Energize (Ayurveda Style)

Wish you weren't so tired all the time? Here's how to tap into the ancient science of ayurveda for energizing tips geared specifically for your body type.
By Nora Simmons

Wish you weren’t so tired all the time? Here’s how to tap into the ancient science of ayurveda for energizing tips geared specifically for your body type.

My college roommate—thin, quick-minded, and restless—was somewhat of a mystery to me. We lived together for two years, hung out, studied together, but our energy levels—and the way we dealt with fatigue—couldn’t have been more different. While I barely functioned if I didn’t get my eight hours of sleep, Jen did fine on six. I conserved energy by moving slowly and methodically while she flitted from place to place.

I could never quite understand these differences as an undergrad; I naively thought that if we had the same schedule and habits, we would have the same energy level. But 15 years later, after studying the science of ayurveda, I get it. Despite the similarities that drew us to each other, Jen and I were vastly different—and we needed to find our own ways of rejuvenating in order to feel refreshed.

Jen and I are proof of what ayurvedic thinking is all about: Not everyone is created equal. The ancient science of ayurveda—India’s oldest known system of medicine—is based on the idea that life force manifests as three different energies, or doshas. Sometimes called metabolic types or constitutions, these three forces are present not only within us, but they also govern everything in the universe: hours in the day, seasons of the year, and even stages of life (see “Dosha Times” below).

When it comes to boosting energy, ayurveda looks to how we can live in harmony with the greater universe. When we ignore natural law—such as eating food out of season, staying up when our internal rhythms dictate sleep, and pushing ourselves when we need to rest—we disturb the balance between the inner and outer universe, and we become imbalanced. “And it’s then—when we break the rules of the rhythms of nature—that we’re more vulnerable to fatigue,” says John Douillard, DC, PhD, director of LifeSpa Retreat and Rejuvenation Center of Ayurveda in Boulder, Colorado.

So how can we draw from the wellspring of ayurveda’s ancient wisdom to stay balanced, vibrant, and energetic? The key is understanding your dosha, so you can tap into a prescription for energy that will work especially well for you. Here’s how.

Your Energy RX
The basic principle behind ayurveda is “like increases like.” So to maintain energy and balance, you need to gravitate toward the elements unlike those inherent in your constitution. Since you already have those qualities in excess, reducing them can help you find balance. “If you have a vata person, doing a vata activity, in a vata season, you begin to stack qualities,” explains Douillard. “And the premise of ayurveda is not to stack.” A better idea for a vata, explains Douillard, would be to bring in more elements of pitta and kapha—especially during the fall or winter season and the post-menopausal years, when vata predominates in the environment and the body.

The following suggestions offer specific ways to bring more energy and balance into your life. Read the ideas for your dosha; if you are bi-doshic (equally pitta and kapha, for ex- ample), read both and try the tips that make sense for what you’re feeling right now.

Vata
Vata types are ruled by air. Usually thin and angular, with brown eyes and dry hair, vatas are strong, flexible, sensitive, and spiritually attuned—when in balance. When tired or stressed, vatas can be flighty, impatient, erratic, and easily distracted. Their skin becomes dry, hands and feet get cold, and they’re prone to constipation, insomnia, and arthritis. So what’s a spacey vata to do?

Rely on routine. Since vatas tend to move quickly and have irregular rhythms, a focus on consistency can help conserve energy. Waking up, going to bed, exercising, and eating meals around the same time each day can help flighty vatas stay grounded and steady.

Think warm foods. Warm, moist, and nourishing foods (like hearty soups, oatmeal, cooked grains, and stewed fruits) counter vata’s cold tendencies. A vata’s digestive system isn’t strong enough to digest cold, fermented, and raw foods, so it’s smart to steer clear of them. Good vata-balancing herbs include cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and fenugreek.

Snack before snoozing. Aadil Palkhivala, a certified ayurvedic health science practitioner and founder-director of the Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington, recommends that vatas eat something with protein, like dal or a half cup of warm organic milk, before bed. Not only does this help ground a vata’s high energy, but it promotes healing. “The repair of tissues happens when you sleep, and the body needs proper nutrition when it’s going into the state of healing,” he says.

Skip the drive-through. Always-on-the-go vata types tend to eat on the run, which too often means grabbing processed, hard-to-digest foods and eating too quickly. According to Scott Blossom, an ayurvedic consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area, by making a commitment to sit down at every meal you’ll more likely choose whole foods, eat more mindfully, and digest properly—all of which can boost energy.

Pitta
Pitta types are ruled by fire. They typically have an athletic build, with broad shoulders and slim hips. When in balance, pittas have a strong mental focus and tend to be successful, decisive, courageous, and practical. When thrown off-kilter, they become volatile, irritable, and aggressive. Pittas also sweat a lot and can suffer from diarrhea and skin rashes. “Since pittas have a large amount of energy, they show the first signs of fatigue as irritability,” says Douillard. How can pittas feel more pep?

Take a walk on the calm side. Since fiery pittas are competitive and tend to overdo, well, almost everything, they should resist the urge to go to an intense spinning class or challenge a friend to a 5K race when they feel especially drained. Instead, for the best energy boost take a walk, do a few calming yoga poses, or indulge in 10 minutes of qigong or t’ai chi. If strenuous exercise is a must, save it for the early morning or evening, when the weather is coolest.

Rejuvenate before bed. Pitta types have a hard time slowing down and, in fact, can shift into overdrive mode on a dime. But overwork and strain only exacerbate pitta intensity—and can zap energy so much that pittas might find it difficult to fall asleep. “Everyone thinks that when you can’t sleep at night you have too much energy, but it’s usually because people have too little energy,” says Douillard. Experts say you need to balance your nervous system first for a better chance at going—and staying—asleep. “If you are exhausted, don’t get into bed,” says Palkhivala. “Instead, do some deep breathing until you feel more relaxed and refreshed, then go to sleep.”

Revel in nature and music. Pittas need to stay calm and connected to their emotions so they don’t let their anger or impatience get the better of them. Spending time in nature—especially near cooling streams or beautiful gardens—can soothe pitta energy. Peaceful music can also help, particularly classical music with slow, regular rhythms (think Indian ragas or Baroque chamber music).

Kapha
Kapha types are ruled by earth and water and have a bigger build, thick hair, and long eyelashes. When in balance, kaphas are stable, calm, patient, nurturing, and easygoing. When thrown off balance, they can be lethargic, prone to depression, and overly attached. Kaphas also tend to be susceptible to colds, coughs, allergies, and weight gain. If you have a kapha constitution, these six tips can help you find more energy effectively:

Sleep when the sun sleeps. Conventional wisdom says the more hours of sleep you get, the better. But not if you’re a kapha. Kaphas love to sleep, and too much bedtime won’t work for your constitution. Seven to eight hours is plenty. Resist the urge to veg out on the couch or nap during the day.

Rise (really early) and shine. Kaphas should ideally wake up at 5 a.m., before the heavy, sluggish kapha time that starts at 6 a.m. Sleeping past 6 a.m. can cause kaphas to slip into a deep, heavy sleep that’ll only make them feel more lethargic.

Eat light. Kapha energy is stable, but too much stability causes inertia and fatigue, says Douillard. If you’re a kapha, don’t eat too many cooked and heavy foods—they’ll leave you more sluggish and possibly even depressed. Instead, eat wholesome, fresh and light foods and avoid oily, sweet, and excessively sour or salty foods. Because digestion is sluggish in the morning and after 6 p.m., eat a very light breakfast and evening meal.

Get going. Although it might feel like torture, kaphas should vow to exercise vigorously every day to counter their tendency toward lethargy. Douillard recommends power walking for 20 minutes while breathing deeply through the nose to get your circulation going. Find it especially hard to push yourself? Take a group exercise class, like kickboxing or spinning, which might keep you going longer and harder than exercising on your own. Try not to nap during the day and avoid the couch-potato urge in the evening.

Scents it. Kaphas can suffer from stagnant energy, and aromatherapy works particularly well for a quick boost. Try blending aromatic and energizing scents like marjoram oil, frankincense, rose oil, and ylang-ylang. These strong scents tend to grab the attention of a sleepy kapha.

Breathe for a boost. Sluggish kaphas need a powerful breathing exercise to pump up their energy. First thing in the morning, practice two full minutes of Ujjayi breath: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, constricting the back of your throat (producing a tone that sounds like the ocean). Next, exhale slowly with your mouth open, making a “haaa” sound as if you were fogging up glasses. Before bed, practice two full minutes of Bastrika (bellows breath): Take full, deep breaths in and out through your nose, using your entire lungs. Follow with one minute of normal breathing.

What’s your dosha?

While ayurveda says that everyone is made up of a combination of the three doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—most people have a predominance of one or two. Take this quiz to discover your constitution:

What’s your skin like?
a. dry and rough
b. normal, combination
c. oily

What’s your temperament?
a. indecisive
b. fiery
c. slow and methodical

How would you describe your body type?
a. thin, angular
b. athletic, medium frame
c. big-boned, powerful frame

What’s your complexion usually like?
a. darker, gray-bluish color
b. pinkish or reddish
c. pale, light

How would you best describe your mind?
a. quick and restless
b. sharp and aggressive
c. calm, steady, and stable

How would you best describe your thoughts?
a. constantly changing
b. fairly steady
c. steady

What are your moods like?
a. they change quickly
b. they change slowly
c. they remain steady

How do you consider your confidence?
a. timid
b. outwardly self-confident
c. inwardly confident

What kind of weather do you like the least?
a. cold
b. heat
c. damp, cold

When threatened, how do you respond?
a. run
b. fight
c. make peace

If you answered mostly a’s, you’re a vata type; mostly b’s, you’re a pitta type; mostly c’s, you’re a kapha type.

Ways everyone can stay balanced

No matter what your dosha, you can follow some basic ayurvedic guidelines to boost your energy:
Awaken before sunrise to start the day with the most balanced energy; sleeping beyond 6 a.m. (into kapha time) makes it difficult to get going in the morning.

Drink a glass of room-temp water immediately after you wake up to aid digestion.

Massage your body with warm sesame oil (olive oil for pittas) before you shower or bathe for good circulation and mental alertness.

Exercise before 10 a.m. to decrease lethargy; follow exercise with a deep breathing routine.

Avoid drinking liquids during a meal, since they douse the energy needed for digestion.

Eat your biggest meal between noon and 2 p.m., since digestion is strongest during this pitta time.

Massage the soles of your feet with warm oil just before bed to calm your mind and promote sound sleep.

Go to bed by 10 p.m.

Dosha times

VATA time of day:
Between 2 and 6, a.m. and p.m. (ideal times for clarity and mental activity)
Time of year: Fall and winter (windy, dry, cold)
Stage of life: After menopause (dry skin, cessation of menses, brittle bones)

PITTA time of day:
Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (when hunger increases, the body’s energized, and the mind is lively and alert) and 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. (when the body is digesting the day’s food and rejuvenating)
Time of year: Summer (hot, humid)
Stage of life: Between puberty and menopause (time of vitality and activity)

KAPHA time of day:
Between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. (when the body is fresh but digestion is slower) and 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. (when the body and mind feel drowsy)
Time of year: Spring (wet and cool)
Stage of life: From birth to puberty (attachment, confusion)

Remeber the ayurvedic principle of “like attracts like,” so you’re most likely to go out of balance during your dosha’s time of day, season, and life stage. During these vulnerable times, focus on bringing in the other two elements.

Nora Isaacs is a San Francisco–based freelance writer.