How can Ayurveda and Yoga help us optimise our health in autumn? Our writer and yogi, Tessa Hoffman chatted with Sydney-based yoga therapist and Ayurveda expert Patricia Wigley…
Health is a dynamic state of wellbeing, not just an absence of disease. Ayurveda (sometimes translated as the Science of Longevity) is the sister science to Yoga and is all about how to maintain homeostasis or regain balance in our individual constitution (dosha) for optimum health and a long, healthy life. We are then supported in our practice of yoga to fulfil our potential.
The doshas are biological principles in nature which govern all life. In Ayurveda there are three doshas: Vata (air/ether) Pitta (fire/water) and Kapha (earth/water). Each person has a unique balance of these elements, though typically one or two will dominate. Our doshas are constantly in flux and influenced by diet, lifestyle, the weather, our state of mind and emotions. A basic understanding of which dosha or doshas are dominant can help us determine the food, drinks and activities most likely to help keep us balanced.
The principle (guna) of sattva brings balance, so aim to bring sattvic qualities to your lifestyle and diet practices. Sattvic food is fresh and unprocessed and sattvic activities bring clarity and calm to the mind. This means letting go of inappropriate or excessive activities and foods which overstimulate (rajas) or create dullness or lethargy (tamas).
The Ayurvedic text the Charaka Samhita states that being in relationship with Nature, the universe and our own divine inner nature is integral to true health. From this teaching we can see the importance of aligning ourselves and responding appropriately to the rhythms of nature. The cycles of the seasons are reflected in our own internal rhythms.
What are the nature and characteristics of the season of autumn according to Ayurveda?
After the expansive heat of summer, the Vata qualities of dry and cool begin to be predominant. In early autumn as days get colder and often windy, a Vata person may say they can feel the cool change ‘in their bones’. As autumn moves towards winter the Kapha qualities of heaviness, cold and wet often become more predominant.
Because like qualities increase like, dry, cool and windy conditions can aggravate the Vata dosha especially in early autumn. The cold and wet qualities affect both Kapha and Vata (somewhat) in winter. Those with Pitta predominance may enjoy the approach of cooler days, however this is a good time for them to address any imbalances the heat of summer may have created (fire is dominant in Pitta dosha).
How do these characteristics influence the body and mind?
The change in temperature can bring imbalances including allergies, hayfever, and colds as the body throws off effects of excess heat and toxins (ama) which accumulated in summer. It is important to encourage regular daily elimination to help the body rid itself of these wastes. Triphala is a traditional Ayurveda mix of three herbs which can support digestion and aid elimination suitable for all doshic types.
Perhaps you may observe a reluctance to let go of the warmth and expansiveness of summer, that unwillingness to accept change? Check out the Meditation on Autumn below to see how the energy of this period can affect us on many subtle levels.
What foods and beverages should we consume (and avoid) in autumn, and why?
Look around and see what is available in this season. Nature provides us with an abundance of foods that our bodies need at this time of the year to stay balanced.
The following regime is recommended for all doshic types:
- Include root vegetables and greens according to local availability. Fruits such as apples and pears, stewed with dates, sultanas and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are ideal.
- Eat warm, nourishing cooked meals made from fresh unprocessed foods. This is not the time for salads. In the evening, try khichari or just three or four vegies steamed together and sprinkled with spices specific for your dosha.
- All-in-one dishes like soup or khichari – a dish comprised of rice, moong dhal, warming spices and sometimes vegetables – are ideal for autumn days.
- Avoid eating dry, hard, porous, rough (Vata qualities) or leftover foods (tamas). Like qualities increase like, so balance the dry and cool qualities of Vata by eating warm soupy foods.
- Include ghee and good quality oil to balance Vata. Garlic and onions are an option to boost the immune system however use in moderation because they are rajasic, promoting a tendency to activity and a busy mind.
- Include calming and warming herbal teas using chamomile, lemon balm and slices of fresh ginger.
- Cook with spices like ginger, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, hing, black pepper and turmeric to aid digestion.
What yoga poses and sequences are most beneficial in autumn, and which if any should we minimise or avoid?
In autumn Vata pacifying sequences are good.
- Always practice with breath-centred focus, moving into and out of the postures with awareness using the breath. Work with the ujjayi breath – if you lose it you are working too hard.
- All sequences which work into the joints (pawanmuktasan series)
- In the morning include Salute to the Sun done slowly and mindfully with the breath to support peristaltic movement and agni (digestive fire) considered the basis of good health in Ayurveda.
- Standing poses are grounding, try flowing sequences moving from Warrior I, II, Reverse Warrior and Warrior III.
- Forward bends like parsvottanasana, prasarita padottanasana, janu sirsasana and paschimottanasana create pressure on the abdominal area and promote warmth in the body. Always modify as necessary to suit the individual.
- Balancing poses eg tree pose (vrksasana) and variations done with drishti and soft focus can promote calm and are grounding and centering.
- Cobra (bhujangasana), locust (salabhasana) and bow pose (dhanurasana) are warming and stimulating. Always practice gently with care.
- Twists will help the body get rid of toxins while massaging the abdominal organs.
- Finish in savasana to rest before sitting to savour the effects of the practice and prepare for the rest of your day.
- A short practice to wind down in the evening before the evening meal is also recommended for releasing any built up tension from the day and ensuring a better quality of sleep – one of the three pillars of good health, along with diet and exercise.
Which pranayama and meditation practices are most suitable?
- In the morning get your breath moving for 20 minutes before you eat anything. This can be done with a breath-centred asana practice or by walking in nature. You can count your steps to the breath. Start by observing how many steps you comfortably fit to the in and out breath, then try four steps to the in breath and four steps to the out breath.
- Include the ujjayyi breath in your practice. Use the mantra So Ham as you sweep your awareness from navel to throat with the inhale and throat to navel as you exhale. This cleanses the centre energy passageway from navel to throat. This can be done seated in sukhasana or in savasana.
- If you have time for nothing else include alternate nostril breathing (nadi sodhana) for several minutes before meditation.
- Practice a relaxing form of meditation that brings stillness and silence to the mind and senses.
- Seated meditation after asana and pranayama in the morning will prepare you for your day. You will be alert and clear.
- Practice yoga nidra before lunch or mid-afternoon (not too close to lunch). Savasana is grounding and centering. Keep warm covered with a blanket and have a support under the head, knees and hands.
What other Ayurvedic self-care practices are helpful?
- Start your morning with a regular half hour walk after glass of warm water with few drops of lemon. Walk briskly or use this time for a walking meditation or pranayama. But be out in nature.
- Abhyanga (oil massage). Practice daily, if possible in the early morning or late afternoon. Follow with a hot bath or shower. Feel the resulting sense of being nurtured and nourished.
- Apply a little ghee or oil to the nostrils a few times a day to maintain health mucous lining and prevent drying out.
- Follow a relaxed and regular daily routine. Eat at regular times, exercise before breakfast (half hour walk in nature ideal).
- After a meal lie on your left side in the pose of the Buddha (pictured).
- Avoid stress and strain as much as possible and do not over exercise (rajas).
- Avoid constipation – regular elimination is vital to health.
- Autumn is a good time to declutter your house and car. Enter winter with a simple clean living space.
- Early to bed (by 10 pm) and rise early.
- Gentle cleansing or fasting is recommended for all doshas in this season. This can be done in many ways so consult an ayurvedic practitioner for a program to suit your needs. Fasting for more than two days should not be undertaken without professional advice.
- For two weeks try fasting between 6.00pm and 8am.
Patricia shares one of her favourite practices for autumn
Read this passage and contemplate your own inner connection to the seasons – how each season makes you feel. In which season were you born, or have you married, had children or lived through other major events? Then focus on autumn and your connection with this season. Ask yourself what autumn has to teach you.
‘In Autumn the world starts to shed what it no longer needs and silence is released from the flowers and flows out of the earth into the world of humankind.
Autumn has come to teach us that all things in the world and within us have a beginning and an end. Yet this season can entrap us in attachment to the past while denying the future.
Autumn is about the start of decay and how this belongs in the natural order of things.
Autumn encourages you not to be trapped by your own fears but to understand them so that they may set you free from fear and small-mindedness.
Autumn brings the message that nothing is isolated or separate, all things are connected.
Autumn is the season that teaches self-reliance and offers the serenity of experiencing the connection of all life as a conscious but natural experience.’
Source: The Tibetan Art of Serenity: How to Heal Fear and Gain Contentment by Christopher Hansard
Patricia’s recommendations for further reading
Cate Stillman – Body Thrive
Laura Plumb – Ayurveda Cooking for Beginners
Shaun Matthews – The Art of Balanced Living
Patricia Wigley is has been teaching yoga since 1991 and holds qualifications in yoga therapy Ayurveda, counselling, nutrition and Anatomy and Physiology. She is Vice President of the Australian Association of Yoga Therapists (AAYT) and a past president of the International Yoga Teachers Association IYTA.
Tessa Hoffman completed her Diploma of Yoga teaching in 2016 with the IYTA. and now lectures on the topics of yoga, philosophy and anatomy/physiology. Tessa as a background in journalism and is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy) at the University of Sydney.
* This article first appeared in the IYTA magazine, International Light.