Ayurveda, the ancient holistic healing system, is full of how-to’s for you to adjust your lifestyle to support a long and healthy life.
But because Ayurveda’s healthy habits are all-encompassing, they can feel overwhelming initially.
Don’t try to change your life 180 degrees all at once.
You might have read a book or article on Ayurveda and be thinking to yourself, “There is no way I can do all that!”
And that’s true – in the beginning.
Chaos, instability, rebellion, and defensive reactions are guaranteed if you try to do too much, too fast. Instead, start with a few foundational habit changes and build from there.
These foundational habits center around two main systems – the digestive system and the nervous system.
These core habits are often where I start all of my clients – no matter what their larger goals or imbalances – precisely because they are a so important for overall health.
The digestive system is seen in Ayurveda to be the most important system on the physical level. This is because your digestion processes your food to supply all the rest of your body – the tissues, organs, cells and subtle elements – the nutrition and intelligence to function at a healthy level. If you digestive system isn’t functioning well, the rest of you gets deprived.
The nervous system is directly impacted by stress of all kinds –physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. And stress plays a major role in every disease. Unfortunately, excessive stress seems to be the new normal in our modern society – so much so that you may not even recognize the impact it is having on health. Long-term stress can overwhelm the nervous system, deplete your inner vitality, and create early aging in the body and mind.
The nervous system also affects your very ability to make changes. If you are depleted and worn out, you will lack the will and stamina to get started or maintain new changes. Having a balanced nervous system supports your mind to take the first step.
In addition to the importance of health in these two separate systems, they are also interrelated through the gut-brain connection. In Ayurveda, the vata dosha governs the nervous system and vata’s seat is in the large intestine. The large intestine houses trillions of beneficial bacterial which makes up what modern science calls the microbiome. When stressed, the gut feels the threat and is responsible for sending message to the brain to alert the nervous system of the emergency. This triggers the fight-or-flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. While this is a healthy response on a short-term basis, in the long-term the stress chemicals released cause damage and depletion to the body.
Understanding the connection between your nervous system and the digestive system can help you apply more effective strategies to calming the body, boosting vitality in the immune system, and promoting better digestion to support your overall health.
Start Your New Year Off With These Digestive and Nervous System Shifts
#1. Change Your Eating Rhythm
When we lived agriculturally oriented lives, we followed a more natural rhythm both in terms of our wake and sleep schedules as well as in our eating patterns. This rhythm correlates to the circadian medicine that is emerging in today. Ayurveda has been teaching for thousands of years the importance of the natural cycles. In terms of food,when your food is taken and in what amounts plays a key role in proper digestion and avoiding the build up of toxic undigested food.
Not only is the sun at its zenith mid-day, but your energy needs are always the strongest to support your daily activities. Therefore, making lunch your main meal will not only give you the energy you need to get the work done, but also curb cravings and energy slumps later. Combine this with a lighter cooked breakfast and a light cooked dinner and you will be in sync with a healthy strategy used for thousands of years.
This adjustment takes a little planning. You might start by still cooking your big meal at dinner but eating a smaller portion and taking the larger balance for lunch the next day. Using crockpots for overnight cooking can also be helpful. You can also prep on the weekend and evenings for a quick morning cook for your freshest food.
#2: Create A Relaxed Eating Space and Time
What you eat is important in terms of nutrition, no doubt. However, according to Ayurveda, how you eat is more important. Remember the gut-mind connection. If your nervous system is feeling stressed because you are eating in a rushed, distracted or irritated manner, your gut is going to be reacting with stress hormones. You can feel it through a clenching or tightening in the belly and even a decrease in the appetite.
On the other hand, if you eat in a relaxed manner, it supports the calming presence of the parasympathetic nervous system and allows for better digestion of your food. To further keep your mind and emotions out of the loop, it is best to eat without distractions such as TV, electronic devices, reading or driving. All of these can trigger the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system and also tune you out from your food. Not being aware of your eating means you’re not getting the benefit of tasting and enjoying your meal. Suddenly you might find your plate empty but wanting more because you didn’t connect into the satisfaction. This leads to overeating.
Simple in theory, this is often a challenge due to your habitual patterns. Start by blocking out at least 15-20 minutes for your meal. If you’re used to doing something else, take at least the first five minutes to focus just on your food before allowing yourself to go back to the activity. Each week, increase the food focus time by two minutes until you can eat your meal focused 100%. Then enjoy those last 5-10 minutes after eating reading or scrolling through your texts.
#3. Start Meditating
There are numerous styles, apps, and ways to make this happen. I’m sure you’ve seen all the research on the positive effect of meditation. It is truly the number one tool revitalize, support, and strengthen the nervous system. It also helps you become less reactive which is helpful in shifting the habit loop triggers tied in to so many of your negative response tools like smoking, drinking, emotional eating or other self-destructive behaviors.
I find the best way to stick with meditation is to get involved in a tradition like Vipassana, Transcendental or Mindfulness. This is because there is ongoing support. I have personally done all three and favor Vipassana but it is a rigorous practice that may not be the right starting point for you. The apps help you keep up, but find a good teacher to get started. Then commit to a daily practice. Start with 10 minutes and build from there but keep it consistent.
Make the investment in time and money – it’s worth it!
#4. Consciously Breathe Slowly
The stress response in the nervous system is countered by the relaxation response which is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system. I often talk to my clients about “down shifting” their stress by simply taking five minutes to slow the breath down and breathing through the nose. Simply slowing the breath down to a rate of about 3.5 seconds per inhale and exhale will shift you into a space of relaxation.
Though there are many types of breath exercises or pranayama, it doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated to be effective. In fact, I find this basic breath pattern to be one of the most effective for calming the nervous system.
- Sit in a comfortable position with the spine and head straight.
- Close the eyes and begin to breath through the nostrils, counting to a rate of about 4 seconds for the inhale and exhale.
- Try to make each part the same count but don’t strain. If you need to start with 3 seconds, honor that then build as the body is ready.
- Follow the breath with your mind, with the inhale beginning in the belly and floating up to the chest. Then release the breath in reverse, feeling it moving from the upper chest, down through the ribs and out the belly (you can even pull in the belly slightly at the end of the exhale).
- Continue this for at least five minutes every day.
- Then when you are in a stressful situation, begin to take a couple of these deep breaths and it will remind your body to flow back into the space of relaxation.
#5. Shift Time From Electronics To More Time in Nature
In Ayurveda, there is a term called ojas which is directly connected to your immune system and vitality on both a physical and mental level. While there are also certain foods and herbs that promote ojas, getting yourself outside and spending time in nature is a fabulous way to increase ojas and counter some of the excess running around and busyness of life.
I mentioned earlier that vata governs the nervous system. Vata is negatively affected by too much physical and mental activity and this includes the fast moving electronic stimuli that accompanies so much of people’s work and recreation today. Electronics aren’t going to go away, but make a conscious choice to swap 30-60 minutes a day into being in nature with a walk in the woods, skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or whatever else excites you. Pair these with evening breaks with meditation and conscious breathing and you will be well on your way to a more peaceful mind and calm system.
#6. Give Yourself A Daily Massage
Giving yourself a daily massage with oil, usually before bathing but it can also be done afterwards, soothes not only the nervous system but also promotes the flow of lymph and supports the skin microbiome (microbes that live on your skin) through the herbs in the recommended oils. Through the nerve endings in the skin, the massage creates a positive sensory and emotional experience, transmitting messages of calm and love. This massage, called abhyanga in Sanskrit, literally translates as “loving hands”.
A good basic oil for most bodytypes is refined sesame or almond oil if the sesame feels too warming. Consult with your practitioner for what oil best serves your core nature as well as your current wellness needs.
See this article for further instructions on how do to a self massage.
#7. Adjust Your Sleep-Wake Cycles Earlier
Before the advent of electricity, sleeping and waking happened naturally around the light cycles of day and night. People woke early and retired early and this fits Ayurveda’s perspective as well. It is best to go to sleep during the kapha part of evening which is 6-10 pm. 10 pm is the critical number here. Once you cross over, you shift into the pitta time of the evening cycle which starts your inner fire up. If you are in bed, this fire supports the healthy processing of the day in the liver and emotional heart. If you are still up, you often get a second burst of energy. You may get great things done, but you do so at a cost to your own rejuvenation and can often have a harder time going to sleep or sleeping well.
Likewise, waking around the time the sun comes up (6-7 am depending on the time of year) is ideal. This is during the morning vata time when the light energies naturally help you rise easily. If you sleep later, you go into the kapha morning time which has a heavier energy that can leave you feeling comatose-like and sluggish.
Getting enough sleep is vital – at good 7-8 hour each night is important for cleansing and rejuvenation – but when you sleep is also key.
©2016, Jamie Durner, Ayurvedic Practitioner and Certified Life Coach at Abundant You Coaching