When we’re young — children, adolescents, students — our daily lives are mostly determined for us, by parents and teachers, the requirements of home and school. As we enter adulthood, we make more and more of our own decisions, but necessity still drives many of our choices.
But as we mature, most of us become more able to shape the fabric of our lives. We become more aware of our relationships, and how they impact us. We learn from experience what kind of work we enjoy. We learn more about cooking, about what kinds of foods we like to eat and prepare. We understand ourselves more deeply, what makes us happy and motivated.
It can be easy to sink into the daily grind — the routine of activities that seems to define us. But it’s beneficial to sometimes take a broader view and realize that we each possess the capability to define our lives. We choose which activities we pursue, which people we surround ourselves with, what our expectations are for ourselves.
Find Your Dosha
According to Ayurveda, we are all a blend of three main doshas, Vata, Pitta and Kapha, although most of us have one primary dosha. When our doshas are balanced, we are at our best. When they get out of balance (because of poor diet, excess stress or unhealthy lifestyle habits), we can suffer from an array of symptoms such as irritability, inflammation, depression and more. Here’s a little information about the three doshas. To find out more about your own dosha, try an entertaining online quiz such as the one here. To make health decisions based on your dosha, seek a consultation with a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner.
Vata is the dosha associated with the elements of air and space. Vatas tend to enjoy excitement and constant change, keeping irregular eating and sleeping schedules. They are fast-moving and creative. Out-of-balance Vata can cause outbursts of emotion, fear and anxiety.
Pitta is the dosha associated with fire and water. Pittas are typically driven, demanding and natural leaders. They have a medium build and eat well and on a regular schedule. Out-of-balance Pitta can cause anger, rage and egotism.
Kapha is the dosha associated with earth and water. Kaphas are loving, patient and grounded. They typically make decisions slowly. Out-of-balance Kapha can cause lethargy, depression and attachment.
A Restful Retreat
I got an invitation to visit the Art of Living Retreat Center, an Ayurvedic retreat in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, on a busy day at work. My first reaction was no. Our audience is a hardy bunch, not one particularly interested in spas and luxury.
But then I took a minute to look at the Center’s website. I saw its focus on mindfulness, eating well and learning about the best herbal supplements to take, its lessons in meditation and yoga. I also saw its unbelievably beautiful location, on a mountaintop above a sprawling expanse of the gorgeous smoky mountains. I wanted to go.
I’m so happy I did. What I learned in my weekend at the Art of Living Retreat Center has impacted the way I think about my life and health, and it showed me the power of periodically taking a few days to recharge and nourish my body and spirit
The Art of Living Retreat Center offers a combination of healing treatments for body and mind — daily yoga and meditation classes; walks in the 300-plus acres of mountain woods that surround the Center; healthful, Ayurvedic and whole foods-based vegetarian meals; and an array of Ayurveda-based spa services.
Ayurveda is the ancient medicinal system of India. According to Ayurveda, every person comprises some mix of three doshas — Vata, Pitta and Kapha — and it’s important to keep our doshas in balance to avoid disease, illness and ailments. This is done through a combination of dietary recommendations, herbal supplements, and the daily practice of meditation, exercise and breathing techniques.
For me, the biggest benefits of the retreat were simply the chance to get away, to turn off and truly focus on relaxation. For the weekend I stayed, I didn’t check email or social media or watch television, and I ate a plant-based vegetarian diet and abstained from alcohol. “The fact is if we do not take breaks to relieve stress, stress accumulates and manifests as disease,” says Kim Rossi, director of the Center’s Shankara Ayurvedic Spa. “By taking time out and relaxing and reflecting and restoring, we’re able to go back to our lives more centered and more balanced and more patient, which makes us better people and also makes us healthier.”
When I visited, I tried to experience a little bit of everything, so my days consisted of excellent meditation training with Rajshree Patel, one of the world’s most highly sought trainers in the field of personal and spiritual development (she has taught courses at the United Nations, Harvard University and World Bank, among others). Although I’ve been a yoga practitioner for many years, I’d only dipped my toe into meditation before the Center, and my experiences practicing there were intense and profound.
Next, I would enjoy lunch and then head to the Shankara spa for treatments. The spa offers Ayurvedic treatments designed to calm the nervous system, balance the doshas, and promote peace and healing. I’d never heard of any of them before. During the weekend, I experienced three of the Center’s signature treatments: Abhyanga, a detoxifying, rhythmic massage using large quantities of oil; Shirodhara, a continuous pouring of warm oil in a slow, steady stream on the forehead, said to nourish the nervous system, promote tranquility and improve mental clarity; and Marma, the stimulation of specific energy points to rejuvenate vital organs and settle the nervous system.
While I enjoyed all of the treatments, I felt as if I had left my body during Shirodhara, and afterward I felt intensely relaxed and balanced. An editor from another publication joined me, and she preferred the Marma treatment. I mention this only because it illustrates the point so clearly that in natural medicine, we must listen to our own bodies. The treatments, practices or foods that most benefit us are personal, and they won’t be the same for everyone.
My entire experience of the Art of Living Retreat Center was enhanced by the remarkable beauty of the setting. Set high on a mountaintop in the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the Center offers breathtaking views from the balcony of the dining hall, where the Ayurvedic meals are hearty and highly nourishing. The Center also offers hiking trails through the forest, and visitors can take guided or solo walks to clear their minds and immerse in nature.
Leaving the Center, I had the feeling that, during my short stay, I’d done something intensely beneficial and healing for my body and my mind. I felt calmer and healthier, more centered and more nourished. I also gained valuable insights I was able to bring home with me: several new and useful meditation techniques; a couple of new herbal supplements to try; and the knowledge to help bring more balance to my busy life. The Center’s aim is to provide the tools we need to live a conscientious life to its fullest. In my experience, it does just that.
Although it is more than 3,000 years old, Ayurveda — the holistic healing system of India — has striking relevance for life today. With a focus on mindfulness, meditation, turning inward, managing our emotions, eating whole foods and exercising daily, Ayurveda may be the perfect antidote to the stress and anxiety of modern times. Ayurveda specialist and writer Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa describes the system: “Mind, body and spirit are utterly entwined in Ayurveda. The practice looks to create a balance between all aspects of our being, including emotion and environment, and it places emphasis on the ability of the human body to heal itself, with the assistance and support of a variety of nontoxic therapies, including medicinal foods, dietary programs and herbal medicines.”
Ayurveda focuses on both lengthening lifespan and improving quality and happiness of life. The Art of Living Retreat Center’s Shankara Ayurvedic Spa director Kim Rossi believes Ayurveda teaches us how to live well, something many of us are never taught. “We learn so many things in school and then in university, but we do not learn how to take care of ourselves unless we were brought up by very wise elders, and in America that’s often not the case anymore,” she says. “We’ve had to figure it out for ourselves, and some of us have spent time doing that in the course of our lives, but many people have not. We’ve not learned how to take care of damage or clean our minds, and we also learn that feeling nowadays is not appropriate. To feel depressed or anxious or stressed-out is not appropriate, so we should take a pill. We’re not even taught to be fully alive conscious human beings, because we must feel depression and stress and anxiety to feel joy and love.”
Meditation may just be the best medicine for modern living we have available to us. Meditation doesn’t just help us relax—it quite literally changes our brains, building gray matter in parts of the brain associated with the senses, working memory and decision-making. Meditation also builds brain volume (in just eight weeks) in parts of the brain associated with self-relevance, learning, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion, and it shrinks the amygdala, the brain’s center for anxiety, fear and stress. “I think meditation is medication for 2017,” says Kim Rossi, spa director at Shankara Spa at the Art of Living Retreat Center. “I think it’s the prescription for everything…60 percent of people older than 30 are on medicine for their minds—whether it’s for anxiety, depression, insomnia or something else. Meditation helps us manage our minds so our mind becomes our servant instead of our master.”
5 Ayurvedic Herbs
Ayurvedic practitioners make use of an array of herbal supplements to help balance the doshas and keep our bodies and minds at their best. While many herbs are used in Ayurveda, here are some of the most frequently recommended Ayurvedic herbs and what they’re used for.
The most widely used herbal blend in Ayurveda, triphala is a mix of the dried, powdered fruits of three plants, and it’s believed to balance all doshas and benefit anyone who takes it. Recommended as a general tonic, triphala’s traditional uses are supported by animal studies, including its ability to treat infections, control inflammation, lower cholesterol and strengthen immunity. Lab studies support triphala’s ability to fight cancer, but no human studies have verified this.
Tulsi has been used for thousands of years as an herbal tonic, or adaptogen. It’s safe to take daily over the long term and is believed to assist in the body’s ability to adapt to physical, emotional and environmental stressors. Traditional uses of tulsi include immune, digestive and respiratory system support. According to practitioners of traditional Indian medicine, tulsi is an intuitive herb: Those who are overstimulated may experience a relaxing and calming effect, while those who are run-down and lethargic may experience an uplifting effect. Known as the “Incomparable One” in India, tulsi is believed to be life-enhancing in providing uplifted mood, positive energy, protection and balance.
Ashwagandha is considered the premier Ayurvedic tonic for men, according to herbalist Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa. It’s also an adaptogen, said to enhance stamina and rejuvenate the body and mind over time. Studies show it is anti-inflammatory and relaxes the central nervous system in animals. Lab studies have also found ashwagandha to kill cancer cells and enhance some immune cells. Ashwagandha shouldn’t be used by pregnant women.
Known as the “queen of herbs” in Ayurveda, shatavari is considered the system’s main tonic herb for women. It’s used in the long term to balance hormones and treat a variety of hormonal symptoms such as PMS, menstrual cramps and hot flashes. Studies suggest shatavari may also help support the immune system, regulate cholesterol levels and act as an antidepressant.
This is the Ayurvedic name for the herb also known as gotu kola. Used to enhance meditation, brahmi is used by practitioners to repair neuromuscular and nerve tissues, and to support general brain function, memory and concentration. It’s also useful for inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis and eczema.
The Art of Living Retreat Center Programs
The Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, North Carolina, offers an array of getaway options, including yoga retreats, meditation retreats and silent retreats. Here are a couple of its most popular programs.
Happiness Program: The Happiness Program is the Center’s signature program, designed to explore the knowledge and ancient techniques to bring us back to our natural state: happiness. The weekend program focuses on meditation, breath work, peacefulness and nourishment, with the aims of developing a greater sense of happiness and enthusiasm, reducing stress and enhancing creativity.
Detox Retreats: Available in programs for a weekend, or five to eight nights, the detox programs include personal consultation and follow-up to determine your specific Ayurvedic body type and recommendations; three spa treatments; Ayurvedic cleansing food; and professional support. “Everybody needs to detoxify,” says Shankara spa director Kim Rossi. “Even if we have a clean diet and we don’t take medication and we do yoga and meditation, we still need to cleanse. I think of it like you have a pot that you cook in every night. And you cook healthy food with clean, organic ingredients, and you rinse it out every night. Eventually you will still need to get out the sponge and soap and scrub your pot. That’s what our detox program is.”