The Self-Care Guru

Are You Vedic? Ayurveda, the Path to Health, Wealth and Wisdom

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Benjamin Franklin is quoted to have said “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Anyone over the age of 50 may have learned this in primary school and summarily dismissed the inherent wisdom.  Perhaps Ben Franklin knew a little about the ancient system of Ayurveda when he so eloquently created this proverb.

Ayurveda is India’s 5,000 year-old “science of life” and is the companion or sister of yoga. Ayurveda is steadily growing in practice throughout the U.S. and moving toward a partnership with modern health care. Ayurveda can provide an expanded approach to health with its practices in self-care to support preventive health which puts the individual in the driver’s seat as their primary health care provider. Moving forward, Ayurveda has the potential to positively impact some of the misdirections and wayward costs inherent in our current health care system.

In the ancient Sanskrit language, “ayur” means life and “veda” means knowledge. Ayurveda as life knowledge is the study and practice of knowing the self in relationship with the greater cosmos. Put another way, it is a way of aligning ourselves with the natural rhythms of the universe, the energetics of food, breath and sound and seeking synchronization rather than opposition to the elements and cycles of life.  As the Bible says, Ecclesiastes 3:1-11,”to everything there is a season.”

Ayurveda provides us with a comprehensive system that involves nutrition, the knowledge and uses of plants, physical activity, meditation, and synchronicity of daily, monthly and annual biological cycles to offer a framework for a multi-dimensional modality of preventive medicine. It provides a user friendly, inexpensive and non-pharmacological method of managing acute and chronic diseases and a complement to allopathic therapies. Ayurveda is on a trajectory to finding its way into the mainstream as a physicians, health providers and practitioners  embrace its tenets and practices.

A significant portion of my early training in Integrative Yoga Therapy focused on Ayurveda and led me to become a practitioner.  Every subsequent yoga teacher training has had a component that focused on varying aspects of  Ayurveda. There is even a component of Ayurveda directly related to astrology! Just a short time ago, both Ayurveda and yoga were considered practices on the “fringe” of mainstream culture. However, the efficacy of these modalities for  supporting health and wellness are quickly coming to the forefront.

This year, for the first time, I’ve received more bookings for workshops and presentations on the daily Ayurvedic self-care practices, or dinacharya, than requests to teach yoga classes. Ayurveda has its historical etymological roots is Sanskrit from which it derives its unique medical terminology.  In the beginning learning these new linguistics can seem daunting, but once understood the information and practices are simple and the Sanskrit terminology  is no more complicated than the Latin-based medical terminology of Western medicine. Just as there is the eight-limbed system of yoga commonly practiced in the U.S., Ayurveda, as a medical system, also has eight branches.  They are:

  • General medicine (Kāya-chikitsā)  – cure of diseases affecting the body
  • Pediatrics (Kaumāra-bhṛtya) – treatment of children
  • Surgery (Śhalya-chikitsā) – removal of any substance which has entered the body, i.e.,  extraction of bullets, splinters, etc
  • Ophthalmology/ENT) (Śālākya-tantra) – cure of diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat
  • Demonology/exorcism/psychiatry (Bhūta-vidyā) – treatment of mental disorders rooted in past experiences and trauma
  • Toxicology (Agada-tantra) – doctrine of antidotes
  • Elixirs (Rasayana-tantra) – doctrine of Rasayana or practices for lengthening lifespan
  • Aphrodisiacs (Vājīkaraṇa tantra)

Some of these branches may seem antiquated, perhaps superstitious but keep in mind many of us are completely invested in a Western view of the world in which the field of “science” has replaced our connection to indigenous and spirit-based ways of understanding ourselves and the world around us.

My journey as an Ayurvedic practitioner began with looking into my own family. I was fortunate to have spent a good deal of my early childhood with a maternal grandmother who was born and raised in a small rural town in northern Alabama. She was very resourceful and skillful in many endeavors that support basic needs.  She taught me not be wasteful and how to save and recycle.  I learned to sew, quilt, cook, garden and make simple remedies to help cure common illnesses like colds, fevers and insect bites. Old clothes were cut into patches and sewn into beautiful quilts. No matter how small the plot of land, there was always a kitchen or backyard garden.  Sweet potatoes and avocado seeds were rooted in jars and turned into beautiful leafy green houseplants. She made her own yogurt, baked bread and cakes from scratch.  Nothing was wasted and our diet was more plant based than meat driven.  I was given cod liver oil with an orange juice chaser on a regular basis.  She soaked her feet in Epsom salts and made decoctions which she administered at the onset of cold or fever.

I am grateful for these early references and they are the foundation of my approach to Ayurveda. Many of us have indigenous and traditional healing practices that have stood the test of time and been passed down from previous generations. My exploration began by looking into my family’s history and the ways of my elders — what they ate and how they prepared it, the use of foods, herbs and spices for balancing and sustaining health, and their practices of spirit –prayer and meditation.  Look into your family and see if you can uncover and bring to light the health practices of your ancestors into your modern-day life.

Yoga for Life

By Age 12

As a child, I always felt different and out of sync with my friends and classmates. The things that were popular or considered fun, never resonated with me and what I liked and enjoyed was strange to them.  I was an old soul in a child’s body.  I was a precocious child who, by four and five years old, had insight and understanding of the people, circumstances and the topics of most adult conversation I was privy to hear. I worked hard at being a child and did my best to blend in.

An only child until the age of nine, I was mostly in the company of grown folks, primarily my maternal grandmother, great-grandfather and their friends.  I was expert at being seen but not heard and I was a damn good listener.  Adults were open and candid in speech when I was around because I was good at feigning preoccupation. I could be so quiet as to render myself practically invisible. I listened and learned and understood the majority of what they said.  I learned to read and write before I ever attended school. I felt things instead of thinking them. An intuition that enabled me to see beneath the surface of things was under development.  This kind of intuition has a powerful inner voice that is impossible to ignore. It has been a guiding source in my life and has served me well, more so, than rational thought.

By age 12, I had experienced 4 different religious expressions — the fire and brimstone of the sanctified church and the foundations of the Pentecostals, the rites and rituals of Catholicism, backwoods Baptists  and the modicum of moderation of the Methodists, but none of these helped me with the answers to the questions that burned within my young mind– Who am I, and why am I here?

Like many black girls with parents or grandparents whose roots were in the deep South, I was raised in the church — all day Sunday, a meeting on Tuesday, a service on Thursday and back again all day on Sunday.   By age 12, my parents began to send me off  to church alone with money to tithe. I asked questions that my Sunday school teachers just didn’t like and they often exhibited frustration at their inability to give credible answers. I really wondered and asked “Is God white?  All the depictions in the black churches I attended in 1950s and 60s depicted him as such. It seemed a logical question. When I wanted to understand the concept of an immaculate conception and the role and relationship of Joseph to Jesus, if God was his father, I was shot down and made to feel as if I’d done something wrong for simply asking. And, what about the Holy Trinity? I understood the father and the son, but who or what was the Holy Ghost? I genuinely wanted to understand but there were no clear answers, at least none that made sense to me.

I liked to sing in church and on occasion sang solo. One of my favorite songs was, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.”  While in church one hot summer day I picked up a fan that had a picture of Jesus on the back.  There he was like a matinee idol, flowing blond locks cascading around broad shoulders, his dreamy ice blue eyes giving me a sexy come hither look. The caption read, “Come unto me.”  Something just didn’t seem right about it.

I began to play hooky from church services opting to spend my tithe on candy.  Until . . . I was discovered!  To my utter surprise, my parents did not punish me for absconding, nor was I forced to return.  Although I willingly and willfully left the church, I credit those early experiences to opening me to spirit. Once left to my own devices, I began to seek a deeper connection to my soul and to God. The field was wide open to explore.

I floundered during the early days of this newfound freedom and release from weekly services.  I hung out at the newsstand at my neighborhood drugstore for hours perusing issues of fashion and teen magazines.  Sometimes, I’d slip in for the triple feature matinee at the neighborhood movie house. Next to home and school, my favorite place was the public library.  I loved books (and still do), especially the plays of Tennessee Williams, Paddy Chayefsky and Eugene O’Neill. None of my 5th and 6th grade classmates had a clue about these writers.  I was truly in my own little world.

I was 12 when the Beatles first came to the U.S. and was immersed in the music of my youth — Motown, the British invasion, pop, rock and R&B and I listened to jazz.  I discovered my sun sign and began to explore astrology. I read Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” which introduced me to Buddhism.  I discovered there were many religions in the world and I wanted to know more about all them.  It was all great fun, but the spirit of the church was deeply embedded.  I often recalled my earliest experiences of preachers, musicians, songs and spirit dances.  I had witnessed the intangible power of spirit capture the unsuspecting in its grasp to make them talk in tongues, foam at the mouth, or pass out. I missed the testimonials of transformation shared in congregation for others to bear witness. There were times when I was young and had no filters to jade my perception that I, too,  sensed spirit moving like an ominous presence that swirled around and through me. Rising up from the bowels and belly, it swelled into an orgasmic eruption forcing me to let go, lose control and feel space and freedom beyond my body and mind. I felt it. It was real.

By age 12, I intuitively understood a great truth – I Am That. That I Am. The path had opened and a life long journey into Self, Soul and Spirit had begun.