Ayurveda integrates Yoga, meditation and Pranayama to manage stress. It has several kinds of treatment that alleviate tension
By Ayurvedacharya Dr Partap Chauhan
Stress is a complex concept that has both mental and physiological components. Though most forms of stress are psychological, they trigger a variety of physiological changes. These changes include the ones in the immune function, indicating a link between the stress and immune system.
Stress-related cases have grown phenomenally over the last couple of decades. Psychiatrists believe that the growth has been about a thousand times in the last ten years. Medically, stress is defined as a perturbation of the body’s internal equilibrium. The common indices of stress include changes in
• biochemical parameters such as epinephrine and adrenal steroids,
• physiological parameters such as heart rate and blood pressure and
• behavioural effects such as anxiety, fear and tension
Stress can lead to palpitation, heart attack, migraine and tension headache, eating disorder, ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, diabetes, backache, chronic fatigue syndrome, dermatitis, allergy, cold and cough, asthma, insomnia, stammering, phobia, depression, premature aging… the list is endless.
Symptoms of stress
Typical symptoms of stress can be insomnia, loss of mental concentration, anxiety, absenteeism from work, depression, substance abuse, extreme anger and frustration, family conflict, and physical illnesses, such as heart disease, migraine, headaches, stomach problems, and back problems.
Causes of stress – the Ayurvedic perspective
Today, stress and fatigue are like household commodities. Practically everyone has to face stress to some degree. Everyone needs to cope with the spectre of a scarily frenetic lifestyle, which includes punishing work schedules, incessant travel, collapsing relationships, breakneck competition, a battle against age and illness, and the desire to remain ever-youthful and glamorous.
According to Ayurveda, there are three sub-doshas that govern the mind. Prana vata is the sub-dosha of vata that governs the brain, sensory perception and the mind. Tarpaka kapha is the sub-dosha of kapha that governs the cerebro-spinal fluid. And because acquisition, retention and recall originate in the heart, sadhaka pitta (the sub-dosha of pitta that governs the emotions and their effect on the heart) is also involved.
There are three states or operational qualities of mind. These are sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva (goodness) is the healthy state of mind. Rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance) are the unhealthy states of mind. When the mind is dominated by rajas and/or tamas, the sub-doshas go out of balance. Sadhaka pitta begins to create a burning effect and prana vata creates a drying effect. Then tarpaka kapha generates extra cerebro-spinal fluid to counteract this effect and protect the brain.
But when our mental capacities are repeatedly overused (due to excess of tamas and rajas), the lubricating value of tarpaka kapha becomes excessive, and begins to diminish the metabolizing or digestive fire or agni. This is similar to the effect of too much moisture in the digestion – it can put out the digestive fire or agni. When this happens, ama (toxins) start to be created. Ama accumulates in the gaps and channels of the brain, and mixes with the fluids created by tarpaka kapha, creating a harmful type of cortisol, the indicator of stress. Cortisol in itself is not harmful; in fact, it is created by the body to protect the brain. But when tarpaka kapha becomes excessive and there is ama in the physiology, it does more harm than good. That’s when anxiety attacks and other signs of stress take over.
There are several kinds of Ayurvedic treatment that alleviate stress.
Herbs known as adaptogens are beneficial in alleviating stress. These herbs that promote adaptability to stress, include Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), ginseng (Panax ginseng), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), borage (Borago officinalis), licorice (yashtimadhu (Glycyrrhiza glabra), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), and nettle (Urtica dioica). Traditionally, Ayurveda recommends the root of winter cherry or ashwagandha, shakpushadi, brahmi (gotu kola), jatamansi (muskweed), shakhpushpi, dhatri rasayan, praval pishti and the fruit of emblic myrobalan, among other herbs, to reduce stress and fix the imbalance in the vata dosha.
Research shows that certain Ayurvedic formulas made from herbs such as brahmi (gotu kola), shankapushpi (aloeweed), and guduchi (heart-leaved moonseed) reduces generalized anxiety, calms stress, while heightening alertness and preventing mental stress from mounting.
These special Ayurvedic herbs are called medhya herbs in traditional Ayurvedic texts, and are known to not only individually nurture certain areas of the brain (mind) sensitive to stress effects, but also to nurture coordination among them.
Ashwagandha or winter cherry enhances the mind’s overall ability to fight stress, because it helps overall mental functioning. Jatamansi (muskroot) and greater galangal are additional herbs that clear the channels. These keep our mind and body free of toxins and blockages. Ashwagandha is a sharp, naturally cleansing herb, but in combination with Jatamansi (muskroot) and Greater Galangal, it becomes an extremely effective agent for clearing the channels, enhancing agni or digestive fire and reducing ama (toxins).
Since stress reduces the body’s immunity, nutritious diet is very beneficial in counteracting this depletion. Following the right diet for dealing with stress is also very important. In Ayurvedic terms reduce ‘rajasic’ and ‘tamasic’ foods and add ‘sattvic’ diet.
Avoid coffee and all other caffeinated beverages, because in high doses caffeinated substances produce jitteriness, restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia. As far as possible, try to avoid carbonated and alcoholic drinks as well. High-protein animal foods should also be minimized as these increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which are associated with higher levels of anxiety and stress. Eat lots of fresh green vegetables, fruits and fruit juices. Avoid white flour and sugar products, and all frozen, preserved and leftover food. Include whole grain cereals – they promote the production of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which induces a greater sense of well-being.
Ayurveda advises undergoing pancha karma for maintaining a strong and healthy metabolic rate and also to keep harmful toxins from accumulating in the body and mind. The pancha karma process involves identifying the root cause of a stress problem and correcting the essential balance of mind, body, and emotions. It is considered extremely effective to go through the process of pancha karma before any rejuvenation treatment (rasayana/herbal medicines). This helps to cleanse the body, improve digestion, strengthen the metabolic rate and also cleanse one’s thought process.
Yoga, Meditation and Pranayama
In addition to the above-mentioned treatments, Ayurveda integrates Yoga, meditation and Pranayama (breathing exercises) to manage stress. Certain gestures called “mudra” are also helpful. Positive thinking, tidiness, clean environment and maintaining harmony at all levels is important for getting rid of stress permanently.
(The author is Director, Jiva Ayurveda, New Delhi)