Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reflections on immunity (ojas) from my Week of Sattva

As part of June's "Eating for Joy!" Sattvic Diet workshop, I was much more selective about the foods I consumed, and more involved in the preparation of each meal I ate during that week. I must note that I had had symptoms of allergies or a cold for a little over a week, leading into the workshop -- which also happened to follow a vacation that threw off my sleep schedule (not to mention my daily eating habits!); these symptoms were likely a result of the 'come-down' from that fun and lively Memorial Day road trip. Luckily, the Sattvic diet (aka the Yogic or Ayurvedic "pure" diet) calls for lots of fruit and vegetables, as well as of course tea, rest and peace&quiet, so I'm glad to say I was feeling much better at the end of the Week of Sattva than I did at the start. :)

But this 'cold' got me thinking about my immunity (ojas)*, or, they body's ability to maintain a healthy balance and protect itself against viruses, bacteria, improper food or environment, and other pathogens (i.e., disease or cellular dysfunction).
  * The term OJAS is technically or traditionally discussed in relation to an individual's sexuality, e.g., as "the subtle energy resulting from the preservation of sexual energy" (from Sri Swami Satchidananda's glossary in his The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). This is mostly because ojas is related to the water element in the body (Kapha dosha), or our bodily 'juices' such as our reproductive secretions, and sex is seen as one of the quickest ways to deplete the body of this essential 'sap', though for those of us with drier constitutions (usually Vata types), this sap is less readily available in our natural states.  Kapha (the dosha dominated by Water and Earth) is a cohesive and nurturing force, and indeed, Svoboda describes ojas as a "subtle glue that cements the body, mind and spirit together, integrating them into a functioning individual" (Ayurveda: Life, Health and Longevity by Robert E Svoboda). He later underlines its importance by saying that ojas is "the apex of the body's nutrition pyramid... [Ojas is] both the cause and the effect of good digestion, and its conservation is essential to good health because it controls the immune system and generates the body's aura, ...a subtle shield against the entry of dangerous ethereal forces." As health relates to the state of our energetic and mental bodies as well as our physical body, this essential 'juice' is required for our well-being on all levels.
For most of my life I've been able to boast that I only get "sick" once or twice a year (I would sometimes wave it off as allergies rather than a common cold) - usually during the juncture of the seasons, whenever I got really stressed (remember how finals began in May?) or had a chaotic schedule - and that it only lasted two or three days, tops. Usually I was well enough to take the remedial measures that I knew to work best, avoiding the prescription and OTC drugs suggested or offered to me. With my body guiding my choices, I would take: plenty of water and tea; the purest fruit juice I could find (which means no sugar, and no caffeine!) and perhaps some kind of vitamin C or herbal supplement; soup and other light-yet-nourishing, simple and warming foods; and as much rest as I could. I would also generally catch it early enough that I would still have the energy to do a big cleaning of all my stuff and the spaces I was in most often, getting rid of any remaining bacteria and also making myself  - in addition to the air I was breathing and the things I was touching - feel cleaner and clearer. In no time at all the cold was a thing of the past and I was back to my regular, energetic self.

However, in the five and a half years I've been living in New York City (Brooklyn to be precise) I've noticed an increase in the frequency and duration of these 'allergy attacks' or colds, or whatever you prefer to call them. Sometimes the sneezing/congestion, brain fog, sore throat, and itchy eyes have lasted so long that I really did think I had developed seasonal allergies (I never had those as a kid). But whatever the symptoms add up to be, the "sickness" is a result of the environment and habits that now (or recently did) comprise my daily life: with waitressing came an upside-down sleep/wake cycle and a lack of access to proper meals and mealtimes; with the office job came the long cross-borough commute and late nights, eating lunch in front of the computer and taking dinner at midnight; and with the city of course comes opportunity and longing, temptation and distraction, stimulation and sensory-overload. Not to mention the overall pollution levels we encounter in New York -- from noise pollution to water pollution to plain ol' trash on the street -- as well as the onslaught of images that affect our mind's sense of harmony -- seeing impoverished populations first-hand, alongside media images of sexy indulgences. In Ayurveda our "diet" includes not only the food we eat, but also everything that we take in through all of our senses; needless to say the "Big Apple" diet is not generally considered the most nourishing or supportive, according to Ayurvedic recommendations.

Of course, I wouldn't trade my life in the city for anything (at least, not right now, when I'm still having such a good time!) nor do I intend to rant about the state of our society today.  I'll likewise spare you a soliloquy on my love affair with Brooklyn, and suffice it to say that I'm still on the quest that I began in the fall of 2007: to attain Zen in a subway car. My underlying goal is to find ways to stay in balance, despite the urban affront to my ojas (immunity).

About that quest...

Ayurveda categorizes the lifestyle habits I mentioned above as vata-increasing; indeed, modern life - and perhaps city life even more so - is considered aggravating to the vata dosha due to its constant movement, communication, and stimulation (all things related to vata). Vata, composed of Air and Space, in excess is often linked with low immunity due to its tendencies toward weakness and instability in all systems. Vata types can be more sensitive to stimulation, and can get so distracted that they forget to eat or sleep (does this sound like you?) -- and not getting proper sustenance wears out Vata first, lowering the mind and body's defenses against toxins. This reduction in ojas is how dis-ease unfurls. As someone who is a predominantly Vata-type myself, I should be especially careful about protecting and nourishing my body, mind, and emotions: I must be well-fed and well-rested, especially when my schedule and my environment are erratic or stress-inducing. I am also aware that my Pitta (Fire and Water) perfectionism may not always acknowledge illness, choosing instead to "power through" my oh-so-important work, projects, and other commitments. (Do you recognize this over-achiever in yourself?) Pitta types, please know - it's OK to chill out! Compassion (and rest and water!) is the best medicine, helping you get back to being productive again. Especially during the summer, which is Pitta season, we must remember to "stay cool" and not let our hot-headed nature get the best of us.

In light of this cleanse and the realization that my ojas will be most supported by releasing (at least some of) my Pitta ambition and drive, and my Vata nerves and instability, I am committing to embrace such non-New-York concepts as: under-committing and under-scheduling; eating only while the sun is up and avoiding alcohol; going to bed before 11pm and sleeping at least 7 hours; preparing as many of my own meals as possible, using 'real' or whole foods (i.e., avoiding take-out and frozen dinners!); and not pushing myself into strenuous or stressful activities. These commitments are common recommendations for vata-types, and during these summer months I will also take care to cool and soothe the pitta-aggravating effects of the heat by eating lots of sweet fruit and leafy green vegetables, and avoiding feelings of anger and impatience.

If you recognized any of your own tendencies in the ones I described here, please share below... If you find yourself experiencing high Vata or high Pitta, will you join me in taking on any of these commitments? Reflect on what you find most challenging - and rewarding...

And please leave a comment or send me a message if you have any questions - or suggestions - about how to support your own ojas, in the summertime or year-round. I look forward to hearing from you!

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