Ayurveda is a system of preventative medicine and wellness that originated in India more than 5,000 years ago — and is winning over countless health and beauty enthusiasts who are only beginning to discover its incredible benefits. Whereas Western medicine focuses on pharmaceuticals and treating a health problem that has already reared its ugly head, ayurveda encourages the prevention of illness and a steady, attainable state of well-being using food and herbal remedies as medicine.
If this all sounds complicated, I assure you it's so beautifully simplistic you'll wonder why you haven't been following an ayurveda diet plan all along.
As a newbie researching the topic, one name continuously popped up on my radar: Dr. Pratima Raichur, a chemist, botanist and ayurveda physician who is also a skin care legend in New York and an inspiration to so many practitioners. I respect her work immensely, but in order to prove the accessibility of ayurveda, I chose to visit Anit Hora, a Brooklyn-based herbalist and licensed esthetician who grew up in India with the principles of ayurveda (she's also the owner of Mullein & Sparrow). For Hora, ayurveda isn't a trend — it's a way of life that makes practical sense to her, even when she can't explain it.
"Ayurveda was always in the background when I was growing up," Hora says. "When I was younger and didn't feel well, my mom would make me hot milk and turmeric, and it was my least favorite thing. We would always try to hide it from her when we were sick. I also remember telling friends, 'You can't eat that! It's a hot food,' and they were like, 'How is a mango hot?' I would tell them they had to drink lots of water when they eat it to create balance."
After studying ayurveda as an adult, it all began to make perfect sense to Hora. In order to achieve balance in the body, it's important to know which foods energize your system and which deplete it — and having an understanding of your dosha is the first step. One of the loveliest things about ayurveda is that it acknowledges that no two people or their dietary needs are exactly alike, which explains why your best friend can consume plate after plate of hot, spicy foods, and you feel like death after just one bite of eggs with cayenne pepper sauce.
There are three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. You can read more about each dosha and take a dosha quiz here, but here's a brief rundown of each. If you're vata, you are associated with air or wind; have a lean build; cold, dry and light skin; and are creative, quick-thinking, fast-moving and prone to anxiety. The pitta dosha is connected to the element of fire. You're a medium build and can gain and lose weight quickly. You also have a quick temper, a strong appetite and are intellectual. Finally, like water, those with a kapha dosha are steady and slow-moving. They have amazing memories, are compassionate and sleep soundly at night.
You can possess a combination of all three doshas or inhabit characteristics of two doshas, which is why it is recommended that, if you're serious about getting your ayurveda on, you visit an expert and don't just rely on an online questionnaire. If you're like me, your ayurvedic practitioner will take one look at you (and also take your pulse), ask a couple of questions and say with assurance, "Vata. Total vata." I already knew the following traits were true for me: I'm always cold. My skin errs on the side of dry. I'm quick to learn things and quick to forget them. I can't sit still, and I can be a totally annoying space cadet at times. Now I was going to set forth on a quest to balance my flighty vata-ness with a specific ayurveda diet plan and (thanks to Hora's wisdom) a few necessary beauty and lifestyle changes intended to ground me.
Hora is a firm believer that many health and skin problems originate in the gut. In other words, if you're not open to changing your diet to suit your dosha, the greatest essential oil on earth isn't going to do very much to improve your skin. Vata people respond best to oily, heavy, sweet and slightly pungent foods and meals. Think stewed fruit in the morning mixed with a warming spice such as cardamom or cinnamon, bananas, sweet potatoes, red lentils, oatmeal, and lots of stews and soups that contain a blend of veggies, grains that are easy to digest, and spices such as cumin, turmeric and coriander.
As I learned more about my vata food needs, it began to occur to me: There may be a very real reason why my stomach always feels slightly off when I eat raw vegetables and fruits (my dosha is advised to cook everything). White breads and foods made from white flour make me feel sluggish and sit in my tummy for hours. And, no matter what the temperature is outside, I'd always much rather guzzle down a glass of room temperature water than anything that contains ice in it — another vata recommendation.
Ayurveda is part of the wellness category for a solid reason. It seems to work best (at least it did in my case) when I also actively engaged in daily mindful breathing exercises and yoga. It's about responding to what your body needs in that moment and feeding it well. In order to do so, you have to be actively listening to your body's signals. By going with the flow and not trying to feed your body foods that don't work in its favor — in my case, that means giving up apples, broccoli and eating cold leftovers — you start to feel your system working with you, not against you.
I found my ayurveda diet plan simple to follow, and it came naturally to me because I craved most of the foods on my do-eat list, but, of course, I also incorporated a few new foods and practices into my daily routine. I now start each morning with a warm glass of lemon water to which I add a dash of cardamom. I don't enjoy my lemon water, but I know it helps clean my system and prepare it for whatever else I'm about to eat that day. For breakfast, I'll either have baked apples with ghee and cinnamon or hot oatmeal with bananas, almonds and chia seeds. I'm not evolved enough to substitute my beloved coffee with tea, so future goals, maybe (but probably not). My go-to lunch is whole grain toast with warm pesto sauce, avocado and a tomato omelet grilled in coconut oil. Because I'm a mom with two kids and a husband who is not (yet) on board with ayurveda, it's sometimes difficult to cook a vata meal, but some combination of root vegetables and wheat pasta always works.
Other minor vata-pacifying changes I've made have been an honest-to-goodness pleasure. Massage is huge in ayurveda, as it is said to restore the flow of vital energy called prana. After I shower, I perform a mini self-massage using sesame oil (there are specific oils that work for each dosha), which is super absorbent. I make sure I wake up at the same time every morning, eat my meals around the same time every day, and turn in for the night no later than 10:30 unless someone or something gives me a great reason to bend that rule. I don't drink hot milk with turmeric before bed because yuck, but I am consuming more hot water and ginger tea throughout the day than I have in my entire life. I don't see any reason why a few diet suggestions can't be modified.
And then there's a whole other exciting branch of ayurveda that I cannot wait to dig into even more: ayurvedic skin care. Just as various oils do wonders for the body and mind depending on your dosha, so can the ideal blend of essential oils for the skin. Mullein & Sparrow's Immortelle & Myrrh Facial Serum is heavenly — so nourishing, even on days when my skin feels parched. Many wellness beauty companies, such as Pratima Skincare, take all of the guesswork out of finding products suitable for your dosha by organizing products by dosha type.
It has only been a few weeks, and I am in no way an expert in ayurveda. But here's what I find is happening: I haven't experienced any stomach upset since following a vata diet — not even minor gas (sorry, TMI, but I feel compelled to share). My sensitive skin hasn't experienced a single mysterious red splotch, even right before my period when it tends to be even drier. But the most wonderful aspect of following this diet is what I feel it is doing for my mental and emotional state: I am breathing at a slower pace. I freak out less over mishaps, both major and minor ones.
Granted, these changes could also be attributed to vigilantly following a daily meditation practice, and, sure, they could even be psychosomatic. But so what if they are? My body feels clean and is working in such a predictable manner that I'm hungry at the same time every day, my energy neither spikes nor dips but remains more or less constant, and, I swear, my cramps and headaches didn't make their usual appearance this month. I'm even sleeping more soundly at night.
Is ayurveda the miracle everyone needs to know about? Is it just common sense mixed in with a lot of mindful silence and listening to what the body craves and needs? I consider it a bit of both and am totally hooked.
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