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March 16, 2014

What We Didn’t Know About the Seasons & Ayurveda. ~ Frank Vazquez

seasons

As we move from winter to spring and the ever impending summer, people in my local community are getting worried.

We are in a drought.

The rains of winter never really came and it hasn’t been this bad in over a century. The government is getting involved. People aren’t taking showers. Farmers in the region and the immigrants they employ are in jeopardy.

Perhaps golf courses will slowly turn brown along with the rest of the rolling hills if we can get our real priorities straight, but I’m not counting on it. This is no news to anyone following reports about the lack of rainfall in California, but looking through an Ayurvedic lens it provides ample clues into something else entirely.

When I was originally learning Ayurveda at a school that touts “the most comprehensive curriculum in the field of Ayurvedic medicine in the West,” this large amount of dryness in the atmosphere during winter might have made perfect sense.

This school, and many modern Ayurvedic practitioners, pass around the idea that fall and winter is so called “vata time” of which one of the main manifestations is dryness.  Out of this they might recommend vata pacifying regimes or diets. In direct opposition to this others often claim you need to reduce kapha since they might have looked outside their window and saw that in some places the winter rains are very important as is snowfall in locales where the weather tends on the colder side, and both cold and moist are qualities of kapha.

Obviously something is amiss here as these statements, pulled straight from texts of “authorities” on Ayurveda in the western world, are in clear opposition even if you know little about this subject.

While there are some half-truths in some of the above statements it is far from the whole story and not just a case of there being different approaches.

If either vata or kapha was really aggravated in the winter, some of this might make some sense as a very general protocol. But no dosha is considered aggravated in the winter time if we are following the actual advice of the ancient seers. If you look at the classical texts of Ayurveda you will see that the seasonal adjustments and effects are not necessarily tied to one dosha and it is quite a complex affair that involves the environment, our bodies, and our digestive tract which are all doing different things in response to seasonal shifts.

While doshas are definitely associated with certain seasons, it is really more about specific gunas (qualities) and specific shifts that happen in each of these separate domains (environment, digestion, body etc.) more than anything dosha specific necessarily.

One of the first things the Charaka Samhita, Ayurveda’s foundational text, describes in relation to its six season model (yes six, not four) is the fact that they are caused by the movement of the Sun.

While this is an obvious statement, the implications and results of such a shift on our lives seem to have been lost since modern allopathic medicine forgot its roots in the Hippocratic tradition which most likely grew out of Ayurveda itself. From roughly mid-January to the summer solstice, the Sun slowly moves to its highest and most northerly point in the sky during the summer.

It is at this time that both the human body and digestive function are at their weakest. This is primarily due to the fact that the increased exposure to Sun creates more work for our bodies in expelling heat and there is less power for our digestive tract to consume food. All of the classical texts clearly say vata is most aggravated at this time primarily due to the drying and depleting effect of the Sun on our bodies at this time.

The fact that pitta can be provoked during this time is often due to an already underlying condition or other lifestyle factors that are not necessarily due to the season but can be common in our modern day life of overworked, over exercised, over caffeinated and overly salted foods amongst other factors.

Furthermore pitta type issues often involve indications of increased digestive secretions and not lessened. Due to this vata aggravation in the summer the classics say it is a time to take it easy, not engage in vigorous asana practice, eat more light sweet foods and perhaps even stay indoors more while the rest of the world is throwing endless barbecues, running all over the globe trying to enjoy the nice weather or even maintaining a rigorous yoga workshop schedule that is harming their body according to Ayurveda. These regimes all fit well with the idea of calming vata though not necessarily pitta on all accounts.

The exact opposite process happens from shortly after the summer solstice to the winter solstice.

Namely the sun moves in a southern direction and its rays are less intense. The days become shorter and the world is more dominated by the Moon. There are deeper significations here too, as in all Vedic knowledge, as the Moon is the nourishing, motherly aspects of the creation and in certain paradigms controls the water element.

On the bodily level, the digestion slowly increases during this time until it is at its peak in the dead of winter when the body is also at its strongest.

This is the exact time when we should be engaging in our most vigorous workouts, eating the heaviest diets and possibly partaking in sex more than usual which is a topic unto itself. If you know a little Ayurveda you’ll know that these recommendations couldn’t be grafted on a single dosha as people often attempt to do. This makes sense since no specific dosha aggravation is given at this time, as we have previously mentioned.

The fact that people get dried out at this time can have a variety of factors not necessarily related to anything involving “vata”, but more with the increased digestive or decreased circulatory functions due to the heat receding into the body and away from the extremities.

It may also have deeper significations of cultural deficiencies as many people are dehydrated and become more so at this time due to the increased need to feed our digestive fire which will not happen if you have not properly balanced vata in the summer as the texts recommend or are drinking green smoothies and doing anti-kapha regimes all winter long.

Obviously these are general patterns and must be adjusted to both individual constitutions and local environments in both occurrence of the actual season and specific intensity of guna manifestations, which only adds layers of complexity in seeing the actual base patterns at work. There is also the fact that there are often seasonal irregularities Ayurveda speaks to that must be taken into account if they are present yet is rarely mentioned in these cookbook models of the science.

The main idea here is that single dosha seasonal regimes have fairly limited utility or can be downright harmful in the wrong hands as we must be constantly aware of a variety of factors affecting the qualities around and in us in order to properly implement seasonal adjustments.

Drought

Feel free to do a basic google search on any of this as there is a wide variety of often conflicting information on the seasons, coming largely at the hands of an oversimplified four season—three dosha model that has been sold to the consumerist market to make this information more readily digestible. It is much easier to understand and sell products for the “Vatta-Pitta-Kapha” logic and associate these dosha ‘s with everything under the sun, then to look at the specific gunas in a variety of different circumstances and permutations as it has been done for the ages under the guidance of deeply studied physicians. While we want digestibility in our food, I wouldn’t skimp on the theory personally.

I was scratching my head when I first started understanding these differences between both the seasons and Ayurveda in the west.

Like many others, I started thinking perhaps the Charaka Samhita was only for India, maybe the modern take was more correct, perhaps I was missing some crucial piece of information or being too critical, or maybe we didn’t need to know all the nuances of the Sanskrit texts to do Ayurveda correctly. So I started reaching out to Ayurvedic practitioners and students in both the east and west in an attempt to find some answers.

To make the long of it short, the answer that put it all together was when I was doing some therapy work under a western trained medical doctor who happened to have studied both the four and six season model under a prominent Vaidya ( Ayurvedic physician).

This practitioner told me that the classical model was simply “too subtle” for the average westerner to get behind and understand the variety of shifts happening every couple of months. This checked out with others working in real Ayurvedic clinics with PhD level supervision where hands down the classical seasonal model was all that could explain what they were seeing in patients as well as those of differing locales not necessarily relegated to India. It also checked out with my own observations for my local environment and was a missing piece in understanding the shifts I was experiencing in my body.

What seems to be occurring is that some practitioners might get lucky or have moderate success working with a four season model since there is indeed some basic overlap. For example, spring time is a good time to clear kapha and summer is indeed hot, but there is more to the story as we have already seen.

People are often so out of balance and out of touch with their body that any little shift in their energy and they think something is working miracles or they are becoming spiritual when often times the opposite is true.

I know. I wrecked my body from fasting even though I swore it was healthy and it felt great for many years without issue. I see this all the time in people I work with as well as out there in the blogosphere and it is a cause for alarm.

Many of these same people also have vata type imbalances which cause them to listen to no advice but their own and there is little that can be done until they get sick themselves.

These are also many of the same reasons that a lot of fad diets might work for some time but then their efficacy wanes as you move through the seasons which require different things of and for our bodies, though misapplying Ayurveda can take longer to manifest due to its variable nature. For better or worse, people often have a hard time sticking to many Ayurvedic protocols so there almost seems to be a natural buffer in place here or perhaps people just following proper bodily intelligence.

There is so much more information to discuss surrounding this and unless someone is trying to sell you something there really aren’t any simple answers or one size fits all prescriptions (which also includes the ever popularized idea of dieting for your dosha type).

So as the Sun continues on its northern course, you might want to take a step back from some of these ideas you may have been living with and start to look at the world around you without any preconceived notions and really experience yourself.

See what happens as the Sun climbs higher in the sky and what really happens to your appetite, your body, and your mind. See what feelings the seasons bring up.

Do we want to sit indoors and study all summer long? Does our digestive strength overflow? Or is there a drought in our towns, our bodies, and our lives? Do we want to run outside and meet every friend we meet? What is just a mental concept we have forced on the situation? How would you describe it? What is really going on?

While it may be difficult to try and see these things apart from what we might have read in some book or blog on Ayurveda, however lauded the author may appear to be, we should never stop learning and keep asking tough questions as there is a lot to learn and many variables in the equation. I’m curious to see what you come up with.

 

 

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Editorial Assistant: Sarvasmarana Ma Nithya / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Phil Koch/Thys Du Plessis/Pixoto

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Frank Vazquez