Long before the three pillar model became a symbol of stability and sustainability, the original geniuses behind the codification of Ayurveda conceived of it as the triad most critical for rock solid health.
The three pillars which create a tripod of stability for the human body-mind complex are diet, sleep and sexual activity. Now, most often when I hear people discuss good daily healthy practices, good diet and exercise (and maybe supplements) are always prominent, but it is of concern that sleep is typically regarded only as an afterthought, and sexual activity is driven by desire and prone to dysregulation. Intelligent awareness of these three pillars can completely revolutionize how amazingly alive you feel on an everyday basis. It is not a quick fix, but then keep the visual in mind that these are three weighty pillars.
So what diet is the best? Vegetarian? Vegan? Gluten-free? Paleo? The Ayurvedic approach follows the view which Hippocrates endorsed: “Let food be thy Medicine.” There is no dogmatic endorsement of a one-size-fits-all diet. The master key to determining the best food habits require a keen awareness of your body and the environment.
Here’s what you should be paying attention to:
1. The time
2. The place
3. Your Age
4. Your Body type (Prakriti)
5. Your Digestive ability
6. Strength of your body, both innate and acquired
7. Diet habits that you have followed over an extended period which feel right.
If you are facing some minor health challenges, then paying close attention to time and place will be important. What this means is that favoring certain foods when living in a part of the world with a certain climate (rainy and humid Chennai, or arid Jaipur) you will need to fine tune your diet so as to avoid aggravating your condition. If you are in good health, eating health promoting food which you are used to is sufficient.
The Six Tastes (shad rasa)
It is a very good practice to consume what Ayurveda recognizes as the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent) at every meal. Analyze your meal choices over a week and note if you are overly favoring a certain taste of others. You just may be sowing the seeds of ill health if you aren’t careful.
While this is well known as far as refined carbohydrates and the connection with obesity or insulin resistance/early diabetes, this also extends to certain disorders such as nervous system conditions being aggravated by excessive raw foods, or acid reflux disease finding its roots in an excess of pungent taste.
Also pay attention to quality of your raw ingredients used for cooking, the method of cooking and combining of ingredients, the quantity of food, the area of its origin, the season and time of day when you eat, and how well your previous meal has been digested. To improve the body’s digestion and assimilation of the food you eat, respect the act of eating. That means no TV, no checking your Facebook feed on your phone while eating, and if you have company, preferably eating in silence.
You also want to ensure that your internal engine is running clean and not producing noxious gases. If you feel naturally hungry, if you belch there is no remnant of taste from the previous meal, and your mind feels clear and light, you are in the optimal state to convert that food into good fuel that will nourish you well.
If not, your digestive process needs an overhaul – there’s probably a build-up of toxic undigested food clogging the subtle channels of the body and producing an environment that promotes disease.
The rule of thumb is leave the table feeling slightly hungry rather than slightly overstuffed. Favor foods that are lightly cooked in ghee. Your evening meals should be light and easily digested – vegetable soups seasoned appropriately, and slightly sweet in taste are best. Sip room temperature (or slightly warm) boiled water with your meals, and avoid toxic combinations such as chicken combined with dairy products, or fruit and milk in combination (which means a burger with an ice laden milkshake is a disaster – Ayurvedically speaking, not only calorically).
If you are going to be making healthier changes to your diet, please do so gradually, reducing offending foods slowly so that the body doesn’t get shocked. Even healthy foods need time to be adapted to.
There is much more to be said regarding diet, but this is just a quick primer.
The second pillar, and one which is overlooked by most – unless there are obvious issues like insomnia.
Ayurvedically speaking, the nervous system is governed by vata or the Air element. “Air” is a crude translation of vayu, but all impulse generation, synaptic transmission, processing of sensory inputs, secretion of neuroendocrine molecules are the domain of prana, or “vital airs”. The nature of air is to be swift, mobile and energetic. It is also very easy to tip the balance of the prana from one of boundless creativity to nervous energy wearing out the body to exhaustion.
Unfortunately, even this exhaustion doesn’t lead to deep, restful sleep, but further keeps the wheels of the mind spinning in a self perpetuating cycle.
Insomnia is further aggravated by other factors such as the component of fire element called sadhaka pitta, which can be correlated with neurohormones and mental performance. What can give you the edge in a competitive, high stress, creative, energetic work environment also makes it difficult to fall asleep and remain asleep.
Insomia is a very aggravated disturbance in sleep. But you may often experience poor quality sleep where the body does not enter deep non-REM sleep enough (evening caffeine intake can be a contributor), leaving you feeling tired when you wake up.
Recent research has shown sleep to play a vital part in the brain’s ability to clear out toxins built up from the intense activity of a day’s work (note that the brain has the highest glucose utilization in the body, a direct function of high levels of cellular activity).
Benefits of Restful Sleep:
- Strength and vitality of the body, an increase in anabolic effect and muscle growth, enhanced immune function, improved sexual and reproductive function, more happiness and joy, and extended lifespan.
- Loss of sleep, naturally, leads to the opposite effects.
- Ayurveda further recognizes ill effects that sleeping during the day causes (with a few exceptions such as in old age, during peak summer season, or during pregnancy). All Ayurvedic clinicians recommend a strict sleep protocol when managing many conditions including diabetes and hypothyroidism.
The term used in the Ayurvedic texts for the third pillar is Brahmacharya, which is commonly translated as celibacy, or regulation of sexual behavior.
More accurately, the true meaning of the word Brahmacharya is the constant reflection on Brahman, or the Eternal deathless Self-aware consciousness underlying all sentient life. This can be translated into always cultivating an inner silent awareness so that the body is less inclined to extroversion via the senses.
Having a formal practice of sadhana or meditation or Self-enquiry can be very helpful in regulating all desires in a natural manner.
Benefits – Meditation naturally balances and harmonizes the body’s desire to experience sexual pleasure and normalizes it, so that there is not an unhealthy obsession or need to fuel desire simply to achieve orgasm. A regular meditation practice also brings the benefit of a more finely tuned awareness of your body’s internal environment-a very useful skill because it lets you anticipate and self-correct subtle imbalances in your health.