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Ayurveda: A Body in Balance

Body+Soul, 2007

For years, there's been a dull, constant ache on the left side of my lower abdomen. The greater the external stress in my life, the sharper the pain -- and as a magazine editor in Boston, I have no shortage of pressure. Long hours and frequent after-work events mean I'm nearly always on the job -- and have to go out of my way to take care of myself. It's easy to skip breakfast, eat lunch while returning e-mail, and opt for any takeout joint that's still open when I get home at 9:30 or 10. I could slow down, I suppose. But who has time for that?

My harried pace is nothing new. As far back as high school, I fretted about college acceptance, filled my schedule with extracurriculars, and spent a lot of time with friends. I'm not even sure when the abdominal pain began; one day, it was just there. A battery of tests ruled out diverticulosis, Crohn's, or an ulcer. In the end, my doctors found nothing "wrong," and off I went with a vague diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome and a bottle of FiberCon.

Over the years I've tried diets both high- and low-fiber and colon cleanses by professionals and at home. I began a regular practice of yoga, one of the only methods that delivered relief. But while I felt amazing during class -- endorphins and focused breathing eliminating all remainders of stress -- as soon as I left, even my newfound breath couldn't stave off the cramping.

So when Body+Soul asked me to try Ayurvedic medicine, I jumped at the chance. Maybe this will cure me, I thought, heading to the Ayurvedic clinic at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Born in India more than 5,000 years ago and considered the oldest system of healing still in use, Ayurveda combines nutrition, lifestyle, psychology, and herbal medicine to cultivate wellness in both mind and body. The practice is based on a system of three doshas -- forces of energy -- called vata, pitta, and kapha.

Each of us is composed of varying amounts of the three doshas, and according to Ayurvedic principles, what we eat, how we work, and even whom we love should serve to maintain our doshic balance. Left unchecked, imbalance is believed to cause health issues ranging from headaches and skin rashes to larger issues like cancer and chronic depression.

To kick off my two-day program at Kripalu, bodyworkers Jan and Archa whisked me away for a four-handed, full-body lymphatic massage called abhyanga-garshana. The traditional treatment, which purports to aid the body's release of toxins, takes place in two parts: 10 minutes of dry rubbing with silk gloves to stimulate circulation, and 40 more using heated oils. The duo work in tandem (as they massage, I can hardly distinguish one from the other) and use what seems like quarts of oil. I leave feeling completely relaxed -- and greasy -- with instructions to leave the oil on overnight for optimal absorption.

The next morning I meet Kripalu's Ayurvedic program director, Hilary Garivaltis. After I answer more than 200 questions about my health and habits -- How's my digestion? Do I get upset easily? Do I spend frugally or excessively? Do I dream of violence, romance, or flying? -- Garivaltis describes the doshas. People dominated by vata are typically thin, cold, and bursting with energy. Pitta folks are of medium build, fair-skinned, and organized. Kaphas have larger frames, big eyes, and stable temperaments. Most people are a combination of two; a rare few are all three.

To live according to your dosha, Garivaltis tells me, means to live according to both your internal nature and the natural world. "We've protected ourselves from the environment," she says, "from the lights that extend the length of the day to foods that are no longer connected to nature." Ayurveda, she continues, can help bring us back. "Our goal is to get people tuned in to catch signals, to recognize that changes of the season have an effect on our bodies." Vatas, for example, typically thrive in the summer but in winter need warmer foods and drinks to maintain balance. The opposite is true for fiery pittas: In the summer, raw foods and cool liquids can restore balance.

But aligning with nature isn't just about shifting your behavior strictly according to the season -- which seems a bit irrelevant to a creature of habit like me, who'd happily alternate between dinners of sushi and peanut-butter sandwiches year-round. It also means listening to your body -- your inner nature. That, for me, is even trickier. I know to wear a sweater when I feel cold. But my stomach issues have been present for so many years that they've almost become normal to me. How am I to know what my "nature" feels like?

Garivaltis makes it clear she's not a doctor; she can't cure cancer, nor can she promise relief from any condition. But her recommendations can get a client's whole being, body and mind, working efficiently, laying the groundwork for prevention and self-healing -- an entirely appealing notion. Before Garivaltis considers my profile, she determines my dosha by reading my pulse and observing my voice, features, and manner. She then analyzes my tongue's shape, texture, and color, which she'll use to suss out issues elsewhere in the body. Mine's "scalloped," which sounds gross but simply means its edges are slightly serrated. "You're pitta, with a bit of kapha," Garivaltis concludes, and she's spot on. I'm of medium build (pitta) with big blue eyes (kapha); I'm driven in my career (pitta) but exceedingly stable and loyal (kapha). On days when I'm in balance, I take my time when talking, speaking, and working.

It's my vata, says Garivaltis, that's out of whack. When a dosha is off balance, it'll manifest itself in specific ways. A vata imbalance shows up through constipation and insomnia, symptoms that I have, in fact, been experiencing of late. I've been waking at 3 a.m., unable to fall back asleep. The scalloping along the edge of my tongue, another sign of vata imbalance, indicates I'm not absorbing the nutrients from my food, which helps explain why I've been feeling low on energy and constantly hungry.

In order to determine what's causing my vata imbalance -- and how to fix it -- Garivaltis and I talk about what I eat, how I exercise, and what stresses have appeared in my life. While I eat healthy food, I eat like a single girl: cold cereal with plain yogurt for breakfast; sushi or a salad and fruit for lunch (while sitting in front of the computer); and, on those nights I eat dinner in (sometimes as late as 10 p.m.), hummus and carrots or a peanut-butter sandwich. I drink cold water throughout the day. My exercise consists solely of yoga, three to four times per week.

The first step's easy: "Too much raw food," Garivaltis says. Cooked, warm food would help, since vata is aggravated by cold. This means oatmeal instead of cereal; soup instead of salad; and room temperature -- not cold -- water throughout the day. If I can give myself even a 20-minute break just twice a week to eat lunch out of the office (and preferably alone), I'd feel better. Lunch should be heartier than dinner, she says, and if I can't fit it in before 10 p.m., I'd be better off waiting until breakfast the next morning.

Her prescription also includes a morning regimen of warm water with lemon and a few Sun Salutations; "Both will increase regularity," she promises. A daily rubdown with oil -- for pitta-kaphas, coconut in summer and sesame in winter -- will stimulate my circulation and realign my mind, body, and spirit. And she suggests the herb triphala for mild colon support.

Back home, it takes me a while to break old habits. I've managed to get myself out of the office for lunch, and while I still favor sushi, I order a bowl of soup or veggie dumplings as well. I have to remind myself about the early-morning hot water and Sun Salutations, but just as old habits die hard, new habits take some time to stick (that's so kapha of me). And that's okay, because Ayurveda isn't meant to be a quick fix. It's possible that as long as I live and work the way I do, I'll always find it a struggle to "align with nature." Maybe it means more vacations, saying no to working on weekends, and designating an hour each day when I don't speak: no phone calls, meetings, or questions.

And while the pitta in me would prefer something more by-the-book -- a plan that tells me precisely what, how much, and when to eat -- my stomach pain has eased significantly in just a month. When it comes on, I close my office door, sit on the floor, and imagine myself someplace else. Somehow, even five minutes can make a world of difference.

Text by Alyssa Giacobbe