Ayurvedic medicine is the science of life that has been practiced in southern Asia for over 5,000 years.
Here, we view it as an alternative medicine, perhaps because it is really more preventative than, well, reactionary. At its most basic, Ayurveda is the study of the energy that controls the body and what we can do to keep it in balance. Felicia Marie Tomasako is an Ayurvedic practitioner who has been studying Ayurveda for 17 years, and she kindly volunteered to put me on an Ayurvedic plan for a month.
First, Felicia tells me, we need to have a consultation. The only catch is that she's in L.A. and I'm in Brooklyn, so our first meeting is on Skype. Our later consultations will be over the phone, but for the first one, it's important, she says, to see what I look like. It's an hour-and-a-half meeting at 8 a.m. my time, which makes it 5 a.m. for her, but Felicia doesn't blink.
"I'm a morning person," she chirps cheerfully. Maybe that's the Ayurveda talking.
I, on the other hand, have no idea what to expect. I imagine I'll come away from this month knowing more about myself -- mind and body -- but I'm also nervous before this consultation, as though somehow over the computer, Felicia is going to peer deep into my soul and find me way out of whack karmically.
On my computer screen, I expect an image of sunny California to pop up, but instead, the screen is comfortingly darkened. Felicia is wearing a fleece and sipping on hot water. Her cats walk to and fro across her keyboard. Within the first five minutes, she's telling me about her favorite non-dairy ice cream. "If you like ice cream," she adds.
Yeah, I like ice cream. This just might work.
In our conversation Felicia proves extremely friendly, surprisingly scientific and, best of all, everything she says is very logical. Her basic point is that food is medicine -- if you're not eating the food that's right for you, no amount of medicine will make you feel better. And despite the early hour, I find I'm hanging on her every word.
First, Felicia describes the basics: how Ayurveda deals with energies, and how the "doshas" -- three categories that every human falls into, according to the Ayurvedic system -- are controlled by different elements: water, fire, earth, air and ether. There are three doshas: kapha, pitta and vata. Each person has a dominant dosha (though often people have two prevalent doshas or, less frequently, are tri-doshic), and it is important to keep this energy balanced.
Based on what I tell her and my physical appearance, Felicia tells me that my prominent dosha is "vata." (You can take a quiz and find out your dosha here
.) The "vata" dosha represents the elements air and ether, and has very drying qualities. This explains not only external dryness (hair and skin) but also internal issues such as a constant thirst and a slow, bloated digestion, as well as a flighty demeanor with a tendency to find routine difficult. Let's just say I can relate.
Felicia describes digestion as a fire we need to stoke. You don't want to let the fire burn out, she says, but you don't want to smother it with too much either. That's why you feel uncomfortable eating a lot of food at once -- it puts out the flame. She makes sense. She seems confident in that nothing that I say surprises her, but she's not so certain as to appear cocky. Everyone's different, she says, and no one knows what works for you until you try it. Still, though, I'm skeptical.
Week 1: Falling in Love With ... Ginger
Felicia gives me easy changes to start out with. Otherwise, she says, we get overwhelmed and these changes will never take. What's important is to shift the mind's identification. This lifestyle, she explains, concentrates on listening to the feedback of our bodies.
She asks about my usual diet and lifestyle, and I explain that I'm already vegan (due in part to lactose-intolerance), that I tend to have stomach pains, and that I practice yoga regularly, which helps my stomach.
She gives me six changes:
1) Reduce my soy intake and limit it to soy products that are less processed and easier to digest, such as miso and tempeh.
2) Eat more minerals which will help me absorb water and not be so thirsty (this consists of squeezing lemon or lime into my water, even a splash of juice for the electrolytes, and having salts -- not table salt, but rather mineral and sea salts.
3) Cut back on the coffee and green tea, instead starting each morning with hot water and lemon, and making a cumin, coriander, and fennel tea to help balance my digestive fire.
4) Eat ginger, either as tea, pickled, or grated, before every meal.
5) Add different kinds of oils to my diet. (Olive oil is good, she says, but others, such as walnut, flax and avocado, have more Omega-3, which are necessary in the development of neurotransmitters.)
6) Increase my yoga practice, and any sort of movement or exercise, especially kinds that incorporate twisting and stretching.
After our Skype chat, I don't finish my green tea. I squeeze lime into my water and I eat a small bowl of steel cut oats with flax, raisins, walnuts and a pinch of sea salt. Later, at a cafe, instead of an iced coffee or soy latte, I get a fresh-squeezed orange juice. I love ginger, I think, though I eat it most often in the form of a chewy candy or a sushi accompaniment. But really, ginger? It seems quaint. Felicia tells me to grate ginger, squeeze lemon juice on it, add some sea salt, and have a teaspoon before meals. So, before dinner, I dutifully make and eat the ginger mixture. Light my fire! it's delicious, and I can feel it cleaning and warming me as I eat. Even just this first day, I feel better, and less bloated, than I have after eating in a very long time. After two days, I already know that from now on I will begin every day with a mug of hot water with lemon, and eat grated ginger before every meal. Who am I?
Week 2: The Art of Dry Brushing ... and Self-Massage
During our second conversation, I tell Felicia that the small changes have been working well for me. I don't feel perfect, and I do feel a little more tired than usual (possibly due to lack of caffeine), but, overall, I feel good. She tells me to keep it up and give myself time to become accustomed to them. She also adds a few non-food suggestions to my repertoire -- namely, daily oil self-massages and dry-brushing before showering.
That night, I find some sesame oil in my kitchen cabinet and I rub it into my feet before I get into bed. This is supposed to help me feel grounded and fall asleep easily. I had forgotten about the strong smell until I actually poured the oil into my hands. After a few moments, though, the smell dissipates. I put on socks to avoid getting oil all over my sheets, but it does absorb fairly quickly -- or maybe my "vata" feet are just particularly dry. Felicia told me that sesame oil is naturally warming and I feel this warmth on my feet as I try to sleep. It is a surprisingly cold night in May, and the warmth is comforting for my perpetually cold feet and hands. I fall asleep quickly. Felicia suggests using the naturally cooling coconut oil for hot summer nights.
Dry-brushing takes a little more getting used to. I need Felicia to explain it to me, because it's difficult for me to grasp the concept. Really, though, it's pretty basic. Before you get in the shower, you stand naked in your bathroom and rub a dry shower brush over your skin in circular motions. She says this will help to stimulate and purify the body. Immediately, its effects are not discernable. I feel foolish and am really glad this is a private activity.
Meanwhile, I confess to Felicia that I have a very sporadic appetite. Sometimes I'm starving as soon as I wake up and other times I can go the entire day without really ever getting hungry. She tells me to start by trying to eat one meal at approximately the same time every day. She says breakfast is important but only if I'm hungry. Lunch, she said, in Ayurveda, is the most important meal, because it's at this time that your digestion is the strongest. Make sure you try to have something for lunch every day, she says. Even if it's something really small, like some tea and ginger. Throughout the week, it's surprisingly difficult for me to stick to any kind of schedule. I really do try, but for me, routine is more elusive than I had imagined.
Week 3: Why Kale Goes Well With Pale Ale
This week, Felicia tells me to think about how we actually incorporate practices into our lifestyles that will make us feel better. Shifting our bodies from one thing to another takes practice. Different things work for different people, and the only way to know is to try it for yourself. Cut things out of your diet to see the effects it has on you. There are no hard fast rules or lists, we must ask ourselves questions and take things deeper than a trend diet. I continue with all the dietary tips Felicia suggested, as well as the self-massages and dry-brushing, and an attempt at finding a routine. The dietary guidelines still make me feel good, though my shock at the initial changes wears off and I now feel stable. I still cannot wrap my mind around dry-brushing. It doesn't feel bad -- it's actually kind of an interesting feeling -- but it's not really helpful, either. And routine, sadly, remains very difficult.
I ask Felicia about the Ayurvedic perspective on alcohol, and I assume that it won't be a good one. Surprisingly, though, she says it's not bad. In Ayurveda there is a tradition of medicinal wines. She suggests making wine your first choice, and beer, depending on your ability to digest it, isn't all that bad either. What she says to bear in mind that they are moderately dehydrating and are digestive stimulants. Any dark leafy greens are good antidotes to have with alcohol because they nourish the liver and prevent us from overtaxing.
Week 4: Getting "Cleansed"
Finally, Felicia puts me on a week-long cleanse -- no, not a fast.
Fasting, Felicia tells me, is considered very harsh and jarring for the body. This week, I realize, is not meant to be a total departure from my normal diet -- this is probably the way I should always eat. The only difference is that this week, I am to consciously avoid what I would usually consider an indulgence. Besides the meat and dairy, I don't eat normally, wheat, yeast, caffeine, alcohol, soy, refined sugars and processed foods are all off the list.
For breakfast I am to have congee. Congee is a sort of rice porridge -- one cup of rice simmered in nine cups of water. For either lunch or dinner or both, I have kitcheree -- a thick soup of basmati rice and mung beans, with whatever spices and seasonal vegetables I choose to add. For the other meal, if I choose, I can have a vegetable soup, just rice with some cooked veggies, or a salad with an oil dressing. Felicia tells me that I can also substitute other grains for the rice if I'd like (i.e., barley, amaranth, oats, buckwheat, etc.).
When I begin, I'm still thinking of it my cleanse as some trend diet kick-off week, and I fear I'm not supposed to have fruit because of the natural sugar content or something. When I ask Felicia, she tells me of course I can have fruit, just to eat it separately from other foods because it digests quickly. I am relieved I can eat the six kiwis, three mangoes, a bunch of grapes, and three different kinds of berries in my possession. The week is looking better now, especially since my To Do list also includes "pamper myself." That I can handle.
Ayurvedic pampering means I should be outside, feel the sun on my face and walk barefoot through nature. I should practice daily meditation, yoga, dry-brushing and self-massage. I need to get plenty of sleep. I should eliminate ice because it inhibits digestion and instead sip herbal teas and water with lemon throughout the day.
The food becomes almost comforting, and yet I change it enough to keep it interesting. Who knew kitcheree could have a different flavor every night of the week? Though it is a little difficult at times. I go out to eat with friends and order ... a tea. It's definitely a socially limiting diet. I also feel tired throughout the day, which I attribute to my lack of caffeine and my limited caloric intake.
Toward the end, I stop wanting to spend an hour cooking breakfast, so I just skip it, and go most of the day without eating anything. This is definitely a stupid move, and makes me feel weak and tired. Done properly, though, the cleanse is comforting and nourishing, and at the end of the week I feel more balanced than I had at the beginning.
Life After an Ayurvedic Intervention
-- Since my experiment, I've had time to see what changes I've stuck with -- and which I deep-sixed. Routine is still difficult, but it's nice to be able to attribute that to my scatterbrained vata dosha, which I seem to fit into uncannily.
-- I left dry-brushing behind, but my love affair with ginger lives on. Because I felt the effects of the dietary changes most immediately, those were the easiest to stick with. Today, I keep a Tupperware of the ginger puree in my fridge at all times, as well as some ginger tea bags in my purse.
-- I drink hot water with lemon throughout the day, rather than coffee or caffeinated tea.
-- I cook with a variety of oils now, and I still make some version of kitcheree fairly often. Grains, beans and veggies help me to feel grounded and comforted, especially when my diet's been a bit erratic.
-- I've realized that everyday will not be perfect. I will inevitably eat or drink things that I know I will not make me feel good -- but I know how to balance myself, how to get myself back on track, and to look at how each small action impacts my well-being as a whole.
Stefanie Demas graduated from Skidmore College in 2009. Her most recent article was published in the New York Press. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is starting a Ginger fan page on Facebook. Just kidding. Kind of.
Felicia Marie Tomasko RN, E-RYT 500, inspires people to follow the path to personal freedom and vibrant health through yoga and Ayurveda. Her practice includes teaching yoga in studios, teacher trainings and conferences as well as a private practice in the healing tradition of Ayurveda, a system of holistic and integrative medicine native to India. Ayurveda shares the same philosophy and ways of approaching the body, mind and spirit as yoga and emphasizes our connection with nature. The dual systems of yoga and Ayurveda, while seemingly ancient and esoteric, hold vital lessons for us to learn how to live with intent and address the needs of living in the modern world. She is currently the editor-in-chief of LA YOGA Ayurveda and Health magazine, serves on the editorial board of the Light on Ayurveda Journal and serves on the board of directors of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, the Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care and is the current president of the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine. Follow her on Twitter here or here.