Q & A with Ayurveda Expert Dr. Vasant Lad
Dr. Vasant Lad, M.A.Sc., is one of the world's foremost experts in Ayurveda. He holds a Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine & Surgery (B.A.M.S.), a Master of Ayurvedic Science (M.A.Sc.) and his academic and practical training includes the study of allopathic medicine (Western Medicine). In the U.S., he is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the Ayurvedic Institute, which he founded in 1984. Vasant Lad is the author of numerous books and respected throughout the world for his knowledge of Ayurveda.
MBG: How did you start practicing Ayurveda and what made you want to learn about it?
VL: When I was a kid back in the 50's my grandmother got very sick. We were very close and it was painful for me to see her so sick. She had a Nephrotic Syndrome with high blood pressure and swelling. The doctor at the local hospital was not even able to feel her pulse due to swelling. There were no powerful antibiotics or diuretics at that time and we were told that there was no way to help her. Reluctant to give up, my father called an Ayurvedic doctor, who made a special formula for my grandmother. He gave me precise instructions that I had to follow to prepare a daily ayurvedic concoction for her. Using 7 different herbs, carefully measuring their correct proportions, I would boil them down into a thick brew to give to my grandmother. Miraculously, in three weeks grandmother's swelling was gone, blood pressure was back to normal and kidney function improved. My grandmother happily lived until 95 and an old ayurvedic doctor who had me making the daily concoction told my father to send me to an Ayurvedic Medicine school. Here I am now.
Do you think a person has to be sick to introduce Ayurveda into their lifestyle?
Definitely, no. Ayurveda is useful for everyone because the main objective of Ayurveda is to preserve and maintain health. Those who are healthy will benefit from ayurveda by becoming stronger and having more energy; while those who are sick will be able to bring back their health in a natural way.
Ayurveda says that a poor digestion is the root cause of many diseases. However, modern doctors rarely ask about diet and digestion. Why is digestion so important in ayurveda?
Ayurveda talks a great deal about digestion and Agni. Agni means gastric fire, enzymes, and metabolism. A healthy strong Agni is really important for maintaining health. If Agni is low, then food will not be digested properly and undigested food will create toxic morbid metabolic waste. Undigested waste products create AMA - an ayurvedic term for toxins. According to ayurveda, Ama is the root cause of all disease. Ama is very sticky by nature and clogs up internal channels in the body. Toxins accumulated in the body weaken the immune system and we become vulnerable to infections; they adversely effect our digestion and eventually can lead to serious neurological problems. As you can see, low digestive fire (agni) and excess production of toxins in the body is the main reason that we get sick according to ayurveda. Ayurveda put a great emphasis on maintaining a healthy efficient digestion and elimination.
Some people say that our body naturally knows what it needs to be healthy and we just need to learn how to listen to it. What if someone hears only a constant craving for a chocolate cake?
To understand whether craving is healthy or not, one should be familiar with the Prakruti-Vikruti paradigm. According to Ayurveda, every person has a unique constitution called Prakriti – Vata, Pitta, Kapha. Prakriti is similar to a genetic code - you are born with it. However, during lifetime Prakriti has a tendency to change depending on the diet, age, lifestyle, job, environment and seasonal influences. External and internal influences produce an altered state of the constitution that is called Vikruti. Vikruti can create imbalance and lead to disease. Ayurveda says that a person should know his original constitution and take appropriate measures to keep it in balance.
Suppose my Vata is out of balance, then my body will crave hot spicy and oily foods. This is a healthy craving as the body is trying to create a natural balance for a dry and cold Vata. If Pitta is high then one will crave sweet and bitter tastes, which help to cool down fiery Pitta. And if Kapha is high, a person will crave something hot and spicy.
Understanding Prakriti and Vikruti paradigm allows to become fluent in the language of our own body and understand the origin of cravings. When the Vikruti imbalance is present, a person is more like to experience unhealthy cravings. Suppose a person has an excess of Kapha in the system and toxins are accumulated in the body. Over time accumulated Kapha will influence a person's nervous system and intelligence. As a result, a person with a Kapha imbalance who experiences weight gain, frequent colds, congestion, and cough will crave for ice cream, cheese, or yogurt. This craving is unhealthy and will lead only to more imbalance. Knowing you inborn constitution (Prakriti) and understanding your present state (Vikruti) will allow you to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy cravings. Our body knows how to create a perfect balance but we need to learn body’s language first to understand it.
Lately, there was a huge boom of energy drinks that are flooding supermarket shelves. Modern day people seem to be perpetually tired and the energy drinks are flying off the shelves. Is there a natural Ayurvedic energy drink?
In Ayurveda, a perfect energy drink should stimulate Agni (internal fire), improve digestion, and nutrient absorption. There are several energy boosting ayurvedic recipes. For someone with a chronic fatigue, a date shake would be very helpful. (Recipe: soak 3 fresh dates, remove the seed, blend with 1 cup of water, a pinch of ginger and cardamom.) One cup of a date shake will provide a lot of healthy energy. Similarly, almond milk is very nourishing and gives good energy. (Recipe: Soak 10 almonds and blend them with 1 cup of milk or water.) These 2 are wonderful Ayurvedic energy drinks. They are sattvic, pure, and natural. They give vigor, vitality, and a boost of energy.
You’re known to say that a good Ayurveda practitioner should understand and practice yoga and that a Yogi should be familiar with Ayurveda. Why?
Ayurveda and yoga, both are very ancient healing systems that originated in India. Both have roots in Vedic philosophy and help to achieve a wholesome happy life. Yoga is a union of the lower self with the higher self. The goals of Yoga and Ayurveda are the same; Dharma, Hatha, Karma and Moksha. Dharma means righteous duty. Hatha means monetary success. Karma means fulfillment of positive desire. And Moksha means enlightenment, realization, self realization.
In order to achieve all four pillars of light, a person must have a healthy body, mind, prana, and consciousness. These can be achieved by combining Ayurveda and yoga. Ayurveda and yoga are concurrent and inherent healing systems. Yoga heals through asana, pranayama and meditation. Ayurveda heals through panchakarma, rejuvenation, herbs, and proper diet and lifestyle regimen. That is why a Yogi who doesn’t know Ayurveda, he is a half Yogi and Ayurvedic physician who doesn’t know yoga, he’s a half physician. Ayurveda and yoga go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin.
Summer is here. What are can we do to stay balanced and healthy during the summer season? What are some "do’s" and "dont’s" for the summer?
Summer is a Pitta season. The sun is hot and it is important to stay cool both internally and externally. Coconut oil is very cooling - you can apply it on skin as a light protecting moisturizer in the summer. Coconut water is a great cooling drink that will help you stay hydrated. I like to rub coconut oil on the soles of my feet and scalp during the summer and always stay away from a prolonged exposure to the sunlight. By helping your body and mind to stay cool you can help balance your pitta during summer season. Don’t wear very dark, black clothes. Put on white clothes so that they will reflect the light and they will not heat your body.
Some dietitians advise to eat small meals every 2-3 hours to keep metabolism high and to prevent blood sugar from plummeting. Ayurveda says that snacking is not healthy and advises to stick to 3 complete meals a day. Why is snacking bad according to Ayurveda?
The reason is very simple. For example if you are cooking kicheri (Basmati rice and lentils), you take some rice, lentils, and put them in the water to boil. But then instead of letting kicheri cook, as soon as the water starts boiling you add more rice and more lentils, and then again in 5 minutes you add more raw ingredients. If you keep doing this over and over again, kicheri will never be cooked. It is a good analogy to think about when we think about digestion - our internal cooking. Agni ( gastric fire) has to be strong to digest food. Three meals a day: a light breakfast, lunch as the main meal; and a light dinner allow for an easy digestion process. Constant munching might lead to overload on the digestive fire (agni) and slow it down. As a result, the food will not be digested properly and you will get a heavy bloated feeling in the stomach.
People who’s digestion is overtaxed often have a white buttery coating on the tongue. It is a sign of toxins in the body. Another sign is unclear foggy mind and bad breath. Ayurveda says that constant munching builds up toxins (AMA) in the body. Eating before a prior meal is digested will slow down Agni, weaken metabolism, and will lead to weight gain. This why Ayurveda says that three meals a day is ideal for a healthy digestion and proper assimilation of nutrients. This Ayurvedic approach to diet and lifestyle is very basic but it creates radical and profound changes in the body, mind and consciousness.
You look very fresh and full of energy. What is your secret to longevity and youthfulness?
I’m a very serious student of ayurveda and yoga. I follow what ayurveda teaches. I do regular yoga, meditation, pranayama and I eat only two meals a day. I don’t eat breakfast, just lunch and dinner and nothing in between. In the evening I eat a little bit of kicheri or some vegetable curry. Pranayama, meditation and yoga are very important to preserve energy into the old age. It gives vigor, vitality, strength and youthfulness.
Is it okay to skip breakfast if you’re not hungry?
If you’re not hungry then you can skip breakfast. You should eat breakfast only if hungry. I’m not used to eating breakfast. I like only lunch and dinner. In the morning I just take my regular chai, that’s all.
You said that you practice yoga regularly. What are the five best asanas that one should practice to stay healthy?
Ayurveda talks a great deal about hatha yoga and prescribes different asanas according to Prakriti and Vikruti (personal constitution). Vata types should practice camel, cobra, and cow. Boat, bow, bridge, and fish poses are good for Pitta. Lotus, locust, lion and palm tree is good for Kapha. Surya Namaskar, sun salutation, is tridoshic and can be practiced by anyone. You should do 25 sun salutations and then several asanas that are good for your specific dosha. Pitta people can do moon salutation, which is little gentler and help to keep Pitta under control. Kapha types should do vigorous Sun Salutations and then practice their appropriate asanas at the end. Yoga practiced in this way becomes therapeutic and can be used to balance one’s dosha. Yoga helps to maintain balance. Balance between body, mind, and consciousness unfolds real inner happiness.
What do you think is true happiness and how is it achieved? There are so many people who take anti-depressants and don’t seem to get better. How do people achieve true happiness according to Ayurveda?
True happiness is your being, your existence, your life. To become happy you need nothing. If our happiness depends on a substance, a thing, a drug then it is not a real happiness. When you look at a beautiful sunrise, sunset, lonely light on the water, beautiful bird in the sky, a marvelously beautiful face of a woman or a child, or a flower dancing with the wind – at this moment of beauty, at this moment of ecstasy, you get absorbed and truly connected with the world. At that moment true happiness is unfolded in your heart. That happiness is beauty. That happiness is love. That happiness is awareness. Happiness doesn’t depend upon drug. It doesn’t depend upon money. When you have clarity and compassion in your relationship – that is happiness.