Picture it: you sit on your mat, intent to get through your yoga practice, and before you get to your first downward dog, you're off -- chasing the dust bunnies from under the couch, glancing through the day's mail, feeding your cat -- indulging in distractions, seemingly unable to sit still.
Yep. It’s vata season. In ayurveda, sometimes referred to as a sister science to yoga, or the science of life, the elements of air and space combine to create vata. And in the ayurvedic calendar, autumn is when these elements elevate in our external environment (think wind, dryness, crackling leaves) and, as a result, in our minds and bodies as well.
Case in point: I was making a 4-hour drive home from wrapping up teaching a vata-pacifying yoga workshop in a nearby state. Filled with reflections of the workshop: the satisfied practitioners, the solid turnout, the joyful effort, I couldn’t settle into what had been a job well done.
This reflects a classic high-vata symptom, where we are virtually hovering above our physical bodies, too anxious, nervous or just plain flighty to connect to our ground of being, to our root. Even as I arrived at home, hoping to settle my nerves after vata-aggravating travel (it nearly always is), and in doing all I know how to do to settle those pesky air and space elements and bring them into balance, I still had two sleepless nights. What’s more, I felt the symptoms of a low-level panic attack as I tried to go about my days after returning. Sensations of hot/cold, pins and needles, and difficulty concentrating plagued me. The irony of these vata aggravations, brought on by an exertion to teach others how to guard against these very imbalances was not lost on me. Not that it made me feel any better.
Eventually the symptoms lessened. Nonetheless, as a person with a good deal of air and space in her constitution, these signs of fall are never far away for me, and a great many others, this time of year. Here are a few practical things you can do to settle vata back down to balance. First, though, a little ayurvedic primer…
What is ayurveda?
Ayurveda views the world (e.g. our bodies, minds, emotions, interactions; the physical world; everything) as made up of a combination of five primary elements: fire, water, earth, air and space (sometimes called ether).
As individuals, we all have a unique constellation of these elements. The ones we have in the greatest abundance (typically two of the five) constitute our dosha. A dosha simply represents the elements that are most likely to go out of whack, as they already exist in excess, even in one’s natural state.
Ayurveda operates on the principle of like increasing like. So, if you have more air and space (vata) in your constitution, the time of year when those elements are elevated in your external environment (autumn and early winter) poses a particular challenge. Other doshas are pitta (fire, mediated by water) and kapha (earth, mediated by water). Pitta corresponds to the summer; kapha is elevated in late winter spring.
How do I know if vata is high in my mind or body?
Regardless of your doshic type, any element can be thrown out of balance by season, lifestyle, diet, movement (exercise), and life events–virtually any variable you can think of. What this means is that balancing vata in fall is likely a worthwhile practice for most of us. Nonetheless, the following are symptoms vata is too high:
In the mind: nervousness, anxiety, inability to concentrate or finish a task, insomnia and excessive speech (think: talking on the phone beyond the point where you are really saying anything).
In the body: constipation, cracking joints, stiffness, pain (pain cannot exist without vata), dryness of membranes (eyes, nose; also skin), lack of appetite, superfluous movement (think: constant gestures even when not necessary or tapping one’s foot).
What to do?
Fortunately, ayurveda provides lots of great tools to bring vata into balance and make life more tolerable. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss out on the bounties the season provides! Think: apple pies, jumping in piles of leaves, carving pumpkins, so much. We just have to settle down enough to enjoy it. Here’s how:
Oh how we Americans love a diet. By diet, I don’t mean a prescriptive set of foods to eat (or not eat), but a holistic plan for using your food as medicine. To calm vata, emphasize warm, cooked foods. This is not the time of year for a raw cleanse. Look at what’s in season in your area and cook those foods with plenty of high-quality oils (sesame, sunflower, grapeseed, olive and most importantly, ghee).
Imbibe comfort foods your parents cooked for you that made you feel at home. Granted, some of us (sorry, mom and dad) ate a lot of those foods out of a can–try to avoid that, and instead think of whole food casseroles, soups and baked veggies. Try to limit processed, microwaved, pre-packaged food. In our modern life, this is hard. Fresh is better than frozen, frozen is better than canned. Do your best, knowing it’s a tall order.
Drink warm water throughout the day and sip spiced (not caffeinated) teas. Caffeine will aggravate vata; use it judiciously.
Vata is pacified by heat, so create some internal heat for your self by moving more. Be mindful of the ayurvedic like increases like principle. Thus, movement that’s frenetic, jumpy, where the music is loud or the environment windy will not be helpful. Emphasize groundedness and fluidity in your movement.
If you practice yoga, avoid aggravating yourself with tricky poses or constant attempts to kick up to a handstand; avoid jumps in vinyasa practice. Instead, use fluid movement, with longer holds in poses to create heat. Use ujjayi pranayama.
Ask your self, “does your physical movement/practice make me feel more grounded?” If not, alter it.
It’s not all our fault -- our Western culture often leaves us vata-aggravated. Talking on the phone, driving (hopefully not at the same time), staring at a computer screen all leave air and space on an upward trajectory. We still need to do our jobs; ayurveda isn’t absolute, you don’t have to give up your computer. However, can you balance those things that aggravate vata with things that ground it? For example, if you work on a computer most of the day schedule in 5-10 minute respites every hour or two to do some chair yoga, get up and walk outside or even subtly notice your breath.
Vata needs a routine to find solid ground. As a freelancer, I struggle with this constantly. I’ve found scheduling your day, especially when vata is high, is incredibly helpful. Particularly if you can develop a routine that includes time to restore your resilience (by stepping outside, making tea, eating a home-cooked meal, reading, etc.) you will build up your stores so you don’t run on empty all the time.
Lest I leave you with the idea vata is gloom and doom, let me correct myself. Without air and space in balance in our minds and bodies, spiritual practice is not effective. Vata allows for creativity, spontaneity and lightness. It gives us the space to allow everything to exist, to juggle what we have to with our modern lives and not go crazy doing it. We need air and space. But often this time of year, we need a little less of it so we don’t feel like we’re losing it along the way. Give yourself a break, most importantly. Finding balance with any of the elements is a moving target. Using the tools ayurveda provides simply gives you an edge up in that fight.