AHARA and VIHARA.
What we take in, and what we put out.
These concepts have fascinated me as of late, as I ponder why it is that I feel so sensitive sometimes. Whether it’s seeing a commercial on TV that makes me cry, or hearing the words of a friend that turn my whole day around, for better or worse, I wonder how it is that we humans are able to function in this world that’s bombarding us with input.
Let’s start off by addressing the elephant in the room: oh yeah, there’s a global pandemic going on! So feeling extra-sensitive makes total sense. But even “pre-panda” (as I heard it called on the Joe Rogan podcast), I was already feeling more withdrawn. The distractions of TV no longer felt comforting, and I decided to simply stop watching after noticing myself feeling vapid and lonely whenever I’d indulge in a couple episodes of a Netflix show. I first noticed this shift arising about 3 years ago, after my sister passed away suddenly; then shortly after, a long-term romantic relationship (and the plan of a secure household life) was cut off in an instant. After these traumas– that felt like being hit by a truck within my body–, I suddenly had no bandwidth to absorb excess outer stimulus. Seeing characters on a show undergoing their own traumas felt deeply heartbreaking, as if it were I or someone close to me going through the drama.
Letting go of watching TV happened without resistance (perhaps because I had so often watched it with my sister or with my ex, that watching TV alone just reminded me of their absence). Yet I still found a way to fill the void within myself. Instead, for entertainment and a sense of connection, I began diving into activism-centered podcasts. Not saying that there’s anything wrong with tuning into any form of media… but in my case, the information influx was penetrating straight into my already-broken heart, and I found myself overwhelmed by the injustices— not just in my personal life, but also social and environmental— and desperately needing an outlet for processing. Whether on the phone with my parents, or with co-workers who may or may not have felt equipped to bear witness to my grief, I was unloading diatribes and tears left and right. (At one point my mother suggested, “Maybe you shouldn’t listen to all these podcasts about the environment if they’re making you so upset?” And another time, during an emotional spiel about my concerns for the Alaskan wild salmon population, my coworker looked straight into my eyes, and put in his headphones). Rather than facing the grief I was feeling at the loss of my sister and lover, I was directing my energy toward environmental concerns— and just piling grief on top of grief. I didn’t know what action to take, other than to talk about it with other people and express my sense of helplessness. But just talking about my distress was not solving anything; sometimes talking about something, actually, causes it to solidify even more into our cerebral story and our body’s held trauma.
The saving grace, for me, was finding restorative yoga. Across the street from the bakery where I was working was an Iyengar Yoga studio— housing a style of yoga that encourages the use of props, and demands a high level of study for all it’s certified teachers. The teacher and studio owner, Tricia, passionately and compassionately helped me address my state of grief that was emerging in the form of anxiety and depression. “Yoga,” in my life, began to entail a lot of laying over bolsters, surrendering into supported backbends, opening my heart and lungs for 10-20 minutes before shifting into a new supportive position for another 10-20 minutes. This was quite a shift for me away from the fast-and-hot nature of power/vinyasa yoga that I’d taught and sought for the previous 10 years. Then, I began joining their pranayama (breathwork) classes, and noticed an incredible difference in my state of mind. Agitations were calmed. The tightness from the chest-punch of grief was softened. No longer did I feel like crying on my drive home from work, sucked into the depths of worry about the future. I felt more grounded, centered, and capable.
In Ayurveda, fear and anxiety are imbalances of vata dosha. Vata is comprised of the elements of space and air; emotions are connected to the space element, and air, of course, is connected to breath. So, you guessed it, one of the most effective ways to bring this dosha back into balance— and thus, manage the swirling of emotions— is through breathwork.
I share this personal story of mine to reveal how capable we humans are of bringing ourselves back to our center. Yoga and Ayurveda are complementary sciences that give us countless tools to create daily routines that are in support of vibrant health. Often these tools are simple, yet surprisingly difficult to incorporate because of ingrained habits and societal expectations. But by learning what these tools are, and understanding just how they benefit us on a fundamental, elemental level, we may become inspired to actually create lasting changes that will benefit us and support us for the rest of our lives.
So, where are these mental and physical disturbances stemming from? What is entering into our field that’s creating disturbance? And how can we manage it?
In Ayurveda, the terms to describe “what we take in” and “what we process/digest/output” are ahara and vihara.
Through our senses, information flows in— smells, sounds, sights, tastes, touches. How we are able to digest/process/assimilate all of this input directly affects our wellbeing. It’s intuitive, really: if I eat something and it doesn’t digest well, then I will experience discomfort, and my body will signal to me that I need to make changes in order to function optimally. The problems arise if/when we become desensitized to our body’s signals, or the signals we continually receive become commonplace, and we just accept our discomfort as part of being human.
These days, SO much sensory input is being ingested. We see countless cases in Ayurveda class with clients who exhibit dulled sensitivity— revealing how our minds and bodies become disconnected from each other in order to survive (otherwise, our nervous systems would be in a perpetual sympathetic state, the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode). When we DO tune into the discomfort we’re experiencing, it is quite typical to look for quick-fix solutions— like taking a pill to alleviate a symptom, or reaching for the coffee or alcohol— rather than considering and addressing the root of the discomfort. Modern society is experiencing what one could call “information overload,” with little guidance or tools for metabolizing it. And what does this chronic info-overload look like? Stress; fatigue; weight fluctuations; skin disorders; organ problems… Sound familiar?
When we “take in” negative sensory input, when we are unable to process food/thoughts/feelings, when we over-saturate ourselves, then the elemental balance of our being becomes like a ship on the swell of stormy seas. Our health is at the whim of the inner elements as they push and pull on our physiology and psychology. Prolonged disturbance of the inner elements leads to what we call doshas in Ayurveda (there are 3, called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, correlating to air/ether, fire/water, and water/earth).
The good news is, by understanding AHARA and VIHARA, we have the power to become the creators of our existence. We have control of both the ocean and the ship— we have the capacity to calm the rocky waters, and we have the capacity to construct a swift, sturdy sailing vessel. So, let’s examine how we can wield our power to address these vital factors of our wellness:
What constitutes AHARA?
This encompasses everything we take in with our senses. That’s a whole lot of stuff coming in through our mouth, eyes, ears, nose, and skin! So let’s focus on the most impactful, positive things we can begin exploring on a regular basis in consideration of well-regulated ahara:
What we eat, and how we eat it, is one of the best indicators of our health. Because most of us eat at least 3 times a day, and the act of eating/digesting food is so visceral and intimate, it makes sense that we would be so impacted by our choices in this arena. “You are what you eat” is a common cliche for a reason.
It’s not only WHAT you eat, but also HOW you eat. In my own life, from working many years in the service industry, I’ve developed a habit of eating while standing. There’s a sense of, “I don’t have time to sit down!”, which I’m consciously striving to unravel, even now that I’m spending most of my time at home, alone. So here I am, in my kitchen, in no real rush at all, nibbling food out of the pot as it’s cooking— and burning my mouth while I’m at it— while also listening to a podcast about anti-racism or climate change. *EEEGH!*. This is not the Ayurvedic way. I have to admit, the exhilaration and adrenaline is a bit addicting— why else would I be doing this? But creating an unnecessary illusion of busy-ness, and listening to something that is anything less than calming while eating a meal, only serves to up my stress hormones and reduce my body’s capacity for efficient digestion— not only of the food I’m eating, but also of the emotions I’m feeling.
“Impressions” encompasses many things, including: conversations; media; music; books; environmental sounds; dreams.
My Ayurveda teacher tells us, “When you’re around an enlightened being, the conversation always turns toward the divine.” I remember this often when I have to gently steer myself away from complaining about the weather, or wallowing in self-pity after a seemingly crumby day, or the real doozie: during political conversation. I’ll say it now: we will stumble in this pursuit of positive conversation. Remember, we’re only human; our reptilian brains tug us toward fear and doubt. And yet, we must remain diligent! We shall strive to uplift our state of mind by consciously choosing the content we consume!— whether in the form of television, social media, books, or music. It takes discipline to turn away from the grotesque, to change the channel when our intuition nudges us, asking, “Hmm, do you think this is deepening your connection to your highest well-being?” But once you spend a few quiet evenings sitting in candlelight instead of watching the latest Netflix binger, the fruits of your efforts may be so sweet that you’ll want to keep going.
Earth, air, fire, water, ether. How are we interacting with these forces of nature in our surroundings? Do we find time to put our bare feet on the grass? Breathe fresh air? How’s the weather where you are?
We all know the healing qualities of taking a warm bath, or letting the sun soak into our skin (FYI, best to aim for sunbathing in the morning or late afternoon, 15-20 minutes without sunscreen!) The elements can support our well-being, but we must also consider how excess of an element impacts us. Think of those long stretches of chilled rainy days, or the effect of being outside in extreme heat or wind; just as too much air creates dryness, and too much rain dampens the fire, so, too, can the elements affect our inner landscape. Too much spicy food? Burning, drying! Too much cold, wet food? The digestive fire is squelched! One beautiful thing about Ayurveda is how clear the answers are when we ponder the effects of elements in and on the body. There’s a concept, “Like increases like.” So if you’re feeling excessively hot and dry, or have symptoms of inflammation or redness— you know to reduce your intake of anything that’s heating. But if one were to ignore those signals and continue to eat spicy food/ take hot showers/ exercise in the sun, this will lead to dosha, or imbalance, and eventually, disease, within the body.
What are your daily routines and habits? There’s a quote I love (and I don’t know who to credit) that goes something like this: “What you do in a day is how you spend your week; how you spend your week is how you live your month; how you live your month is how you spend your year; how you spend your years is how you live your life.” This reminds us that life is fractal— dissect a day into the little moments, and you’ll get a sense of what it looks like when you expand out to view the big picture.
In Ayurveda, we begin to look at our daily activities as opportunities to create sacred ritual. Waking up, eating, spending time with friends, bathing, resting, going to bed… these are all opportunities to practice deeper presence, awareness, gratitude, and recognition of the miracle of being alive. Imagine how it would feel if meal time were treated as a sacred practice of connecting with the divine. Saying blessings, breathing (pranayama), sitting in silence or listening to relaxing music, chanting (mantras), or positive conversation (satsanga), and contemplating the beautifully interconnected and complex quality of the food you are now ingesting to become part of your body. Wow, right!? Apply this also to bathing, and other daily activities, and life becomes an interplay of beautiful ceremony.
Now what about VIHARA?
How do we assimilate, synthesize, digest, metabolize, process, cleanse, move, transform?
In Ayurveda, it is said that all disease must be addressed through proper regulation of agni, or digestive fire. Agni extends beyond the digestion of food in the stomach (jatharagni), and encompasses the metabolizing abilities of the 5 elements (mahabhutas) and the 7 tissues (dhatus), which are the lymph, blood, fat, muscle, bone, nerves/marrow, and reproductive fluids. This gives you an idea of how important agni is for the entire body!
For everyday maintenance, we first and foremost must kindle the fire of digestion within the stomach. Doing so will lead to proper elimination of waste through the malas (urine, feces, and sweat). These are a clear example of vihara in action! Eliminating solid waste at least once a day, especially in the morning, is an indicator of healthy agni. Ways to manage this vary according to your individual constitution, but as a general rule, here are a few guidelines for maintaining healthy agni:
- Sip warm water throughout the day. (Avoid cold drinks— especially with meals! This stifles the digestive fire.). Add ginger and lemon for extra digestive support.
- Cook your food, using healthy oils like ghee, coconut, or sesame, and use digestive-supporting spices like ginger, turmeric, cumin, coriander, and fennel (chosen according to the dosha you’re aiming to balance.)
- Eat meals at regular times. Allow 3 hours after dinner before going to bed.
- Have your largest meal mid-day, when the sun is the strongest (and so is our digestion!)
- Allow yourself to be in a calm state of mind while eating.
And this leads us to our next approach to healthy vihara…
It may sound like a luxury, but human beings have the right to have regular time and space for some PEACE and QUIET. It is essential for our wellbeing to have an opportunity to rejuvenate. To process. To go inward.
In ashtanga yoga, the 5th limb of practice is “pratyahara”— which means, drawing the senses inward. Our modern lives demand our constant outward attention, whether it’s driving a car, tending to a relationship, preparing a meal, or catching up on the latest media outburst. THis is just a relatively recent phenomena in human existence. In the scope of 50,000 years of our species, it is just a blip of time that we’ve been bombarded with such a fast-paced life of automobiles, cell phones, TV, etc. etc. Believe it, our nervous systems are begging for some refuge. It’s no wonder anxiety/depression/drug addiction (including caffeine) are rampant in this modern world, when in the recent past such conditions were almost non-existent.
I ram this point home as a way to emphasize the necessity for us to create time and space to do “nothing.” Plan a retreat if you can. Otherwise, at least a few minutes a day—preferably more— sit yourself on a comfy cushion; light a candle; burn some incense; recite a mantra; focus on your breath. Listen inward.
You don’t have to “do” anything, yet stuck energy will begin to transform. Deeper insight into yourself will reveal what needs tending, and your calm attention will allow things to emerge, unravel, repattern.
The intelligence of the cosmos lives within us, and all around us, and can be seen exemplified so beautifully in the form of plants and animals. Putting our bare feet on the earth, even for just a few minutes a day, can help us process stuck energy and emotions. It’s like completing an energy circuit. Amazingly, in this modern world, we can go days without touching the earth with our skin, without even realizing we’re missing that connection. If you’re feeling your emotions start to spin out or spiral down, try putting your body on the grass, or dipping into the water, or hugging a tree— and see if you don’t experience some energetic shifts. Just try it.
Every doctor or health magazine you’ve ever read will tell you the importance of exercise. So this isn’t news to us! Other than the “cardio” benefits, more relevant in this case is the by-product of sweating. This is a major way our body releases toxins, thus supporting functional vihara in your vessel. And “exercise” doesn’t mean you have to run 5 miles or burn your muscles for hour(s) a day— it can mean some gardening, walking, gentle yoga, just for 15-30 minutes (especially in the morning hours before it gets too hot outside, and during the kapha hours between 6-10am, when sluggishness tends to accumulate).
For those of you who groan when you’re told to exercise, you’re in luck! The benefits of sweating can also be achieved without sustained movement. You can spend time in a sauna or steam room (be mindful of your dosha and choose accordingly! I.e., fiery/pitta people should avoid dry heat). Or, take a bath/ steamy shower!
Ayurveda teaches a cleansing technique called ABHYANGA, which involves rubbing the body with herbal oil to promote circulation and also to encourage sweating. You can choose an oil according to your dosha, and apply it before bathing/steaming/exercising to both promote more sweat and also to allow your skin to absorb all the nutrients in the oil. My Ayurveda teacher says, “Other than diet, combining body oiling with sweat therapy is the best preventative measure we can do for our health.”
So we’ve explored how to help the body unload, but what about the brain? What wants to come out?
Grab a pen and paper and let the thoughts flow. A journal can be like your own private talk-therapist. Or, if you’re an artist, you well know the benefits of colors, shapes, and textures on relieving our psyches. If you don’t consider yourself creative, think again! Everything we do in life is an act of creativity. Whether it’s preparing food, forming relationships, decorating our bedrooms, getting dressed in the morning— these are all acts of self-expression and creativity. Well-intentioned outward expression is a potent way to process both conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings.
I would also suggest that offering service to others is a creative act. By helping those around us, we are creating a better world, right before our eyes. What better way to alchemize our undigested emotions than to transform that energy into acts of service? From helping a neighbor to picking up some trash along the sidewalk, I’m sure you can imagine many ways to make the world around you more beautiful…
In exploring AHARA and VIHARA— what we take in, and how we release— we can see how these concepts apply to our lives, moment to moment. When we remember that everything we take in with our senses must be processed, this is motivation for us to really consider, to mindfully pause, before as we eat, watch, listen, absorb. And although we can’t always exist in a peaceful environment, the magic of our minds and bodies is that we are incredibly resilient and capable of adapting. So we needn’t stress ourselves out by obsessively eliminating anything that is less than “perfect.” And as we practice more and more tuning into our bodies and minds, finding that quiet time to inwardly retreat on a regular basis— we can hear our inner voice letting us know when it’s time for a long nature walk, a good bath, or a little extra sweat equity to balance our intake and output. The beauty of this wisdom of Ayurveda is that it empowers us to heal ourselves. The lifestyle shifts require determination, and are an exercise of our willpower and self-control, but the rewards are priceless: more vitality, greater joy, and exuberant health.
You’ve got this!