January 1, 2014

How I Teach Ayurveda.

First of all, I don’t really teach.

I used to think I was teaching, back at the dawn of my nine-year span of leading this course. But sitting with clients for all that time has shown me that the best I can and should do is simply facilitate better conversations about personal and social health. This requires my learning as much about a student’s circumstance as I can share with them in terms of Ayurvedic theory. This means creating a learning space that’s conversational, which makes sense for a practice that’s nothing if it’s not about empowerment.

The baroque details of formal Ayurveda can be listed, memorized and regurgitated, but the real art lies in the discussion of principles between people who experience them differently, fueled in part by the Socratic questions of a facilitator, but more robustly by seeing how other people feel and narrate their experience towards an attentive appreciation for the intelligence of their flesh. It’s also good to have people examine each other’s hands and listen to each other’s pulses—not to form opinions (until much later), but to first appreciate the diverse ways in which the flesh speaks. The main tool I try to empower uses the embodied poetry of daily experience: how to take dictation from what is felt.

Here’s an incomplete list of principles that have crystallized in my particular river of Ayurvedic facilitation:

  1. The first thing to look at is healing the “somatic gap”. This is the way in which the flesh has become absent or silent to us, either because we stopped listening, or because we were told in a clinic or hospital that it wasn’t a reliable source of data. If we listen closely, we can hear our flesh writing the poetry of experience.
  2. I try to show that basis of Ayurvedic therapy can be boiled down to feeling things patiently. Everything has a texture, a temperature, a pressure, a flavour. If we get really clear on what those sensations are it can feel as though a kind of inner physician wakes up, knowing intuitively what to do. Intuition isn’t magic. It’s just a refinement of attention.
  3. The most revelatory use of attention may be the most pleasurable. To become aware of each and every sensation—air on the cheek, fabric on your arm, the sound of your breath, the pressure of the earth into your buttocks—as though it were the miraculous surprise it actually is. Neuropsychologist Rick Hansen describes this process as “taking the good”. Ayurveda describes it as the building of ojas: the nectar of resilience. The shiver of causeless pleasure you can induce in a moment of relaxed attention is a concrete health benefit. If people don’t have the time and space to do this, we must fight to help them get it.
  4. The first relationship to heal is our relationship to time. This can take some time. It’s really helpful to learn how to track solar rhythms: sunrise, solar noon, sunset, true midnight. If we listen to that global metronome, we might begin to hear and mediate the internal conversation between what we feel like doing, what we’ve been told to do, and what we really must do.
  5. There is a critical link between digestive fire and one’s passion for life. This means that the question of diet can be simpler than we think. The details of what one should eat are often less important than developing resilience in the digestive tract, which is analogous to developing resilience in the larger world. This happens through the simple virtues of wholesomeness, localness, regularity, happy preparation, proper quantity, and mindful enjoyment in good company.
  6. Periodic fasting and restricted diets can be useful to tone digestion and restore ourselves from excesses, but we have to be very careful of the masochistic tendencies hidden within the drive to “cleanse”.
  7. There is little daylight, if any, between physiology and psychology. Physiological symptoms and psychological symptoms are often indistinguishable. When we begin to feel anxiety and depression as embodied states, we can respond with more than cognitive answers, moral answers, or analyses of past events — however useful these may be. We can respond with tastes and actions.
  8. Constitution is neither a mold nor an identity, nor a commodity to which Ayurvedists can market their formulas. It’s a framework for exercising our unique description of experience from day to day.
  9. The “imbalances” of a constitution may be valuable to that person’s creativity. “Constitutional balancing” should support the genius of a person’s eccentricity, not smooth it away.
  10. Knowing where Ayurveda comes from, culturally and historically, helps us to use it intelligently to balance our conceptual and cultural immersion in biomedicine. It is a very old medicine that speaks to an ancient person within.
  11. The abstract philosophies attached to Ayurvedic culture and pedagogy—from Sankhya to Vedanta—can be useful in simplifying the mechanics of psychological states. But they can also be unnecessary additions to what is at root an art of sensations, textures, and tastes. The spiritual language one finds in much of Ayurvedic literature and culture is of use to the extent that it helps people concentrate their sense of wonderment. But it can lose utility to the extent that it confuses health and vitality with virtue and piety, or surrenders the story of wellbeing to a force greater than what is naturally plain to see. Reciting mantras to the sun will not cause the sun to look with favour upon you. But it can focus your attention upon the cosmic origin of your metabolism, and there is something spacious and relaxing about this. Reciting mantras to the elephant-headed Ganesh may be as powerful in a secular sense as they are in religious usage, by helping non-religious folk remember that we are as much animal as we are human.
  12. Our social environment can make us sick. Our political environment can make us sick. Economic inequality can make us sick. There is no lasting health without a thriving landbase: an environment we love and serve. Practicing Ayurveda is as much about social and environmental justice as it is about examining your tongue and stool in the morning. Our pulses are keeping rhythm with the pulse of the culture, and if the culture is unwell, we suffer, and not just psychologically. Our mirror neurology reflects not just the individuals around us, but the systems within which we are embedded.
  13. Perfect balance is a dream, and so it shouldn’t be a goal. The forces of structure, metabolism, and coordination (the dhatu/doshas) are in a constant state of flux, depending upon time of day, season, and the activities with which we are engaged. That flux, like all change, is naturally stressful. Stress can be reduced but never eliminated. The stress of opposing forces allows things to happen. So it’s helpful to make a distinction between helpful and gratuitous stress. The best way of reducing gratuitous stress is not through the control of circumstances (though this can be helpful and is sometimes necessary to the extent we are able) but in learning how to oscillate between different levels and types of stress with lowered reactivity. Lowering reactivity depends upon strengthening one’s sense of internal resilience and constancy. It depends upon a healthy sense of self: a mixture of confident independence flowing with the humility and wonderment that comes from being aware of interdependence.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: courtesy of the author


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