The herbs and practices to reconnect your mind and body
When we use the word longevity in the West, we mean extending life, growing old gracefully, staying healthy the whole way. We often measure longevity in numbers—eighty, ninety, one hundred years. To reach this goal, there may be rigid diets to follow and many herbs and supplements to swallow. Stress-reduction techniques, exercise, and yoga are surely a part of the current longevity mix. And while most people feel better following this path, few are able to stick to it for long because it is restrictive and time-intensive.
When we use the word longevity in Ayurveda, we mean something different—life extension is considered a side benefit of a very comprehensive approach to life itself. The word Ayurveda literally means the knowledge (veda) of life (ayus). It studies how to be fulfilled and reach full human potential now, rather than simply adding a few good years.
While Westerners focus on connecting the mind and body for living life to the fullest, Ayurveda focuses on connecting the mind, body, and self. The self represents the field of consciousness from which, according to Ayurveda, everything comes. It is understood that our individual mind and body are reflections of that field, and that the cause of disease or illness is when we lose connection to our roots in consciousness. This loss is called pragya paradh, which means the “mistake of the intellect”—the intellect chooses to see itself as separate from the self or the underlying field of consciousness from which we come.
So, when we look at anti-aging and longevity in Ayurveda, we are considering techniques that will restore this memory of consciousness into every cell of the body. The resulting experience, much like an atom, a hurricane, or a solar system, is silent on the inside and incredibly powerful on the outside. Stress, which triggers the production of degenerative stress-fighting hormones and free radicals, literally strips the silence or consciousness out of our cells. The goal in Ayurvedic longevity and Ayurveda in general is to replace that stress with silence and live life to our full potential, in the eye of the hurricane—calm and powerful.
The eight major branches of Ayurveda range from pediatrics to longevity. The branch that deals with longevity is called rasayana, meaning rejuvenation.
A rasayana is also a category of herbal preparations designed to rejuvenate the body, mind, and self at the deepest possible level. In Ayurveda, stress is understood to be a causative factor in the disease process, in part because stress lodges toxins deep within the tissues of the body. A rasayana is designed to remedy stress and repair and rejuvenate the deep tissues of the body. Usually a rasayana is a combination of many herbs and minerals, sometimes as many as forty, that are put through an extensive preparation process that can take days or even weeks to complete. This elaborate process is designed to refine and enhance the potency of the herbs so that they can be absorbed into the deep tissues of the body.
One of the most powerful and respected rasayanas is chyawanprash. It’s an elaborate combination of herbs, fruits, and minerals specifically designed for rejuvenation and enhancing immunity and physiological balance. Western studies have found chyawanprash to be a powerful free-radical scavenger (antioxidant) and anti-stress agent (adaptogen). Taken regularly, chyawanprash builds immunity, improves digestive power, and keeps the mind and lungs clear. It is also beneficial for stress, anxiety, and depression.
The main ingredient of chyawanprash is amalaki (Emblica officinalis), commonly called Indian gooseberry. The fruit of a citrus tree, amalaki, or amla, is one of the most powerful rejuvenative herbs in Ayurveda. Each fruit contains more than 3,000 mg of bioavailable vitamin C. In chyawanprash, amalaki has a large supporting cast consisting of ghee, sesame oil, honey, raw unrefined sugar, long pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, sandalwood, cloves, giant potato, ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), asparagus, bala (country mallow), gudduchi (heart-leaved moonseed), gokshura (small caltrops), bhumiamalaki (phyllanthus), punarnava (hogweed), bilva, and vadarikand. Honey and raw sugar act as anupan, or carriers of the herbs into the deep tissues. The sweet tastes are assimilated quickly into the bloodstream, all the while carrying active constituents of the chyawanprash.
While, classically speaking, rasayanas are extremely complex formulations, other simpler combinations of herbs, and even individual herbs, are also considered rasayanas. Rasayana is a high honor for an individual herb to carry and only a few qualify. Ashwaganda is the best known, single-herb rasayana. It is sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng for its rejuvenative and tonic actions. Numerous studies have documented its antistress adaptogenic properties; in many of these, ashwaganda ranks higher than ginseng.
In one study, ashwaganda increased physical endurance, prevented the stress-induced depletion of vitamin C and cortisol, and prevented stress-related gastrointestinal ulcers. In Sanskrit, ashwaganda means “the sweat or smell of a horse,” indicating that one who takes it will gain the strength and stamina of a horse—some even say ten horses. It is quickly becoming well-known as an herb for fighting stress and promoting energy and endurance.
According to Ayurveda, there are seven bodily tissues that resemble enzymatic and anabolic processes of the body. These tissues include lymph, blood, muscle, fat, bone, and nervous tissue. The seventh and most refined tissue is called ojas; it governs the reproductive and immune systems and is defined as the physical expression of consciousness. Stress depletes ojas by interfering with the production of the seven tissues, and it leaves the body susceptible to what we call stress-related illness. So, according to the Ayurvedic definition of longevity, increasing consciousness in the body is paramount, and ashwaganda can accomplish this process.
Ashwaganda rejuvenates and restores the nervous system—helping you sleep.
Although all parts of ashwaganda have been traditionally used for medicines, the root is most commonly used today. Ashwaganda contains at least twenty-six different bioactive alkaloids, steroidal lactones called withanolides, and sitoindosides. Its complex chemistry, much of which is still unknown, offers a broad spectrum of therapeutic actions: tonic, nervine, sedative, nerve restorative, adaptogen, aphrodisiac, anti-inflammatory, and respiratory stimulant. Traditionally, ashwaganda is used to treat general debility, arthritis, depression, chronic fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depressed immunity, sexual debility, infertility, memory loss, breathing difficulties, and hormonal imbalances. It is used effectively for insomnia, but not as a sedative. Instead, its ability to rejuvenate and restore the nervous system provides the energy (prana) needed by the body to settle itself down and sleep. In this way, ashwaganda’s adaptogenic properties help the body deal with stress-related conditions rather than masking them with a sedative.
Ashwaganda is most commonly combined with other herbs to enhance its effectiveness. It mixes well with boswellia (Boswellia serrata) as an anti-inflammatory for arthritic conditions and in one study matched the effectiveness of hydrocortisone. It combines well with shilijit (see below) and turmeric as an antitumor agent and should be included in all such formulas.
Another Ayurvedic remedy that has been awarded the title of rasayana is shilijit, also called mineral pitch (asphaltum or bitumen). It’s an exudate from the rocks of the Himalayan mountains and its literal meaning is “something that has won over rocks.” It is also given the title “panacea” in Charaka Samhita, the most respected of Ayurvedic texts.
Shilijit is also called yogavahi, which means it strengthens and enhances all herbs and processes in the body. Although how it does this is not fully understood, it is believed that the porous fulvic and humic acids in shilijit carry herbal compounds deep into the tissues of the body. These porous transport cavities may also hook toxins and escort them out of the body.
Shilijit is used for immune disorders, chronic fatigue, urinary tract disorders (but not kidney stones), memory, tumors, nervous disorders, and sexual dysfunction. It is a known free-radical scavenger, antistress agent, and powerful adaptogen. Studies have shown that shilijit helps improve memory, handle stress, and fight inflammation. It dramatically lowers recovery time in muscle, bone, and nerve injuries and appears to modulate or stimulate the immune system.
John Douillard, D.C., was trained in India and currently practices Ayurvedic medicine at LifeSpa in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of Body, Mind and Sport—The Mind-Body Guide to Lifelong Fitness and Your Personal Best (Crown, 1995).
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