There was a time when I believed that as long as I was active I could eat anything I wanted and stay healthy. I told myself this even though my energy would tank in the afternoons, I often experienced gas and bloating after meals and I carried around several extra pounds that hindered my effectiveness and my energy levels for paddling. Then I found Ayurveda, a 5000 year old health and wellness sister science to yoga, and my body, mind and life were so transformed that I decided to enroll in a year-long program to become an Ayurveda Wellness Counselor (graduate August 2016).
You can see the difference between my body before I started following Ayurveda (photo wearing orange t) and my body now (photo below in tank top). I definitely feel stronger, have way more energy (all day), digest meals more effectively and have dropped weight that wasn’t serving me. My mental state is much clearer and I feel much happier. In fact, I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in, and more confident than ever.
Ayurveda translates as ‘science of life.’ Ayur (life), Veda(science/knowledge). It’s a mind-body health and wellness system based in the elements, rhythms and qualities of nature. As human beings, we are part of nature and carry the five elements of space (hollowness in the mouth, lungs), air (breath), fire (cellular intelligence, gastric juices), water (plasma) and earth (bones) within our bodies. Each element has certain qualities: Space is clear and subtle, air is light and dry, fire is hot and sharp, water is wet and cold (in general) and earth is heavy and dense. Each element has several other qualities, these are a few examples. Ayurveda narrows down the elements in the body to three doshas or constitutional types. Vata (Space and Air), Pitta (Fire) and Kapha (Water and Earth).
Each of us is born with a particular constitution that does not change over the course of our lives, but it can become disturbed or unbalanced due to poor food and lifestyle choices. According to Ayurveda, we are healthy when dosha is in balance, and sickness and disease are caused when our dosha is out of balance (usually in excess). One way to bring dosha into balance (even if you don’t know what your dosha is yet) is to care for your digestive fire, known as agni. When you’re digestive fire is healthy, strong and steady it helps to process and eliminate excess dosha bringing our constitution back into balance. Healthy digestion also helps the tissues of the body receive the nutrients that they need for health and vitality. My teacher says we are not what we eat, we are what we digest. In this post I’m sharing with you five Ayurvedic tips that kindle healthy agni, optimizing digestion and boosting energy.
Drink Room Temperature or Warm Water
One of the best things you can do to help your digestive fire stay strong and steady is to avoid ice in your water/drinks, especially around mealtime. Just as pouring ice water onto a camp fire will put it out, drinking ice water will hinder your digestive fire’s ability to break down food into nutrients that your body can use. Instead of having a cold drink with a meal, sip on room temperature or warm water. It’s also important to not drink a lot of liquids about 20 minutes to a half hour prior to eating and 20 minutes to a half hour after eating so that you don’t dilute the gastric juices in your stomach. A small amount of warm liquid – preferably water or herbal tea – is best to enjoy with a meal.
Chew your Food Really, Really, Really Well
The stomach and small intestines are the organs that come to mind for most people when they think about digestion, but what we forget is that digestion starts in the mouth. Our saliva contains enzymes that break down starches and some that start the process of breaking down fats and proteins. Saliva is released into the mouth when we chew and the more we chew our food the more easily it breaks down and the less work the digestive tract has to do to transform, assimilate and absorb nutrients from that food. When we swallow big pieces of food that haven’t been chewed it’s like throwing a huge log onto a fire – it takes a lot more time and energy to burn a big log than it does a smaller piece of wood, and the big log may even cause the fire to diminish. We don’t want our food to stay in our digestive tract longer than it needs to because that clogs the system. Chewing slowly and mindfully also gives us a different relationship to our food. Taking the time to taste and be grateful for the food we eat creates a more joyful experience at mealtime. BTW – I don’t recommend a big Costa Rican breakfast like what Dixon has on his plate, but he is so joyful and he always takes the time to chew his food really well!
Only Eat When you’re Hungry
Our bodies come equipped with a natural intelligence that lets us know what is going on at any given moment. When we tune into and listen to that intelligence we work with our bodies to create a state of health and balance. When we tune out and go against our body’s wisdom we create imbalance that can lead to illness. Listen to your body. Ask yourself: “Am I really hungry or am I eating because I feel bored, excited, sad or am seeking comfort?” This isn’t an easy task because when we ask this question we come face-to-face with our beliefs and feelings about food, and our attachments to food. It takes courage. Get to know what being hungry or having a good appetite feels like. Wait 3 hours (at least) between meals or snacks. When we don’t give the digestive tract time to process the food from our previous meal before ingesting more food the system gets clogged, overworked and we feel heavy and lethargic. It’s important to eat only when you’re truly hungry for optimum digestion and optimum energy.
Take a Walk after Meals
Taking a walk of a couple hundred to a thousand steps after a meal stimulates digestion. Walking helps food move through the digestive system more quickly and regulates blood sugar. Two things to remember are wait at least 15 minutes after a meal before taking a walk, and walk actively, but not vigorously. There is a balance to strike between resting after a meal and incorporating gentle movement to stimulate digestion. I usually rest 15 minutes to a half hour after a meal and then take a nice walk outside. It doesn’t have to be a long walk – a couple hundred steps is better than no walking at all. If you can’t get outside then take a short walk around your building at work. If you’re on the river do the best you can to move around after lunch and before getting back into your kayak. I’ll often take a short walk up and down the shore before getting back in my boat.
Don’t Eat Past 7:30 p.m. or Less Than 2 Hours Before Bedtime
The word breakfast means to break a fast, specifically the fast between dinner the day before and the first meal of the new day. If you eat at 10 or 11 p.m. and then eat breakfast between 7 – 8 a.m. that isn’t very much of a fast. As already mentioned above, giving the digestive system time to process the previous meal before introducing new food is an important aspect of health. It takes the digestive tract 6 hours to completely digest a meal and once that meal is digested it’s nice to give the system a little rest. Night is when the system gets to slow down, but if there is a bunch of food sitting in your digestive tract when you go to bed the body doesn’t get as good of a rest. Eating dinner before 7:30 p.m. gives your body plenty of time to start the digestive process and your body feels ready to sleep without feeling too heavy or bloated.
Meditate every day even if it’s only 5 minutes
Since most of you reading this blog are paddlers I know that you’re active types and probably get some form of exercise everyday. That’s why I’m choosing to focus on meditation instead of exercise (which is also important for the digestive system). Energy and vitality are a result of effective digestion of food, but they are also a result of effective digestion of emotions and experiences in our lives. Meditation allows the mind to rest and provides quiet space for clarity to emerge. Meditation isn’t about having no thoughts, it’s about concentrating on an object like the breath until your thoughts drop away. In my experience meditating for several years now, the thoughts do drop away momentarily, but they come back. That’s ok, it’s a practice. When I sit in meditation and I realize that I’m lost in my thoughts I gently say to myself ‘thinking’ and then bring my attention back to the breath. I do this over and over and over again. It helps to sit up on a pillow and to focus on something specific about the breath like the sound, or the tips of the nostrils, or how the breath fills up the back ribs. Use a timer so that you hold yourself accountable for sitting the full 5 minutes or 10 minutes or whatever time you choose. Optimal times for meditation are early morning and right before you go to bed at night – this will help with sleep as well.
Some of these suggestions may seem really challenging for some of you. I get it. It’s not easy to make changes. It takes courage and discipline. I highly recommend trying a few of them for a few weeks and see how it feels. In my experience, once I started making changes and felt the incredible benefits it was easy to incorporate them fully into my life. I also like the idea of the 80/20 rule, meaning practice these guidelines 80% of the time and you’ll experience the benefits. Some Ayurvedic practitioners even do a 60/40 rule. As long as you follow these guidelines 60% of the time you’ll feel a difference. It’s important to have discipline and boundaries – a river wouldn’t flow if it didn’t have banks, but it’s also important to not get too rigid to where it feels like there is no joy.
If you have any questions about Ayurveda don’t hesitate to email anna @ watergirlsatplay.com or post in the comments below. If you do take on trying all or some of these guidelines for a few weeks I’d love to hear how they work for you! You may also want to check out our Winter Retreat where I’ll be sharing Ayurveda via tips and nutritious meals.