Published articles by Sharon Jackson
*The following articles have been reproduced exactly as they were originally published In Yoga Magazine and are based on the ancient Ayurvedic texts. Google require us to include a disclaimer making it clear to online readers that the results of Ayurvedic medicine may vary from person to person.
Coming out of hibernation Ayurvedically*
The days are growing longer and we are beginning to surface after what feels like such a long winter. Ayurveda is big into seasons and the importance of preparing our bodies for the changes to come. Here in the UK, our lives become pretty sedentary during the winter. We spend a lot of time indoors and so we get less daylight and almost no direct sunlight. We sleep a lot more, eat heavier foods and generally put on a bit of extra weight which keeps us warm. Inside our bodies, the cold doshas of kapha and vata accumulate reflecting the coldness of the season. Kapha is predominantly water and earth and accumulates usually as some kind of slimey mucous, often in the stomach and chest. Vata is predominantly formed from air and space and accumulates in the bowel, bones and cracking joints and can be found anywhere in the areas below the navel. As the seasons change from cold to warm it behoves us to eliminate these excess doshas from our system. We no longer need to hang onto all that kapha and vata and if we take action now we can avoid bothersome snuffles, coughs and colds which can happen when pitta and the sun finally make an appearance. The ancient cleansing procedures of Ayurveda are famously known as Panchakarma (Five Actions). Nowadays, the practice of Panchakarma is necessarily briefer than it was traditionally but it is still a terrifically powerful way to detox and stay healthy.* Here is one of many modern day versions of Panchakarma practiced in the west.
STEP 1: Panchakarma begins by increasing agni (the fire of digestion). This can be done by taking simple digestive herbs along with a light, cooked and easily digestible diet for a few days. Once agni has been kindled, it immediately begins to digest toxins and by sipping hot ginger tea you can help flush these toxins from the system.
STEP 2: Next is internal oleation. This usually consists of drinking small amounts of melted ghee for a few consecutive days. The amount and duration depends upon the power of your digestion.The ghee is taken first thing in the morning on an empty stomach and you do not eat until it has been thoroughly digested. The purpose of drinking ghee is to soften the internal tissues and to help them release any excess doshas and toxins that have lodged there.
STEP 3: External oleation or abhyanga. Abhyanga is warm oil massage, usually with sesame oil at this time of year. From the top of the head to the tips of the toes a generous amount of warm oil is massaged into the skin. Abhyanga is one of the very best ways to pacify vata in the nervous system and as some of the oil permeates the skin and enters the circulation, it also helps to release further toxins. Immediately after abhyanga, a full body steam treatment is given which helps the oil permeate further and to dissolve excess doshas which naturally move into the gastrointestinal tract.
STEP 4: Now the toxins and excess doshas have moved out of the tissues and into the gastrointestinal tract and the next step is to eliminate them from the body in a process of purgation (virechana). A suitable purgative is taken orally on an empty stomach first thing in the morning and then you rest. After a few hours, the bowel movements begin and usually continue for a few hours. A very light meal may be eaten after the purgation has ended.
STEP 5: The last step is known as basti, which some people liken to an enema. In Ayurveda, basti is used to administer medicine into the colon usually with the intent of removing excess vata and to nourish and lubricate the lining of the colon. The liquid given mainly consists of herbal decoction and some kind of oil. Different types of basti are given for different periods of time depending upon your constitution and condition.
Steps 4 & 5 may sound a little tough but a skilled practitioner makes sure that the process is administered gently and as sensitively as possible within timescales that best suit the patients’ needs. Also, following Panchakarma, it is usually necessary to take some rejuvenative herbal formulas and to eat a particularly nutritive diet to nourish the tissues and to renew any loss of strength.
At the end of this process, your body is much lighter and brighter. Your senses are sharper, your mind is alert and you experience a pronounced sense of well-being and an increased flow of energy. You literally feel like you have shrugged off the coverings that the long dark winter put on you. Because your diet has been light throughout, your eating habits have become healthier and the usual cravings simply fall away. Now you are renewed, invigorated and ready to face the spring. Caraka, the father of Ayurveda puts it like this:
‘By the administration of these therapies the vitiated doshas are eliminated from the body through the alimentary tract, the power of digestion and metabolism is enhanced, diseases are cured and normal health is restored; the sense faculties , mind, intelligence, and complexion become clear; he gains strength, plumpness, offsprings and virility; he is not affected by old age and lives long without any disease. Therefore, one should take proper elimination therapy in time.’ (Caraka Samhita, Sutrasthana Ch.16, 17-19).
Some practitioners get great results from giving just 7 days of Panchakarma treatments and others feel it is necessary to go up to 30 days, it is a very individual matter. Which ever program feels right for you, Panchakarma should only be administered by a qualified Ayurvedic Practitioner; please see the website of the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association at www.apa.uk.com for details of your nearest qualified practitioner.
Ayurveda & The Mind*
We all have aspects of all three doshas but to differing degrees and whenever the qualities present within us depart from our original prakruti we run the risk of becoming ill.
Just as the doshas have their own physical qualities they also have their own mental and emotional qualities. A balanced Kapha person may display a deep stable faith, love, compassion and a calm and steady mind. Out of balance they may suffer from attachment, greed, possessiveness, complacency and laziness. Balanced Pitta people often have sharp intelligent minds, are highly disciplined and principled and make excellent leaders. If there is too much Pitta though they can become judgemental, critical, impatient and perfectionistic. Their emotions are hot and they can quickly become irritable and angry. A balanced Vata person is easily excited, alert and active without too much thinking. They can be creative and original people with changeable characters. Out of balance Vata people may experience chronic compulsive thinking, fear, anxiety and phobias.
According to Ayurveda the mind has its seat in the heart and travels throughout the whole of the body alongside the doshas. The three doshas and the mind are therefore inextricably connected and influence each another as surely as the company that we keep.
Illness often begins with some kind of negative emotional state and aggravates a particular dosha which in turn aggravates a particularly vulnerable part of the body. Many things can make a particular part of the body vulnerable eg: the season, a genetic weakness, a previous illness or the areas of the body that relate to particular doshas. For example, Valerie has a predominantly Vata constitution and she works as a self employed set designer in the theatre. She loves the work which is very stimulating but finds it difficult to get enough work to keep her going. It is autumn and her partner is beginning a fulltime 3 year degree course and so Valerie is the bread winner. This scenario is very stressful to Valerie and worried that she won’t be able make enough money to pay the mortgage, she takes other part- time jobs stacking shelves and working as a carer. After a couple of months, Valerie is experiencing severe lower back pain, constipation, weight loss, fatigue, insomnia and feels very flat. Her relationship with her partner is difficult as she feels both responsible and stressed by that responsibility.
Valerie felt extreme stress at the prospect of being the breadwinner and the anxiety and worry of not being able to perform that role. This led her to rush out and get the first part time jobs she could find which left her exhausted. The sites of her symptoms i.e. lower back, pelvic girdle, bowel and nervous system are all favoured sites of Vata and the season was autumn which is cold and windy and therefore the most Vata aggravating time of the year. Left unchecked this situation could easily develop into many conditions that are particularly related to excessive Vata such as arthrosis, nervous system disorders, wasting conditions etc. Valerie may battle on for months or years and only seek help when a fully fledged disease develops which may be too late. The disease had its roots in a negative emotional state namely; fear.
Therapeutically, Ayurveda applies exactly the same principle to mindstuff as it does to doshas i.e. like increases like and opposites reduce. So in Valerie’s case, fear is increased by worry and anxiety and decreased by their therapeutic opposites; trust and confidence. Valerie acted quickly without thinking things through therefore bringing mindfulness and deliberate consideration to the situation could have saved a whole heap of trouble later on. Autumn is the very worst time for a Vata person to take on anything stressful whereas summertime could have made it so much easier. These are simple but common examples of how the mind can be used and abused to either kill us or cure us.
In the west, there is far too little Kapha; most of us tend to be Vata and Pitta orientated and so our minds are dominated by acheivement, control, fear and anxiety. If we follow some simple Ayurvedic guidelines we can care for our minds and bodies leaving us free to pursue what ever it is that really matters to us.
Firstly, ‘Know Thyself’. Know your prakruti, understand where you are vulnerable and protect yourself. Pitta has a tendancy to drive us on to ‘win’ but try not to force yourself to do things, especially through some misguided notion of spirituality – honour your own nature.
Secondly, cultivate mindfulness. Notice what is going on emotionally, hear the commentary of the mind and the story it is telling you. Our bodies have no way of knowing whether what we are thinking is real or not. If our brains tell our bodies that we are in danger then the body will give a stress response and send hormones coursing through our veins which elevate Vata in an instant.
Thirdly, take notice of how your body is feeling, it is your body’s way of giving you direct feedback on how you are living your life; listen to it and if you hear anything that is out of balance respond lovingly by providing the therapeutic opposite.
If you wish to find a qualified Ayurvedic Practitioner, please go to the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association at www.apa.uk.com .
Live the life you want to live
How many of us leap out of bed every morning in anticipation of another great day fulfilling our true destiny? It’s not exactly a common experience. And yet none of us regularly make life decisions that will knowingly make us unhappy; with a few exceptions the decisions we make are generally in our own best interests. So how come so few of us feel we are fulfilling our true destiny? Years ago at Dr Lad’s Ayurvedic Institute in the US, I heard a teacher say, ‘have the courage to live the life you want to live’. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how it could take courage to do what you want to do; surely doing what you don’t want to do would take more courage…? Since then, with endless support from my mentors, I now get it. You may already be ahead of me but what I now realise is that knowing what you want to do with your life is rare and if you don’t know, having enough commitment to yourself to work it out is rarer still. If you do manage to work it out, giving up the safety and security of life’s present set-up can seem absolutely impossible; there are financial concerns, other people’s interests, maybe we are too old, too young, the wrong sex, lacking in intelligence, education, talent etc. The list is endless and when we look at ‘fulfilling one’s destiny’ squarely in the eye, it suddenly seems like an utterly impossible prospect; enter ‘Courage’.
According to Ayurveda, the repression of our desires and emotions almost always plays a major role in the development of ill health. The ancient text Hastivaidyaka put’s it like this;
‘Elimination of diseases depends upon the strength of the tissue elements which in turn depends upon the power of digestion; the power of digestion is the bodily strength; bodily strength is the outcome of cheerfulness; cheerfulness can come only when there is unrestricted fulfilment of desires’.
Clearly the text isn’t talking about the desire for chocolate fudge cake but the deeper yearning at the core of our beings which aches to be fulfilled. Even if we are familiar with this yearning, life can seem so fast and furious it doesn’t seem possible to give it our full attention; so we keep going just trying to keep up with our lives. Every year however Mother Nature gives us all the opportunity to turn inwards and take stock of our lives. After the leaves have fallen and everything has stopped growing, winter comes, nature withdraws and on the surface of it, things look a little bleak. But just beneath the surface, nature is recharging and reinvigorating herself to arise in the spring as if for the first time; fresh, breathtakingly beautiful and utterly authentic. We all have the opportunity to do the same. ‘Ayurveda’ means ‘knowledge of life’, our own life and encourages us to examine it; to look at what is good and bad for us, what our wholesome and unwholesome habits are, what makes us truly happy and sad. So how can we make best use of this winter to shine a light on our lives and find new inspiration to move towards healthier lives? All of us can benefit from a little self-examination and the following may help:
• How do you spend your time? Do you do things you really do not want or need to do? Is someone other than you deciding how you live your life? Are you happy with this? Daily routine is central to good health in Ayurveda, finding time to prepare good quality food, meditate, practice yoga, pranayama, warm oil massage, go for a walk in the countryside are all practices which can take us towards reality. Do you have time for them in your daily routine?
• What is your relationship with today’s stimulants? Maybe you drink caffeine to keep you going and avoid crushing headaches, alcohol to make you relax or feel brave, food to avoid a sense of emptiness or lack of love, emails to stop you feeling lonely, watching TV because you are so exhausted or don’t know how else to spend your time. If we use stimulants to ‘numb out’ in this way, as well as aggravating vata, we can be sure that beneath the numbness is something that requires our attention and if we ignore it, it will eventually appear as illness.
• Do you feel unwell without actually being ill? Maybe a little fatigue, low energy, weight issues, insomnia, aches and pains, lack of concentration, depression, anxiety, digestive issues, bowel problems, bloating. According to Ayurveda these are often early signs of illness but your GP may not agree. Such symptoms may be corrected before they develop into serious illness so seek out a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner if you feel you need help www.apa.uk.com
• Do you know what you want to do with your life? If so, you are one of the lucky few, are you pursuing it wholeheartedly? If not, why not, are there blocks you need to address? If you still haven’t found yours, what is there in life that you love, that you really enjoy and feel interested and uplifted by? Even if it is just a tiny twinkle, walk towards it, it will grow stronger. But if you turn your back on it, it will disappear from view.
• Are you already moving towards your light? You are luckier still. Take each step as if it were the only one with 100% commitment. Don’t anticipate what the next step or final outcome will be, just trust. Take risks when they feel right. Keep your own council or people may try to put you off. Avoid ‘naysayers’, keep good company, read anything by Eckhart Tolle and Pema Chodron – like all great teachers; they inspire us to wake up to ourselves. Thanks to all of mine.
Losing Weight the Easy Way - Ayurvedically
According to the principles of Ayurveda it is possible to keep the pounds off permanently without having to suffer the deprivations of the latest fad diet. All we have to do is protect Agni and here are three simple rules to help us do just that.
RULE 1: DON’T EAT UNLESS YOU ARE HUNGRY
I know, this sounds ridiculously simple but don’t dismiss it. Often we eat out of habit; ‘It’s lunchtime therefore I must eat’. But if we take a brief look inwards we can see whether we have a real physical sense of hunger in our stomachs or whether it is just our mind playing tricks on us. We need to learn the difference between a ‘need’ of the body and a ‘want’ in the mind. If we are not actually hungry, it is because Agni, our gastric fire, is weak. If we put more fuel on a weak fire, we will make it weaker still. Any food we eat when we are not hungry cannot be properly digested and gets absorbed into our blood stream as fatty, undigested, toxic stuff called ama. Ama causes all kinds of problems; particularly fat around our middle third, plaques in our blood vessels causing coronary issues, Alzheimers and poor circulation in general, diabetes mellitus arising from blocked insulin receptors, a sluggish, depressed mind and low physical energy due to the inability of the body to derive nutrients from the food that we eat. The list is endless and all we have to do to avoid it is to stop eating when we are not hungry. So if you are not hungry at a particular mealtime, just skip the meal and wait for the next one. Meanwhile avoid snacking between meals and when you do eat be sure not to overeat. Much as a washing machine cannot get dirty clothes clean if it is overly full, so the stomach needs to be a third empty in order to churn and digest the food. So remember, if you eat until you are full you have eaten too much.
RULE 2: MAKE LUNCH THE MAIN MEAL OF THE DAY
Whatever type of diet you eat, if you make lunch your main meal of the day, you will be able to digest it far more efficiently than if you eat it at night. The reason for this is quite simple; Agni is controlled by the sun. When the sun is at its weakest especially during winter evenings, Agni is also weak. Even in our grey English winter, the sun is at its strongest at noon until about 2pm. So, if you can eat your main meal during that time and eat a far lighter meal at night (soup is ideal) not only will you digest the food better at lunchtime but you will avoid adding heavy toxins to your system. Even if you eat fish and chips, this rule will still help you lose weight.
RULE 3: DON’T DROWN AGNI
Ayurveda has no truck with the idea that we all need to drink 2 litres of water a day. After all, kapha people are dominated by water and need to drink less, vata people are generally dry and need to drink more and pitta people are somewhere in between. People with big bodies need to drink more than people with smaller bodies and people with weak Agni need to drink less still. So the advice on drinking is this. Never drink ice cold drinks; they are bound to put Agni out – hot drinks are the ideal. Sip drinks rather than gulp them; that way they can be absorbed gradually by the body rather than collect in the stomach where they dilute digestive acids and enzymes (a.k.a Agni). For the same reason, avoid drinking with meals and at least half an hour either side of food. A general rule is to sip half a cup of hot clear liquid every hour or so – but again, some will need more some will need less. Find out what works for your Agni.
THE MORNING AFTER THE DAY BEFORE
If despite best intentions you find you have gone off the rails it is really important that you know how to take remedial action. Maybe you succumbed to a late night curry and the next morning your stomach is full of fermented, undigested food. The taste in your mouth will be a stale version of whatever you had to eat and drink and your breath will smell foul. This fermentation will likely have created a sour substance that feels like burning in your stomach. This burning is often mistaken for hunger but it isn’t, it is a foul acidic substance that could burn a hole in your carpet. In this case it is unwise to have breakfast which would add to the already indigestible heap from the night before. Instead, eat nothing, sip small quantities of digestive teas* and go for a walk to get things moving. Take a teaspoon of Triphala* steeped in one inch of boiling water for ten minutes, stirred and drunk. You can buy Triphala from any Ayurvedic Practitioner* for just a few pounds - keep some in the medicine cabinet at all times. When you do get hungry, cook a little veggie soup, dal or kitchari and eat one or two small meals that day and leave it at that. Depending upon how badly you ‘sinned’, you may need to follow this routine for two or three days but you will soon feel much better.
The truth is the body is brilliantly intelligent and if we just stop abusing it, it will fix itself; all it needs is the space in which to do so. You don’t need to radically transform your diet in order to lose weight, just follow these rules and it will happen.