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Spring Self Care

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Photo by Sadananda

Spring is the time for cleansing! This is an ideal time for a Pancha Karma cleanse to detoxify, rejuvenate and prevent Spring allergies. Visit your Ayurvedic practitioner to plan your cleanse. It doesn't have to be expensive. Many practitioners have a Home Cleanse option that costs very little.

If you can't make it to a Pancha Karma center or Ayurvedic practitioner, try a Kitcheri Fast--a week of Cleansing Kitcheri, castor oil self-massages and ginger baths. Come off your fast carefully, leaving allergenic foods such as wheat, dairy, soy, peanuts and nightshades until a week after your fast, and avoiding alcohol, smoking, sodas, white sugar and junk foods during and for at least ten days after your fast. In Spring, eat plenty of bitter greens, including unsprayed tender dandelion greens from your garden.

Self Oil Massage is a daily brisk massage with warm, castor oil to loosen toxins and excess doshas and begin to bring them into the digestive tract for elimination.

  • Oiling must be done on an empty stomach (at least 3 hrs after last meal), so for most people the morning is the best time.
  • Oil from head to foot, with most attention to head and feet. Continue at least 1/2 hour
  • Warm the oil by putting a small plastic squeeze bottle of it in a sink or bowl of hot water for several minutes.
  • Be sure to have old towels available to sit on and for under your feet (you will also need old towels for drying yourself after the sweating.
  • Let the oil soak in a few minutes while you prepare your bath. Be sure not to become chilled at any time.

Ginger/baking soda bath:

  • 1/3 cup each of dried ginger & baking soda for each bathtubful of tolerable hot water (avoid excessive heat.)
  • Be sure the bathroom is warm. Avoid getting chilled at any time.
  • Have extra "oil" towels available.
  • Soak after oiling and then get out when begin to sweat.
  • Cover with towels and continue to sweat in the warm bathroom until you are beginning to cool down.

Do's & Don'ts for sweating:

  • Don't eat before sweating.
  • Be careful of your slipperiness after the oil massage! don't slip & fall!!
  • Do not overheat in any of the methods, you should just be breaking a mild sweat over your whole body, not getting red. Sweating may start at the top of your body and work its way down. Be sure the bottom is sweating also.
  • After sweating be careful not to get chilled - take a shower (again, careful not to slip on oil in tub!!). One tip to remove excess oil from hair--put shampoo on hair before wetting hair in final shower. You may need to suds more than once. OR just don't worry about oily hair right now. Leaving on a light coating of the oil won't be a problem for the days of the treatment .Better not to use soap on the skin at this time.
  • Be sure that you're not getting dehydrated from the sweating - drink plenty of Fluid Replacement Tea. Recipe: 1 quart of filtered or spring water; 1/4 cup Mint; 1/6 cup Gotu Kola/ Brahmi; 1/4 tsp salt; 1 small squeeze lime
  • Carefully clean the bathroom and tub after oiling and sweating to avoid slipping.

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Raindrops sparkle
On hyacinth and lilac
Fresh snow on the foothills.

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As I mentioned in my last blog, lack of sexual satisfaction is quite a common complaint among women attending our clinic. Yet a rich and fulfilling sex life brings health benefits on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. Enhancing sexual satisfaction is an important part of wellbeing. Last week we offered some recipes and remedies to improve libido and ojas. Today, let's take a look at some other resources that can help us fulfill our sexual potential. In the ancient world, female orgasm was believed to be necessary for conception, so the woman's sexual satisfaction was regarded as essential. And sex-ed in ancient times did not consist--as it seems to do today--merely of information on sexually transmitted diseases and how not to get pregnant. Erotic education was seen as important for all women and was imparted to teenage girls by way of instruction by an older aunt and by richly illustrated pillow books that could be helpful even to those who could not read. Today, many wonderful resources are available to women who wish to tap in to some of this ancient sexual wisdom.

Resource list for women's sexual health

  • Understand your anatomy in a new way, to maximize orgasmic potential:

Women's Anatomy of Arousal by Sheri Winston is the must-have book for women who want to increase their sexual pleasure through understanding thier own bodies.

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  • Ayurvedic texts recognize that women can ejaculate--in fact, female ejaculation was considered normal and necessary for sexual health in ancient times. Today it is recognized that 'some' women do ejaculate but often forgotten that all women have this potential.

Female Ejaculation and the G Spot by Deborah Sundahl is a helpful step-by-step guide for women who want to develop the ability to ejaculate.

  • Cultivate your sexual energy through the Healing Tao.

Healing Love through the Tao: Cultivating Female Sexual Energy by Mantak and Maneewan Chia offers guidance in the Taoist techniques that enable women to cultivate and enhance their sexual energy and includes strategies for making menstruation more easeful.

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  • Support sexual and reproductive health with Jade egg practices. Every woman, young or old, sexually active or not, should own and use a jade egg to enhance sexual health and reduce menstrual and menopausal problems.

Emergence of the Sensual Woman: Awakening our erotic innocence by Siada Desilets is the best book I have found for learning and developing this important practice. Ideally, obtain the Jade Egg Essentials triad--the book, the jade egg itself and a CD that is really helpful to talk you through your practice. Do your jade egg practices at least twice a week for optimal wellbeing.

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  • Develop intimacy with your partner by setting aside time each week to get to know yourself and each other better.

The Art of Sexual Ecstasy: The path of sacred sexuality for western lovers by Margo Anand offers intimacy-building exercises to do together week by week. Each study session could culminate in lovemaking--but it doesn't have to. Many couples have found this resource helpful in building sexual, sensual and emotional intimacy and enriching their connexion.

  • Learn Taost sexual practices together using a CD set

Sounds True offers a great CD set Taoist Sexual Secrets taught by Rachel Carlton Abrams and Lee Holden. Good not only for women's wellness but also for helping men learn ejaculatory control.

Resources like these listed here can help you enhance your wellbeing through supporting intimacy, ecsasy and reperoductive health!

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Women are endowed with tremendous sexual capacity, from multiple orgasms to female ejaculation. Yet women who come to our Ayurveda clinic often express dissatisfaction within their sexual lives. There are many factors that may hold women back from attaining their full sexual potential: trauma, physical health problems, unsatisfactory intimate relationship, lack of training on the part of the woman or her partner, to name but a few.

It would take a book rather than a short blog to address all these concerns. So today we'll just look at the most simple scenario. You're happy with your partner and were enjoying a good sex life until something affected your libido. That 'something' could be an illness, a stressor or a hormonal change such as pregnancy, nursing, or your menopausal transition.

First of all, check with your doctor. Specifically, ask about your thyroid. If your thyroid is under-functioning, that will flatten your libido. And many stressors do lower thyroid function. All your hormones--sex hormones, thyroid hormones, adrenal hormones--are controlled by a multi-tiered system. The higher centres of your brain talk to your hypothalamus. Your hypothalamus talks to your pituitary and your pituitary talks to each endocrine gland (the glands that produce hormones). The glands in turn talk to the pituitary. It's a finely orchestrated system, but if one instrument is out of tune, the whole symphony goes wrong. And so if stress throws your higher brain centres out of tune, the end result could be problems with your thyroid and or your sex hormones.

From an Ayurvedic standpoint, we're dealing with ojas, that mysterious core energy that governs your general wellbeing. So we could try some simple recipes that enhance your ojas and tone your nervous system and endocrine glands. It's also a good idea to see an Ayurvedic practitioner for a holistic look at your overall wellness and balance.

Special Ojas-building recipes:

  • Shatavari Kalpa: Roast an ounce of Shatavari with one or two tablespoons ghee in a cast iron pan until light brown and add two tablespoons turbinado sugar, two pinches saffron and a pinch of cardamom. A teaspoon of this recipe can be taken in the morning or at bedtime with a cup of warm cow's milk or almond milk.
  • Shatavari Ghee: This is a special ghee medicated with shatavari. Take a teaspoon twice daily followed by warm cow's milk, warm almond milk or warm water.
  • Ashwagandha milk: Drink a cup of warm milk at bedtime. Stir in a teaspoon of Ashwagandha and two pinches of nutmeg. Ideal for vata women or in winter.
  • Almond Restorative Drink

Ingredients

10 raw almonds

1 cup pure water

1 cup milk

1 Tablespoon organic rose petals

1 tsp ghee

1/32 tsp saffron

1/8 tsp ground cardamom

pinch of black pepper ½ tsp of sweetener

Directions

Soak almonds and water together overnight.In the morning, drain off the water and rub the skins off the almonds. Bring the milk to a boil. Pour the milk in the blender with the peeled almonds. Add rose petals, ghee, saffron, cardamom, black pepper, and sweetener. Blend until smooth. Drink 3-4 times a week.

  • Non-dairy Almond drink

Ingredients

10 raw almonds

2 cups pure water

20 raisins

1 Tablespoon organic rose petals

1 tsp ghee

1/32 tsp saffron

1/8 tsp ground cardamom

1 pinch of black pepper

Directions

Soak almonds in 1 cup of water overnight, and soak raisins in 1 cup of water either overnight or for several hours. In the morning, drain off the almond water and rub the skins off the almonds.In a blender, add the raisins AND their soaking water with the drained and peeled almonds. Add rose petals, ghee, saffron, cardamom, black pepper. Blend until smooth. Drink 3-4 times a week.

  • Date Milk Shake

Ingredients

4-5 whole dates

1 cup whole organic milk

2 pinches cinnamon powder

Instructions

Boil milk until it foams once. Turn off heat. Put milk, cinnamon and dates in automatic blender. Blend until dates are ground fine. Serve warm in winter, room temperature or slightly cool (not cold) in summer or if a strong Pitta imbalance exists.

  • Vegan Fig shake

1/4 c. coconut milk
1/2 c. filtered water
2 large or 3 small figs cut in small pieces;
use dried figs if fresh are unavailable
1 date, pitted and finely chopped
dash of cinnamon

Place all ingredients in blender and puree at high speed until
smooth and frothy. Yum.

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Vijikarana is that which produces lineage of progeny, quick sexual stimulation, enables one to perform the sexual act with women uninterruptedly and vigorously like a horse, makes one charming for women, promotes indestructible and infallible semen even in old persons. Charak Samhita.

If I had thought ahead, this blog could have been ready for Valentine's. But I'm sure the topic is of year-round interest and especially as we head into spring! There are really three key aspects of male sexual rejuvenation:

  • Good diet and lifestyle
  • Ejaculatory control
  • Special Ayurvedic recipes known as vajikarana or aphrodisiacs.

Good Diet and Lifestyle

Young men: Burning the candle at both ends is not good for your sexual energy. Sleep and rest are needed to make semen. And Shakespeare's famous quote, "It promotes the desire but takes away the performance," applies to both alcohol and marijuana. These substances have both immediate and long term effects on your sexual functioning. Smoking cigarettes, which used to be seen as sexy, not only makes your mouth, skin and breath smell bad, it also constricts the blood vessels which need to dilate to give you an erection. And--eat real food! The only sexually rejuvenating thing about pizza is garlic.

Older men: Diet and lifestyle are crucial for your sexual health. Obesity, diabetes, pre-diabetes and high cholesterol are all bad news for sexual potency. These kapha conditions can gum up the blood vessels that supply your penis and even damage the nerves as well. So stay low-carb, have plenty of fruits and veggies, and exercise daily for sexual health just as much as for heart health. Job stress can wear away at libido--keep your priorities in place. Some blood pressure or cholesterol medications may harm virility. Depending on your individual health situation, an Ayurvedic practitioner might be able to help you avoid the need of such medications. Prevention is better than cure!

Ejaculatory Control

Typically, we in the West think of male orgasm and ejaculation as more or less synonymous. But men, like women, can experience different kinds of orgasm, which don't have to involve ejaculation. Developing ejaculatory control helps you conserve your sexual energy as well as please your partner more--especially a female partner. Learn ejaculatory control with the help of an excellent book, Taoist Secrets of Love: Cultivating Male Sexual Energy.

Special Vajikarana Recipes

  • Ashwagandha milk: Drink a cup of warm milk at bedtime. Stir in a teaspoon of Ashwagandha and two pinches of nutmeg. The aphrodisiac effect comes on first and the soporific effect an hour later. Ideal for vata men or in winter.
  • Rose milk: Stir of spoonful of rose petal jam into a cup of warm milk and drink at bedtime. Rose petal jam (gulkund) is avaiable from Indian grocery stores or Maharishi Ayurveda outlets. Use the ashwagandha recipe in cold weather and the rose recipe in summer.
  • Shatavari milk: Drink a cup of warm milk at bedtime. Stir in a teaspoon of shatavari. This recipe is good year-round for pitta men.
  • Triphala vajikarana: Leave triphala paste left overnight in an iron vessel. Next day, mix it with licorice tea and take with ghee and honey. This is the best one for kapha men.
  • Almond and rice dessert is a delicious vajiakarana and can be eaten prior to or after lovemaking.
  • If you're feeling adventurous, try making urad dal kheer (payasam). This traditional recipe is found in the Ananga Ranga Sutra, a classical manual on the erotic arts.
  • Your personal vajikarana formula: Visit your Ayurvedic practitioner to receive a personal vajikarana formula tailored to your needs.

Various kinds of nutritious and palatable food, sweet, luscious and refreshing liquid cordials, speech that gladdens the ears and touch that seems delicious to the skin, clear nights mellowed by the beams of the full moon and damsels young, beautiful and gay, dulcet songs that charm the soul and captivate the mind, use of betel-leaves, wine and wreaths of flowers and a merry, careless heart; these are the best aphrodisiacs in life. Sushruta Samhita

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Next time--sexual rejuvenation for women!

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As spring approaches you might be thinking about cleaning out closets and drawers or scrubbing paintwork. According to the ancient texts of Ayurveda, in spring we also need to clean out kapha from our bodies. During the winter months, kapha has accumulated in the form of excess slime, mucus and phlegm. We might be noticing post nasal drip, stuffy sinuses, cough, breathlessness, sluggishness, lethargy, weight gain or a tendency to fall asleep after eating. These are all symptoms of kapha buildup. As spring comes and the snows melt, kapha liquifies. This could result in spring colds or allergies. So during the spring season we need to expell excess kapha.

The time from mid March to early May is ideal for pancha karma, a special Ayurvedic cleasing program tailored to individual needs. You might have heard about pancha karma but imagine that it is an expensive process done in a resort or spa, or something you need to travel to India to experience. But while these are possible ways to go though pancha karma, you can also do PK (as we like to call pancha karma) in your own home at minimal expense, or receive some treatments from a local PK therapist, who will provide therapies as indicated by your Ayurvedic practitioner. However, you will need to get a few days off work, just one reason why it's important to plan ahead!

Before starting your week of pancha karma, you will need to prepare your body with a month of cleansing herbs. So this is the time to visit your Ayurvedic practitioner to discuss pancha karma. During your pre-PK visit, your practitioner will:

  • Asses your overall health history to see if PK is appropriate for you this spring
  • Give attention to any habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol (more than a glass a week), bingeing or drinking coffee. If you have an active habit, there's a danger you will slip back into it right after PK and do yorself more harm than good.
  • Give suggestions for cleaning up your diet in preparation for PK
  • Create a personalized cleansing formula to prepare you for PK
  • Create your personal PK plan and co-ordinate with other care providers such as PK therapist
  • Ensure that you have all the needed products for your cleanse, such as specialized oils etc.

Even if you're not doing PK, spring is still a good time to re-evaluate your diet and habits and take some cleansing herbs. After all, it's Lent, a tradtional time to give up bad habits! Enjoy some special recipes such as Cleansing Kitcheri, Liver Cleanse Sabji or Daikon and Mustard Greens. And check in with your practitioner for a spring tune up.

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There's a whispering of spring in the air! This year Valentine's Day will be closely followed by Mahashivaratri, the Great Night of Shiva. These two celebrations of life, love and fertility bring the reality of spring nearer. In Boulder County, mountain bluebirds will soon be returning. Great-horned owls and golden eagles are starting to build their nests, yellow mahonia blooms in the foothills and butterflies may venture out on sunny days to sip the oozing sap.

The weeks between now and mid March are a transitional period between the warming and vata soothing regimens of winter and the lightening and cleansing of spring. The windy weather of early spring and the sudden snows and cold snaps are drying and roughening. So we still need to wrap up warmly, keep our homes warm and avoid cold draughts. In England we have a saying, "Ne'er cast a clout 'til May is out." This roughly translates as: 'It's better in this season to be overdressed than underdressed.' Keep going with your oil massages, soups and broths, but start using nasya (nose drops) as well. Ask your Ayurvedic practitioner to recommend the best spring nasya for your body type, or make your own ginger-rose-jaggery nasya, consisting of a decoction of equal parts fresh ginger, organic rose petals and jaggery. Jaggery, a product made from boiled down sugar cane juice, is avaialble in Indian stores (and Mexican markets too). This preparation is tridoshically balanced, the coolness of rose balancing the heat of ginger.

As you start transitioning your diet from winter to spring, begin adding some green salads and cooked bitter greens. Take a lighter breakfast than in winter. And enjoy recipes that are both cleansing and grounding, such as Daikon Sabji with Mustard Greens, Cabbage and Chickpea Soup and Beet Raita. Gently begin your spring cleansing by taking triphala. Steep half a teasoon of tripahala in boiling water for ten minutes, strain and drink at bedtime.

Take some time on Mahashivaratri, February 17th, to chant, pray or meditate and have a great early spring!

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Playing the Irish Washerwoman

The summer before last, I was staying with my sister Kate in rural Donegal, in the West of Ireland. One morning, I heard my brother-in-law, Sean, playing Irish fiddle while my niece, Emily, played penny whistle. I stepped into the room and began accompanying them with claps. "I know that song, The Irish Washerwoman," I remarked. "I must have played it long ago for my violin grade exams." At that, Sean thrust a fiddle into my hands.

"Play it! Play The Irish Washerwoman!"

Sean had thrown me a challenge. True, after years of instruction and thousands of hours of practice, the violin wasn't exactly new to me. But there had been a multi-decade gap since my violin student days. And, even for an adept classical violinist, Celtic fiddle is a chance to begin anew, with fresh styles and techniques. Would I take up the challenge and make room in my already full life for something new and different? Or, once I returned to my normal routine in America, would I go back to 'business as usual'? Would Irish fiddle be anything more than a holiday fling?

What makes us respond to new challenges? And what holds us back, keeps us in the same rut, doing things because we always do it that way? When we take on something new or do things differently, our entire mind-body complex has a chance to grow, developing fresh roots and branches. Underused muscles are trained, fresh synaptic connections made, new friendships created. If the call of the new is relocation or travel, new vistas open up to us. If we undertake something novel in our current location, we discover unforeseen venues and social circumstances, experiencing our old hometown in a different way.

Yet paradoxically, we may be avoiding new challenges precisely because of the potential benefits they offer. More often than not, we cling to old patterns that have long reinforced our sense of identity--ahamkar, the illusory identification. We hold these patterns in our musculature, resisting the new yoga class or exercise routine that could help to re-pattern us. We cling to old emotions in our fat, continuing to eat the comfort foods that fill our fat cells. We create routines and thought patterns that may not serve us but promote our sense of me and mine. "Me, I'm so busy. Me, I'm so overworked. Me, I'm so undervalued. Me, I'm so important".

Opening ourselves to new challenges and letting go of old patterns are two inner revolutions that go hand in hand. We need to let go of habits that don't serve us in order to make room for new interests and activities. And we need fresh stimulus and new input to divert us from the deeply-rutted road of old habits. For example, we could take a morning walk with a friend instead of meeting that friend for coffee. According to Ayurveda, unhealthy habits are best reduced gradually and healthy habits are best introduced slowly. If we typically eat out, we could begin by planning one day a week to cook. Perhaps we cook with our significant other as a social activity and enjoy a meal together. Gradually we acquire kitchen utensils and ingredients and begin collecting recipes. The food is better and less expensive and soon we are cooking twice a week, then three times a week. Cooking becomes a hobby, then a passion and eventually we find we have become a gourmet cook and we're giving dinner parties and organizing potlucks. Now eating out is just an occasional treat and home-cooked food is our lifestyle. We have a new skillset and a deeper appreciation for food and eating.

Although there can be many benefits to taking on a new challenge, not everything that is novel is necessarily beneficial. As we all know, 'New!' is a favored hype word in the world of marketing. As a society we have taken on an attitude of 'because we can.' We have dammed rivers, built vast cities, conquered space, split the atom, cloned sheep and genetically engineered our food 'because we can.' When faced with the opportunity to get out of a rut or break a pattern, it's important to ask why. What is the benefit of this new activity? For people leading a mediocre and stultifying life in the late fifties and early sixties, 'wife-swapping parties' came into vogue--still known and practiced today as the Swinging lifestyle, perhaps because the latter phrase sounds less sexist than 'wife swapping', which implies that women are property. No doubt Swinging is challenging, at least at first, and no doubt it is perceived as something new. The question is--does it benefit? Is it a challenge worth taking?

Opening our lives to new challenges requires discrimination as well as willingness and perseverance. In Vedic dharma we are taught that there are four legitimate aims of life--dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Of these aims of life, artha or wealth and kama or pleasure are pursued under the umbrella of dharma, that is, in accordance with the divine order, or in alignment with the true nature of things. Dharma is an overarching principle that invites us to free ourselves from the sway of craving, anger and ignorance. Dharma can only be set aside when we enter the dynamic of moksha or liberation. Within the dynamic of moksha, our whole being is consumed by the passion for the welfare of all. Rules no longer apply only because we have no inclination at all to do anything that would harm another being. As St Augustine said, 'Love and do what you like.'

In the two examples given above, home cooking and 'wife swapping', kama or the pleasure principle is involved. Once we begin to derive pleasure from cooking at home, we want to do it more and more. This starts to benefit our health, our pocketbook and our relationships, as we take up the challenge of pursuing kama in accordance with dharma. In the 'wife-swapping' example, there is an opportunity to pursue kama outside dharma. Fuelling our craving, we soon become satisfied only by more and more extreme stimuli, becoming enslaved to that which we supposed would 'free' us.

The call of the new can be the clarion call of awakening or the siren song of seduction. When our life is shallow, when we live on the surface and lack meaning, we yearn for the new, yet we often choose the siren's song to lull us asleep amid the mediocrity. Instead, we can hold ourselves ready for invitations to deeper meaning. Sometimes, 'do what most you fear to do,' can be a good guideline; inviting courage, revealing a profound challenge that leads to growth. Overcoming our fears and limitations, we become stronger and fuller, living life with more depth and enthusiasm. But first we need to check in and see what part of us is fearful. There is no need to do what our conscience fears, but every reason to do what our old patterns dread.

A new year is a time to experience a sense of willingness to take on new challenges, readiness to encounter what these challenges bring up and discrimination to discern how to respond to the various challenges and invitations that present themselves. Is this a life-giving opportunity or a diversion from our path?

Eighteen months after my visit to Donegal, I'm still practicing fiddle daily and connecting with Sean on Skype for lessons. Despite all the difficulties of taking on something new, I am making time to renew my childhood love affair with the violin. I'm gaining upper body strength, honing my musical skills, nourishing my Celtic roots and making some great new friends. And I'm working on my classical violin skills as well. Slowly I'm overcoming performance anxiety and letting go of the fear of failure. I have a wonderful new stress release activity at end of a busy day. I'm glad I took up a challenge, because it has brought more joy into my life!

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I was gifted this Zephirin Amelot violin when I was ten years old!

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Winter light by Sadananda

New year offers us an opportunity to make a fresh start and look anew at our life and our goals. What is the gap between our aspirations and our actuality? What can we do to bridge that gap? New Year also comes amid a whirl of holiday parties and indulgences when many of us fall so far out of our routine that it can seem difficult to get back into it. As we leave the holiday season behind and launch into the exciting possibilities, challenges and opportunities of 2015, let us take a look at ways we can relieve and release stress on all levels and enter the New Year feeling physically cleansed, emotionally balanced and mentally peaceful, with clear priorities and soaring aspirations.

Much of the January stress we experience is physical. Too much Halloween candy, too much Thanksgiving turkey (or tofurky), too many latkes or too many Christmas cookies, not enough exercise--the holidays have stressed our physical system.

So the first way to relieve holiday stress is to go on a simple cleansing diet. This is basically a mono-diet suited to our constitution. A typical winter cleanse could consist of a kitcheri diet for a week or so. This cleansing diet actually saves you time and money as your food preparation each day becomes very simple.

If you feel that rice for three meals a day would provide too many carbohydrates, you can do a balancing cleanse with mung soup. Basically follow the same recipe but leave out the rice. Alternatively, Kapha may prefer to substitute barley for rice. It's also possible to do an Andean cleanse by making a one-pot dish of quinoa and vegetables, with the same spices as the kitcheri recipe. And if you are not vegetarian, you can do a "Jewish penicillin" cleanse by fasting on chicken soup with carrots--but leave out the noodles during your cleanse!

In my family, after so much heavy eating on Christmas Day, we always went for a brisk walk by the sea on Boxing Day, as we call the day after Christmas. There is a lot of wisdom in this simple custom. Many of us feel that New Year is the time to join a gym, but let's not forget the importance of fresh air and natural environments. A wonderful way to de-stress your body and mind is to take a brisk walk in the park, beside a creek, river or lake, or in the woods. Not only are we taking aerobic exercise, we are also refreshing prana, our vital force.

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A Boxing Day walk at Llanrhysrud

The holidays also bring unusual levels of emotional stress. Some of us make long journeys to visit relatives with whom we have a difficult past history or challenging relationship. Some of us have been hosting people who don't treat us respectfully or considerately. Some of us feel lonely because we don't have family to gather with, or because life has changed since a divorce or relocation. Many of us experience grief in the absence of a loved one who has died. As we come into the New Year, we need some simple ways to relieve emotional stress.

Getting clear about what we need is a swift and simple way to relieve emotional stress. We are looking here at our needs in terms of universal human needs. If we are thinking, 'I need to....' then we are not really talking about a need, but rather about a strategy to meet a need. Beneath that strategy is a universal human need rather than a specific thing we need to get or do. 'I need to take a break,' for example, is actually a strategy. The universal need underneath is, 'I need space. 'I need for these folks to start treating me better' comes down to, 'I need respect,' or ' I need appreciation.' As soon as we identify our need in terms of universal needs, we heave an inward sigh of relief. It's good to be heard; it's even better to hear yourself. This is known as self-empathy. What's more, we can practice self-empathy swiftly and silently in the midst of the chaos. To learn more about self-empathy and universal needs, visit the website of the Center for Nonviolent Communication or read Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg.

Emotional stress can also be eased by a quick grounding practice. If you are standing, connect with your feet. If seated, connect with your tailbone. Feel roots grow from your feet or tailbone and extend through the green vegetation, through the water table, through the bedrock, deep into the centre of the Earth. Feel all your stress and tension releasing into the Earth. Breathe calm, peaceful golden earth energy up into your heart. With an inner or outer 'namaste', say thank you to Mother Earth.

Anther way to release tension and stress is to hug a tree in your backyard or a public park. The tree has plenty of time to process and so will not be harmed by sharing your load. Feel the tree's roots deep in the earth, the trees branches extending into the sky. Allow the tree to take your stress and the emotional burdens you carry and to fill you with clear, fresh prana or vitality.

We also come into the New Year with a burden of mental stress and tension that furrows our brow. New Year is often a time when I like to clean out closets and drawers, getting rid of things that are no longer needed. Yet it is still more important to clear out our priorities. As my teacher, the late great Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi liked to say, "The necessary tends to overwhelm the important." The things we have to do can take over the time, leaving no room for the things we are really here to do.

So here is a great practice for New Year. Make a list of all the things you do during a typical week, shopping, laundry, working, yoga, reading, email--all your activities. Now rank these activities in order of importance to you as a holistic being. Next, rank this same set of activities in order of the amount of time you spend on this activity each week. You may be surprised to see a vast discrepancy. Some years ago, after doing this exercise, I realized that two thirds of my time was being spent on things that almost anyone else would do better, faster and more efficiently, leaving only a third of my time for the activities that were most important to me. It was soon clear that I had to either eliminate some things or find other ways to get them done. While not as short and sweet as some of the other practices we have mentioned, this exercise is an important way to enter the New Year with clear priorities.

On a fundamental level, our stress comes from a case of mistaken identity. We imagine that we are the doer. This is extremely stressful since many things keep happening that are beyond our control. As Woody Allen said, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans." There is a story about a man in India riding a train with his suitcase on his head. When fellow passengers urged him to put the suitcase on the luggage rack, he replied, " I bought a ticket only for myself, not for my suitcase." We may laugh at this story, but we do this all the time. So a very quick and easy way to relieve mental stress and tension is to say to yourself, "Put it on the luggage rack."

The physical, emotional and mental aspects of our being may carry various forms of stress, but our spiritual being, our true nature, always rests in tranquility. We can draw upon this essential nature in moving through life in a calm and effortless way. Just chanting 'Om shanti, shanti, shantih' is a simple and effective way of wishing deep peace and tranquility to our physical, emotional and mental levels. The magic of Sanskrit is such that the meaning is inherent in the sound of the word, so when we chant shanti we immediately feel a tangible sense of peace. We can also send loving kindness to ourselves and to all fellow beings, repeating 'May I be happy' with each in breath and 'May all beings be happy' with each out breath. Breathe in 'May I be happy' sending warmth and loving kindness to every cell of your body. Breathe out 'May all beings be happy,' as you radiate warmth and loving kindness to everyone in the building, the neighborhood, the city or town, the state, the country and finally to the whole world. You can do this practice at the end of your meditation or yoga session, at the start of your day, or while riding the bus to work or waiting for your flight to board.

Finally, let us not forget the most important part of your toolkit for launching into 2015--a sense of humor. Laughter is a great stress release. While you cleanse your body and balance your mind and emotions, remember to lighten up, laugh, sing, and enjoy yourself. Have a wonderful New Year, with a fresh beginning every morning and plenty of laughs along the way.

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My parents loved France. When my father was alive, they used to visit France every year. Their trips included visits to their favourite wine chateaux, where they acquired new finds for their wine cellar. My mother, a retired doctor, was--indeed, still is--an avid reader of the British Medical Journal. So of course, my parents were delighted when studies started coming out claiming that a glass of wine a day would help prevent cardiovascular disease. "Got to have our rations," they would chuckle, as they settled down to a good dinner of home-grown vegetables with a glass of excellent wine.

Alas! A new report claims that, where cancer is concerned, no amount of alcohol is safe.
This unsettling warning is offered in the 2014 World Cancer Report (WCR), issued by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). In fact alcohol was declared a carcinogen as far back as 1988. A causal relationship exists between alcohol consumption and cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon-rectum, liver, and female breast; a significant relationship also exists between alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer. This relationship is dose-dependent, meaning that the more alcohol you drink, the greater the risk. Alcohol consumption may also play a part in the causation of leukemia, multiple myeloma and cancers of the cervix, and skin--although in these latter cases, more research is needed before a definite conclusion could be drawn.

Unfortunately, some of the studies suggest that even light drinking is associated with increased risk for cancers of the mouth, oesophagus and breast. Here I must admit to some skepticism, as these studies involved self-reporting about the amount of alcohol consumed. In my experience, people typically report only about half their actual use.

Does the type of alcohol matter? In general, not, according to this report. However, hard liquor like whiskey and vodka is especially dangerous for the delicate tissues of the oesophagus (gullet). And smoking really compounds matters, since alcohol and tobacco have been found to have a synergistic effect in terms of cancer causation in the mouth, larynx, pharynx and oesophagus.

What about alcohol's cardio-protective effects? This depends upon using alcohol the way my parents did. Remember, my Mum actually read the studies carefully and critically. They had a half glass each--a glass at most--in the evening with dinner. On the other hand, a patient of mine insisted on the beneficial effects of two to three glasses of wine each night. A Vietnam veteran, he was probably self-medicating PTSD. And of course, he did develop not only liver disease, but also hypertension and stroke--both of which are associated with heavy alcohol use.

The best approach drinking wine remains the nuanced Ayurvedic view described in our last blog. Here are a few pointers based on the latest research:

  • If you drink, only drink lightly
  • Don't binge or indulge in heavy drinking bouts
  • Don't smoke, especially if you drink
  • Avoid hard liquor
  • If you are at high risk for breast or colon cancer, don't drink at all.
  • A good meal in good company is the best intoxicant, even without wine

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Dad growing the vegetables they had at dinner with wine!


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In a previous blog, we looked at how various meats and alcoholic beverages are recommended for use in the winter months. Today, let's take a look at some Ayurvedic perspectives on alcohol.
How and why might we use alcohol in an Ayurvedic context?

One of the most important texts of Ayurveda is Charak Samhita. Charak takes a nuanced view of alcohol use and abuse. Wine, "is like a nectar when someone drinks it in the proper manner, in the proper quantity, at the proper time, with wholesome food, adjusted for the strength of the individual and with merrymaking. On the other hand, it acts like a poison when one indulges in drinking wine of poor quality, or in the context of a disorderly lifestyle or excess physical exertion." This same dilemma confronts us to this day. Alcohol can be a pleasant or even beneficial component of a celebratory meal, or it can be the destroyer of lives and families.

Wine has ten properties: it is light, sharp, hot, subtle, sour, quickly absorbed, quick acting, drying, sedative and rough. These ten qualities are exactly the same as the ten qualities of poison. When consumed in great excess, alcohol can cause coma and death. It is a notorious liver toxin and brain poison. Regular excess consumption can cause hepatic cirrhosis and eventually alcohol dementia. But, in line with Charak's nuanced approach, the same qualities that make alcohol a poison also render it a yoga vahi, an excellent vehicle for introducing medicines into the tissues. This is the rationale behind the use of tinctures, as well as the various medicated wines used in Ayurveda, known as asavas and arishtas. The most well-known and commonly used outside India is drakshasava, a wine made from dark grapes or raisins and spices such as cardamom.


Because wine is an intoxicant, Charak gives importance to set and setting for consuming alcohol. This is not something to be done casually, nor when alone, nor when sad or stressed. Make sure your body is externally and internally clean before partaking. Dress up nicely, in clean clothes and jewellery and wear essential oils suited to the season. Recline on a comfortable couch with cushions. Your environment should also be uplifted, with flower arrangements and incense. Drink in a pleasant social setting, with guests whose company you enjoy. Sincerity and affection are key qualities in this context.

Charak actually recommends using a gold wine-cup, like the Mycaenean one pictured here.

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This makes sense in that gold only dissolves in aqua regis and hence would not contaminate the wine or impart a metallic taste. Nowadays we are more likely to use crystal (or cut glass, for UK readers). My father used to emphasize polishing the wineglasses nicely so they were not just clean, but sparkling. Charak would agree. And Charak also gives importance to pairing good food with good wine, mentioning fruits, green vegetables, well seasoned dishes and roasted meats.

In ancient times a libation was offered before drinking wine. Today we might make a toast, or do kiddush, or at least say "Cheers" or
sláinte (in Irish,) santé (French), or l'chaim (in Hebrew). In other words, there should be some sense of sacredness, offering, blessing or well-wishing before partaking.

Finally, Charak offers some special precautions for each dosha.

Vata: Wine is drying for you. Make sure you get an oil massage (or self-massage) and hot shower or steam before drinking. Have warm and oily food before taking wine. Prefer sweet to dry wines.

Pitta: Wine is heating for your constitution. Take a lukewarm or cool bath, use a rosewater spritzer, wear sandalwood or vetiver essential oil and loose clothing. Select a menu of sweet, bitter and astringent foods such as green vegetables, sweet potatoes etc. Choose red wine or mead (honey wine).

Kapha: Wine adds extra calories to your meal. To get your metabolism going, season your food with black pepper. Use kapha-soothing grains such as barley or quinoa.
Choose red wine or mead (honey wine).

Next week, we will look at some of the latest medical research regarding alcohol. Is it beneficial? Is it safe? We'll find out next week.

We use wine for merrymaking (sometimes in excess)

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Merrymakers, 1870, Carolus Duran, Detroit Institute of Arts

And for rituals as well, like Kiddush.

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Painting by Hevda Ferenci.












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