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Alleviating Anxiety with Ayurveda

Alleviating AnxietyIn Ayurveda, vata is one of the three doshas, or organizational constituents that maintain homeostasis in the body. Vata dosha embodies the energy represented by the element of air and space (think wind). If you’ve experienced inspiration and the feeling of being swept away by the creative process, you’ve felt vata dosha at its best. When imbalanced, an excess of vata dosha can result chitta vritti (disturbance in the mind), or “monkey mind.”

Unfortunately, in the US, vata imbalance is nearly ubiquitous. All you have to do is turn on the news, and you’ll be subjected to a mental cyclone of vata energy in the form of ideas provoking fear, overwhelming angst, and uncertainty. We hear stories of people expressing their imbalances in extremes of all kinds. Any extreme action, or reaction, at its core is an expression of vata excess, or imbalance, in the mind. While there are many ways to describe a vata state of mind, the common term for it in our culture seems to be anxiety.

Although the word anxiety is part of our daily lexicon, people are often still unclear about what it entails, especially when it comes to being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. My conversations surrounding anxiety sound something like this:

Q: What is anxiety?

A: It’s a state of vata excess in the mind and body. An excess of the energy of vata can feel like worry, fear, dread, insecurity, overwhelm, hypersensitivity, poor impulse control, internal conflict, indecision, instability, and any of those other states of mental unease. A lot of people describe anxiety as feeling stressed.

Q: What do you mean by, “a state of vata excess, in the mind and body?”

A: It’s an energetic state where there is more vata present in your life than your being prefers. According to Ayurveda, we can sense imbalance at the level of spiritual intuition first. If the imbalance remains unrecognized, we will then see signs of that same imbalance at the level of the emotions and mentation patterns. If the imbalance remains unaddressed, we manifest signs and symptoms of that imbalance in the tissues of the body. In my experience, the first tissues affected in the body are those of the digestive system; which is why it’s common for most of us to be acutely aware of the effects of stress on our guts.

Q: How do I know if there is more vata present in my life than my being prefers?

A: Simple, if you have an excess of vata energy, you will be seeing signs and symptoms of vata imbalance (see table below).

Spirit

Mind

Body

Feeling like you’ve been doing a lot but still don’t really have a sense of where you are headed in this life, what you are about, or where you feel at “home”; A pervading feeling of restlessness, or being unsettled.

Trouble sleeping

Indecision

Overwhelm

Anxiety

Restlessness

Difficulty focusing

Difficulty completing tasks

Cycling of emotions

Impulsive speech or behavior

Addictive tendencies

Interrupting your own thoughts with tangential ones

Dry (and itchy) skin

Dry hair

Brittle nails, dry cuticles

Dry lips and mucous membranes

Runny nose

Dry scratchy throat

Dry, itchy eyes

Gas, intestinal gurgling, belching

cramping

constipation, hard stools, straining

Low appetite and bloating.

Increased coating on tongue

Physical pain, especially musculoskeletal

Stiff, creaky or cracking joints

Dark circles under the eyes

Increased urinary frequency

Inability to sit still

Tremor, unsteadiness in movement

 

Q: Okay, great. I have a vata imbalance. How did this happen?

A: First: Realize that the majority of us are suffering from some form of vata imbalance. It’s a result of living in a vata-rich environment of modern urban living. Modernization, globalization, and urbanization are forces high in vata because they represent fast movements and growth. This means that the environment is one clear input of vata energy into your being. Vata energy can be coming into your life in countless ways. The most common inputs of vata seen in people’s lives today are transitions (such as divorce, moving, or change of career), information overload (including news and the internet), travel, lack of routine, and eating habits (processed foods or eating while surfing the internet). Anxiety may appear to be on the rise because we are either being made more aware of it or because all of these modern-day challenges feed it into us directly.

Q:  How do I get rid of this extra vata if it’s coming in through all these different ways?

A. The good news is that as you balance vata, you will feel less overwhelmed, and have improved processing and memory. There are as many opportunities to balance vata, as there are inputs of vata. The key here is to choose the opposite qualities of vata in every aspect of your life. One step is to aim for more warmth, grounding, stability, stillness and nurturance in all facets of your life: relationships, career, routine, and diet, for example.

Q: How do I know if I should go see a doctor about this, and what can they do about it?

A:If you are experiencing these feelings more days than not for a period of more than six months, you may likely be classified as having an anxiety disorder; especially if these feelings are impairing your ability to handle normal life tasks. In the doctor’s office, the more physical symptoms you have associated with your anxiety, the more likely you are to get a prescription for medication to address an anxiety disorder. All pharmaceuticals have potential side effects, and it is serious to adjust brain chemistry, so it doesn’t hurt to earnestly try to reduce vata naturally (see suggestions below) as a first line approach to treatment. Of course, Ayurveda is always a powerful adjunct to pharmaceutical treatment. Even if you are on medication, reducing vata can help you to lower your dose, or to wean you off the pharmaceuticals. All tapering of medications should be done under the supervision of a doctor.

For anxiety-relief, ten powerful tools to reduce vata in the mind and nervous system (in no particular order) are:

  1. Develop a baseline routine. Nobody experiences the same thing everyday, but we can have a baseline to our daily rhythm. Rising and going to bed at approximately the same time, and even having a simple ritual (drink triphala, go to restroom, read affirmations) in the morning and night can be an effective way to strengthen circadian rhythms.
  2. Brahmari Pranayama. This is “bumblebee” breathwork. Look for video demos on YouTube or read about it in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. Any exercise to deepen and slow the breath is going to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce anxiety, and as such there are a few types of breathing exercises that can be vata-reducing.

3. Forehead-to-the-ground asana. It’s incredible, but true. Literally placing your forehead to the ground and taking a few deep breaths while you visualize Mother Earth absorbing all of your excess stress also calms the stress response of which anxiety is a byproduct. You can be in child’s pose, in any variation of a forward fold, or even just lay flat on your belly. All of these poses reduce vata.

4. Marma Point Therapy. This is akin to using acupressure on a certain point along an energetic pathway (nadis or meridians). For anxiety reduction, there is a poignant point on the left hand. More specifically, the marma point is on the left palm just below the middle finger bottom knuckle. For most of us, the bottom of the bottom knuckle is going to be about a quarter to a third of the way down from the top of the palm. Allow the left palm to collapse and relax as you press into the point with your right thumb. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

5. Get enough sleep. We have all been sleep-deprived at some point in our lives, and most of us can remember how that felt to be moving through the day floating, half-present, and feeling depleted. Sleep is when the body rejuvenates, so making sure we have enough time in slumber is a great way to allow the nervous system to restore itself, reducing anxiety by addressing and healing the root causes of imbalance through rest and assimilation.

6. Ingest vata-reducing nervines. This is a class of herbs that warms and rejuvenates the nervous system. Most of these herbs also have grounding effects on the subtle energetic body. My favorites are shankpushpi, jatamamsi (related to valerian), ashwagandha, brahmi, and tulsi. See your practitioner for appropriate combinations and dosing.

7. Spend quality time with yourself. By connecting to the experiences that bring you true joy, you can reduce vata and reclaim some of your usual energy expenditure to others. Most of us do not have enough time alone where we are engaging in fun, or quality-time with ourselves. We use our alone time to work or clean or get things done. When we enjoy our alone-time (and prioritize it), we end up grounding in our sense of self and purpose and reducing vata in a powerful way.

8.Consciously reduce multi-tasking. Focusing on one thing at a time, and completing the activity, is a great way to reduce vata in the mind. The more we try to do at once, the more scattered and anxious we feel, and the less likely we are to produce quality outcomes.

9. Shirodhara. This is a lovely Ayurvedic body therapy which involves dripping herbal oil over the third eye (6th chakra) and allowing the warm oil to coat the entire scalp. You can find this at any Ayurvedic healing center, and even many upper end spas. Warm oil scalp massage at home produces similar anxiety reduction, especially when done regularly.

10. Meditate. Most people I know begin meditation because they want to address their anxiety or stress. Everyone with a regular meditation practice will report diminished symptoms of vata in the mind, including anxiety.

The most challenging aspect of balancing vata is consistent practice. Two weeks of a regular practice of any of the suggestions above is the minimum amount of time needed to assess its effects. The more consistent you are, the greater the vata reduction. You will likely fall off track, and that’s okay. Just get back on. Every step counts.

Dr. Siva Mohan integrates Ayurveda with modern medicine in her Ayurvedic wellness practice and educational programs to define and achieve whole-being wellness. Dr. Mohan specializes in addressing the psychospiritual basis of healing: doctormohan.com.

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  1. Great article :) Love to see other western docs incorporating Ayurveda and also writing about it! :)

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