“Your body is precious. It is your vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care.” —The Buddha
If we have been blessed with general good health, we may tend to take our body for granted, not paying attention to what a miracle it is that we can see the colors of the landscape, hold the hand of a loved one, savor a delicious meal, listen to our favorite music, and breathe in the scent of freshly mowed grass.
Our body orchestrates an infinite number of functions all day long, almost entirely below the level of our conscious awareness. If we had to remember to breathe, pump our blood, digest our food, eliminate toxins, create new cells, regulate our temperature, and maintain the delicate homeostasis of dozens of intricate systems, we wouldn’t survive for more than a few moments.
While our body is a miracle of self-regulation, we are much more likely to enjoy health and happiness when we nurture it with love and attention, tuning into what we really need and making choices that nourish our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
In the practice of self-care, the healing tradition known as Ayurveda offers practical tools and guidance that will help you connect to your body’s wisdom as you expand your experience of health, self-compassion, and peace of mind.
Here are are few foundational practices that you can begin to use in your daily self-care routine.
Eat for Your Mind-Body Type
In Ayurveda, there are three mind-body types, or doshas, and the types of foods that are optimal for you depend upon your individual dosha. The foods that keep one person in balance and energetic may not be the right choices for someone with a different dosha. The doshas explain why some people can eat a hot, spicy meal and feel fine, while others could eat the same meal and experience heartburn or indigestion.
Each dosha has a different type of metabolism, which affects how we process the foods that we eat. Two people can eat the same foods and have the same activity level, but look and feel quite different. One dosha may naturally be able to handle a heavier type of food, while another dosha may be more in balance with lighter foods. When you are eating according to your individual mind-body type, it is easier to keep the body in balance. Find or your mind-body type: Take the Dosha Quiz.
Tip: Include the Six Tastes in Every Meal
Ayurveda divides food into six categories based on their taste and the effect they have on our bodies. The six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. By incorporating all six tastes into each meal, our bodies feel satisfied, often with much less than we are used to eating. When we are satisfied, our body does not give us signals to look for more food, and cravings begin to disappear.
Ayurveda also offers specific guidance on how each of the six tastes affects the doshas and which tastes to favor depending on your doshic type. In addition, by eating a variety of foods, especially densely pigmented foods of all colors and from all six taste categories, we give our bodies all of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that it needs.
Meditate and Rest
Meditation takes you beyond the mind’s busy thought traffic to the silence and peace of expanded awareness. Meditation allows you to experience a profound sense of relaxation that dissolves fatigue and stress. In fact, scientific studies have found that a daily meditation practice can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decrease anxiety and depression, and even reverse some of the biological markers of aging.
In addition to the deep rest provided by meditation, it’s important to get plenty of sleep each night. When we’re asleep, our body has the opportunity to detoxify and heal from the stresses of the day. When we don’t get enough sleep, our digestion and immune function are more likely to be compromised and the aging process accelerates. In addition, inadequate sleep disrupts the body’s production of the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which can cause weight gain.
Most people need about eight hours to feel balanced and energized. If you don’t feel refreshed when you wake up in the morning, you aren’t getting enough restful sleep. If you suffer from insomnia or tend to burn the candles at both ends, it’s important to create a restful sleep routine to nourish your body.
Rediscover the Pleasure of Moving Your Body
Thousands of years ago, the Ayurvedic physician Charaka observed, “From physical exercise, one gets lightness, a capacity for work, firmness, tolerance of difficulties, elimination of impurities, and stimulation of digestion.”
Our bodies are designed for movement, yet many of us associate exercise with pain, boredom, or drudgery rather than with lightness and feelings of wellbeing. We may completely avoid exercise or, if we do manage to “will” ourselves to exercise, we may remain disconnected from our body and our feelings as we move.
In vivid contrast with the “no pain, no gain” mentality, Ayurveda and other Eastern healing traditions view exercise as a way to experience the pleasure of moving, breathing, and circulating our life’s energy. It’s meant to leave us feeling invigorated, centered, and ready for rest of the day.
The secret is finding some physical activities that you like and that are suited to your mind-body type, or dosha. No matter what your current fitness level is, you can begin to move your body and breathe on a consistent basis, even if the most you can do right now is walk around the block. In addition, keep in mind that a complete exercise program includes attention to developing flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular conditioning.
Nurture Yourself with a Healing Massage
Ayurvedic massage is designed to free up our channels of energy and circulation, and mobilize toxicity stored deep within our tissues. Massage and hands-on healing techniques energize and rejuvenate us, and have been shown to increase our mood and sense of wellbeing while decreasing stress.
If you don’t have access to authentic Ayurvedic massage therapy, you will still benefit from relaxation or other types of massage – whatever feels right to you. You may also treat yourself to a daily Ayurvedic self-massage known as the self-abhy. Find instructions for a self-abhy here. You can use the self-massage as a tool for self-appreciation. As you gently massage each part of your body, acknowledge how it serves you every day. Send gratitude, appreciation, and acceptance to every cell in your body.
Cleanse and Detoxify on a Regular Basis
No matter how consciously we live, modern life exposes us to a variety of toxins, from pollutants in our food, water, and air, to the more subtle toxicity of negative media and the hyper-stimulus of cell phones, and the Internet. It’s important to get regular detoxification treatments to eliminate the physical and emotional toxins that can deplete our digestive powers and the function of our mind-body physiology.
Ayurveda recommends season detoxification that includes panchakarma—an ancient Ayurvedic therapy that releases toxins from deep within the bodily tissues, clearing away physical and emotional residue and leaving you feeling renewed and rejuvenated.
Treat Yourself to Yoga
Yoga is another timeless practice for nurturing and connecting to your body, mind, and spirit. Here are just a few of the healing benefits yoga offers:
• Relief from stress. As scientific studies have found, yoga lowers heart rates, reduces blood pressure, and decreases the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. High levels of cortisol are linked to depression, osteoporosis, and abdominal weight gain.
• Stronger immune function. The practice of yoga poses (asanas) improves the flow of the lymphatic system, responsible for fighting infection and releasing toxins from the body.
• Increased flexibility and balance. Yoga helps release tight muscles and increase range of motion. Even those who claim to be “genetically inflexible” are surprised to find how much more limber they can become through a regular yoga practice. Yoga also deepens your awareness of your body, allowing you to improve your balance and posture.
• Greater strength. Yoga is a powerful strength-building exercise for every part of the body, including the muscles of your core, back, legs, chest, and arms. This helps prevent problems such as back pain and arthritis. As you strengthen your body, you also build your inner strength, discipline, and self-confidence.
• Improved mood. Yoga balances the central nervous system and endocrine system and stimulates the release of endorphins – natural mood-elevating neurochemicals. As you practice, your mind relaxes and you’re able to stop dwelling on stressful thoughts and situations.
As you begin a practice of daily self-care, keep in mind that it’s better to start small and choose just one or two of the practices. If you try to change your entire lifestyle all at once, you are more likely to feel overwhelmed and go back to old habits that aren’t serving you. Be gentle with yourself and pay attention to what your body needs.