We all want to age gracefully, but sometimes it can feel like life is working against us. So how can we stay on top of our health while also managing a busy life?
Ayurvedic medicine shows us that the key to longevity comes down to having regular practices. Just like any other habit, once a healthy practice becomes a part of your routine, it'll be as second nature as brushing your teeth in the morning.
Let’s explore some simple yet powerful Ayurvedic practices that can support a healthy mind and body and may even slow down your aging process.
1. Abhyanga (Oil Massage)
Abhyanga is a type of massage that's widely practiced in Ayurvedic medicine. During the practice of abhyanga, warm oil (often infused with medicinal herbs) is gently massaged into the entire body, from head to toe.
According to the Vedic texts, abhyanga is understood to enhance longevity and overall health. Research shows that massage, and abhyanga in particular, can have a calming effect on the nervous system. With stress acting as one of the underlying causes of many diseases today, it's not hard to see how incorporating abhyanga into your routine could pave the way for a longer, more enjoyable life.
While receiving abhyanga is an incredibly relaxing experience, you can still achieve benefits by giving yourself a 15 to 20-minute warm oil massage at home. This can be incorporated into your morning or evening routine right before your shower.
If you work with an Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner, they may recommend specific medicated oils, but you can also use dosha-specific oils for your everyday practice; these include:
- Pitta: Coconut oil
- Vata: Sesame seed oil
- Kapha: Sunflower oil
*Kapha dominant people may not need to practice abhyanga as frequently due to the grounding and unctuous nature of this practice.
2. Mindful Eating
Food is one of the most powerful and direct ways in which you can create balance or imbalance in your body.
A diet that is wholesome and full of nutrients will feed your cells, tissues, and organs and allow agni, your digestive fire, to stay strong. A highly processed diet will dampen your digestive fire, cause nutrient deficiencies, and inhibit energy from reaching your cells.
According to the Ayurvedic texts, having a conscious relationship with your meals is vital to health and longevity. This includes not only what you eat, but how, when, and why you eat.
For example, while many people make dinner their largest meal of the day, Ayurvedic texts suggest that the largest meal of the day should be enjoyed when the sun is highest in the sky, around noon.
It's also crucial that you allow your mind and body to relax while you eat, giving your full attention and appreciation to the food that is offering itself up to nourish your body. Eating when stressed, overwhelmed, or distracted will impact your digestion and may create toxic buildup, or ama, that leads to imbalances.
In general, the more mindfulness you can bring to your meals, the more nutrients you'll absorb, and the less ama will be produced.
Meditation is a popular way to manage stress and promote inner calm and resilience, and for good reason.
According to the Vedic texts, meditation is a key practice on the path to enlightenment, with benefits reaching far beyond the stress response. When taken seriously, a meditation practice can bring you closer to your true self, the eternal soul that resides at the deepest layer of your being.
By giving you a more objective view of reality, meditation can shift your state of mind and reduce physical and emotional stress. On a cellular level, researchers hypothesize that meditators have longer telomeres (a marker for longevity) due to the stress-relieving aspects of this practice.
Creating space to offer a connection to your inner self is a beautiful act of self-love that pays dividends throughout your day. Research shows that even ten minutes of meditation is enough to notice shifts.
Pranayama is a practice of focused breathing that stems from the yogic tradition.
In Sanskrit, "prana" means life force, and "Yama" means control. In this way, you can think of pranayama as a way to bring conscious control to the life force within you. There are various types of pranayama, but underlying each modality is the conscious awareness and control of your breath.
While the autonomic nervous system typically controls your breath, pranayama offers you a bridge to this subconscious aspect of your body, allowing you to take the reins. According to the Vedic texts, pranayama is a powerful tool for aiding in longevity and optimal health.
Research shows that pranayama practices not only help to calm the mind and body, but may also support the treatment of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder[*].
For a simple pranayama exercise, try slow rhythmic belly breathing:
- In this exercise, you'll be slowing your breath down to five or six breaths per minute
- Sit up straight, making sure your back and neck are aligned but comfortable
- Inhale for five seconds, pause briefly
- Exhale for five seconds
- Repeat inhale and exhale for five seconds for five minutes or more
According to Ayurveda (and Western science would agree), sleep is one of the primary pillars of health. Poor sleep contributes to a variety of imbalances that can accelerate the aging process and degrade the health of your tissues and organs. Weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive impairment are just a handful of health issues associated with insufficient sleep[*].
From an Ayurvedic perspective, one of the most detrimental outcomes of poor sleep is a shift in your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is your internal clock that sets the pace for hormonal fluctuations, body temperature, sleep cycles, and more. Maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm is crucial to health and longevity, as this is how your body aligns itself with the natural world around you.
While getting a good night's sleep can be a lot easier said than done, creating a nurturing evening routine can go a long way towards your sleep goals. Some suggestions for helping your body and mind wind down include:
- Practice slow rhythmic belly breathing at night to calm the nervous system
- Take a warm bath in the evening
- Apply warm oil to the bottom of your feet before bed
- Avoid eating three hours before bed
- Set a regular bedtime, and stick to it
- Unplug from all devices as early as possible to avoid overstimulation (try reading a book instead)
Regardless of where your health stands at this moment, aging gracefully is your birthright, and there are always steps you can take to promote health in your mind and body. Leveraging the ancient knowledge of the Vedas, and peering at it through a Western lens, allows us to bring to light some of the most fundamental keys to longevity.
Incorporating these tried and true practices into your routine can significantly impact your physical and emotional well-being. The key, however, is not to push or stress but to find what works for you in a way that is supportive of your overall health.