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Ayurveda and the Sofa

Why being lazy during uncertain times could be the body’s natural attempt at homeostasis

By Amita S. Nathwani, MA

Last week, I proceeded to perform half of my friend’s online Yoga class and then spend the second half eating dinner and watching it, on the edge of my seat, like it was the last 30 minutes of my favorite documentary… including the meditation at the end! Full of guilt, I did what any self-respecting quarantined person would do, and posted my blunder on my social media page.

My Yoga teacher friend, who studies Ayurveda, saw my post, and took the first step to recognizing this behavior in all her students. She began offering a short 30-minute yoga asana class so that those who were feeling daunted by their normal routines, could, at the very least, take small steps to creating peace of mind with the practice.

As a practitioner of Ayurvedic Medicine, I was not only shocked at my own ability to show my weakness during this unprecedented time, but the show of similar vulnerability from hundreds of my friends. Many expressed that they too, had become quite complacent during this time and confessed to both abandoning on-line fitness classes half-way like me, or even simply watching the entire class unfold from the comfort of their sofas. What was happening here I asked? Were any of them sick? I certainly was not, yet somehow, my “motivation” had decreased.

In Ayurveda, we examine all human behavior from a homeostatic perspective, meaning that if someone is acting out of balance, there must be a correlating imbalance preceding that action. For example, if an individual person has a routine of being active and suddenly becomes “lazy,” we begin by examining everything from the person’s diet, lifestyle and even experiences to determine how to move forward. Rarely do we push the person into being more active, as that behavior will simply correct itself by fixing the root cause.

So what is the root cause? Why are so many people feeling unmotivated? Why are we eating more, sleeping longer hours and even sitting for such long periods of time. Many would argue that being quarantined or on lockdown is the most obvious reason. With nowhere to go, gyms shut down and even mandates on leaving the home for fresh air, how else could we act in any other manner? Although those may be contributing factors, Ayurveda sees this time of sedentary as a form of homeostasis.

When there is uncertainty, change or unpredictability in our food, lifestyle or environment, Ayurveda coins this as a Vata or wind quality. Nothing feels stable, our worlds are rocked and for many of us, everything we knew to be “true” has been shaken. That Vata quality, when increased, is variable and often volatile and requires an equal and opposite response to keep the body in balance. As a result, we naturally gravitate to anything that will make us feel “grounded”. An excess of food, alcohol, sleep, rest and stagnancy are literally contraindications of the unstable life we all lead now, and yet very much needed to help us stay somewhat sane in the middle of this chaos. Ayurveda calls this Kapha or earth and water qualities that support stability in the mind and body when the “wind” has kicked up too much.

So does this mean we can indulge in these behaviors? Doesn’t Ayurveda say that eating well and doing yoga will help with the mind? The answer is two-fold. The best way to handle this is first to recognize these behavioral patterns for what they really are; the body’s attempt at homeostasis. And then, we use the intellect, knowledge and free will to take small steps toward not swinging the pendulum too far in either direction. 

So in addition to removing guilt out of your life for not continuing with the same healthy behaviors as before, here are a few things you can do to break this vicious cycle of instability and stagnancy to bring harmony into your day:

  1. A simple daily routine called Abhyanga, or self-oil massage with sesame, almond or coconut oil prior to bathing will allow the heat from your bath to open the pores so your body can feel warm, nourished and grounded from the oils. It is best done by warming the oils and applying them long on the muscles and circular on the joints in a consistent and rhythmic pattern. About 20 minutes after applying, wash off the residue using soap to remove the excess oils from clogging the skin This process will not only help you feel stable but increase serotonin, the happy hormone, in the body through touch.
  2. Nourish your body with foods that are stabilizing but not unhealthy. For example, instead of falling into your comfort foods of fried-food, pastas or chips, eat more whole grains and lentils like rice, dahl and even varieties of buckwheat and millet. Dairy and other saturated fats can also be stabilizing for many, so instead of choosing ice cream, drink fermented digestive drinks like lassi and chaas, or the western approach called kefir. And if you partake in a non-vegetarian diet, just be sure to stay away from cream sauces and fried preparations.
  3. For many, meditation can be difficult during stressful times. The silence can bring up unresolved issues and create more uncertainty in the mind. If you are able to sit in meditation, do not hesitate to create shorter times for yourself. A little is better than nothing at all. For those of you who cannot, consider instead being in the moment with the breath and practice intentional rhythmic breathing exercises call prananyama. My favorite one is alternate nostril breathing, which helps regulates the sympathic and parasympathic nervous system. This is done by closing one nostril at a time and starting with the out-breath and then an in-breath.

As you recognize the shifts in your life and the changes in your routine, remember Charles Darwin who said it best,  “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one who is most adaptable to change.”

Amita Nathwani is a practitioner and teacher at Surya Health and Wellness with a Masters in Ayurvedic Medicine from Maharishi International University. She is an adjunct faculty member with the Dr. Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

Lily Russo is a Yoga teacher who offers donation based Yoga classes online.

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