The quest to stay young begins and ends with living a harmonious life in concert with our constitution.
Who amongst us have never wished to live forever? How long would you want to live if you could remain healthy, able and good looking throughout your life? Naturally, the answers to these questions are both personal and philosophical, and yet universally we all want to live at least the natural span of our lives. The promise of Ayurveda is that if you live harmoniously, you will not only live out the natural span of your life, you will do so with the life energy necessary to actively serve your dharma (life purpose). Ayurveda is the art of living in a manner that preserves the wellbeing of the body. It is the art of healing the body and mind when we are sick and it is the art of rejuvenation; returning the body to a youthful, energetic state of being, physically and emotionally.
Rasayana therapy is the Ayurvedic science of rejuvenation. The word itself provides hints of mysticism. Sanskrit words have many meanings depending upon the context they are used. Rasayana often refers to an elixir that prevents aging and prolongs life. We have long sought a potion that would return us to youth. Ras and rasa are Sankrit words that can mean taste or love. Ayana means “Walking the path or moving forward.” Thus one interpretation of the Ayurvedic art of Rasayana is “moving forward on the path of love.” Could love be the elixir of immortality?
The foundation for love and youthfulness in Ayurveda is found in a concept called ojas. Ojas is that which gives the body and mind stability, contentment and deep satisfaction. It protects the body and mind from stress, anti-doting the factors that accelerate the aging process. It is produced as the end-product of deep nutrition, combined with proper digestion.
The art of staying young means different things to different people. Some are interested most in looking young. Physical appearance plays such an important role in our lives. Many people judge us by how we look. Those judged to be good looking are often treated differently than those who are not judged so kindly. They are more likely to get a job, be promoted, move into positions of power, and be invited into exclusive social circles. We are a species that appreciates beauty and we want to surround ourselves with it.
Each of us comes into the world with a look that is generated by karma working through the genetics of our parents. Some will be judged to be better looking than others. While this is most certain, almost all who come into the world are in fact good looking upon arrival. Much of what happens after we arrive determines our appearance. Ayurveda is the art of restoring the beauty with which we came into the world. Beauty is our natural state. However, the challenges of life: stress, aging, poor diet, smoking, wind, sun and such create a fog over our natural beauty. Ayurveda is the art of burning off the fog so that our inner light can once again radiate out to the world.
The foundation for love and youthfulness in Ayurveda is found in a concept called ojas. Ojas is that which gives the body and mind stability, contentment and deep satisfaction.
For some, the idea of staying young means remaining active into their later years. A health body is able, strong and flexible. Certainly these are traits we are more likely to possess when we are young. The aging process causes the joint cartilage and ligaments to become dry and hard and more likely to develop tears. Pain and stiffness become more prevalent as we age. Muscles too become stiffer and weaker. The role of Ayurveda is to keep the tissues of the body healthy. When the practices of Ayurveda are followed, the joints maintain their fluidity and flexibility. The muscles maintain their tone. As a result, individuals living in alignment with the principles of Ayurveda can be expected to remain agile and able for the full length of their life.
For others, the idea of staying young means keeping the mind sharp and clear. As we age it gets more difficult to absorb and understand new ideas. Confusion is more prevalent and memory begins to fade. Severe cases are known as dementia. According to Ayurveda, this effect of aging is completely preventable and often reversible if the proper measures are taken. A mind of many years can remain “young” even as we age if the proper practices are implemented into one’s life. In order to maintain a youthful mind we must feed it the proper nutrients. Nutrition for the mind comes not only from food but also from information and healthy sensory stimulation. Proper sensory and intellectual stimulation combined with a proper diet are the keys to staying sharp into your nineties. Herbs have received a lot of attention for keeping the mind sharp as well. Though helpful, their role should be kept in proper perspective. They are best used to supplement a healthy lifestyle and not to replace it.
Of course, the bottom line to the quest of many people is longevity. The fear of death competes only with the pursuit of pleasure for the most important driving force in our lives. From an Ayurvedic perspective, the pursuit of a long life is only valuable if it is a life of service. Pleasure, wealth and power may be enjoyable side effects of a life well-lived but it is a life of service that trumps all goals excepting one. The highest goal is liberation from the cycle of life itself. Enlightenment or moksha is the deepest driving force of existence. Whereas our ego is driven by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering, our soul is driven only by liberation. Both seek immortality. The ego seeks physical immortality. The soul seeks spiritual immortality. Within the laws of nature, physical immortality is an illusion that cannot be realized. Immortality only exists outside of the laws of nature. It is a spiritual experience.
When we live a life of perfect harmony with nature we will have made peace with the drive of the ego. When this occurs, it is the soul that is driving our lives and our choices. It is at that time when the radiance of our beauty is absolute, when the body is functioning perfectly, and the mind is absolutely clear, sharp, strong and able to sustain awareness of the present moment, that all cravings are satisfied and there is nothing left to consume. It is at that moment that consciousness has lifted itself up and is now able to exit the circle of life and death. It is at that moment that we become immortal.
The quest to stay young begins and ends with living a harmonious life in concert with our constitution. This means living in a stress-free manner and controlling our diet and lifestyle. Because this is so difficult to do, Ayurveda has developed a system of rejuvenation to correct some of our improprieties. This system is called Rasayana and it begins with Panchakarma – the purification of the body. Along the journey, another part of our life experience impacts our longevity; this is the quality of our relationships and our capacity to love.
The youthful diet
A diet that includes more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less highly processed foods is generally agreed to be an important step forward in staying healthy and living longer. In addition, it is a good idea to consume less or avoid all together processed sugars, coffee, alcohol, cigarettes and other social drugs. Ayurveda takes these concepts many steps further.
According to Ayurveda, the diet and lifestyle that keeps us young is the one that is in harmony with our constitution and helps us build ojas.
While the above generic concepts are generally good ideas regardless of personal constitution, it is our constitution that determines the specifics of a healthy diet. Our constitution is the balance of the three doshas or biological energies in our bodies. These are Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Our unique balance is determined at conception and remains with us for the rest of our lives. It determines what type of food and lifestyle is harmonious for us and what will cause us to get out of balance, sick and diseased. For some people, a spicy diet will support their digestion, while for others those same spices will cause indigestion. For some people competitive sports will support wellbeing and for others it will drive up their blood pressure. Ayurveda teaches us that nothing is right for everyone and everything is right for someone.
Ayurveda is the path of learning what is right for you. It details what specific food items will keep you healthy and which will cause you to become ill over time. Should you eat peas or carrots? This is the type of detail Ayurveda addresses.
The diet that keeps you young is the one that protects you against the stresses of life and in doing so slows down the aging process. This is the diet that helps you to build ojas. Ojasproducing foods are generally heavier and more difficult to digest. As a result, it is not just consuming these foods that is important, but also making sure that you digest them well. The quality of your digestion is to a large extent a reflection of how food is taken. Meals taken in a relaxed environment, sitting down, without excessive talking or other distractions, in modest amounts, when properly chewed, assures better digestion. It is the digestive process that releases ojas. Foods with high ojasbuilding potential include most nuts (other than peanuts), cow’s milk, ghee, whole grains such as brown rice and whole wheat, and sesame seeds and oil.
Root vegetables such as beets, turnips, carrots and potatoes are also high in ojas. Not every ojas-building food is ideal for everyone. An Ayurvedic practitioner, knowing your constitution and the state of your health, can be very specific in tailoring your diet to build ojas and slow down the aging process.
The lifestyle of staying young
There are many well-known and understood general concepts for creating a healthy lifestyle, which if followed, will indeed prolong the life of most people and keep them looking and feeling younger. Regular exercise and a lifestyle that includes time to recreate and relax is the generic prescription for a healthy life and this type of lifestyle does protect ojas. However, Ayurveda once again takes this concept further recognizing that there is no one prescription that fits everyone. Some activities that are relaxing can still aggravate a dosha. For instance, although sunbathing is relaxing, the heat of sunbathing increases Pitta dosha and can aggravate those people with a Pitta nature. As it dries out the skin, it can also increase Vata dosha. Excessive sunbathing can even burn up ojas resulting in greater weakness. Sunbathing is not harmful for everyone – people with a Kapha nature benefit greatly from the dry, hot qualities of sunbathing. Thus it is important to find the method of relaxation that fits who you are as a unique individual. Lifestyle for longevity is an important topic. Ayurveda addresses every facet of living – from what time it is best to go to sleep and wake up to how much sexual activity is appropriate. Your lifestyle is optimized; you will look younger; feel better and live longer.
Love and staying young
Love is the capacity to open up the heart to all of existence. It is that deep feeling of connection that we all seek. When we are feeling love, our physiology is functioning in a manner that keeps us young and healthy. When we are lacking in our ability to love and when the heart is closed, our physiology shifts into a diseasepromoting state. Feelings other than love and its relatives wrap us in the dramas that isolate us and promote both disease and aging. Fear, worry, anxiety, anger, jealousy, envy, attachment, hurt and other such emotions that make us unhappy not only promote disease, they promote aging. The body’s shine decreases, pain and stiffness in the body increase, and we become old before our time.
In our quest for love, and we all share that quest, we seek out relationships. Our relationships define our connections with each other, the world we live in, and all of existence. The deeper the relationships we have with others, the more open our heart becomes and the healthier and younger we feel. Relationships can be both personal and impersonal. Our relationships with each other are personal. They are challenging because both people bring their imperfections into the relationship. For this reason, love is easier to find than to hold onto. Unless we are isolated we have various personal relationships. We relate to our lovers, our family, the people in our community, church and social groups as well as to our co-workers. All of these relationships are important. And, people who are involved in relationships tend to be healthier and more vital than those who are more isolated. And yet, those same relationships are most often the source of our greatest dramas and the emotions that contribute to aging and illness.
Impersonal relationships are quite different. How a person relates to the planet and to all of nature is entirely different. Nature cannot make you happy or sad by its actions. Rather our relationship to nature is governed by our own sensitivity and awareness. It is a reflection of our core development as human beings. Love for and a connection to nature is a powerful force of healing and youthfulness. Ayurvedic knowledge is based upon this sensitivity and awareness. Disease begins when our connection to nature is broken. Healing is the process of re-establishing that connection.
The most esoteric of all relationships is our relationship to all of existence. For many, existence is defined in one form or another as a Divine power or force. Ayurveda and yoga teach that connection to this Divine power is the highest of all relationships. Realizing one’s connection to all of existence fills a person with unconditional love for all parts of the whole of existence. Divine love often begins in a personal form whether the object of love is Krishna, Siva, Christ or Mohammed. This is the basis of most religions. In order for Divine Love to reach its full potential, it must be expanded to the Divine in all forms and to ultimately transcend from itself. When it does, that love begins to flow from above down. It allows for unconditional love of nature and all of humanity. Drama ceases. The physiology of the body is optimized and according to Ayurveda, you will reach your full physical potential. According to yoga, you will exit the cycle of birth and death and truly become immortal.
Panchakarma begins with a very light diet and taking specially prepared herbs. This process can go on for anywhere from one to four weeks. During this time a person slows down their lifestyle and begins to rest more.
Panchakarma: the art of cleansing as the basis of rejuvenation
Due to our imperfections in diet and lifestyle, Ayurveda has developed the art of cleansing. This process can be likened to a computer that malfunctions and goes through a process called “System Restore,” which returns it to a time before the malfunction occurred. Panchakarma restores our body and mind to a place of peace and harmony. It returns the physiology of the body to a state that promotes healing.
Panchakarma begins with a very light diet and taking specially prepared herbs. This process can go on for anywhere from one to four weeks. During this time a person slows down their lifestyle and begins to rest more. A person disengages from worldly activities and begins to practice meditation and yoga and restores harmony with the rhythms of nature. During this time, additional procedures are performed to aid quieting the body and mind. Most important is the Ayurvedic massage using large amount of warm herbal oils, Shirodhara; the pouring of warm herbal oils onto the forehead over the Ajna chakra; and herbal steam treatments. Physically, this process is designed to soften the toxins of the body allowing them to flow back to the digestive tract. This is then followed by practices to remove the toxins. These practices include the short term, therapeutic inducement of vomiting and diarrhea at the proper times to remove the toxins from the stomach and small intestine respectively. This is encouraged through the use of special herbs. Herbal enemas are also given to cleanse the large intestine and a small amount of herbal oil is dropped into the nasal passages to cleanse the sinuses. When cleansing is complete, a person then begins rejuvenation. This is the process of restoring strength and luster to the body and mind. This process takes about four additional weeks and involves the slow reintroduction of foods that are in harmony with a person’s constitution while that person slowly begins to re-engage the responsibilities of life. Returning to ordinary life is like being reborn into the world. Cleansed from the process, the systems of the body restored, and having learned and in many cases remembered how to live harmoniously, there is a clear sense of peace and wellness. The body becomes stronger every day. The light shines brighter and youthfulness is restored.
In conclusion, how long we live, how good we look, and what the quality of our lives will be, is to a large part, under our own control. There is no mystery to it. Ayurveda lays out the path for rejuvenation and wellness.