, calm sleep. It is nutritive for muscles, fat, bone, marrow and nerves.

Yashti Madhu or Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) – is a source of progesterone, essential to women since it keeps the vagina moist and prevents dryness. Licorice balances all three doshas and keeps menopausal women in good health. It helps liquify mucous and facilitate the discharge from our bodies. It calms the mind and nurtures one’s spirit. Licorice nourishes the brain, increases cranial and cerebrospinal fluid, promoting contentment and harmony. It improves voice, vision, hair and complexion and gives strength.

licorice-root
Licorice root

Tips for a Healthy Winter

Many of us feel sluggish and depleted this time of year. We may have over-indulged over the holidays, stressed out over to-do lists and travelled through busy airports and clogged highways. If we didn’t get the flu ourself, we were exposed to someone getting over the latest “bug”. The dark, cold season makes us turn inward, often leading to a lower activity level.  A common response is the urge to cleanse, purge, detox or start a new exercise regime. These resolutions are well-intended but may weaken our compromised body systems. Winter is an important time to build energy reserves, boost immunities and rejuvenate.  A brief explanation of agni, ojas and tejas will help explain.

Agni is digestive fire or the energy of transformation. Agni maintains our metabolic balance as well as the tone of each dhatu (tissue) throughout our body. Healthy tissues increase longevity, strengthen our immune system, keep us mentally sharp and maintain our skin’s natural luster.

Our bodily tissues are divided into 7 major types:

  • Rasa dhatu (lymph)
  • Rakta dhatu (blood)
  • Mamsa dhatu (muscle)
  • Medha dhatu (fat)
  • Asthi dhatu (bone)
  • Majja dhatu (bone and spinal marrow)
  • Shukra dhatu (reproductive fluids)

According to Ayurveda, we are what we absorb, not just what we eat. We may think, we are eating well, but if our digestive fire is weakened, we are not absorbing the nutrients in our food. And adding extra supplements won’t help. Ama (undigested food) can accumulate along with toxins eventually leading to a weakened immune system, fatigue and eventually disease. If we maintain a balanced agni, we can live a long and healthy life. And a healthy lifestyle helps us maintain a healthy digestive fire.

Ojas, our prime energy reserve is the end product of digestion. We recognize the energy, vitality and joie de vivre beaming from a healthy person. Ojas is the essence of all other body tissues and is often referred to as the 8th bodily tissue. Our immunity, strength and resistance depend on the quality and quantity of Ojas; when depleted it predisposes us to lowered immunity, low spirits and ill-health.

Tejas is our inner radiance through which we digest food, sunlight, impressions, thoughts – even what we see. Tejas enables our mind to perceive and judge correctly. It governs the development of higher perceptual qualities. Tejas at the deepest levels of consciousness holds the accumulated insight of our will and spiritual aspirations.

Winter Ritucharya  (Seasonal Routines)

A healthy lifestyle includes living with the seasons. Seattle winters are cold and wet, so Kapha may become aggravated or out of balance.  (In cold, dry enviornments, Vata may become imbalanced.) Following are some winter health tips:

  • Wake up early when the air is calm
  • Take warm baths
  • Wear heavy, warm clothing – gold and orange are good color choices
  • Dry massage unless Vata is aggravated, then use warm oil
  • Drink warm drinks and eat warm foods
  • Eat soothing, grounding foods including soups and stews
  • Avoid frozen foods and drinks
  • Practice gentle, alternate nostril pranayama
  • Practice yoga emphazing these asanas: forward and backward bending; spinal twists, camel, cobra, pawanmuktasana

To Purge or Tonify?

According to Ayurveda and Yoga, cleansing, purging and detoxing therapies are known as langhana.  The most common langhana therapy is Pancha Karma or 5 actions. Tonifying therapies are known as brahmana. Asana and pranayama can also be classified as langhana or brahmana. For example, vinyasa flow is langhana, whereas slower transitions and longer stays in poses is brahmana. Pranayama emphasizing deep inhalations followed by long holds is brahmana. Pranayama emphasizing deep exhalations followed by long holds is langhana.

Rasayana (Rejuvenation) is the main tonification therapy of Ayurveda and Yoga and is primarily aimed at improving Ojas. Older people need more tonification therapy and less reduction therapy. Our energy level is “not what it used to be” and our tissues may become depleted. Even for younger people, detoxing isn’t always the best answer when energy is low and the immune system is compromised. Rasayana uses special foods, herbs and exercise to rebuild tissues and organs.  Rasayana can help lessen the effects of aging, strengthens both physical and psychological immunity and helps us gain greater endurance. Rasayanas are believed to enhance clarity, memory, and longevity. Some Rasayana herbs include: amla, ashwagandha, guduchi, shatavari and tulsi. They are usually preserved in ghee (clarified butter) or honey.

Winter Rejuvenation Cocoa

I copied this recipe while attending Robert Svoboda’s lecture on Rasayana several years ago. Enjoy!

Mix ashwagandha with ginger powder, add cocoa and simmer in milk for 5 minutes; then add cardamom, cinnamon, ghee, maple syrup and a pinch of saffron. Remove from heat and add honey.

 Drink for 4 months in winter.


 

Rising where the nadis meet,
growing in the koshas, and the muscles
dancing at different joints—
the diseases are removed by yoga.

T. Krishnamacharya

yoga under a tree