When I share Ayurveda with people who have no prior experience of this 5,000 year old science, I begin by saying that Ayurveda is a practice of noticing. We learn to notice the qualities in our environment such as temperature or humidity. Is the wind blowing or is the air still? We learn to appreciate how nature and our bodies change with each season of the year and each season of life. We become aware of how different times of the day may affect our energy levels and digestion. Ayurveda asks us to notice how different foods either support or diminish our vitality. We reflect on our lifestyles; are you taking time to care for yourself with compassion or are your hours filled with a task list of never ending things to do? This reflection helps us to decide what changes may be necessary to bring greater balance to life.
Ayurveda can be a very important practice to use to cultivate resiliency and to create a connection with self that is lost due to trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, Medical Director of the Trauma Center at JRI in Brookline, MA states that “[people with trauma] have a very cut-off relationship to their body. They may not feel what is happening in their bodies. They may not register what goes on with them.” He also speaks about resilience. The American Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. In Bessel’s words, “What makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.”
We know that trauma dysregulates the interoceptive pathways of our brain. These pathways allow us to sense the physiological or visceral condition of our body. Are we hungry? Are we cold? Are our muscles engaging or releasing? Ayurveda can help to strengthen these pathways by turning our focus back to our body. Self-reflection can be strengthened with the addition of the sister-practice of Yoga, done in a trauma informed way. In time, restoring a sense of self may allow a person to be less reactive to what is happening outside as the boundaries between external events and internal awareness are strengthened.
Ayurveda views trauma as a disturbance of the Vata dosha. Doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) are biological energies found throughout the human body and mind. We are born with a certain constitution and combination of doshas. Life experiences can also elevate the traits of any one of these doshas. Vata is characterized by movement and is comprised of the elements of air and ether. When a person experiences trauma, vata increases and with it comes a sense of erratic movement, coldness, constriction, dryness, loss of creativity, anxiety and fear. Ayurveda offers a number of ways to counteract the effects of trauma and to create more grounding and less movement.
To reduce Vata energy, eat food that is cooked, moist and warm. Eliminate raw foods, remove ice from your diet and consider soups, stews and foods that include a bit more oil. How you eat is as important as what you eat. Create time for meals where you can sit down and focus your attention just on your food. If you like to cook, use this as a time to nurture yourself. Consider making yourself a cup of hot milk with spices in the evening before bed. You can add a bit of turmeric, nutmeg and maple syrup if you like. You can substitute almond or coconut milk for raw milk in this recipe.
Vata is pacified by moving in slow and mindful ways. Taking a moderately paced walk where you notice your feet touching the ground can be very supportive. Yoga done in a self-aware and respectful way is also a good choice. If you have a regular running practice, consider slowing down a bit or interspersing walking with running. Tai Chi can also be a wonderful way to allow for mindful movement.
Vata responds well to creating rhythm and routine. Look at the flow of your day and see if you might create structure. Rising between 5:00 and 7:00 am supports your inherent energy. Meal times can be planned and a regular pattern established. Bedtime is ideally by 10:00 pm. Consider adding a sense of ritual to your day. Perhaps you cultivate a morning practice of sipping tea, writing in your journal or practicing yoga. You may find that a bedtime routine of self-care and reflection helps you to settle in for the night.
Ayurveda has a practice of self-oil massage called Abhyanga. Using warm oil to massage your feet and head or perhaps your entire body has a way of calming your nervous system and providing self-love. The rhythmic movement allows the erratic vata energy to be pacified. Different oils have different qualities and so you may change oil with the season or with your sense of well-being.
Ayurveda offers a lens through which we see the world and is also a tool to help restore balance and awareness. Peter Levine, author of many trauma related books, offers the following thought. “Resilient strength is the opposite of helplessness. The tree is made strong and resilient by its grounded root system.” Ayurveda may offer you a way to restore your relationship with self and allow for grounding to occur.