An ayurvedic perspective on building immunity in crisis
These are special times. The corona virus goes around the world and nearly every country on this planet is in curfew or lockdown. The media sends different messages every second and nobody really knows what is happening. New restrictive laws are being introduced, the economy stands still, health care systems are challenged, people lose their jobs. Food production and distribution becomes problematic and the poor suffer of hunger in some parts of the world.
On the other hand nature flourishes again due to the sinking levels of pollution. It seems as if we are at a turning point in history. Structures that have been built over the last century and that most of us took for granted seem to crumble. It is an interesting time to live in but it can also cause a lot of stress and confusion.
I’d like to share another perspective to the situation: an ayurvedic one. Ayurveda, the ancient Indian wisdom of how to live well can give us some new insights about how to deal with the challenges that we are facing right now and how to strengthen our bodies and minds to stay safe and healthy. It’s a holistic medicinal system that can hardly be compared to Western allopathy because it comes from a completely different way of thinking medicine. Because of that it can be a bit hard to understand at first but it’s brilliant and it works
So how to stay healthy in these times in an ayurvedic way?
Ayurveda can cure diseases but the focus of it is first of all on prevention. There are 5 stages of disease in the ayurvedic system and the first three (before the disease becomes manifest in the body) are more or less ignored by allopathic medicine which focusses primarily on curing disease. The first three stages of disease in ayurveda are different degrees of imbalances that can be corrected by lifestyle changes to prevent them manifesting as disease in the body.
If we want to prevent disease we need to ask ourselves first of all how to live healthily. It goes without saying that a good diet and regular exercise is beneficial. In ayurveda there are specific ways to correct imbalances by different dietary and lifestyle choices.
Ayurveda always tries to find the root cause for any imbalance in the system. If you got a thorn in your finger before putting some disinfectant or healing cream on it you would first remove the thorn, right? Ayurveda operates in the same way. A good ayurvedic consultant would talk to you about your daily diet and routines, your relationships and professional life and try to find out what is the root cause for your problem.
Digestion needs to function properly for health and immunity
Then they would ask you about your digestion. According to the old vedic scriptures a person can eat the freshest, most nutritious foods, if they are stressed out, no nutrition can be digested properly. Health in ayurveda starts with the digestive system. Ayurvedic doctors can read imbalances in the quality of urine and faeces of a patient. Actually every disease starts with maldigestion on one level or another.
However, the principle of maldigestion in ayurveda is multilayered. As ayurveda is a holistic practice not only foods are looked at in terms of digestion. Also thoughts and emotions have to be processed as if not they can cause „Ama“, toxins in the body. The quality of your emotional and mental state is thus just as important as the diet and lifestyle. This brings happiness and life quality into the picture. The human being is not only seen as some form of machine that has to be maintained or repaired when it is not functioning properly. But as a complex coherent system with many layers that all influence each other.
Emotions and thoughts need to be „digested“ as well
A chronically unhappy human being will sooner or later develop disease symptoms. Living in a stressful environment that is perceived as unfriendly or unsafe or doing a job you hate for a longer time can cause disease. Negative, hateful thought patterns can make us sick, as can strong emotions that are either suppressed or exaggerated.
To suppress an emotion means to not allow ourselves to feel the emotion maybe because we judge it as being a „bad“ emotion or because it is just too painful and we prefer to distract ourselves with entertainment or food and substances to kill the disturbing feeling away. Or because we want to go on with something and feeling the emotion would hinder us doing our work.
Too exaggerate an emotion or thought is the other extreme. It is possible to dwell in pain or anger. In this case the focus is so strongly on the emotional life that the emotion controls the person and not the other way around. According to ayurveda emotions and thoughts need to be controlled. It is eventually up to ourselves what we think and feel. With every thought or feeling you can ask yourself: do I really want to think this way right now? It is possible to consciously let it go and focus on the present instead.
So what to do to stay healthy and happy?
Beneath maintaining pure thoughts and emotions as explained above it is a good start to eat well and move regularly. With drinking plenty of good water and eating fresh, local, organic and non processed food you cannot go wrong. Ayurveda recommends to eat according to your „doshas“, disturbances, to balance them out and prevent disease. An ayurvedic consultant can analyze you and give you special recommendations for the current state of your system. If this is not available to you right now it is always good to go with the seasonal recommendations: You will find more information about ayurvedic nutrition and lifestyle recommendations for the spring season here.
However, the most important thing, more important than any specific diet or sports regime, is to relax.
Relaxation strengthens the immune system
Why is relaxation so important for health? Because it is the most effective, natural builder of immunity! It’s better than any supplement and your own body does it naturally for you!
There are actually two different modes of our nervous system: the sympathic and the parasympathic one. Both are equally important for our life. The sympathic nervous system is activated when we get stressed and we need to react quickly. This response triggers our fight, flight or freeze response. Probably these three were the best strategies to react to commonly occuring life threatening attacks in former times such as meeting a wild animal. The adrenal gland releases the hormone epinephrine and cortisol is produced which increases blood pressure, blood sugar and suppresses the immune system. This is necessary to create that boost of energy we need in the situation of a sudden, dangerous event. But in the world we currently live in which values productivity and success much higher than relaxation and going inwards most of us operate more from the sympathetic nervous system. The two systems are thus not balanced anymore. The now dominant sympathetic system needs to be balanced with the parasympathetic one.
The parasympathetic nervous response is complimentary to the sympathetic nervous system and is needed to rest and rebuild the body. After a stressful event, when we finally relax again, the blood pressure goes down, the immune system becomes activated and the digestion can start again. It is also called feed and breed function because it stimulates sexual arousal. We actually need to be relaxed and feel safe in order to get aroused. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Without „being parasympathetic“ regularly, our systems cannot heal, digest, integrate, build strength and immunity. So it is important to build in regular phases of relaxation and use tools that activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
How to relax in the midst of uncertainty?
The digital media offers us a gazillion of new information every minute. The focus on constant bad news creates fear. Fear is infectious. No matter if it is the fear of pandemia, the fear of uncertainty and losing financial stability and or the fear of losing freedom due to more and more restrictive laws that come now as a reaction to the virus. Checking the social media and news all the time can create stress.
Log out from time to time! Of course you can stay informed about what is happening in the word but it is very easy now to begin to obsess about researching covid-19, fatality rates, new laws, different opinions and so on. Media consumption for many has become a habit, even an addiction, and which kind of media we consume daily has an effect on our systems just as important as the foods we eat.
Take media breaks, go for a walk without taking your mobile with you or consider planning a media fasting day from time to time. Focus on the here and now, what you can sense, smell, touch, see in your direct environment. Right now, right here, everything is good. The birds are singing. You are safe right here, right now.
Retreat in Nature
Forest bathing is a Japanese cleansing practice. Indeed, being in nature is healing for body and mind. Regularly go for a walk, if possible in the forest or a park. Look at the trees, the fresh green leaves, enjoy the sunrays or the rain drops on your skin. Nature just is and it can help you with developing this quality in you as well.
Maintain a supportive and healthy environment
Human beings are social. We need human contact and human touch. Being locked in in a tiny apartment in the city, maybe alone in a single flat with no or very little real social contacts for weeks or even months is difficult for most human beings. Babies that get fed and cleaned perfectly but receive no human touch die. Adults can persist longer without human affection but if the feeling of loneliness becomes a chronic condition it can pose a health risk. On the other hand living in a tight space together with the partner or family with rare to no privacy, extra family activities and other social contacts can be a big challenge as well.
Regularly go for a walk alone or reach out to a friend and ask them to go together. Supportive company and the honest sharing of feelings and thoughts is nurturing for us humans.
If possible be selective with whom you chose to surround yourself now. If you are sitting in the midst of a bunch of fearful or angry people you will after some time pick up their stress whereas the company of happy people will make you feel better, isn’t it? This is especially valid for high sensitive people who feel the auratic field of their surroundings intensified.
There are different energetic cleansing practices you can use to purify and protect yourself and your surroundings. Their effects are quite subtle and not everybody can feel them. If you are high sensitive it is definitely worth a try.
To make it very simple you can use any element for energetic cleansing. So for instance go for a walk in the forest with bare feet (earth), take a shower (water) if you feel drained after social media consumption or a telephone call with somebody or use the shamanic practice of smudging (fire) for yourself and your home to clear the energy.
Yoga and meditation
Yoga and meditation activate the parasympathic nervous response. I recommend a regular practice to give your body some time to rest and digest every day. Due to many stress factors in our daily lives – and these are elevated for most individuals now – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems are not balanced today. Achievement and success have become overly important. Our sense of self worth is often linked to what we achieve in the material reality of life. A more yin state of living, of just being, rather than doing is seen as less desirable than being active and striving towards achievements. This can trigger feelings of worthlessness. Especially people who live in the cities are prone to be constantly in the sympathetic nervous response. Yoga and meditation are effective tools to activate the balancing parasympathetic nervous system. Since group classes are not possible in most countries right now, why don’t you try an online class. I have just started to offer online yoga and meditation classes and I am surprised how well it works.
Breath work (pranayama) which is a part of most yoga schools is also a very good tool to find relaxation and balance your whole system. A simple exercise is to just sit still for a couple of minutes. Close your eyes and breath deeply in and out. Watch your breath, study its quality. What kind of feelings and thoughts come? Observe everything that comes without judgement and let it pass. Stay focused on your breath. Then softly deepen it more and more. Breath deeply into your belly. Into your back. Send the breath into the sides of your body and then throughout your whole body. Imagine that breath is life energy that heals and purifies you and enjoy and nourish yourself with every single breath.
May you and your loved ones and all beings on this world be happy and healthy.