The “It Depends” Approach to Health: Questioning Ayurvedic Trends, Part 2

Published: May 17, 2022  |  

Ayurvedic Health Counselor, yoga teacher, and writer

In the first half of this two-part article, I covered some of the main tenets of Ayurveda to help you, savvy wellness-seekers, through the wilderness of the Internet as you forge your path towards your best self. 

To briefly recap, as much good information as there is available online these days about Ayurveda, it hasn’t escaped the grasp of modern advertising that seeks to leverage your ego, vulnerability, or desire to belong and feel loved—which, according to them, will happen when you buy their products. As such, when you feel called to partake in a viral trend of any kind, it’s wise to pause and consider: Is this something I really need

The Ayurvedic answer to that question is always (well, at least 99 percent of the time): it depends. That’s because there are so many unique factors to you as an individual that may contribute to how you’re feeling. Even if you fit all the descriptions of why some product would be right for you, that brand or influencer knows nothing about your history and what other factors in your life are contributing to your imbalance. On the other hand, you might have a different imbalance—or none at all—which would make using that product or eating that food a waste of your time and money, of the resources that went into it, and of your future happiness that it might jeopardize. 

This blatant flaunting of “retail therapy” is a bit of a downer—I know, I’ve been there. I used to spend a majority of my meager salary on herbal powders and oils and crystals, each one tempting me with the promise of a better version of myself. While they didn’t cause harm, they also didn’t create the net positive change I expected—resulting in me feeling like there was something wrong with me, which made the product not work. But in the long term—which is always the Ayurvedic view—avoiding unnecessary stress on the body and mind by avoiding unnecessary products or practices, and taking the time to find out which ones will work, is a much more likely route to happiness, along with developing self-discovery and patience. 

To help you along this path, I thought I’d list a few of the more well-known Ayurvedic trends circulating online that you’d do well to “unfollow”—instead, let’s take the time to really unpack what’s behind each and assess if it’s right for you. 

  1. Kitchari 

Kitchari is a wonderful Ayurvedic meal made of white basmati rice and moong dal (a dish that actually exists in many cultures, with modifications). It has become popular as of late in the context of “kitchari cleanses,” which are typically done at seasonal transitions in the form of a mono-diet; i.e., you eat kitchari for all of your meals for one to ten days. If your regular diet is laden with processed foods, your mind and digestion are sluggish, or you’re having food sensitivities, kitchari for any period of time or frequency can be a wonderful way to simplify your intake so the gut doesn’t have to work so hard, and it can begin to repair from any stress-based damage. 

What’s twisted about kitchari in the context of a “cleanse” is that it’s not really that cleansing of a food—especially in the form we eat it in the West, with lots of yummy vegetables, spices, ghee, and herbs. Kitchari is a food that offers a lot of nourishment, unless you’re doing a more traditional variety that in Ayurveda is incorporated during an intense medical detoxification called panca karma, known in the industry as  “PK. In PK, you’ll be eating kitchari—but an extremely watered-down version, more like gruel—to support your body while it’s eliminating, and then to slowly rebuild it with healthy tissue. Not everyone needs PK, and certainly not in an unsupervised, DIY way—hence kitchari as cleansing is another example of Ayurvedic fake news. 

Another outcome of kitchari that surprises folks is that it can actually irritate some people’s digestion. If you’re not used to eating whole foods with digestible fiber—which the rice and dal will definitely deliver—or your digestion is impaired—which is true for most people wanting to “cleanse”—your gut might put up a protest and produce feelings of gas, bloating, or constipation. If you’re looking to start simplifying your diet or get the many benefits of kitchari, ease into it before you mono-diet, and be sure you are incorporating the digestive aids that will be appropriate to you (i.e., the right spices, herbs, and vegetables based on your level of digestion). 

  1. Abhyanga

Ayurveda’s most luxurious “spa treatment,” this practice of self-massage with oil feels as good as it sounds. Unless you tend toward pitta and kapha (have more heat and/or moisture) in your constitution or present state. Pitta and kapha types don’t love oil, since their bodies are inherently oily, so giving yourself a rub might irritate your skin (and mind) more than soothe it. Abhyanga is also avoided in spring and summer, since those seasons have more moisture and heat respectively, and oil would only further clog the channels of circulation and irritate the doshas that are present in the environment at that time; you also don’t oil during menstruation or any kind of illness. Choosing an oil infused with herbs can make it easier to digest for pitta and kapha, but you might instead seek another practice that feels luxurious and soothing that addresses your root cause. Oil may be the Ayurvedic “Windex” (useful on most every ailment, a la My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but in the form of abhyanga, it’s more like hardwood floor cleaner, which has a specific purpose.

Another big mistake people make with abhyanga is that the oiling happens before you shower, rather than after (like most lotions/oils are used in the west). This is so that the oil penetrates the skin with nourishment but then doesn’t stay on the skin and cause occlusion. It seems backwards or contradictory to wash off a product you put on, especially if it was pricer or feels special. But consider this: if you leave something nice on your skin that’s going to make it feel not-nice in a few hours, and maybe cause you to have to seek out another product or service to correct the damage, then isn’t that also wasteful? 

  1. Hot Water with Lemon

This simple beverage may be the easiest “medicine” to support regular elimination and digestion, but if you suffer from pitta or acidic digestion, that lemon will heat you up even more! Additionally, while the recipe seems simple, there is an art to making hot water with lemon. There’s a big difference between hot water from the faucet, hot water made in a tea kettle (electric or stovetop), and hot water that’s cooked and cooled. The latter—cooked water—alone offers incredible support for digestion because of the fact that some of its gasses have evaporated, so the sloshy or bloated feeling you get after drinking water might be alleviated. If you’re sensitive to heat in general, you can let the water cool to room temperature before drinking, but avoid cold water (especially with ice) as that will impair digestion and cause constriction (similar to what happens in a state of stress) throughout the body. Instead, you can toss in a few cardamom pods, fennel seeds, or cucumber slices to make  “medicated water” that reduces heat while also supporting digestion with the bitter taste of these plants.

You also want to be specific about the lemon you add. Fresh juice from an organic lemon, rather than concentrate, is preferred, and just a squeeze for one serving (about ¼ of a lemon per mug) is all you need. Swap lemon for lime if you prefer that flavor or want something a bit more cooling. You don’t want to drink the lemon water all day long (unless your agni needs it) since that will also require a level of “digesting” above and beyond digesting the water; and you want to drink it quickly in the morning to support the flushing of the system, rather than luxuriously sipping over hours. 

When it comes to how much water to drink—it depends. Eight glasses a day is an arbitrary goal since how much water you need depends on your levels of activity (how much you sweat), season, and current state of hydration and digestive capacity. The old trick of filling up on water before a party to eat less works because of its ability to extinguish agni, which we don’t want per Ayurveda. Instead, drink when you’re thirsty. That’s all. 

It may feel a bit wobbly at first to live a life by the “it depends” rule, but with practice, you’ll find it more liberating than overwhelming. Because living this way gives you more autonomy in choosing strategies to deal with your health, the notion that you’ll be stuck with something forever flies out the window. Maybe the metaverse will catch on one of these days and create a button for posts that adds this layer of nuance: ❤️ ? and ?‍♀️

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