As modern India is waking up to the bane of aping the West blindly and the rise of lifestyle ailments, people are turning to ancient wisdom and tried-and-tested practices for physical and emotional healing. Navneet Mendiratta maps the reverse trend
In her mid 30s, Rashima Suri begins her day with the oil pulling ritual to cleanse her mouth. No brushing her teeth, that’s for later. She religiously follows it up with a glass of lukewarm water infused with lime and a pinch of cinnamon. Gives it a bit of rest and proceeds with pranayama, a few yoga postures, and 10 minutes of meditation, before she throws herself into the day. Rashima is a corporate consultant. A few years ago, her friends would not have even imagined her doing something like this. A gym-body, she kept erratic hours and would forever be in a rush.
“That was till anxiety caught up and I began getting panic attacks. Medical checks showed only severe vitamin deficiencies, but I knew there was more to it. And then, one day I just disconnected. Packed my bags and headed for a detox retreat at a centre in South India. That was when I discovered the joys of healthy living and yoga,” she shares.
For months, her friends joked about it as being a fad, till they noticed the changes and the calm about her. Today, many have turned converts and have brought about similar changes in their lifestyles.
Yoga as a way of life
Rashima is only one of many modern Indian youngsters who are turning to ancient Indian wisdom that is stored in our Vedas and realising the benefits it has to offer. Coming up of a large number of yoga and wellness centres all over the country (especially metropolitan cities) is only an indication of how fast the awareness regarding holistic health is growing in the India Modern. Corrective lifestyle measures are increasingly being suggested to those suffering from lifestyle related ailments, including obesity and fatigue, so the problem can be arrested well and at an early stage.
“Yoga and ayurveda together are perhaps the most effective tools to living healthy,” says yogini Mini Shastri, who runs a yoga school called Om Yogshala in Vasant Vihar, Delhi. A yoga practitioner for the past 20 years, she encourages her students to approach it with meditation practices and lifestyle changes.
“The way we are headed, in the coming five years, we would need the ayurveda tools and age-old practices to help us work on our system that is going haywire, is reactive, and highly suppressed. These would become the most sought-after practices, especially when one would realise that allopathic medicines are just not helping,” she says.
It begins with how you breathe. “Breathing,” she says, “is the most important correction that sometimes has to be brought about. And it is not about the act of breathing. It is about conscious breathing. A lot many of us do not even inhale and exhale properly. Pranayama is that most important tool that fixes this problem and also sends the right message to the mind for proper functioning.”
Age-old practices to help
Not only yogic practices, Mini has slowly tried to make people aware of the prescriptions that have been laid down in Ayurveda. Most of these practices are not very difficult to incorporate and can easily be adapted into one’s life. “Like the practice of using a tongue scraper. It is a very old practice of removing toxins from the tongue. These toxins form a thick carpet that prevents enzymes from tasting the food, which in turn does not pass any message to the brain about the flavours and results in bloating and several other digestive issues that a lot of people these days are suffering from,” she says.
Similarly, the practice of nasyam helps combat issues related to the respiratory system that cause sinus to act up. Oiling is an old practice to nourish our nerves. The wonderful combination of Shatkarma purification practices of Jal Neti along with Kapalbhati are hugely beneficial for the system and keep respiratory disorders at bay. “It begins with the commitment to start with at least one practice every day and make it our habit. Make Pranayama your friend. It will help you stay calm and fresh through the day. We need to boost up our immune system, which is already so weak,” she points out.
In sync with nature...
“Did you know that most flower stringers of jasmine do not suffer from depression?” says Anita Lal, founder and creative director, Good Earth, India’s premium design and lifestyle chain of stores. “Because the fragrance of jasmine is so therapeutic that they are forever in a state of bliss,” she shares.
“It’s not Ayurveda, it is the wisdom beyond. The Vedas are only a part of Ayurveda. It’s a science and so is yoga. But it is just not that. It is much more. It’s being in harmony with the seasons. It’s being aware of the cosmos around you. It’s understanding the deepest philosophy,” she stresses.
On Sharad Purnima, she along with her daughter Simran Lal, launched a special experience brand called Paro at The Chanakya in New Delhi. “As the only living civilisation, which continues unbroken and has evolved over 5,000 years, we have something very precious that we must value and celebrate. The immense wisdom of the Vedas that teaches the importance of living in harmony with prakriti (nature) and has given us the science of well-being through Ayurveda and yoga — based on the union of the body, mind, and soul — continues to exist and is practised in traditional homes across the country,” she says.
...And the Cosmos
A brand, that delves on the ancient wisdom that seeks alignments with Rta (the cosmos) and Ruta (the seasons), offers solutions and experiences that are meant to bring about harmony at a much deeper level. Elaborates Simran: “One of the main tenets of Vedic wisdom is the deep connect with and reverence for nature. I realised that something as basic as being connected to nature — expressed through the rhythms of seasons and the lunar cycle — is something that we urban Indians are quite removed from. Seasons affect everything: The food we eat, our energies, the cycle of the blooming of flowers and fruits, our senses and our bio-rhythms. Simple actions and rituals like lighting a diya in prayer, applying sandalwood paste on our nodal points to keep them cool, walking barefoot on the cool morning dew, fasting during the change of seasons — all this is what keeps us connected with the rhythms of the Earth as it moves around the Sun and the changing phases of the Moon.”
It’s not religious, she insists, but spiritual. “As the Vedas say: ‘What is within is reflected without’. The peace and joy that we feel within reflects on our skin, our health, our body, our mind, and inevitably, our spirit. It all depends on how we perceive the world and interact with it — that is always a choice open to us. So here’s that space where everything nudges you to explore what is part of our ancestral wisdom or ancestral consciousness. Be it through rituals or dinacharya (developed along with Shastri), essential oils (prepared by Anita and the botanists at Paro’s in-house lab), or plain discussions on ancient wisdom, effect of lunar cycle or how it affects our mood cycles, everything is about personal experience,” she adds. And personal experience is what defines the new luxury.
Rituals for good health
Ancient wisdom is all about discipline.
Be it food discipline, exercise discipline, lifestyle discipline, or even beauty discipline. A lot of brands have emerged to offer solutions based on the ancient knowledge. Many have taken pains to ensure that the oils and compositions created are true to the original recipes and pure in nature. For instance, the Bhringraj oil made widely popular by Kama Ayurveda. The beauty of the wisdom is that it is accessible to all.
“When the five elements are balanced within you, perfect health and beauty can be attained,” says Rajni Ohri, founder of Ayurvedic beauty product brand, Ohria. Someone who began studying ayurvedic compositions when she was still in school, Rajni talks of the science behind traditional beauty rituals. “The skin absorbs everything that is applied to it. Therefore, all ingredients that we use on ourselves must be pure, natural and safe by Ayurvedic standards. I learnt of the goodness of herbs and butters much earlier in life from my teacher, a vaid acharya at an ashram in Rishikesh, that we used to visit every vacation,” she shares. But it was only two years ago that she began working on turning those formulations into products to be retailed to the modern world.
“Ayurveda is a great science that talks about prevention while also addressing the disease. Every ritual, even beauty, is based on a deeper understanding of the needs of the body. The ritual of applying weekly ubtan, oiling of hair, or even applying oil to one’s body was to shower love on one’s physical being, eventually leading to good health,” she says. Ohria offers all these solutions.
Mental health no stigma
In October this year, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Indian actress, Deepika Padukone, launched a unique nationwide awareness campaign inviting survivors of mental illness to come out and share their stories. They soon ran a campaign that featured real-life survivors of mental illness, with an aim to encourage those suffering from depression or any other mental illness to feel comfortable in sharing their stories and seek help.
In Delhi, Imagine, a conclave on adolescent mental health was held, where the panelists discussed ways and measures to handle the rapidly rising cases of mental illness among Indian youth. “Mental illness has become an epidemic in India today. One in four people in India is depressed, and due to social stigma, lack of awareness and limited access to professional help, only 10-12 per cent of people suffering from mental health problems in India are seeking help,” pointed out Dr Shelja Sen, co-founder Children First, and child and adolescent psychologist and family therapist.
And this is quite telling of the current emotional and mental growth in the country. “The way we were brought up, the parenting practices at that time were very basic. There was very clear understanding of what parents don’t want or what they had to do. However, now the role has become amorphous and huge in so many ways,” she says. Pointing that it did not necessarily reflect bad as now the parents are more open to listening to their children, and children more open about sharing their problems.
The problem, she says, is when parents are not clear about their role. Often in their attempt to make friends with their children, the lines blur and you see teenagers making the decisions. “Now that can be damaging for the family as there are no boundaries and children take over the role of decision-makers. This often results in isolation and causes major harm,” she adds. The solution, she points out, is to create emotionally safe spaces that we had in earlier times. Much needs to be covered on this account.
Food for thought
Last month, the World Cultural Culinary Heritage Committee, under the aegis of World Association of Chefs Societies (WorldChefs), put together its very first edition of the World Heritage Cuisine Summit & Food Festival at Qila Gobindgarh, Amritsar in Punjab. “The idea was to inculcate appreciation for food culture and traditions, as much as good food habits and sustainable practices that have been handed down generations,” says Manjit Gill, renowned chef and chair of the committee. The summit, supported both by the Ministry of Tourism and Punjab Tourism, also showcased the culinary legacy of the rich agrarian State.
“Nutrition as science is not very old. It came up only in the past 50 to 60 years,” says chef Gill. But there exists an age-old science behind eating local food that must not be ignored. “The five elements that make you also exist in your food, pretty much like the five seasons. Local food connects you to your core, the Earth, and benefits immensely,” he says. What is alien to the land is, therefore, alien to the body and less likely to benefit.
“We must talk of our food with positivity. We are the only country that showed the world that nutritional food can be tasty,” he says. “Even the prasad that is served at various religious spaces is based on some science. Ancient food books talk of the science of six tastes and there exist six seasons. Like the change in seasons, the balance of six tastes goes up and down with every new season. One flavour becomes more prominent than the other based on the season or time of the year. And herein lies the science behind local seasonal produce, and the recipes that came with it,” he elaborates. Is it little wonder then that the world is shifting to traditional recipes and cures that these recipes stored?
The last word
“Talking of ancient wisdom and age-old practices, I also feel that the tribal philosophy is a way of life,” says filmmaker, artist, and healer, Anu Malhotra. “We have become a totally purposeless, self-serving society, which has hitched on to the bandwagon of mindless consumerism and waste. We have lost our reverence for nature and basic human values. The way forward may well be back to the future,” she says. As she showcases her multimedia exhibition called Soul Survivors, comprising photographs, documentaries, and artefacts of three unique cultures — the Apatani of Arunachal Pradesh, the Konyak of Nagaland, and the nomads of Tibet — at Bikaner House in Delhi, she speaks of her learnings from her travels.
“The tribal people I met in my travels had a deep respect for nature, which was reflected in their eco-centric lifestyle. These were self-sustained societies, which enjoyed clean air, pure water, sunshine, physical work, with Earth and its resources, connecting to the natural rhythms of the seasons, eating a wholesome diet, and inculcating moderate consumption. Even the members of the older generation were usually productively employed and living robustly until ripe old ages. As most of these village communities lived like a cohesive whole, orphans, widows, the aged, and the infirm were well cared for. And that is when I realised that these people provide a living expression of sustainable living, and can provide a possible alternative to our consumerist lifestyles,” she says.
Who says modern is always best? It really is time to reshift our focus to learning from our ancestors and return to the roots.