Ayurveda’s Rules for Better, More Balanced Health
Ayurveda’s Rules for Better, More Balanced Health
Ayurvedic practitioner Avanti Kumar-Singh, MD, has heard the same story over and over from the people who walk into her workshops: They took a dosha quiz online, it spat out a couple lists of foods they should and shouldn’t eat, and they stuck to it diligently. For a few days. Before dropping the whole thing completely. Kumar-Singh, a former emergency medicine doctor, says this is a common example of a much larger problem: Many attempts to “demystify” Ayurveda miss the mark, making the practice more difficult to understand if you’re just getting started. She believes people end up missing out on the potential benefits of Ayurveda because of that.
And while there’s certainly a time to get excited about your dosha (and a person to help you figure out what exactly yours is), living by a food list is far from a paragon of Ayurvedic living.
Kumar-Singh’s new book, The Health Catalyst, outlines how intuitive the everyday practice of Ayurveda can be. It mostly involves asking ourselves simple questions, like: What do my symptoms feel like? Hot or cold? Oily or dry? How do my choices—on bedtime, breathwork, marathon running, or particular foods—feel to me? And then tuning in to our bodies for the answers.
A Q&A with Avanti Kumar-Singh, MD
My switch from emergency medicine to Ayurveda was one that came from my own upbringing and my own health journey. Growing up, my family did things a certain way. We ate simple, traditional Indian food every evening. I ate breakfast at home, usually took a lunch to school, and then had snacks and dinner at home. We didn’t eat out a lot. We kept our home a very clean and neat. I remember my mom would adjust things in the house—the fabrics we were using, the colors of our cushions—according to the seasons and what was happening in nature. She did that almost instinctively because that’s the way she grew up.
It’s not that I abandoned that way of living when I went off to college, but I was living on my own for the first time as a young adult at a really rigorous university, and I was unprepared, the way a lot of us are. I was eating in the dining halls, which was very different from the diet that I was used to. And those patterns of eating and living ended up sticking.
Years later, when I was in my physician training and started to not feel so well—and then got sick to the point where I just didn’t know who I was anymore—I took a hard look at what in my life had changed. I wasn’t living in harmony with nature anymore, as I had growing up in my parents’ house. I realized that the lifestyle I had taken for granted was the reason I had been so healthy in the first place.
It was gut-wrenching after so many years of pursuing medical science to find out it was not what I thought it would be. But I had an interest in integrative medicine and healing traditions, and I learned to apply my clinical skills as a doctor to other ways of bringing about health. Ayurveda is about not just healing illness when it comes up but living in a way that brings about health in the long term.
There are some gimmicky ways that Ayurveda is presented to the general public. It’s not that those ways are wrong, but they don’t represent the entire picture. For example, a lot of popular wellness culture tries to distill Ayurveda down into a quiz, and from there, we get this intense focus on the doshas—the Ayurvedic body types, based on your individual balance of the five elements—that is not entirely useful or helpful to people. The doshas are important in Ayurveda, but figuring out your dosha is not the best place to start.
While it’s fun to take a quiz and figure out whether the result describes you, an online dosha quiz doesn’t come at those questions with adequate perspective. An Ayurvedic practitioner would ask you similar questions, but what they would assess is what your elemental makeup was when you were born—your personal perfect balance that you would strive to move toward through Ayurveda. A practitioner takes into consideration that you’re never going to be in that perfect balance as an adult. When people take a quiz online, most will get answers that represent what their elements look like out of balance because they answer according to their overall history and current state of mind. It’s just not accurate.
Then this further trips people up because they tend to become very, very invested in whatever that quiz shows them. Am I this dosha or that dosha? What specific foods should I be eating? But then they’re not actually practicing Ayurveda the way it is meant to be practiced, which is from the inside out. It’s supposed to be a way of living based on the inner wisdom of sitting down with yourself to understand what you feel in your body and what would make you feel better. Ayurveda is very intuitive. Put the dosha quizzes away and start with a beginner’s mind.
If I had to distill Ayurveda down to one primary teaching, it would be that optimal health happens when you live in harmony with nature. The idea is that nature is made of five elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth—that make up everything in the universe, including us. When the five elements within you are in harmony with the five elements outside of you, you have health. When you start to veer away from harmony with nature, that’s when problems start.
“When the five elements within you are in harmony with the five elements outside of you, you have health.”
There are three primary ways to stay in harmony with nature. The first—and the main way to maintain your health—is about daily routines. The second is diet and the idea of eating with the seasons. The third would be what I call the tools of yoga, which is not just the postures (Western culture tends to focus hard on the asanas), but any of the yogic practices, including those that help move prana, or the vital life force energy, through the system. When you keep that energy moving through you, you are more in tune with nature, you move out toxic substances that you don’t need in order to keep what you do need, and you have better health.
The first thing most people want to know about Ayurveda is what they should eat. But routines are the basis of getting your health on track. They’re the most essential piece of living in harmony with nature.
When I’m hosting people in a workshop, I have them draw out in a circle on a piece of paper what they think their routine is most days. Most people have trouble writing it down because their routines are all over the place. (That’s already so much information right there.) I ask questions like: What time are you going to bed? What time are you waking up? When are you eating your meals? Are you eating your meals at regular times? Is your largest meal in the middle of the day? Regularity promotes health. And if you can adjust your schedule to be more regular and in sync with nature, you’ll have a good foundation for everything else.
Small changes can have a big impact if they’re done consistently.
Ayurveda is a qualitative science. It’s based on the quality of how we experience things, from our symptoms to the foods we eat to how we feel in today’s weather. When you understand the qualities of your experiences, you can use that information to apply Ayurveda to your life. The basic principle of Ayurveda—what I call the golden principle—is that like increases like, and opposites reduce.
Let me give you an example. It’s summertime, and you are noticing that you are feeling hot and that you’re breaking out in rashes or having GI disturbances, like diarrhea or acid reflux. How would you describe those symptoms? What do those feel like? You might describe them as feeling hot and sharp. So if you eat foods that you would also describe as hot and sharp—think spicy, greasy, caffeine, lots of sugar—Ayurveda projects that those foods are going to increase your hot and sharp symptoms. Like increases like. To decrease hot and sharp symptoms, Ayurveda says to do the opposite: Add something cooling, with higher water content, maybe just a little bit sweet.
“The basic principle of Ayurveda—what I call the golden principle—is that like increases like, and opposites reduce.”
It’s the same when we’re talking about things other than food. If someone tells me they have symptoms we might describe as hot and sharp, and they’re a marathon runner training in the summer, what I hear is that they’re getting heat upon heat upon heat. I might worry about injuries. So I ask how they could temper that heat with some slower movements. I might suggest restorative yoga or some leisurely walks. It’s not about abandoning running; it’s about balancing it so that the element of fire doesn’t get too out of control in the body.
Any symptoms you might have are nature’s way of telling you that something is off. I think if I had noticed that my own symptoms were there to teach me something—and I’d been curious about them instead of feeling so consumed by them—I might have figured out how to feel better sooner.
In many cases, having someone guide you through the process is going to be more helpful than going at it alone. If you have more severe and complicated symptoms, you definitely would want to seek the individual attention and direction of an Ayurvedic practitioner. People who have a lot of experience in yoga, meditation, and breathwork might want to see an Ayurvedic practitioner for that deeper understanding as well.
The challenge for most people who want to get started is that they’ll go to an Ayurvedic practitioner expecting that that person is just going to tell them everything to do and everything to eat and that’ll be it. When that happens, it can be very overwhelming and confusing if you don’t have a solid background in what an Ayurvedic lifestyle looks like. For those people, it’s likely better to start making some of the lifestyle changes I’ve talked about, seeing how they feel, and then going deeper and deeper as needed.
Avanti Kumar-Singh, MD, is an Ayurvedic practitioner and a former emergency medicine doctor. She is also the author of The Health Catalyst: How to Harness the Power of Ayurveda to Self-Heal and Achieve Optimal Wellness.
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