The Ayurveda Way for Grief: An Interview with Ananta Ripa Ajmera
I met Ayurveda expert Ananta Ripa Ajmera a few months ago at The Dinner Party Host Retreat, where she spent the afternoon teaching our group some simple techniques for calming and healing. So often we can feel helpless when facing raw, overwhelming emotions, and I was so inspired by her peaceful presence and insightful tips about using our breath, our food, and even our colors to help with grief.
A little about Ananta: she is a teacher, having taught Ayurveda at Stanford University, UNICEF, NYU, ABC News, and CA Probation Departments (to name just a very few). She is an author, of the bestselling book The Ayurveda Way: 108 Practices from the World's Oldest Healing System for Better Sleep, Less Stress, Optimal Digestion, and More. And she is the Director of Program Development at Vedika Global, a foundation her teacher Acharya Shunya created to awaken health and consciousness with Ayurveda, Yoga and Vedanta.
So, in case you've been waiting for a sign from the Universe that it's time to nurture yourself, consider this a big, colorful sign.
This interview has been lightly edited.
so, what is Ayurveda?
In the ancient Ayurvedic texts, Ayurveda is defined as a science of healthy living that teaches you how to distinguish between actions that bring you joy and those that bring you sorrow (as our mental states greatly affect our physical wellbeing). There is an increasing body of academic research proving the importance of compassion for mental health. Ayurvedic sages, however, have always known this, and have proclaimed happiness-giving actions as those that benefit you and society.
How did you first get interested in Ayurveda?
I first got interested in Ayurveda by living according to its lifestyle when I was in India taking a yoga teacher training. I immediately noticed how much better I felt physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually by living according to nature's rhythms and eating Ayurvedic foods. Then my friend, who was a Stanford PhD student in decision analysis, invited me to a talk he organized for his wife's Ayurveda teacher at Stanford. I went, and everything clicked.
I knew that the unique way Acharya Shunya taught Ayurveda could change my life while sitting in the audience. And it has. Ayurveda has helped me overcome years of eating disorders, insomnia, anxiety, stress, digestive disturbances, and so much more that I could not find solutions for anywhere else I searched - and I looked far and wide.
What is the Ayurvedic view of death?
In the larger Vedic spiritual tradition, of which Ayurveda is a part, death is viewed as a transition of the soul, which we believe is eternal. Hence, spiritual texts like The Bhagavad Gita describe how death is like a mere change of clothes, as the soul migrates from one body to another on its journey of evolution.
Are there any specific customs for burial or cremation in Ayurveda?
We typically cremate the body in Ayurveda, as a reminder that the physical body is merely a temporary abode for the eternal spirit, which is completely boundless and free.
Are there any Ayurvedic practices or routines you recommend for grief?
All of the 108 practices in my book The Ayurveda Way are very beneficial for anyone in grief and mourning, as they provide a wonderful manual that the Ayurvedic sages have revealed for self-care and healing of body, mind and spirit, all of which get affected by grief.
I would particularly recommend incorporating breathing exercises called Buzzing Bee and Udgeeth into your daily, which both nourish your heart - the physical organ, as well as your emotions.
To do Udgeeth, you simply inhale through your nose, then chant OM as you exhale, holding the "O" sound for three times as long as the "M" sound. Focus on your heart as you exhale.
Waking up early is also very helpful for handling grief. That is because the ancient seers or sages (called rishis) of the Yogic and Ayurvedic traditions have long regarded the early morning as a spiritually charged time. The atmosphere is full of sattva at this time, which is a quality of mental clarity and positivity. When you wake up between 4 and 6 a.m., you are blessed with abundant sattvic vibrations, which infuse your day with positivity, hope, peace, balance and ease.
When we sleep in late, beyond 6 a.m., another quality, known as tamas, settles in, which can make us feel dark, heavy, and dull, and as if we don't want to pull our heads up from under our blankets. This quality can add a heavier layer to existing grief, making the mourning process more challenging.
If your wake-up clock is very far from this timeline, however, the good news is that you will feel a difference in your emotional wellbeing simply by waking up 5-10 minutes earlier each day, and then slowly moving your clock backwards from there.
Another practice I highly recommend for anyone going through grief is to oil yourself with some warmed sesame oil and apply it to your body before showering in the morning (and before eating your breakfast). Oil is known as "sneha" in Sanskrit. "Sneha" also means "to love." I have personally experienced the power of oil massage to practice giving myself self-love, and it is tremendously helpful when grieving a loss to really nurture yourself in this way.
food plays an important role in ayurveda, Are there any recipes or specific recipes that can help with grief or emotional healing?
Ayurveda teaches that food leads to feelings of inertia (tamas), agitation (rajas), or balance (sattva). We need all these qualities in a balanced state for optimal health and wellbeing, but it's important to eat more sattvic foods and less rajasic and tamasic foods for emotional healing.
You need some tamas to rest and particularly to sleep well at night, but having too much can make you feel incredibly lethargic, heavy, dark and depressed. Inertia-inducing foods include leftovers, processed foods (including all canned and frozen foods), cheese, mushrooms, beef, and pork.
We need some rajas to get up, get moving, and get things done, but too much can give way to heated emotions like anger, jealosy, and aggression. Rajas-building foods are very spicy, excessively salty, and overly sweet. They include tortilla chips, energy drinks, green and red chilies, candy bars, and wasabi.
Sattva, which is another word for the mind, comes from the root word sat, meaning "truth." Ayurveda proclaims that you are, by nature, filled with balance, clarity, inner peace, strength and harmony - all synonymous with sattva. Sattvic foods are fresh, light, easy to digest, and brimming with the yogic concept of life force (prana). Cooked vegetables, ghee, cardamom, nuts, ripe fruits, and raisins are all sattvic foods. Coriander and pomegranates are sattvic foods that are particularly beneficial for the heart, and hence, they also support emotional healing when you add them as garnish to your meals. There is also a wonderful spiced milk recipe you can try to support your heart from my book by substituting cow's milk with almond milk.
I read that colors can be powerful in Ayurveda, are there any that are especially helpful for grief?
White and light-colored clothes and surroundings promote mental peace, balance, clarity, and all the other qualities associated with sattva and a peaceful mind. Darker colors tend to make us feel darker emotionally. I have noticed the difference personally from shifting my wardrobe from dark colors to lighter ones, and how helpful it is in uplifting my mind from depression and sadness.
Has Ayurveda helped you through any grief, loss, or heart aches?
Ayurveda is all about addressing the root causes of why you manifest health challenges. The suppression of natural urges is a common cause of imbalance of all kinds. There are 13 natural urges the Ayurvedic texts recommend you do not suppress. One of them is tears. I remember when my cousin passed away when I was 11. I was very close to him growing up, though he lived in India and I lived in the United States. He was the first loss I experienced of someone I loved. I remember my parents had immediately sent me to go entertain another girl who had just moved to India from the United States right after they told me about this. I was also raised to believe that "big girls don't cry." I used to always hold in my emotions as a result, and suffered a lot from anorexia nervosa. I was amazed, yet not surprised, to learn how suppressing tears is a root cause of anorexia.
When you hold back tears, the issues that provoked them become much bigger than they need to be. Had I let the river flow, so to speak, when I was younger, the emotions could have simply come and passed, much as waves rise and fall. Your emotions can more easily wash over you if you allow them full expression. I think we can learn a lot from children in this regard. Small children cry loudly and intensely when they're upset, only to let go and move on.
When we hold onto things, they tend to grow bigger inside us. Hence, Ayurveda would recommend expressing your grief by crying. In India, in fact, there are people who come tell you about how big of a loss you are experiencing to help you move from holding onto the emotions to letting them out in tears. There is a ten day mourning period in which friends bring food for the family who is grieving, so they can fully be with their grief and express it as much as they need to in order to begin to heal. As we need to feel to heal.
When I lost a very dear dog of my teacher's, who I often cared for, I applied this learning and really allowed myself to cry as much as I needed to. Often, that happened in the middle of the night, when it was quiet enough to really be with my emotions, which wasn't really convenient, but it (and all the other Ayurvedic practices in my book) really helped me to heal and move forward from the experience in a much healthier way than I had when I experience loss when I was younger.
In addition to the losses I shared above, Ayurveda and its allied sciences of Yoga and Vedanta (a spiritual philosophy that informs Yoga and Ayurveda) have helped me heal from the heart ache of childhood trauma that I could not resolve with any other modality. I am grateful to be continuing to learn about the Vedic ways of healing from grief and loss, as well how to really live well, in my teacher Acharya Shunya's Vedic Spiritual Studies Program at Vedika Global. I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more about the Vedic teachings around these important lessons around life and death.
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All photos by Liz Daly