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A Short Introduction to Ayurveda

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Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word. Like many other words, it’s a combination of two root words: ayur (life) and veda (knowledge or science). An acceptable definition of the word Ayurveda is “the science of life.” It’s a holistic science that places importance on spiritual health as a key to physical and mental health. In opposition to a lot of modern thought, Ayurveda doesn’t see health as simply the absence of disease, but rather as a state of positive and radiant wellbeing. This is not achieved by meticulously counting calories or nutritionally analyzing every type of food you consume. It’s achieved by identifying features in food and activities that will result in a balance of your Gunas and your Dosha.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s a Guna? And, who’s a Dosha?” Right?

The three Gunas are found in Samkhya philosophy, one of the six Indian Darshans (or ways of seeing). The entire universe is considered to be a manifestation of a mixture of the three Gunas: Rajas, Tamas, and Sattva. Rajas is considered to be dynamic and can be thought of as kinetic energy. Tamas is associated with inertia or potential energy. Sattva is the luminescent consciousness that balances these two seemingly opposing forces. We’re all a mixture of these three Gunas. I’m sure you can think of people who are more inert or dynamic for their own good. Neither extreme is good. Like yoga, Ayurveda seeks to increase Sattva in the individual.

Ayurveda further classifies us by Dosha types—our constitutional tendencies, innate biological makeup, and intrinsic elements of who we are. For example, I have a deviated septum. This is a strong mark of the irregularity of Vata, and although I’m red bearded and blonde (both markers for Pitta), none of these will change as I move through life. As with the Gunas, we’re mixtures of the Dosha types. People are predominantly one Dosha or a mixture of two; few are tridoshic and split between three. Our Doshas aren’t dependent upon our habits for the last two months but rather our habits over the last 20 years.

The first Dosha is Vata. Vata is associated with cold, dry, light, irregular, mobile, rarefied, and rough. Colorado’s weather is a good example of Vata. The second is Pitta. Pitta is associated with oily, hot, light, intense, fluid, malodorous, and liquid. A digestive tract needs some Pitta to perform well, but it doesn’t need a lot. Stomach acids and the bile our bodies produce for digestion are good examples of Pitta. The third is Kapha. Kapha is associated with oily, cold, heavy, viscous, stable, dense, and smooth. We’re all likely to see some of these traits in ourselves as well as a cross over between the Doshas. In Indian sciences, this is normal—not everything fits neatly into one category. Balancing Doshas can be achieved by consuming or not consuming certain amounts of the six Ayurvedic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent.

Each taste has several different elements. How the elements correspond to your Dosha generates positive health and balance or disease and imbalance.

  • Salty is water and fire, which increases Pitta’s innate heat and Kapha’s cool moist qualities. Salty is balancing for Vata because it warms and soothes Vata’s cold dry qualities.
  • Sweet is earth and water. It increases Kapha but decreases Pitta and Vata. Both Kapha and sweet are earthy, so they increase when mixed. The opposite is true for sweet’s effect on Pitta and Vata, which are either hot and wet or cold and dry.
  • Sour is composed of fire and earth. It increases Kapha and Pitta, but it decreases Vata.
  • Bitter is mostly air and space. Bitter leafy greens, for example, may seem like a big mass but wilt down to nothing when cooked lightly. Bitter helps to balance Pitta and Kapha and it also increases Vata.
  • Pungent, like hot chiles and garlic, increases Pitta and Vata with its qualities of heat and air and it also decreases Kapha. When wasabi clears out congested sinuses, pungent is working to balance overactive Kapha.
  • Astringent is the most difficult taste to pin down. An unripe banana or raw cranberry that leaves a dry feeling in your mouth is astringency at work. Astringent is mainly air and earth. It increases Vata and decreases Pitta and Kapha.

By using these tastes, we can start to balance our constitutions and eventually our Gunas. So, where do we start? Pay attention to the tastes and qualities you discover in your life and observe how certain tastes affect you physically, mentally, and spiritually. Being conscious of your consumption and its effects is an excellent first step toward the goals of both yoga and Ayurveda.

For more information on Ayurveda please read: Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution by Dr. Robert Svoboda.

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Until next time, may you all be Happy, Healthy, and in Harmony with your environment.

Namaste – A. R. Berger

Mindfulness: Be Present

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Mindfulness is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” We see the word everywhere these days—in books, advertising, and other media. One of my favorite athletic clothing brands recently launched a mindfulness line “for the days you want to be mindful.”

Most people agree that being mindful is a good thing, but many of us aren’t sure how to be mindful, what being mindful really means, and why it’s so important.

Not too long ago, our society viewed multitasking as a skill to be admired. Women were proud of their ability to drive a car and simultaneously apply makeup, eat breakfast, referee a back seat fight, rehearse a work presentation, and compose a mental grocery list for dinner. Now we have smartphones with texts, emails, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and other sources constantly beckoning our attention.

Distraction and over stimulation do not help our brains function. We’ve learned that multitasking doesn’t work—people actually get less done (with less quality) even though they think they’re doing more. Multitasking has even been compared to cocaine; both activate the reward pathway by increasing dopamine. This constant bombardment of distractions—a neural addiction—increases our underlying stress and corrodes our minds and health.

Being in a constant state of distraction is a safety risk as real as texting while driving: it can steal our lives. We scan through Facebook posts or Snapchat pictures instead of talking with family and friends at a restaurant. We immediately interrupt our regular activities to reply to daily emails. By not being present, we miss the simplicity of each moment. When we’re engaged and present, we don’t have to wonder where our time has gone. We lived it and can remember it, or maybe even feel it. Focusing on the past or the future, or indulging in other distractions, means we relinquish the beauty of simplicity.

So, how do we become more mindful? We all practice mindfulness when we’re fully engaged with someone—not checking our cell phones or making mental to-do lists while partially listening and investing. For some people, mindfulness is in prayer. For me, it’s in nature with my family and dog, playing with my goats, or doing yoga. These are times when my mind is focused on each present moment and I feel peaceful, whole, and aware.

Mindfulness is a skill to be practiced several times throughout your day as you train your mind to stay focused and be present. One of my favorite quotes about mindfulness is from Geneen Roth, author of Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything.

“It’s like washing the dishes. If you focus on getting the dishes done so that your kitchen will be clean, you miss everything that happens between dirty and clean. The warmth of the water, the pop of the bubbles, the movements of your hand. You miss the life that happens in the middle zone between now and what you think your life should be like. And when you miss those moments because you would rather be doing something else, you are missing your own life. Those moments are gone, you will never get them back.”

As a lifelong student of health and nutrition, I know how important it is to cultivate mindfulness when we’re trying to change our relationships with food. Eating lunch at your computer, for example, while scrolling through social media images can increase anxiety and lower self-esteem, which can then lead to emotional eating.

I am so excited to have Dr. Kristen Race lead our wellness series this next Sunday. I am a huge fan of her work. Not only is she incredibly knowledgeable, Dr. Race is also engaging and funny. I took her Mindfulness in the Workplace series and it changed the way I organize my day, significantly reducing my stress. I hope you’ll join us.

In light and love,Sandy

Restorative Yoga: Less is More

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Steamboat is known for its active outdoor lifestyle and prolific production of Olympic athletes. People visit or move here to get their adrenaline rush—whether it derives from banking turns on a mountain bike, skiing fresh backcountry powder, skinning to Storm Peak at dawn, or kayaking the Yampa River. Especially for people who love high intensity activities, restorative yoga is important for maintaining a healthy body and a balanced lifestyle.

A lot of Type A people seek intense, dynamic workouts, and we can now scientifically recognize the power of restorative yoga to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and mitigate the effects of those workouts. Continual engagement in activities that invite the fight or flight response increases the likelihood of muscular damage and breakdown. Restorative yoga counters that effect by calming the nervous system all the way down to the cellular level.

The parasympathetic nervous system is our rest and digest system that acts as a direct counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps our muscles relax, heart rate slow, and blood pressure drop. It also helps lower our cortisol and blood sugar levels while improving our sleep patterns and our immune and digestive systems. Increased blood circulation to the endocrine and lymphatic systems means the body can extract nutrients and eliminate toxins more effectively.  In addition, activating the parasympathetic nervous system aids in weight loss because of its effect on stress hormones.

While athletes are willing to accept that strength and endurance training requires resting certain muscle groups, we tend to close the doors on yoga as an aid in recovery. We’re so eager to see the results we want that the benefits of restorative yoga are often overlooked. Restorative yoga helps us heal and recuperate physically, but it also trains our minds to remain in—or choose to remain in—a relaxed state for longer periods of time.

People who practice yoga can learn to be aware of sensations and thoughts as they enter their bodies and minds. They can identify stressful triggers and respond in ways that maintain equilibrium between the nervous systems. In this way, restorative yoga (a physical precursor to meditation), can improve our moods and overall psychological and physiological health.

By its nature, restorative yoga is a receptive practice and therefore the antithesis of our mountain culture. But when we look at restorative yoga as a complement to our other activities, we can attain a healthier state of being and achieve better results on our bikes, skis, boats, or mats.

Restorative yoga is an activity without a goal—it’s an explorative process that invites us to exist within our true selves. While it can be renounced as too passive, it’s actually an opportunity for deep healing, growth, and repair for our bodies and brains.

Importance of Self-Compassion in Making Change

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Self-compassion is an important part of overcoming addiction, losing weight, or making any kind of change in your life. American culture tends to emphasize self criticism; we’re driven to be hard on ourselves in order to make lasting change instead of approaching change from a place of self-compassion. People may mistake self-compassion with self indulgence, pity, or overly permissive behavior where making excuses is prioritized over taking responsibility. Research from neuroscience, however, shows that people who practice self-compassion get more done and are able to sustain their work better than those who don’t practice self-compassion.

So what is self-compassion? Dr. Kristen Neff identifies three parts of self-compassion. The first part is self-kindness or the act of being kind to yourself. This includes being understanding and nurturing instead of harshly critical and judgemental of yourself. You are honest and clear about your faults but accepting and tolerant of them while seeking to do better. Self-kindness should not be confused with destructive pleasure seeking. When you are kind to yourself, you don’t engage in behaviors that don’t nurture the body or soul. You choose things which truly make you feel better and support you during dark times.

The second component of self-compassion is common humanity or the realization that it’s not just you–everyone makes mistakes and feels inadequate at times. If you see yourself as part of the whole instead of a isolated outcast, you are less likely to engage in the “poor me” pitfall of self indulgence.

Mindfulness makes up the third portion of self-compassion. Mindfulness is a state of non-judgemental awareness and self observation. How does one develop mindfulness? A great way to become more mindful and tuned in is to spend 3-5 minutes a day working on deep belly breathing in a quiet relaxed state, allowing your mind to focus on nothing more than the breath. This allows you to tune in to your body.

Start to note your internal dialogue, which is the voice in your head running commentary all day long. Is your dialogue helpful? Or is it overly critical and and telling you that you are “screwing up”? How can you change the dialogue to serve you and not cut yourself down? One way is to focus on the process of what you’re trying to accomplish instead of the desired outcome. Instead of being overly critical if you don’t achieve your expected reward, honor your deeper values and accept that the process is rarely, if ever, perfect.

Self-compassion is not an excuse to let yourself off the hook, ignore real problems, or be overly self-centered. People who integrate self-compassion tactics during life changes find they can regulate their feelings, experience less stress, and have less reactive behavior. To quote John O’Donahue, “when you are compassionate with yourself, you trust in your soul, which will let you guide your life. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny better than you do.”

Behind Rakta: The Vision for Health

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As a Physician Assistant, I have seen firsthand the toll of unhealthy lifestyles, addiction, poor choices, and chronic disease. Over my 20 year career, I evaluated patients in the emergency department, operated on some of them, and took care of many more in the ICU. I have witnessed the dying process, and health has become a personal mission for me. Watching people suffer and die from cancer, heart disease, COPD, and trauma made me feel helpless.

A few years ago, I decided to follow a holistic path based on food as medicine, merging this approach with the western medical model I knew and used professionally. This path was inspired by a wonderful medical student from Nepal who I met a few years before I moved to Steamboat.

Sponsored by Denver Health, I was running a medical clinic for the homeless on Thursday evenings. I supervised volunteer medical students and we had minimal supplies for the people we treated. We talked a lot about food choices, supplements, and even yoga. One night this wonderful student from Nepal made a comment and it changed my life forever. He said, “I don’t understand your country. In Nepal, when someone sees a doctor the first question is ‘What can I eat?’ In your country, patients don’t ask about food and doctors don’t talk about diet, just pills.” This student is now a gastroenterology fellow studying holistic nutrition.

I believe if we learn to listen to our bodies, they will tell us what works and what doesn’t. In our culture today, we are so busy that we don’t even know how to tune in to our bodies’ communication until something goes wrong. The media inundates us with so much information about good foods, bad foods, supplements, and diets; it’s overwhelming trying to figure out what’s best for our health.

“Rakta” is one of the seven tissues in Ayurvedic medicine. It refers to the red blood cells and is thought to nourish the body and preserve life. The mission at Rakta Hot Yoga is to provide yoga, fitness, meditation, and wellness to nourish our clients. We use infrared heat for our heated classes because of its therapeutic benefits. We offer non-heated classes for those who don’t like the heat or have medical reasons for avoiding it. We offer fitness classes like kickboxing, bands, and Essentrics as compliments to your yoga practice. We have a strong focus on restorative yoga, gentle yoga, and meditation because we believe in the importance of recovery for active bodies.

The wellness team at Rakta is comprised of experts in many different aspects of wellness including nutrition, Ayurveda, sleep, financial health, and spirituality. We will offer free wellness talks the first Sunday of every month at 5:30pm. In addition, we have a wellness room for massage, Ayurvedic treatments, nutrition coaching, and other services available by appointment.

Rakta was born from my passion to help people on their journeys to health. I love the medical precision of anatomy and alignment. I also love the fidelity with which we can use yoga, pilates, and nutrition to customize treatment for each individual. It has taken great perseverance to see my vision to fruition. For me, Rakta Hot Yoga is “Passion Precision Perseverance.” We support your passion in life and help you connect to it. We use precision in our teaching, wellness talks, and wellness services to give the best information available. We will help you persevere through life’s challenges to achieve your goals.

In light and love, Sandy