An Ayurvedic Cure for Modern Life

By Alison Rose Levy

Originally published here in Yoga Journal

simple flower arrangementLike most Americans, I’m an expert at multi-tasking. I eat at my desk, wash dishes while on the phone, go through bills on the bus, and drive while talking on my cell phone. Based on his knowledge of the Eastern wisdom of Ayurveda, the internationally recognized Ayurvedic physician and author Robert Svoboda has another name for this rushed, fragmented way of functioning. He calls it “vata-deranged.” Modern life as we know it, with its excessive travel, late nights, and nonstop stimulation, often contributes to vata derangement, which can affect anyone. People like me—the tall, slender, fast-talking ones—are most at risk, however, because our native constitutions are vata dominant.

To comprehend vata derangement, we need to understand that vata is one of the three metabolic types, or doshas, described by the ancient health science of Ayurveda. Vata is the principle of movement, ruled by air and ether. The other two doshas are pitta, the principle of assimilation ruled by fire, and kapha, the stabilizing force, ruled by earth and air. Ayurvedic doctors say that we are each a unique combination of these three. For most of us, one type is predominant, another secondary. But whatever one’s native type, when a person goes out of balance, the vata principle destabilizes most easily, causing other kinds of health and emotional problems.

According to Ayurveda, this is the force that governs all movement in the body, including the in-and-out flow of the breath, the action of our limbs, the circulation of subtle energy in our organism, and the mind’s ceaseless flow of thoughts, words, and images. Unlike earthy kapha, solid and grounded and with a tendency to get stuck, or fiery pitta, sharp and focused and knowing just where it wants to go, vata, like the wind, wanders here and there, its direction ever-changing.

Performers like Michael Richards, who played Seinfeld’s Kramer, Lisa Kudrow acting ditzy and off-beat on Friends, and Woody Allen, with his anxious patter, have made us laugh at the off-centered, nervous spaciness typical of vata derangement. While these qualities may seem funny when we see them on film, it’s not fun to experience the jerky stops and starts of breath, thoughts, speech, nerves, and limbs that result from a vata imbalance. And the health consequences aren’t laughable either.

Vata’s Rise and Fall

The pressure and pace of modern life can tip anyone into vata imbalance. But even if you spent your life meditating in the woods, it’s not easily avoided. Ayurveda holds that sturdy kapha is dominant in childhood, ambitious pitta rules in the prime of life, and vata prevails in our senior years. Our senior years bring the vatic qualities of dryness, roughness, and irregularity, manifesting in such health complaints as arthritis, constipation, anxiety, insomnia, and stiffness.

Fortunately, we can look to ancient wisdom for answers: Ayurveda has evolved ways to remedy vata imbalance and its accompanying diseases, and throughout hundreds of years ancient Ayurvedic physicians and yogis devised many techniques to prolong life—hoping to gain more time to attain self-realization.

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Yoga Vitamins

By Richard Rosen 

Originally published here in Yoga Journal

tree of yogaIf you’re developing a dedicated yoga practice, you have probably heard of the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali’s classical yoga, which include such virtues as ahimsa (nonharming), satya (truthfulness), and samtosha (contentment). Lesser known are the “yoga vitamins,” as B.K.S. Iyengar named them in The Tree of Yoga. These five partner virtues, set forth in the Yoga Sutra (I.20), reinforce the classical practice of yoga and generate an abundance of good (or white) karma for the practitioner.

The first vitamin is sraddha (SHRAH-dah), usually translated as “faith.” But many interpreters of Patanjali have also translated it as many other things—”trust and confidence” (in the rightness of what you’re doing and in the sympathy of the divine), “firm conviction” (which is free of doubt), “positive attitude” (even in the face of momentary setbacks), “acceptance” (of traditional teachings and the words of your teacher), and “sweet hope” in the ultimate success of your practice.

In Sanskrit, sraddha is a feminine word, suggesting that faith is gentle and supportive. Indeed, the sage Vyasa, who is credited with writing the oldest surviving commentary on the Yoga Sutra, said that faith is “benevolent like a mother; she protects the yogi.” When the practitioner holds to faith, the mind becomes tranquil and, as Vyasa concluded, “strength gathers in him.”

Such strength is known as virya (VEER-yah), the second vitamin. Virya is usually translated as “energy” or “vitality,” the sort that comes from knowing you’re doing the right thing. But it’s also characterized as “courage,” “strong will,” “enthusiasm,” “stamina,” and “dedication.” As virya gathers in the practitioner, said Vyasa, “intentness attends upon him.”

“Intentness” is one interpretation of the Sanskrit word smrti (SMRIT-tee), the third vitamin. Usually, smrti is simply translated as “memory,” but in this context, it’s better understood as “mindfulness.” What are you supposed to be mindful of? Some commentators talk about the practice of constantly minding the more palpable aspects of your life experience: your body, the contents of your consciousness, your surroundings, your breath. Others interpret mindfulness as a diligent remembrance of and reflection on the true nature of the Self. Still others believe that memory also includes the recollection of what you’ve studied in yoga scripture. In any case, mindfulness focuses the energy of consciousness and so serves as a prelude to meditation. As Vyasa said, “At the presence of intentness, the mind, free of disturbance, becomes harmonized and established in samadhi.”

Samadhi (sah-MAH-dee), the fourth vitamin, is a highly technical term in classical yoga that literally means “putting together.” It ultimately allows the practitioner, said Vyasa, to “perceive things as they really are.”

This perception of things as they really are leads to the fifth and final vitamin, prajna (PRAHJ-nah), which is actually the goal of yoga practice. It roughly means “knowledge,” but Patanjali wasn’t talking about knowledge in a worldly sense, of course. The great 20th-century sage Sri Aurobindo defined the term prajna as the “knowledge that unites” all the loose ends of one’s self in the Self.

Let’s Be Honest

by Sally Kempton, originally published here in Yoga Journal

BeingHonestThere’s an old joke about two American Mafia enforcers who are on a mission to recover money from a Russian drug dealer. The Russian speaks no English, so the Americans take along a Russian-speaking accountant to translate. One of the enforcers holds a gun to the Russian drug dealer’s head and demands to know where he’s stashed the money. “Under my wife’s mattress,” says the dealer. “What did he say?” asks the gunman. The accountant replies: “He said he’s not afraid to die.”

On a 1 to 10 scale, with polite lies (“No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat”) at the low end, and outrageous, destructive lies like the Russian accountant’s at the high end, your worst falsehoods would probably rate no more than a 3 or 4. Yet those lies are probably lodged in your psyche, still giving off smoke. You can justify them, but some part of you feels the effect of every lie you’ve told. How? In the cynicism, distrust, and doubt that you feel toward yourself, and in your own tendencies to suspect other people of either lying or concealing the truth from you.

Realizing the effect that lying has on your soul is just one reason that, at some point in your spiritual life, you will feel the need to engage in the yogic practice of truthfulness. As with all the great yogic practices, doing so isn’t as easy as it might seem.

Twenty-five years ago, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, I decided to practice absolute truthfulness for one week. I lasted two days. On the third day, a man I was trying to impress asked me if I’d read the sage Vyasa’s Brahma Sutra, and I heard myself answering, “Yes.” (Not only had I not cracked that difficult text of Vedantic philosophy—I’d never actually laid eyes on it.)

A few minutes later, I forced myself to confess the lie, which wasn’t so hard. In general during my experiment, it turned out to be fairly easy not to fudge the external facts of a situation. But practicing factual truthfulness made me even more aware of the web of unspoken falsehoods I lived with. Falsehoods such as the pretense of liking a person I really found irritating. Or the mask of detachment with which I covered my intense desire to be chosen for a certain job. It was an informative week, and it led me to one of the more searing self-inquiry practices of my life. I was forced to confront the multiple masks that disguise dishonesty. I was shown why honesty is so much more complicated than it first appears.

Tell It Like It Is

The conversation about the meaning of truthfulness has been going on for a long time. I see three sides to it. On one hand, there’s the absolutist position taken by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra: Truth, or satya, is an unconditional value, and a yogi shouldn’t lie. Ever. The opposite position—familiar to anyone who pays attention to the behavior of the government, corporations, and many religious institutions—is what used to be called “utilitarian.” This is the materialist position supported by Western philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and by texts like the Arthashastra, the Indian book of statecraft, which we might call the precursor to Machiavelli’s writings. The basic utilitarian posture goes something like “Always tell the truth except when a lie is to your advantage.”

The third position strives for a kind of ultimate balance and demands a high degree of discernment. It recognizes the high value of truth but points out that truth telling can sometimes have harmful consequences, and so needs to be balanced with other ethical values such as nonviolence (ahimsa), peace, and justice.

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