The ancient wisdom of Ayurveda has a wide range of potential benefits for the modern athlete. The principles of Ayurveda allow the needs of many of today’s athletes to be met in a more holistic and gentle fashion compared to many of the present-day “trends” and “fads”. Before we can understand the benefits, we must understand first the correlation between the worlds of Ayurveda and athletics.
Pitta dosha is our metabolism, what digests our food, and burns calories; which ultimately results in a leaner physique. Kapha dosha is what builds, it allows our body to become fortified and strengthened. This both increases our size and protects us from injury. Vata dosha is purifying, it promotes weight loss by means of its light quality. Vata can also be a major causative factor of injury if not managed properly. Excess Vata can make life much riskier for the athletes themselves. The two main focuses of the Ayurvedic athlete should be on both diet and lifestyle practices. With comprehension and mastery of these two concepts alone, almost any goal can be achieved.
Understanding The Ayurvedic Diet
Diet is one of the easiest ways to influence the doshas. Intake of foods that are spicy will increase Pitta. This in turn will raise our agni/metabolism and promote weight loss. Care must be taken in the selection of heating foods. Too much heat will cause inflammation in the body, which can lead to hyperacidity in the stomach, and anger/intensity in the mind. Examples of Pitta increasing foods are going to be things that are primarily warming, such as spicy peppers, ginger, yogurt, and sour fruits. Tonifying foods, which are nutrient-dense, will increase Kapha and promote the building of the tissues. Examples of Kapha-raising foods are meats, oils, nuts/seeds, grains, root vegetables, and dairy. Light foods will increase Vata and promote weight loss. Examples of Vata-raising foods are primarily leafy greens and raw foods.
Agni and Digestion
Agni, which is related to our metabolism, can be thought of as the fire of our digestive system. It is what allows us to process and absorb our food. Agni should always be regulated for overall health and prosperity; however, it is immensely important in relation to athletics. Many present-day athletes adhere to strict dietary protocols in relation to their bodily needs and goals. But, if your body is not able to digest and absorb all of the nutrients properly, what’s the point? By raising our agni, we are better able to digest/absorb the nutrients of our food. This heightened absorption leaves our body with more energy and increases our quality of life. The best way to increase agni is to increase the intake of dietary spices. Dietary spices act like pieces of wood or kindling, which once ignited, increase the fire’s size. They also have the added benefit of tasting delicious! The first thing every athlete should do is increase the amount of spices used in their meals.
Cumin, coriander, and fennel are tridoshic, meaning they will not raise or deplete any of the Doshas. This makes them safe to use in copious amounts while cooking. Other spices you may consider incorporating into your diet are ginger, black pepper, turmeric, mustard seed, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, cayenne, salt, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and many more! You can fill an old salt shaker/grinder with a mix of your favorite spices to sprinkle onto your food. Many of these herbs can also be used as a digestive tea to raise agni. This brings us to the next point, stop drinking liquids with ice in them. Water puts out fire. When we drink extra cold water, it shuts down our agni even more. This makes food much harder to digest, and in turn lowers our metabolism. You should not drink large amounts of water during a meal, water depletes our agni. The easiest way to discern if you aren’t digesting your food well is by looking at your own tongue. First thing in the morning, you may notice a thick coating on your tongue which ranges in color from white to yellow, to gray. You might also notice small scallops or notches on the sides of your tongue as well. Both of these physical manifestations serve as diagnostic tools to show your current state of agni. If they are present, agni is depleted and needs to be regulated/increased.
How An Ayurvedic Lifestyle Can Improve Athletics
Pranayama is what the Vedic sciences describe as “breath restriction” which is a series of breathing techniques utilized for different purposes. In athletics, these can be useful for increasing lung capacity. Many people in today’s society struggle to utilize the full capacity of their lungs. We breathe with shallow breaths which do not provide near enough oxygen for the body. These shallow breaths also trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which puts our body into a perpetual state of fight or flight syndrome.
Working with the breath can actually be quite simple and can be done while you’re at work, on a drive in the car, or while relaxing at home. The first point of awareness should be between the nose and the mouth. The nose was anatomically designed as the main mode of air intake for the body. It has hairs, mucous membranes, and sinus cavities all to filter out toxins and regulate the temperature of the air before it is brought down into the lungs. Focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth during your daily life. Once this has been mastered, try incorporating it into high strenuous exercises like weight lifting and running. This breathing technique, which reduces the stress hormone cortisol, will help to keep unnecessary fat off the body. Another breathing practice to habituate is to increase the capacity of the lungs. Take as deep of a breath as is possible and feel the way your body moves and expands to bring the air in. The awareness of how much our lungs can expand is the most important. Pay attention to how deeply you are breathing and then consciously try to deepen your breath. This can be done during exercise to deeply oxygenate both your lungs and circulatory system, giving your body more energy to complete the task at hand.
Ayurvedic Body Therapies
Abhyanga translates into English as the application of oil or massage. This practice has great potential for the weary athlete. Oil is generally very tonifying, and in Ayurveda, we use a lot of it! A daily self-oil massage is a wonderful way to promote longevity, repair sore muscles, and prevent burnout. Oil is nourishing to the muscles, lubricates the joints, and builds our immunity. The practice of abhyanga is relatively simple: apply a palmful of warm oil to each section of the body, upper arm, lower arm, shoulder/neck, chest, stomach, upper leg, and lower leg. Using warm oil in a warm room is recommended which helps the skin absorb it better. When the pores are open, the oil can be pulled deeper into the dermis. You can set a bottle of oil in a bowl of hot water to warm it. When applying the oil to the body, you can also massage your sore/tense muscles by making small to medium-fast circles to create friction, this also will help with the absorption of the oil. The type of oil used will vary from dosha to dosha and specific indication. Choose organic and cold-pressed whenever possible. Sesame oil is tonifying for a body that has taken a beating. Sunflower oil is lighter and better for the summer months. Olive oil is excellent for the joint, and Castor oil is a remarkable remedy for painful muscles. Essential oils can also be added for therapeutic benefits and to further help with the absorption of the oil. The oil should be left on for 30-60 minutes, during this time most of the oil will have been absorbed into the skin. Afterward, you can either pat dry with a towel or take a brief shower without soap, as soap will strip away the oil you just worked into your body. Daily abhyanga is ideal, but start out slowly, try abhyanga once a week, and then gradually increase the frequency. The long-term benefits of abhyanga for your body are immense.
Yoga and Ayurveda
Yoga has gained a lot of popularity in the Western world over the last half-century. It is a sister science to Ayurveda. Whereas Ayurveda is a science of our health, Yoga is a science of our movement. Yoga is imperative to the athlete for two main reasons: strength and flexibility. While yoga may appear to be a simple guided stretching sequence on the surface, we can dissect the anatomy of our movement a little further. There are three concepts necessary for the comprehension of how yoga can be strengthening: concentric, isometric, and eccentric movement.
Imagine yourself doing a pushup, you start lying flat on your chest and begin to perform the pushup, this is called a concentric motion. While your body is in a plank you are in an isometric state. When you begin to lower yourself back towards the ground, the opposite portion of the pushup is called an eccentric movement. Eccentric (negative or lowering) movement lengthens the muscle fibers, while concentric (positive or pushing) movement shortens the muscle fibers. Although a concentric movement (think of pushing up on a bench press) is commonly believed to be more strengthening for the muscles, eccentric movement (slowly lowering the bar towards the chest) will actually promote more muscle growth. In yoga, which typically emphasizes a slower pace, the eccentric portion of movement will in reality provide a great deal more of a workout than you may have initially realized. To take it a step further, whenever you are in eccentric movements, make them even slower to provide more of a workout! Yoga is constantly moving the body into new directions that we don’t experience in our normal day-to-day life. Yoga is also intimately linked to the breath. Whenever you find yourself in a yoga pose (asana), focus on taking a full deep breath. If the diaphragm is constricted by a slight twist or pressure, breathing deeply will help to strengthen the muscles of the diaphragm. This will make taking deep breaths less burdensome in our normal day-to-day life. A simple sun salutation sequence can be a magnificent pre-exercise stretching routine to get all of the muscles warmed up for activity. It is incredibly common when lifting/building muscle for the muscles and tendons to become more rigid and less limber. Yoga is a great way to combat this tendency, increase flexibility, and slowly allow the body to develop a superior range of motion. This will help prevent injuries such as ligament or tendon tears. Balance is another aspect of yoga that has great potential for prospective athletes. The intricate movements within a yoga set put the body into new positions, with new centers of gravity, and unfamiliar weight-bearing on our appendages which do not usually experience that type of a weight load. This all contributes to the greater attunement of your own balance which translates into a heightened level of athletic prowess.
Ayurveda and The Seasons
The seasons are closely related to the doshas as well. Spring is the Kapha time of year. Kapha being both heavy and tonifying, means springtime is the easiest for us to retain extra weight and build our body up. This can be further expedited by increasing Kapha qualities in our diet. Kapha is known for possessing a low agni, so take care during the spring season to increase the digestive spices in your diet. This will ensure you are properly absorbing all of the heavy foods you may be consuming to increase body weight. Summer is related to Pitta dosha. The intense heat of the summer is ideal for increasing our agni/metabolism to promote a lean, refined body type. Fall is the Vata time of year. During this season, the body will be in its most fragile state and is more prone to injury during this time. Manage Vata properly by staying warm and making sure the body is well nourished. Keep Vata at bay by practicing Abhyanga daily and emphasizing grounding, hearty soups, and cooked root vegetables. Fall is a time of year when weight loss will naturally become easier. Vata scrapes away the tissues, whereas in the summer Pitta burns them away. A balanced combination of these two doshas (and seasons) will provide the most harmonious and comprehensive weight loss program.
Ayurvedic Practices To Enhance Athletic Performance
While Diet and Lifestyle are at the core of Ayurvedic Athletic philosophy, other Ayurvedic modalities that could be explored include Herbalism, Panchakarma, and Meditation. Herbs can be used to promote the strengthening of the body or to help purify it. They also provide a holistic option within sports medicine. Topical pain salves, pain tinctures, anti-inflammatory teas, and wound healing salves are just a few possibilities. Panchakarma, an ancient Ayurvedic cleanse, has been receiving media attention lately. This is a powerful tool to eradicate deep-seated toxins within the body and act as a “reset button” for the doshas. Meditation is another tool that can be utilized to calm an athlete’s mind.
Ayurveda is a very individualized medicine and there will always be variations in treatment protocol from individual to individual which should be managed under the guidance of an experienced practitioner. The concepts outlined above have potential benefits which could be right for someone, but not always what is best for everyone, even when their goals are similar. The possibilities of Ayurveda are truly endless, limited only by the human mind. Let these concepts serve you in your quest toward your own Athletic and Ayurvedic goals.
Hari Om ॐ To End All Suffering