Ayurveda

Sage Advice From My Great Grandmother on Health at Any Age

Grandmother, mother and daughter unpacking groceries in the kitchen
Grandmother, mother and daughter unpacking groceries in the kitchen

I was born on the South Side of Chicago where the city blocks are wide and the cookouts are live. My parents raised four children and I am the youngest. Growing up I spent every weekend and every summer at my great grandmother’s house. I called her “Grandma.”

By the time I came to this earth, Grandma was already 80 years old. I sat beside my grandmother and soaked up all the wisdom she had to offer until the day she transitioned at the age of 99. My grandmother gave me sage advice with secrets to her long, healthy, adventurous life. She taught me how to age gracefully and how to age well. Do you want to know how?

Great Grandmother Willie Etta Temple was born in 1909 to a woman of Native American Indian and European descent and a man of African descent. Though she did not grow up on a reservation, she was the keeper of many ancestral ways which she taught to me. As a journalist in training, I spent a lot of time asking my grandmother questions about her life experiences and observing the way she was—often modeling myself after her because the way energy manifested in her body was so similar to the way it manifests in mine.

Growing up my parents—Janice Temple and Mike Robinson—and grandparents really emphasized holistic healing practices in our family. My parents lived and traveled abroad for eight years while my father played professional basketball. During this time, living in places such as Turkey and spending time in Venezuela, my mother learned the value of a well-curated diet, prayer, and meditation as the means to sustain good health.

My great grandmother and my mother never spoke of Ayurveda specifically, but I recognized the connection when earlier this year I visited a doctor who practices Ayurveda and Western medicine. He came to me from the perspective of Ayurveda—several thousand years old holistic health tradition originating in India. The doctor mentioned things such as my body constitution, the function of the liver in a metaphysical sense, and the rapid movement of my cells which explains my mental and physical speed along with my quick metabolism. He spoke to me about the medicinal practices of cupping and acupuncture, which reminded me of the time my mom took me for treatments.

My doctor and I discussed meditation which reminded me of how my grandmother sought to train me in the practice of stillness to balance my energy and to tap into my mind’s eye to relieve my migraines. I see now that Ayurveda practices crossover with some Native American Indigenous practices that my grandmother passed on to me and the other Indigenous practices my mother learned while traveling the world.

In Ayurveda, doshas help us understand our mind-body experiences. I discovered last year that my Dosha Mind-Body type is Vata-Pitta. I am thin, long, with thick hair, I react to stress with anxiety, and I sleep like there’s no tomorrow. Knowing my Dosha type reaffirmed the need for consistent routines of meditation, physical exercise, and sleep to sustain a good balance of my mental and physical health. It also helped me understand my rapid fast metabolism and how even when I nap, I sleep heavy like a log.

To learn more about Doshas and discover your own, take the quiz.

Out of curiosity, I took the Dosha quiz based on what I know about my grandmother and it is likely that she was a Pitta-Vata type. Grandma was very thin in her elderly days and a bit thicker in her days of youth. She had a deep stare of gaze, an even quicker metabolism than mine, a reaction of irritation to stress, and slept so hard that I used to poke her just to make sure she was still breathing.

When I was little, I’d ask, “Grandma how did you get to be so old?” And she would reply, “Sleep. Now get down and pray.”

The more I spoke to Grandma, the more I learned that things are quite often as simple as that.

Prayer and meditation are central to many Indigenous practices, including Ayurveda. These activities consist of settling into a comfortable position, closing one’s eyes, opening one’s heart, and connecting to the Source—the source of all creation. It is through prayer and meditation that I learned to steady my heart rate and blood pressure even in stressful situations or uncertain circumstances.

In 2016 I quit my job, left my apartment, and ended a relationship all in two weeks while following the voice of something calling me to travel. I later found myself in Chicago staying with my grandfather in the home that my great grandmother raised me in every weekend. I spent time sitting with objects my grandmother used to hold and wear, her energy called me home. I spent four to eight hours per day in mediation and prayer. While in this dream state I created the life that I am living now—one where I am blessed to share these experiences with you.

I remember when I was eight years old and I began playing basketball in a children’s league. My dad was my team’s basketball coach. We were called the Knicks and wore blue t-shirts as uniforms. Dad would drop me off at Tuley Park in Chicago and just blocks away was my grandma’s house. One day I came home to Grandma’s house after playing basketball and told her all about my day guarding children on the court while I blocked their shots—I was really good at that. Grandma pulled out a binder of old photos and news articles. She showed me pictures of her in her youth at a colonial boarding school. She and several other girls wore hoop skirts and posed on a basketball court. Grandma pointed to the photo and I said, “You played basketball Grandma?!” She nodded and said, “Yes. We played basketball at school when they weren’t teaching us to clean houses.”

There I was standing before a thin woman in her 80s while looking at a photo of her as a teenager and an athlete. I should have known that decades of sports training was behind my grandmother’s great physical feats because by the time I was in college and she was in her 90s, I had seen her shove dressers across my bedroom a few times a year. Grandma loved rearranging furniture and she’d tell me, “Leave me alone,” if I tried to interfere. Though I was trying to relieve her of the strength it would take to move the furniture, eventually, it occurred to me that it is through exercise that she kept and grew her strength as she aged.

My grandmother and I are similar in many ways. We both played basketball growing up and we share a temper that needs taming. Regardless of our commonalities, it is important to remember that each person’s wellness practices must be designed especially for them. In Ayurveda, there is no “one size fits all” or prescription for anyone. The Ayurvedic system is a holistic, participatory practice that helps us learn about ourselves. It’s a continual journey of learning where what we needed yesterday may differ from what we need today.

For example, Grandma’s diet relied on heavy doses of milk (sometimes buttermilk). As a child, I followed my grandma’s lead and consumed a lot of dairy each day, but I stopped consuming dairy in 2016 because my body has a terrible allergic reaction to it. Mucus begins to coat my throat, my digestive system backs up, and breathing through my nose becomes nearly impossible. It’s awful. Today I only drink water and use almond milk or cashew milk to replace cow’s milk in oatmeal.

Water is the only liquid I keep in my home for drinking purposes. Alkaline water and water with electrolytes. Just water. My doctor who practices Ayurveda in addition to Western medicine advised me of this. As an athlete, dancer, singer, and actor with such quickly moving cells, he let me know that drinking a lot of water is essential to keep my cells hydrated. He specified that consuming two to three liters of water with electrolytes would alleviate many of the symptoms I have experienced (fatigue, migraines, syncope) while Western medicine would attempt to treat each symptom separately and that could miss the mark. Grandma drank water, too, but it seemed that it was secondary to milk for her. This is where she and I differ and that’s okay because each body is unique and each body requires its own routines to keep it in tip-top shape.

I spent as much time with my grandmother as possible because I loved her so much. She instilled in me to sleep at least eight hours per day regardless of what anyone says because one can never “make up” the amount of sleep they get. Either you get sleep or you don’t and getting sleep increases your quality of life. She taught me that prayer is a way to practice stillness and I feel her with me in my meditations today. Grandma taught me it is imperative that I make the best decisions for myself because while I may have needed milk as a child to grow strong, as an adult just water and some almond milk does me good.

Thanks, Grandma.

I hope this sage advice from my Great Grandmother Willie Etta Temple serves you well.

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