By Carrie Demers, MD, Yoga+
We’re obsessed with looking young. At least that’s the impression conveyed by television, billboards, and print advertisements. “Take drugs,” they urge, “apply cosmetics, undergo surgery, dye your hair, and bleach your teeth to hide the signs of encroaching age.” But will face lifts, tummy tucks, and hair implants give us more fulfilling lives? Is it really the appearance of youth that we yearn for—or is it the vigor, the energy, the mental sharpness, and the playfulness of youth? Aging is inevitable. We know that. And we believe it is inevitably accompanied by low energy, mental fuzziness, and a waning sense of purpose. The ads imply that if we look young, we’ll feel young, and we’re willing to give it a shot.
Ayurveda, the ancient science of life, says this is nonsense. Awareness—not appearance—is the key to vitality. Ayurveda insists that we can retain our vigor if we are willing to pay attention to the way we live. Instead of hiring a surgeon to remove unsightly sags or buying pills to increase sexual vigor, Ayurveda recommends that we rejuvenate ourselves by dropping the habits that siphon off our energy in favor of habits that support the body’s natural intelligence.
The key to health in general, and rejuvenation in particular, is an abundant supply of prana, the life-force that animates the natural world, flowing freely at all levels. And this, in turn, requires that we are cleansed and well-nourished.
Our bodies are designed to retain what is useful and to slough off what is not. The main routes of elimination are the lungs, colon, bladder, and skin, supported by the lymph system, which filters intracellular fluid to remove impurities, and the circulatory system. These cleansing processes are automatic—all we have to do is support them.
When our bodies are clogged with waste, our energy declines; we feel stagnant; we lose our enthusiasm for new experiences and find fault with the old. If you have ever undergone a dramatic cleansing—a juice fast, for example, or a bowel purge in preparation for a colonoscopy—you know how vital and energetic you feel when your body throws off its burden of wastes, and how clear your mind becomes. This applies on subtler levels as well.
A Morning Cleansing Routine
Yet the exhilaration that comes from fasting, colonics, liver flushes, or other intense cleansing practices is short-lived. Old habits reassert themselves and the dross gradually builds up, once again clouding our consciousness and sapping our energy. The wisest course is to live in a way that prevents the accumulation of wastes in the first place. For this, Ayurveda prescribes a daily cleansing routine, one that begins in the morning.
Next: Daily Cleansing Routine
The body marshals its cleansing forces as we sleep, centralizing most of the waste in the bladder and colon and some in the mouth and nose. Moving these wastes out is the first priority of the day, so when you get out of bed empty your bladder and then scrape your tongue to remove the coating that has collected there. (If you don’t have a tongue scraper, the front edge of a spoon will do nicely.) Then rinse your nose by filling a neti pot with warm salt water and pouring it through first one nostril, then the other. This will carry away the airborne particles—dust, as well as bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can lodge there. (The nasal wash also stimulates the optic nerve and thus strengthens eyesight.)
Hot liquids have a laxative effect on the colon, and lemon juice is cleansing. Ayurvedic physicians suggest taking a cup of hot lemon water with a pinch of salt first thing in the morning to pull toxins out of the body, stimulate a bowel movement, and tonify the kidneys and digestive tract. It is also helpful to give yourself a short oil massage, if you can do so without feeling rushed. In addition to their nourishing benefits, oil massages stimulate both the circulatory and lymph systems, mobilizing toxins so they are more easily eliminated.
Top off this initial routine with a warm shower and dress in clean, light clothing for your morning yoga practice. Yoga practices detoxify on a more subtle level. The postures cleanse by increasing the circulation of blood and lymph and by stretching and massaging the muscles and organs. When done with a full and open breath, they help tone the lungs and cleanse the subtle energy channels.
It is also helpful to include a few specialized pranayama practices in a morning cleansing routine. In addition to expelling carbon dioxide, the lungs discharge volatile wastes produced both by the cells themselves and by intestinal bacteria—and how we breathe determines how much of these volatile wastes we eliminate.
Tight muscles impede circulation and hold toxins in the muscle tissue, and in this sense relaxation exercises are cleansing. A simple and highly effective morning relaxation practice is to spend five minutes in the crocodile pose. By releasing muscular tension and encouraging deep, diaphragmatic breathing, this posture harmonizes the nervous system, quiets the mind, and lays the groundwork for the practice of meditation.
Meditation is both cleansing and nourishing. Just as the body releases toxins and wastes more easily when supported by a regular cleansing routine, the mind releases its load of anger, hatred, jealousy, and fear when it is sustained by a daily meditation practice.
Support the cleansing effects of your morning routine throughout the day by drinking plenty of fresh water, eating a diet high in fiber and low in salt and fats, and getting enough aerobic exercise to induce a healthy sweat. The skin is our largest organ and it plays a key role in ridding the body of toxins through perspiration. Saunas, hot tubs, and steam baths are helpful, but they are no substitute for exercise.
When More Is Needed
When the body is healthy, bathing is all that is required to avoid offending your companions. Offensive perspiration is one sign of an overburdened eliminative system. Other indications include bad breath, cloudy urine, constipation, indigestion, a heavily coated tongue, and low energy. There are numerous adjuncts to the daily routine that will help you bolster the primary routes of elimination: triphala tonic for a sluggish colon; whey for overtaxed kidneys; a juice fast; a cleansing diet; and a variety of cleansing herbs—ceanothus and scutters to cleanse the lymphatic system, for example, or dandelion and berberis for cleansing the liver. General tonics, such as triphala and whey, can be used safely without expert guidance, but dumping cleansing herbs into a clogged system will probably only add to the congestion. So if you feel you need supplements, seek the advice of a skilled practitioner.
In general, if you are in reasonably good health, the best approach is to introduce a minimum of clutter into your system and clean up your act by changing your habits. Bit by bit, your body will cleanse itself and the prana will begin to flow freely.
Nourishment comes in many forms and takes place on all levels of our being. We are nourished through fresh food, loving touch, engaging companionship, exposure to art, spiritual pilgrimage, and meditation, for example. All of these experiences are “sweet”; they infuse us with a sense of vitality and joy. And because mind, energy, and body are intricately linked, nourishment on any level affects the others. Drinking fresh juice daily, for example, increases energy and mental clarity, while eating sweet, heavy food calms anxiety. In the same way, eating in good company bestows a healthy appetite.
Nourishment in all its forms entails the intake and assimilation of prana. Fresh air, sunshine, whole, unrefined food, and pure water enliven us. We absorb the prana in the atmosphere through our skin and lungs, just as we absorb the energy in food through our gastrointestinal tract.
Next: Quality nourishment and countering dryness
Nourishment is governed by digestion. According to Ayurveda, assimilation on every level results from strong digestive fire at the solar plexus, which transforms what is outside of us into the stuff that is us. In Sanskrit this fire is called agni. It is our internal sun, and like the sun above, it provides heat and power to our entire system. When agni is strong, we assimilate our food, taking in what is useful and nourishing, and passing out what is not. Agni gives us strong immunity: it detoxifies the stomach and intestines by destroying bacteria, and it energizes the white cells throughout the body to perform their functions decisively. Intelligence, perception, and comprehension are fruits of strong agni, as are confidence, courage, joy, and the ability to meditate. When agni is burning brightly we digest our food without the inconvenience and discomfort of indigestion and we process our experiences without worry, anger, resentment, and jealousy, which are forms of mental indigestion.
Yet no matter how strong our digestive fire, the quality of nourishment we receive depends on what we feed it. A nourishing diet consists mainly of fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, and fresh dairy products. Soak grains and beans overnight, keep them moist for a few days, and they sprout. You can’t do that with packaged, processed, frozen, or refined grains and beans—they’re dead. And dead food makes more demands on our digestive system and burdens the body with waste.
If we pay attention, this becomes evident. The body tells us when we have forced something indigestible on it. Heartburn, bloating, belching, gas, or diarrhea are signals to pay attention. Either we are eating poor-quality food, or we are overwhelming our inner fire with too much food—or both.
As we approach and pass through midlife, we need to be mindful of the body’s tendency to dry up with the passing years and counter this by infusing ourselves with moisture. Our diets need to consist primarily of juicy food—food that contains water and oil. One step toward this is eating whole, unprocessed food: fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains contain natural juices and oils. But some foods provide more moisture than others: soups, melon, squash, yam, and avocado, for example, are more watery than apples and leafy greens. Baked, puffed, popped, dried, and crispy food all have a drying tendency, as does coffee, which, as a diuretic, pulls water out of our system. Many of the basic books on Ayurveda give detailed information on what to eat and what to avoid when the body has a tendency to dryness. It is helpful to have such a book on hand when you are making your shopping list.
Another nourishing way to counter dryness is to use oil inside and out. Ayurveda recognizes that oils and fats provide nourishment, protection, and lubrication to the body, especially the skin, joints, lungs, and colon. Just as oil makes an engine run smoothly, fat facilitates the smooth functioning of joints and the effortless movement of air through the lungs and stool through the colon. Fat is also a source of insulation, heat, and fuel. It is wise to cook with a few teaspoons of olive oil or ghee unless you are struggling with obesity or heart disease, or if you simply don’t digest oils well. If this is the case, apply oil to the skin, which absorbs it and “digests” it much as if you had eaten it. The best oils for massage are edible: cold-pressed sesame, olive, or almond. Avoid petroleum products like mineral and baby oil; they are protective, but not nutritive, and they dry out your skin in the long run.
Stepping Out of Time
The modern world makes more demands on our energy than we can meet. Overdoing and then pushing ourselves to do still more has come to seem normal. Caffeine and sugar give us the false sense that we have more energy than we actually do, and this makes it easy to propel ourselves into an energy deficit. And our senses are constantly barraged with sound, light, and motion unless we consciously make a quiet space for ourselves. Spending what little free time we have surfing the Web, watching TV, shopping, or hanging out at a noisy nightclub overstimulates the nervous system and wears us out. The energy that we use to process this continual barrage of sensory information is the same energy we use to digest our food and orchestrate our lives. When we overdo in the external world, the internal world pays the price.
Cleansing and nourishing provide us with the energy and the clarity to remain actively engaged with the inward journey. As long as we are so engaged, our energy will remain vital and we will come to experience ourselves as we are: unfettered, limitless, and forever young.
Board-certified in internal medicine, Carrie Demers, MD, is the director of the Himalayan Institute Total Health Center.