There’s no one path to wellness. In a world filled with dictatorial diets, detailed skincare routines, endless pressure to stay fit, and apps that nudge us to meditate on schedule, it’s totally refreshing to remind ourselves that we can pick and choose the practices that make us feel our best—even if that changes day to day. But the idea of individualized wellness isn’t a novel concept—it’s exactly what Ayurvedic medicine has prescribed for 5,000 years. Ayurvedic medicine is widely considered the world’s oldest healthcare system—yet, with so many of us seeking alternatives and complementary approaches to traditional Western medicine, it’s more relevant than ever.
What is Ayurvedic medicine?
On a metaphysical level, Ayurveda is built around the five elements of ether, fire, air, water, and earth, and says we’re all composed of three distinctive doshas, or energies, known as vata, pitta, and kapha. The Indian philosophy finds no separation between the mind and body; rather, every part of ourselves is intertwined deeply with spirituality and the environment. Ayurvedic medicine aims to determine what you need and when, in effort to optimize your wellbeing. “Ayurveda is the ancient Indian science which I call the manual for living a healthy life. In the age of modern medicine … Ayurveda can bring a fresh breeze,” explains Seema Datta, an Ayurvedic medicine consultant with more than 20 years of experience. “Ayurvedic medicine focuses on prevention of the disease first and treatment when needed. It includes diet and lifestyle, meditation, breathing, positive affirmations, herbs, and various physical treatments.” Here’s the thing, though: If you’re looking for scientific proof for most of the promised benefits of Ayurvedic medicine, you won’t find it (at least not according to the National Institutes of Health). But anyone who’s dabbled in wellness rituals knows that these practices are instead much more about whether something makes sense for your life in a given moment. And that idea perfectly complements the philosophy behind Ayurveda. Plus, the vast array of Ayurvedic medicine practices have little to no risk of harm, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Devoted Ayurvedic practitioners use the teachings of the original Vedic texts (the oldest scriptures of Hinduism) to influence every aspect of their lives, from precisely when they wake up to what to eat when the seasons change. In short, there are lots and lots of rules. But it doesn’t have to be an all-consuming routine. The beauty of Ayurvedic medicine is that you can select the exact combination of practices that work for you—and leave the rest behind. Ready to dive in? Here are some easy ways to incorporate Ayurvedic medicine into your modern life.
Take the Ayurvedic approach to sleep.
Human beings used to rest when it got dark and wake up around sunrise. But in our modern world, our nature as diurnal animals is continually disrupted by our work-focused culture and endless screen time. How many times have you stayed up way too late scrolling through the ‘gram like a zombie (and woken up feeling like one)? Strict Ayurvedic medicine recommends impossibly early bedtimes (i.e. sunset). That’s when we’re most likely to get non-REM sleep—the kind of shut-eye that actually makes us feel refreshed when we get back up. But since hitting the hay at dusk just isn’t realistic, modern Ayurvedic practitioners say going to bed by 10 p.m. is a happy middle ground. Adjusting your sleep schedule isn’t easy, but it can be done over a couple of weeks. Work on building a better bedtime routine to get your brain ready for sleep earlier in the night. “Notice when you first start yawning and begin your wind-down practice then,” says Cat Pacini, Ayurvedic lifestyle consultant at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. “Put away the electronics, read an actual book or write in a journal, and consider doing some restorative yoga or stretching—anything that shifts the energy to help you ground.” Ideally, Ayurvedic medicine recommends rising just before sunrise. Easier said than done, but setting your alarm an hour or two before you have to jet off to work will give you time for contemplation and mindfulness—and help you become a more balanced version of yourself. “Even spending just five minutes in the morning to check in with yourself and how you feel will set the right energetic tone for the day,” explains Pacini.
Build a better bathroom routine with Ayurvedic medicine.
Do you brush your teeth and wash your face in the a.m.? Then you’ve already begun incorporating Ayurvedic medicine into your life. “Ayurveda says to do a whole routine in the morning,” says Pacini. “If you really did what the classic texts say, it would take a couple of hours. But the basic idea is you wake up early and take care of your senses.” Since you probably don’t have the time to spend half the morning primping, focus on a few key practices. Ayurvedic practitioners strongly recommend including tongue scraping in your dental hygiene. It helps “clear toxins, bacteria, debris” and other gunk from your tongue, according to Sahara Rose Ketabi, author of the Idiot’s Guide to Ayurveda. Just place the scraper on the back of your tongue, gently scrape it forward 10 times, then rinse out your mouth. Ayurvedic medicine also encourages people to give their eyes a little TLC with a gentle spritz of rosewater. “It’s really refreshing, especially for people who do a lot of computer work or face a lot of pollution. Rosewater is cooling—it helps calm red eyes,” says Pacini. Finally, drink a full glass of room-temperature water before ingesting anything else in the morning. It stimulates the “fire” of the digestive system, according to Ayurvedic medicine, and rehydrates you after 8 hours of sleep.
Take care of your skin.
Given that Ayurvedic medicine is about total body healing, it makes sense that it prescribes specific rituals for the largest organ: our skin. Ayurvedic skincare practices will help keep your skin healthy and might even give you an all-day glow. “Try garshana, which means dry brushing,” says Cat Aldana, an integrative Ayurvedic medicine practitioner and founder of the corporate wellness and Ayurvedic retreat company Eat Stretch Nap. “This practice involves using a dry brush to brush skin (like you would hair) in long upward motions towards the heart to circulate energy, increase blood flow, and help shed dry skin. Dry brushing is typically done for 1-2 minutes before a shower and leaves you feeling super refreshed and clean.” You know how glorious your skin and body feel after a massage? You don’t need to go to a spa to get that feeling—give yourself Ayurvedic medicine oil massages, known as abhyanga, right at home. Choose a natural oil, such as organic coconut oil, warm it up, and gently massage it into your body, scalp, and hair, says Aldana. “After you have finished rubbing in the oil, set a timer and lay down in savasana on a towel for 5-20 minutes, or however long your body needs to rest,” she says. “This practice is perfect for smoothing and nurturing your skin while detoxifying the body. The best time for an oil massage is right before a shower. It’s also also a perfect opportunity to notice and appreciate your body for all that it does for you.”
Eat the Ayurvedic way.
Ayurvedic medicine gets pretty detailed when describing what you should eat. It takes into account which dosha is predominant and offers guidelines on meal times, portion sizes, and the best kinds of foods for your body as the seasons change. The idea is that mindful eating fuels our bodies and acts as a deterrent for disease. If you want to dabble in the Ayurvedic diet, start by regulating the size of your meals. While Western cultures typically make breakfast or dinner the largest meal of the day, Ayurvedic medicine recommends lunch as your main meal—that’s when you’ll need the most energy and have ample time to digest properly. “It shouldn’t be a huge meal, but make it the one with the densest amount of nutrients,” says Pacini. “Digestion is strongest at the pitta time of day [10 a.m.-2 p.m.]. Take a lunch break and focus on what you’re eating.” Think salad is your best bet for a healthy, nutrient-rich meal? You’re not wrong, but Ayurvedic medicine believes that cooked food is a little easier on the digestive system. Opt for lightly cooked vegetables and lots of whole foods whenever possible. “Stay clear from excess cold, dry, and raw foods, which can cause a vata imbalance. Vata is a cold, dry energy, therefore we must counterbalance it with warm, moist foods,” says Ketabi. “Make your salad and have soup on the side. Drink hot water with your green juice. Use room temperature instead of frozen fruits in your smoothie. Warm your body so your digestion can work more effectively, allowing you to absorb more nutrients.” As much as you can, cook your own foods to align your body with Ayurvedic medicine. The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook: A Seasonal Guide to Living and Eating Well by Kate O’Donnell offers plenty of easy, tasty recipes backed by vedic knowledge, and serves as a thorough starter guide to Ayurvedic cooking. Finally, eat slowly and mindfully—the Ayurvedic way. Don’t rush through meals or try to work as you chew. “Actually sitting and eating is really important so we can digest our food well. That’s what’s giving us energy and strength,” says Pacini. Ayurvedic medicine provides plenty of tools to help us build healthy, self-care lifestyles. Try out the rituals of this ancient philosophy to see what helps you thrive. And if certain practices don’t appeal to you, ditch ‘em. It’s about making time for yourself, not forcing you into a rigid routine—so embrace it!