Lately I have been considering the phenomenon of the human aging process, looking at both the “modern” perspective and the ancient Ayurvedic view on this unavoidable process. I have had the privilege of working intimately with my own Grandmother to support her journey into older age, and this personal relationship with the aging process has inspired some deep reflection into the shortcomings of the modern approach to this process as well as the incredible potential for grace and ease through following an Ayurvedic lifestyle. I’d like to share some of these reflections with you in hopes of inspiring greater harmony as you, like all Beings, age.
First, I began to wonder, how is it we have accepted that disease is just inherent in the aging process? Is this really necessary that the body and mind rot before their actual death? When did we become passive recipients to the aging process, uneducated in the process itself? I have had many clients in my Ayurvedic practice tell me that their Doctors have told them that things like arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia, and heart disease are largely unavoidable and natural parts of the aging process. I simply don’t believe that these kinds of degenerative diseases are inherent aspects of getting old. And it seems to be that Ayurveda and it’s sister science Yoga provide a lot of answers as to how it is possible to age with grace.
According to Ayurveda, the Dosha called ‘Vata’, the combination of air and ether which governs all movement in the body continuously increases over the lifespan of all human beings no matter their constitution. Vata is time itself, the movement and relationship of time and space, and thus continuously goes up in the human body over the course of life. The qualities of Vata are dry, rough, unstable, cold, brittle, unsteady, quick, light and subtle. Naturally over time the human body essentially dries out and becomes more and more subtle, until the point of death when the highest subtlety is known. In contrast to an elderly person whose skin will be dry and thin, hair coarse and brittle, bones thin, voice quiet and hoarse, a little baby (who is at the peak of Kapha dominance, Earth and water elements) will be soft and plump, warm and smooth. Understanding the relationship between Kapha and Vata and the aging process gives us great insight into how to optimize that process. Essentially we need to be very aware of this balance, and aim to incorporate elements of Kapha into our lives to reduce the spike of Vata as we age.
Of principal importance here is to understand that when the body dries out, all its functions become impaired. Conditions like osteoarthritis or osteoporosis occur when this drying occurs all the way to the level of bone. Dementia and insomnia occur when this drying occurs in the brain. Constipation occurs when this drying occurs in the colon. Kapha governs moisture and mucous membranes in the body, and is responsible for maintaining the physical body’s structure. So as vata rises and kapha decreases over one’s lifespan, the body begins to lose its “juice”. We can see this in nature when a leaf on the tree is rich and green, full of moisture and life until it dries up, falls from the tree and is crunched on the forest floor.
So, naturally, the best way to work with this process is to become conscious of the relationship between Vata and Kapha in your body-mind-spirit system. During the adult phase of life, from age ~16-50 we need to take preventative measures to work with our Vata to ensure it doesn’t aggravate pre-emptively. Then, in the elder phase of life ~50years onwards, we need to become increasingly mindful of balancing vata and incorporating Kaphic practices to replenish and rejuvenate our bodies.
So how do we do this?!
Vata is aggravated in the modern mainstream culture primarily by stress and anxiety. We live in a world where busyness is a virtue, a sign of success. We look at someone sitting on a park bench as irrelevant in our system of commerce and capital as the source of value. Yogis on the other hand found value in Health rather than “progress”. So, the first thing we need to do is re-adjust our value system to see that the slow, steady, mellow nature of Kapha is in fact essential to our well-being. Letting go of our fixation on “maximizing” our time (i.e, packing our schedules with back-to-back doing) is probably the most important aspect to balancing Vata collectively. Practicing silence, moving slowly, taking conscious rest time and the art of doing nothing helps immensely to balance Vata.
On the bodily level, we need to think of the relationship between dryness and moisture in our bodies. The food and drink we choose to consume can become consciously moisturizing and nourishing instead of drying. Some wonderful ways to support the nourishment and moisture in your body temple are:
Self-massage with organic warming oil like sesame oil. Heating up some oil and generously applying it to your body on a daily basis nourishes your skin (your largest organ) and your body will absorb the oil and send it where it most needs it. Consider replacing any body creams you may be used to with a simple sesame oil, as all the chemicals or complicated ingredients of many body creams inadvertently end up drying out your internal system in the long run.
Ghee! Every Ayurvedic enthusiast is a notorious pusher of ghee, I know. But truly it is known as the golden elixir of health in Ayurveda. Try putting a few drops of ghee in your nose, eyes and ears every morning, sipping a teaspoon or warm ghee in the morning, using it in your cooking, or massaging your feet before bed with this magical elixir.
Warm Water/ herbal tea! Try replacing drinking cold or cool water with drinking warm water or herbal tea to soothe and hydrate your body. Warm water serves as a tonic in the aging process, where cold water jars the system and cools the central channel.
Avoid drinking multiple coffees or black teas, particularly on an empty stomach as this dries out and makes the body acidic. Maybe ditch the stuff entirely if you’re up for it.
Perhaps the most important practice I have encountered for supporting your body temple as you age is Yoga. The yogic practices of āsana (physical postures), pranāyama (regulated breathing), bandhas (internal energy locks), and mantra (chanting specific sounds which vibrate resonance into your body) are all techniques which lubricate your system. Essentially yoga is a way of self-massage internally. Working on all the energy channels of the body, yoga ensures that your system runs optimally.
That being said, not all modern approaches to yoga are actually balancing to your Dosha, particularly Vata. Actually, most of the main popular yoga classes I have explored in the modern approach are very Vata-centric in that they focus on continuous movement (remember, Vata’s main function is motion) from one posture to the next with very little stillness. This kind of vigorous practice is fine in moderation, or if you are feeling very heavy or if you are overweight and needing to shed Kapha. Yet it is often the thin, Vata or Pitta (firey) people who take up these vigorous Vinyasa style practices, which inadvertently aggravates their vata over time. Consider focusing your yoga practice in a more Kaphic manner throughout the adult and elder phase of life. Traditional Hatha practice was done slowly, holding postures for longer periods of time and always including the other yogic techniques of prānayama, bandha, and mantra to ensure a holistic balancing of the whole self.
Ayurveda provides many further solutions for aging gracefully such as Panchakarma therapy (focused cleansing of aggravated dosha), regular Abhyanga (oil massage for circulation and relaxation of the nervous system), Shirodhara, Nasya therapy, and more which I will speak to further in future articles as they are in-depth practices and require a focused description to convey their poignance.
I hope this article inspires you to become more conscious of the way the elements are playing out in your Being. May you be reminded that life is not something that just happens to you! You have been given the free will to play out your Karma however you so choose, and each choice impacts both you and the seven generations to come and beyond. By taking simple conscious steps to care for our bodies, which are our own personal earth temples, we can harmonize the whole through the parts. Our planet herself has become Vata aggravated, and though that process often feels beyond our personal control, by beginning to take responsibility for our own bodies we contribute to the rebalancing of the elements in this World.
I’ll leave you with a little BBC video of a “Granny” who practiced yoga all her life as an inspiration. I hope to be such an elder one day, and I am honoured to be supporting those going through this transition to the best of my ability.
Bless your sacred Heart,
Your Sacred Body,
Your Eternal Spirit.