I first wrote this feature for Psychologies magazine in March 2015. I received more emails off the back of it, than for any other feature I’ve written in my 6 years at the magazine, where I am Health + Wellness director. It explains why Ayurveda, and living seasonally, and as close to nature as possible, have transformed my health, mindset and outlook, and why my husband and I have since decided to create the Balance Plan blog, and seek out simplest daily pleasures and pare back our lives to ensure we’re never too far removed from the wonder and healing power of nature. I hope you enjoy it, Eminé x
I grew up listening to the story of my birth. The horror, the pain. The aftershock that never wore off. The stitches, tears and trauma. The blood vessels that burst all over my mother’s beautiful 21-year-old face, and way she sobbed when she finally saw her own reflection. ‘You pushed with your face,’ the midwife told her at the time, and she didn’t even know what that meant. They say that you’re quite likely to labour and birth like your mother, and this stuck with me too, of course. So, upon getting pregnant with my first child, I felt I had two options. One, an elective caesarean, which my mother always felt would be the best way to go – ‘I’ll take control of this,’ was the thinking, ‘so that I don’t suffer the same fate as my mother.’ No pain during labour, no unknowns. The other was something that would instil a sense of calm and belief in me. Make me know that I could do it and that my body would be OK at the end. So, I prayed to the god of Google and found <The Gentle Birth Method>(Thorsons, £16.99). The book, written by doctor and doula Gowri Motha, talked about the possibility of preparing the body for birth, in the same way that one prepares the body to run a marathon. A way of eating, breathing, thinking that supported the body’s own inherent constitution – something called Ayurveda.
What is it?
Ayurveda is India’s 5,000-year-old science of medicine. It pre-dates all complete systems of medicine by a very long way. It is holistic – considering mind, body and spirit with each and every piece of advice. It believes that food is medicine, and that by eating foods that are seasonal, and naturally support our body type, we will flourish. It understands that eating more of the right foods will make us feel happier. Eating more of the wrong ones can really dull our senses. There are three main <doshas>, or constitutional types, and they are <vata, pitta> and <kapha>. Ayurveda believes that we are all made of varying degrees of five elements – air, ether, water, fire and earth. The doshas are also made up of these elements. It is not a literal thing, more a symbolic shortcut to understanding how we are ‘built’ from the minerals that make up our bones and teeth (earth) to the energy that fires our cells and digestive systems (fire). Ayurveda believes that being healthy and happy is all about achieving balance within the body. By balancing the elements within us – stabilising those airy, flighty tendencies (vata), cooling down excessive heat (pitta) and drying out the cold and damp (kapha, which we experience literally when we have a phlegmy or mucousy cough), we will get our bodies to a place where everything is in harmony. As a result, we will be stronger, healthier and more energised. We will be happier, calmer and brighter. We will also experience <sattva> – the positive and balanced state of mind that is where we are when we feel we’re at 100 per cent.
A very pitta pregnancy
So, I sat down, as everyone who begins on the path toward an Ayurvedic life, does, with the consultation questionnaire and answered a series of questions about my body, my mind, my sleep, skin, appetite, ambition, body temperature… insightful, yet incisive, questions that had me nodding along emphatically – yes, yes, this is definitely me! I remember sending my husband a text message, ‘I am a very PITTA pregnant person!’ I learned that, yes, I had a lot of fire in my system. I am just built that way – prone to skin rashes, sudden flashes of rage, overheating… the more I read about my constitution, and about Ayurveda as a whole, the better I became at feeding myself foods that, in my pregnant state, really nourished, supported and balanced my body. My body responded easily, happily and quickly. I had a great pregnancy, tons of energy, and a really positive mind-set. I started meditating, knowing I would continue to do so up to (and hopefully during!) labour, and to try and keep my mind strong during the contractions. I woke on my due-date, knowing the baby would come that day, and within an hour, contractions had started. I stayed at home, calm and happy, listening to music, meditating, bathing, until the contractions were five minutes apart. The 40-minute drive to the hospital was tough – the pain was very, very intense, but I did keep my mind focused. Two and a half hours after I arrived at the hospital, my baby was born. The speed caught the midwives out – I was pushing minutes after they told me to settle down for another check in four hours. There’d been no intervention, no drugs, no gas and air. I was walking around the hospital with my baby in my arms five minutes later. I was absolutely fine! My mother couldn’t believe it. My husband couldn’t believe it. (I could hardly believe it). But that was when I started to really trust in the power of Ayurvedic living, and just how powerfully it can connect us with our bodies.
Ayurveda believes we are all made of varying degrees of five elements – air, ether, water, fire and earth. It is not a literal thing, more a symbolic shortcut to understanding how we are ‘built’ and made
Losing my way
I know, I know, that I was also lucky. All the preparation in the world cannot guarantee a good birth. I never take that for granted. But the way my body responded and healed was a huge surprise. I went home with my little bundle and planned to continue following an Ayurvedic way of life. Except, it didn’t happen. What happened was a Technicolor blur of sleepless nights, elated first smiles, missed meals, mastitis (thrice), guilt, worry and the real, deep, dark blues. I lost my way a bit. It was, after all, the first time in all of my 30 years, that I’d ever gone without a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation knocked me completely off-kilter. I know now, knowing more about Ayurveda, that my constitution needs a solid seven hours a night (no more), but any less, and my body burns out very quickly. I should have been eating to support myself through the tiredness – to support my mind through the despairing fog, but instead, I stopped eating Ayurvedically – although my husband, bless him, continued to cook me healthy, hearty meals whenever he wasn’t working – and when alone with the baby, who rarely settled, I’d grab two pieces of spelt bread and stuff it with whatever came to hand, and snacked on corn chips, olives, wedges of cheese, glasses of chocolate soya milk (which I craved incessantly). I didn’t have time to stop and reassess. I just carried on and very soon, the peace of mind and body I’d had during pregnancy was eclipsed. Then, when I should have been settling in to a calmer routine, with the baby around three months old, I returned to work, and my husband took up the full-time parenting role.
Eight months later, in a very busy job, commuting to and from Central London four days a week, and on an average of three hours sleep a night, I had a wake-up call. Food had become something to grab and go. Yes, I was eating salads and soups, but I was also eating some of the wrong salads (e.g. combining grains with beans with protein – hello stomach upset!), and was also snacking continually to give me enough energy to get to the end of the day, so my digestive fire (which Ayurveda terms ‘agni’) was never allowed to build or optimise. The office was continually filled with cupcakes and chocolate, and though I’ve never been one to overdo anything, it was very easy to grab a sugar hit at 4pm, to get me through to 6pm. I was burnt out. My body didn’t feel good. I was just so, so tired. My skin was dry. My nails were brittle. Even when the baby slept well (ok, rarely), I didn’t. That is when Denise Leicester, founder of Ila, swept into the <Psychologies> office and told me all about the Ila Spa at Landaa Giraavaru in the Maldives. I remember the way her face lit up as she talked about it. I remember imagining myself, lying on a bed in an outdoor treatment room as the warm breeze enveloped me. I remember listening as she described the chakra treatments and their uniquely spiritual efficacy, employing everything from crystal therapy to yoga within them. Then I remember crying – I imagine many new mums could burst into tears at the thought of being taken to paradise and looked after for a week!
The experience surpassed my wildest expectations. It really was paradise. Purest, warmest unsullied turquoise waters, coral reefs and glitteringly white powder beaches. My villa, atop the sea, was buffeted with the waves all day and night long, the beautiful lullaby that helped me to sleep. I arrived in the late afternoon and was greeted by the wonderful Ayurvedic doctor leading the retreat. We had our consultation and he knew, as did I, that my pitta/fire element was raging. I needed cooling, calming, and my body needed to wake up, shift the excess pounds, and start to hum again. And my goodness, it did. Within two days of restorative, balancing food, from millet porridge to light daal soup, seasonal vegetable stir-fries to freshest fish, I’d started to find my mojo. And by the time I left, after six nights, I really was on the path to balance. My body had shifted the extraneous eight pounds easily and painlessly, solely based on the right Ayurvedic diet, and of course, being rested, de-stressed and well looked after. I vowed not to let these lessons slip once I returned home.
Ayurveda promotes a totally fad-proof and sage way of eating, living, being. It is not about all or nothing. It is, actually, very kind
Six years, another child, and many adventures later, I am still on that Ayurvedic path. I have learned how to make Ayurveda work for me in a very liveable, practical way. I have used it to help me avoid illness (by increasing certain foods and spices in autumn and winter, you really give yourself a healing head start). I have used it to settle eczema. I have used it to aid my children’s upset tummies. I use it every day, in some way or other, because it’s part of my life now. Every day I learn more. This is a journey, a life-long one, and one I’d like to share. I think it will help – anyone, anywhere – and it will do so without pain, guilt, deprivation, impracticality or expense.
In the words of the wonderful Sebastian Pole, co-founder of Pukka Herbs, taken from the foreword of my first book, which is a detailed plan for living modern life in an Ayurvedic way: ‘Ayurveda is not a moralistic system at all. It’s completely supportive of our natural individuality and idiosyncrasy. Thank goodness! It is a compassionate guide that helps us to understand what we need, how much, and when.’ It is the foundation of a life that is happier, healthier, calmer and far more optimistic. It is a totally fad-proof and sage way of eating, living, being. It is moderate and never reactive. We talk about ‘less’ of one thing and ‘more’ of another. Ayurveda is not about all or nothing. It is, actually, very kind. And after 12 years as a wellbeing editor, sick to the stomach of the ‘latest thing’, from 5:2 to paleo, I know without any shadow of a doubt that the only thing that works is a moderate, individual, life-long approach. This has worked for 5,000 years. I owe it a lot, today, every day.