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3 Ways to Build Stress Resilience with Ayurvedic Ideas
In the West, stress has become a major contributor to disease, with some authorities attributing up to 80 percent of illness to it. As a result, activities meant to reduce stress such as yoga, meditation and exercise have been added to our to-do lists. Time becomes our enemy when we try to fight this battle against accumulated stress, as we never seem to have enough time for exercise and yoga.
Instead of stress reduction, Ayurveda, which means “the science of life,” prescribes a series of stress-prevention techniques. While stress reduction assumes that we must first incur the stress and then figure out a way to reduce it, stress prevention is a way of life that doesn’t require a huge time commitment and aims not to allow stress to affect us in the first place.
We all see birds fly south and the leaves change color in the fall — sure signs that winter is approaching. There are powerful cycles in nature that dictate survival. If a bird didn’t fly south, how long would it survive during the colder months?
Our modern world has done a good job of disconnecting us from these natural cycles. Ayurveda, on the other hand, suggests a lifestyle in harmony with them. Once you experience what it is like to live with the cycles, it becomes a way of life. Unlike most diets or stress-reduction techniques, stress prevention is a way a life that you will look forward to.
1. Eat foods that are in season
Each season offers the human body an opportunity for stress relief and rejuvenation. The spring, which is the beginning of nature’s annual cycle, is a wet and rainy season, with accumulating qualities of heaviness and congestion. In Ayurveda this is called kapha season, and the word’s derivation is the same as the word “cough,” with earth and water properties predominating.
Nature provides the springtime antidote to these kapha qualities with leafy greens, sprouts, berries and grapefruits, all of which are fat-emulsifying. This is the season when the body is naturally letting go of its toxic fat stores. If your diet stays seasonal (green and alkaline) and the stressors are minimal, the body will enter into a naturally occurring fat-burning, detox, de-stress process.
During the summer or pitta (fire) season, the days are long and the nights are short. Nature provides high-energy fruits and vegetables to help the body maintain the vigor needed to perform during these longer days. Summer foods are naturally cooling and thus prevent the body from accumulating pitta, or heat, which can begin to dry out and inflame the tissues toward the end of the summer, when heat is building up. In late summer, bitter roots and cooling fruits that have a natural cleansing effect are harvested to detox excess heat, toxic blood or waste out of the body.
The winter or vata (air) season, which is predominately cold and dry, is mitigated by nature’s harvest of heavy, warm, oily and sweet foods. (Squirrels eat nuts in the winter because they are nature’s high-protein, high-fat antidote to the cold.) These are the rebuilding and rejuvenating foods that insulate the body while nourishing the mind and body, as the shorter days provide for deep rest and rejuvenation.
2. Eat three meals a day, emphasis on lunch
Nature has daily cycles as well as seasonal cycles that we must follow to prevent stress. The most critical time of day with regard to fat metabolism and stress relief is between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. This is the vata time of day, when the nervous system is demanding a significant amount of blood sugar to satisfy the needs of the mind (it’s the same time that many of us are craving dark chocolate, soft drinks and coffee).
If your lunch meal was not adequate or not taken during the pitta (digestive) time of day (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), you will not have enough energy to make it through the afternoon. Your blood sugar will drop and the body will crave sweets elevating the blood sugar. What goes up must come down, and this starts the high-low blood sugar roller-coaster ride that chemically tells the body to store fat and crave sugar.
Some experts have suggested eating small and frequent meals as the solution to this blood sugar instability. While this might provide short-term relief, it will never deliver the blood sugar and mood stability gleaned by eating three meals a day with nothing in between. Snacking destabilizes the blood sugar, creating a need to be fed frequently and thus providing no reason for the body to metabolize its stored and toxic fat. This is important because fat is the body’s de-stressing, non-emergency, mood-stabilizing and slow-burning fuel that is most efficiently burned between meals.
So one of the best stress-prevention techniques is to eat three meals a day with no snacking between meals. Try to make lunch larger and more relaxing, and supper, which comes from the word “soup” or “supplemental,” a touch smaller and eaten as early as possible.
3. Try breathing differently when you exercise
We all know that exercise is a valuable tool for stress relief, but only about 20 percent of the American population does it regularly. In my book Body, Mind and Sport, I discuss breathing techniques to be used during exercise that will take the work out of your workout and allow you to enjoy exercise — perhaps for the first time ever!
Next time you go for a walk or run, try breathing only through the nose. How you breathe when you exercise does make a difference. The nose is engineered to drive the air through the turbinates (turbine-like structures) in your nose all the way into the lower lobes of the lungs. The lower lobes are rich in blood supply and calming nerve receptors, while the upper lobes have much less blood and a predominance of stress receptors.
Imagine if you saw a bear in the woods. You would take a quick, gasping breath through the mouth! This would activate stress receptors in the upper lungs, which would inject you with adrenaline and get you up a tree and save your life. This is a fine response when a bear is chasing you, but we breathe 26,000 times a day. If every breath is shallow and into the stress receptors in the upper lobes of the lungs, then we begin to experience all our life events as stress-related emergencies. Breathing through the nose during exercise will force the more efficient and stress-fighting lower lobes of the lungs to open.
Soon you will find that what was once hard will become easy and you will be breathing more efficiently into those calming lower lobes during exercise and eventually throughout your daily life — 26,000 times a day.
John Douillard, D.C., Ph.D. is the author of Body, Mind and Sport, The 3-Season Diet, Perfect Health for Kids and The Encyclopedia of Ayurvedic Massage. Douillard is the featured expert in several Ayurvedic health and wellness DVDs from Gaiam and he directs LifeSpa, an Ayurvedic retreat and Panchakarma center in Boulder, Colorado. For more information he can be contacted at 303-456-4848 or www.LifeSpa.com.