Ayurveda is a wonderful science, born from the same source as yoga, whose mission is to keep us healthy, and to heal us. Ayurveda balances us on a physical, subtle and soul level, incorporating food, lifestyle, routines and yoga as practices. I’d like to go beyond the physical body and dip into the subtle realm…and take a look at the mind.
Unbound by time and place like the physical body, the mind can go anywhere, at any time, and quickly! That is why the mind is much harder to balance than the body, although the two are connected and by healing one, you begin to heal the other.
First let’s look at the natural state of mind, which is referred to as sattva in Sanskrit. This state is harmonious, balanced, clear, pure and doesn’t cause disease. It is peaceful. One who is sattvic is loving, compassionate, committed to truth, well-behaved, alert, steadfast and joyful. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
Sattva can be abundant in the early morning upon waking, so check in with yourself tomorrow and notice your thoughts, emotions and mental state. Begin to develop this wonderful awareness of how your mind oscillates from this sattvic state to the other two states, which are inertia and movement.
While sattva is balancing and healing, rajas (movement) and tamas (inertia) are not. But they are important states of mind that are a necessary part of life. Without movement, we wouldn’t get to work. Without inertia, we wouldn’t be able to sleep. But they can cause imbalance, especially if the mind goes too far in either direction. Healing the mind means bringing it back to a state of sattva.
That being said, we heal diseases of the mind in the same way. On a foundational level, we don’t treat anxiety any differently than depression. These are just different sides of the same coin. In order to heal mental imbalances, we need to develop sattva.
While rajas and tamas are opposites of each other and can be used for balancing, sattva is not the centerpoint of the two. Sattva is beyond these potentially imbalancing qualities and represents much finer states.
First I would like to look at using rajas and tamas to balance. For example, if somebody is in a very dark, heavy, tamasic place, creating sattva might not be obtainable. Imagine somebody who is quite depressed. They may not be interested in self-care, cooking, getting up early, chanting or doing yoga. For this person, we need to first move them back into rajas. Although probably still not motivated to do anything, going for a walk or getting exercise will be much more feasible than getting them into the kitchen or on a yoga mat.
For a person experiencing high tamas, or who feels they are in a dark, heavy, “sticky” space, I would recommend working with some of the following tools:
Get outdoors – hike, ski, visit gardens, walk the dog, camp
Nature is flowing with prana and sunshine can brighten the darkest day. This purifying energy can increase sattva and reset the connection to nature.
Move and break a sweat – go for a bike ride, jog, dance, skateboard, walk vigorously, do vinyasa yoga or at least some sun salutations.
Breathe – yoga, exercise
Cleansing breaths are called kriyas and can clear out stagnant energy. Try kapalabhati (breath of fire), or bhastrika (bellows breath). Doing ujjayi breathing during a yoga practice can also be helpful. Breathwork should always be done with awareness and without pushing too hard.
For someone experiencing the opposite qualities, rajas, we can consider some tamasic activities, as well as sattvic. Rajas can feel anxious, restless, depleted or overwhelmed and relaxing, slowing down is key.
Get good sleep – While napping might sound like a fun idea for healing this, it could lead to some tamasic or kapha imbalance, so instead, let’s try to get a really good night’s sleep. Relaxing for 30 minutes before bed can be helpful. Get off electronics, read a good book, listen to relaxing music, journal, take a warm salt bath, sip tea or do some aromatherapy.
Oils – Abhyanga (massage) is a traditional ayurvedic practice with many benefits. Oils are great for calming excess movement so consider a soothing warm oil self-massage before showering. Heat up sunflower oil by setting the jar in a hot pot of water, and then apply with long, smooth strokes going downwards, and circular strokes around joints. Try not to soap off the oil in the shower, and blot with a towel to dry off. Warm oil can be applied to the feet and top of the head before sleeping as well.
Yoga – meditation, pranayama
One of the best ways to heal the mind is through traditional yoga practices. You might begin with some simple asanas (postures) that can be gently held for at least 5-8 breaths. But to really dig into all that yoga has to offer, pranayamas such as nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) or sama prana (equal breathing) can be very effective.
One of my favorite breathing techniques for relaxing excess movement is the sama prana. Sit on your yoga mat, straight spine, and inhale for a count of 5. Tuck the chin a bit and hold for another count of 5. Release the chin, exhale for a count of 5. Tuck the chin, hold for 5, with bandhas engaged (if you have worked with them before). This is one cycle. Work your way through 10 cycles, keeping the breath slow and steady. If you feel like you’re choking on the breath, you may need to shorten the count to 3 or 4.
Diaphragmatic breathing is another wonderful practice. This can be done sitting up or lying down on your back. Put a hand on your belly and feel it rise up with the inhale, feeling it fall with the exhale. Do this slowly and gently for about 3-5 minutes, relaxing, letting the mind fall still.
Awareness – only when the mind is focused on the current activity can one be in the present moment. Practice being mentally engaged throughout the day with whatever you are working on. If you are walking, bring the attention to where the feet meet the floor. If you are chopping vegetables, bring the attention to the blade cutting through the food. This will help focus the mind and keep it from wandering and playing.
Building sattva is what ultimately will balance and heal the mind. Like health, sattva is not a goal, but rather something that must be maintained through awareness and regular practices. Here are some techniques used for building sattva:
- Being more positive
- Yoga / Pranayama / Meditation
- Chanting / Japa / Mantra
- Natural living
- Eating pure foods
- Guiding people
- Reduce digital dependencies
- Being in nature
Maintaining a wholesome, pure diet is also important for mental health. Choose organic, fresh, in-season foods. Use good digestive spices and try to cook most of your meals at home. Some sattvic foods to include in the menu are:
- Organic Whole Milk
- Almonds (soaked and peeled)
- Whole grains, especially basmati rice
- Fresh organic vegetables
- Beans & lentils
- Fresh fruits, raisins, figs, fresh dates
- Almond oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, macadamia nut oil, mustard seed oil, sesame oil, olive oil
- Honey (don’t heat or cook)
- Raw sugar cane
- Spices: cinnamon, basil, mustard seeds, cardamom, cilantro, cumin, dill, fennel, mint, coriander, ginger, turmeric, saffron
- Fresh almond or rice milk
- Fresh coconut water
The stronger the mind, the less affected we are by events and situations enountered in life. While we cannot control what gets thrown our way, we can manage how we are affected by it. By maintaining a strong, healthy mind we can begin to alleviate habitual reactions, emotional outburts, suffering, and feeling victimized. Then, what is possible is enjoying the ups and downs of life and experiencing the unraveling mystery with curiosity and enjoyment.
Maria Radloff is an Ayurvedic Wellness Counselor and loves to share ayurveda with others. She is a big proponent of home cooking, natural living and caring for each other.