01.04.2013 Ayurveda

Healing Warmth

In autumn, we need to counteract the cold, dry, influence of Vata, says Ayurvedic cook Nadia Marshall

If you're tuned into your digestion at all, you may have noticed it has been more sensitive than usual over the last few weeks. This may have presented itself as a changeable appetite, an increase in gas, bloating or pain after eating and maybe even a little dry constipation. But why? The change of seasons usually wreaks havoc with our digestion and the transition from Summer to Autumn is the most aggravating of all. Bear with me as I attempt to explain this complex interplay of shifting qualities...

Autumn is a time when the Ether and Air elements in our body naturally increase due to their increased quality in the environment. This is a reflection of the Ayurvedic teaching of Like Increases Like - when we are exposed to certain qualities in the environment, our food and other sensory impressions, these same qualities are increased in our body and mind.

In Ayurveda, it is understood that Ether (or Space) and Air exist as a united force in the body and are referred to as 'Vata'. Vata is one of three 'doshas' or functional intelligences in the body; the other two being 'Pitta' (Fire/Water) and 'Kapha' (Earth/Water).

Vata is responsible for all movement and communication in the body so is deeply involved in the functioning of our nervous, endocrine and excretory systems. Its principal qualities are those of Air moving through Space - cold, dry, rough, light, mobile and irregular. Any change of season aggravates Vata but as we move from a warmer time of year to the first hints of cold Winter nights with windy days and variable temperatures, Vata escalates more than ever...

But how is this experienced? How does it feel when Air and Space increase in the body? Talking about 'an increase in qualities' may seem like an abstract concept but it is actually completely literal. If your Vata is aggravated, you will literally feel more cold, dry, rough, light, mobile and irregular. Let me break this down so it makes more sense....

Increased cold will be felt as a chill down to your bones, or at least in your hands and feet as your circulation is affected. If you have any existing pain in your joints or other parts of your body, it will be exacerbated by the cold. Your skin, hair and nails may become more dry and rough. Your bowels may become a little drier too, leading to constipation or they may become more mobile, leading to Vata-type loose stools (usually brought on by nervousness or anxiety). Your muscles may become more mobile leading to random twitches and you may have quite variable energy. Your emotions may also become more cold, light, irregular and mobile - you may feel quite moody, a little more anxious or stressed or just be thinking more than usual. This, in turn, may lead to light headedness, dizzy spells, light sleeping, insomnia or night waking (which usually occurs at the click over into the Vata time of the night, around 2-3am). These are all symptoms of aggravated Vata.

If any of this is going on for you, it is likely that your digestion will also be affected. The term used to describe our digestive fire in Ayurveda is 'Agni'. A fire that blows in the winds of Vata is known as 'Variable Agni' - one moment it flares up and you are starving hungry; the next moment it is blown out and you're left with very little appetite at all...and if you've just eaten, no capacity to digest your meal. Variable Agni is characterised by these big shifts in appetite, but also by increased pain, bloating and gas. Wind literally increases wind! Makes sense, doesn't it?

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar? If yes, there is no need to despair. In Ayurveda, the medicine is always simple. Where there are qualities, there are antidotes. Aggravated Vata needs to be cared for with its opposing qualities, the most important being warmth and regularity.

There are many things we can do to introduce warmth into our lives, but one of the easiest ways is through our food and drinks. If our digestion is not quite right, warmth is the perfect antidote because not only does it pacify Vata, it also supports Balanced Agni, a strong, balanced digestive fire.

You can introduce warmth by eating warm, cooked meals that have been prepared with delicious digestive spices such as ginger, pepper, turmeric, mustard seeds, cumin, coriander, fennel, ajwain, cinnamon, cloves, paprika and so on (although chilli is considered too heating and stimulating in Ayurveda so is best avoided). Mild, flavoursome soups, casseroles, curries, daals, stir frys, roast veggies and stewed fruits are the best medicine for the Autumn season and they are what we tend to crave at this time of year anyway! And always cook your meals in a little good quality oil like ghee, sunflower oil, coconut oil or olive oil to counteract the dryness of Vata.

Warm, cooked foods are easier for the body to digest and assimilate. Because of this, cooked foods not only feel more nourishing, they are more nourishing (1). When our tissues and cells are fed with warmth, it also has an effect on our minds. We are much less likely to emotionally eat or binge because we already feel nourished and comforted. Warm is a quality we all associate with comfort. Cold can be uncomfortable. Hot can be uncomfortable. But warm is just right... like a great hug.

At the same time as favouring warm, it is obviously important to avoid really cold food and drinks - drinks with ice in them, iceblocks and icecream are not a good choice when Vata is out of balance. Salads and juices also aren't ideal because they are cold but they are also rough and dry. A little salad on the side of a meal is fine, but try to avoid salad as a main meal (isn't that good news!).

In addition to warmth, the other quality that is very important for pacifying Vata and balancing Variable Agni is regularity. To bring this quality into your life, simply try and eat your meals at about the same time each day. Getting up and going to bed at reasonably regular times will also help, not only with your Vata but also any sleeping issues. Vata enjoys regularity, predictability and periods of stillness so within your busy schedule, do your best to care for this vital but rather sensitive aspect of your physiology.

And finally, I'd like to mention the importance of approaching the ideas outlined above with an attitude of warmth and kindness - a genuine desire to care for ourselves, our bodies and our minds. It is easy to follow new advice, rules or practices believing you are doing something really wonderful for yourself. However, if you approach them with an attitude of harshness or judgment (hot headed approaches), your results and experiences will be far less profound or healthy. Likewise, if you approach them with perfectionism, self punishment or rigidity (more cold hearted approaches), then you will not benefit so much either. So whenever exploring new ideas, always remember the importance of warmth. It facilitates all healing!

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Professor Richard Wrangham

Nadia Marshall is an Ayurvedic Consultant, Cook and Health Writer and Managing Director of the Mudita Institute & Health Clinic in Byron Bay. Their 'WARMTH' cookbook is available as a free download from their website at: www.muditainstitute.com

Enjoy Moroccan Puy Lentils in our Recipes Archive

Nadia Marshall

Nadia Marshall is an Ayurvedic Consultant, Cook, Health Writer and Managing Director of the Mudita Institute & Health Clinic near Byron Bay. Their ‘WARMTH’ cookbook is available as a FREE download from their website.