In the search for solutions that recognize the interconnectedness of root causes, my pilgrimage led me to the Ayurvedic system of healing. Can the legacy of Eastern medicine traditions contribute to our quest towards restoring balance and reviving our connection to nature?
The Dance of Lila – Our Body as a Living Ecology
We are living in a time of planetary disequilibrium. The disturbing effects of environmental degradation is not only affecting the ecosystems and weather patterns, but has consequences far beyond our understanding. Increased cross-border connectivity opens for global pollutants such as pesticides, micro-toxins, and plastic residue to travel on earth’s natural channels and make their way into our personal spheres of existence. From the water we drink to the air we breathe and the food we eat – our physical and mental health is under continuous disturbance. Processed and chemically preserved substances have slowly made their way into our national food systems, much due to globalization’s inability to exert conscious regulation of our imported goods, favouring fast solutions and easy hunger-fixes over consciously prepared ingredients from local soil. At the core of this suffering is our digestive system, where diligent warriors are fighting off these foreign forces on the metabolic battlefield, and in many cases losing to chronic diseases, allergies, and intolerances.
What we are doing to Nature, we are also doing to ourselves. I can only speak from my own experience. Life in Kathmandu is one of chaos, pollution and intense experience – her winds carry aerial toxins, her soil is infused with chemicals, and her rivers are overflowing with waste. When I first arrived in Nepal, my stomach was exhausted from a whole lifetime of exposure to processed foods and an imbalanced diet. For many years, I had known something was wrong, but I didn’t have the right tools to fix it. My mind was ready, embracing the idea of living closer to nature, rewilding my Self, and searching for deep-rooted action on environmental challenges, but my body felt trapped in a constant push and pull of varying food routines and detox schemes. Until I slowly began immersing myself in the primal wisdom of the land …
Living in this myth-spun Himalayan mountain realm has given me a chance to study its healing traditions up close, and also enabled me to embody these teachings through my daily communications with the country’s soil, soul and society. Despite its current urban suffocation, Nepal is also the cradle of ancient schools of medicinal practices.
The Eastern view of medicine is also grounded in a recognition that all phases of the food cycle has to be considered when getting to the root of our medical problems – from how the food is cultivated and the quality of its surrounding elements, to the energy and intention of how it is transported, prepared and served, and finally, consumed and processed in our bodies.
Self-studies and experimentation with the age-old Eastern schools of Ayurveda and Sowa-Rigpa (Indian and Tibetan medicine), made me realize that Western scientific methodologies are merely scratching the surface of the cosmos which constitutes our bodily ecosystems. That the strength of the complex structures of our bodies, as well as the nature of the dialogue and interaction between them, determines our physical, mental and most importantly, spiritual resilience to our external environment.
A Recipe for Organic Equilibrium?
Ayurveda, meaning ‘knowledge of longevity’, has been practiced for over 3000 years and is the traditional healing system of the Vedic culture from India. Through trial and error, introspection and experience, the sages and healers of the time intuitively understood the physiology of our whole system – mind, body and soul – long before modern medicine as we know it today. Although the terminology differs, medicinal schools across the Eastern regions show similar application of this sophisticated use of universal life energy. Ayurveda also spread to other civilizations through the old trade routes, and reached the Greeks and Romans around 1500 years ago, on which the basis of Traditional European Medicine (TEM) was built, which complemented the different countries’ natural folk medicine. Some also say the influence of Ayurvedic scriptures led Hippocrates the physician to the well-known statement ‘make thy food thy medicine’.
The central teaching of Ayurvedic medicine is that we are deeply connected to the world around us, made up of the same five elements – air, space, fire, water and earth. Each of us are said to be born with an individual constitution, or dosha, which sets the premise for what should be the main guiding principles of our lifestyle – from food, to self-care, sleep, exercise, communications and relationships. How you care for your dosha will determine your long-term health. It is as individual as your fingerprint, a distinct pattern of energy involving a balance of the three categories vata, pitta and kapha. Vata (wind/air) guides the processes in our nervous system and inner flow, such as circulation, breath, and thoughts. Pitta (fire) guides metabolism, inflammation, and tissues. Kapha (earth/water) guides structure, energy storage and building processes. Our physiology is a result of communication between these three forces, where our dominant force will set the framework for our individual programming.
To me, Ayurveda has come to represent the living knowledge of how to use nature’s own logic for healing.
When we isolate ourselves from the natural world around us, we also move further from our individual nature. From a more philosophical perspective, the school teaches us that we are a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm – that all the patterns, causes and effects found in nature, are also found within ourselves. In Ayurveda, the health of a person extends beyond the individual herself, and is viewed as much more than absence of disease. The continuous intention is to reach a state of organic equilibrium, seen as an awakening of our body’s primary intelligence and ability to self-repair and re-generate. Once we fully embody this, we become increasingly aligned with Nature’s own pulse, dance, and rhythms.
Whereas Western medicine describes disease as a breakdown of the bodily systems and seeks to treat our external symptoms in isolation from each other, Ayurveda sees the body as an interdependent living system, and addresses the root causes of disease. What happens on the outer layers of the body are only external symptoms of a deeper imbalance. For instance, scientists estimate that roughly 80% of all chronic disease has its roots in poor diet and dysfunctional digestion. Imbalances in stomach pH (excess or lack of stomach acid), enzyme dysfunction, bacterial overgrowth; all lead to improper digestion and chronic inflammatory reactions that eventually become systemic and leads to chronic illnesses.
The ‘quick fix’ of pharmaceutical medication, antibiotics, and surgery will in most cases only treat the superficial imbalances. As argued by Ayurvedic doctor Stuart Rothenberg, «Protracted doshic imbalances lead to accumulation of endogenous metabolic toxins. This, combined with absorption of environmental toxins, is a key driver of disease.» In other words, when your stomach environment is out of balance, this will also affect your system at large – you mind, your nervous system, and also our relationship to the outer world.
After years of searching for the remedies to an imbalance and sensitivity Western doctors could not understand, I began a journey of my own – this time guided by my intuitive relationship to nature. In short, close attention to diet, and a three month diet of herbal remedies ashwaganda, shilajit, and triphala healed my irritable bowel syndrome and fluid imbalance, and a treatment plan of Himalayan plant medicines from a Tibetan doctor, went even deeper, to revitalize my mental and emotional soil.
I have now come to see my body as a garden, and my consciousness as Her gardener. Instead of infusing this garden with foreign nutrients and symptom treatments, I pay closer attention to the soil I am in, the nutrients I allow to enter my system, and my surrounding relationships – while breathing in the ebb and flow of the natural cycles. When I garden my mind and body, I engage in a process of uprooting, de-toxing, cleansing and cultivating my own constitution, leading to mental and emotional balance, clarity and focus.
An Ayurvedic Pilgrimage from East to North
The more I study and practice Ayurveda, the more I realize the power in this inheritance and its potential of serving our efforts to tackle today’s global challenges. As the practices of folk medicine and community herbalism of our Nordic ancestors have been driven to the periphery of our modern, urban environment over time, the disconnection between humans and our ecology has widened. Given the current state of our Western health care systems, I had to go out of my own country to find solutions. It should not have to be this way. The question then remains – can the techniques of Ayurveda be extracted from their social and biological context and adapted to our 21st century Western culture without losing its essence?
The answer is yes. One of the key strengths of Ayurveda is just this – how it has adapted to its’ environment over time, between different cultures, geographies, and climates. It works both ways – as much as we need Ayurveda, Ayurveda also needs us – to translate, guide and adapt it to our local contexts. Combined with our already existing national heritage, Ayurveda can be reinvented and re-imagined to suit a Nordic biorhythm – after all, it is the most comprehensive cause-and-effect study of the individuals’ relation to nature we know of to date.
In the Nordic countries, where we are known for our close relationship to nature and a rich tradition of using natural remedies for countering disease, we already have the foundations for planting these seeds. Life in traditional Nordic households, often based on rural farms and in small villages, bear much resemblance to the Indian Ayurvedic and Tibetan nomadic systems of living, from general lifestyle to food habits and herbal technology.
At the base of Nordic Ayurveda is our continuous dialogue with nature, and the movement of body and mind within the natural cycles.
Introducing daily rituals of self-care (dinacharya), such as meditation, yoga, diet, and increased awareness to our relationship to people and nature is a first step. Dinacharya is an Ayurvedic tool for tuning into the natural flow of the day, much like catching a wave and flowing effortlessly through our daily tasks. In Norwegian, I like to use the word ‘energi-eleganse‘, meaning the aspiration to attain an elegant flow of energy and alignment in all levels of your energy-output. Bodily practices (sadhanas) facilitate our alignment to the natural fluctuations, and can be as simple as rising with the sun, frequent walks in nature, eating the largest meal of the day at noon, and following the cycle of the moon, with introspection and rest during the new moon and more external, social rituals and expressive means during the full moon. These are also customs which have been practiced in the Nordic countries by our ancestors.
Ayurveda also teaches us to prevent disease before it appears in the body, with food as our most important teacher. Ayurvedic Practitioner John Douillard argues that «As humans decentralize their food sources and begin to consume local and seasonal fair, not only will they re-establish a culture with the land and its beings, they will regenerate a synchronistic routine with the doshas», and further that «in order to pacify the doshas at their time of accumulation and aggravation, one must simply eat with the rhythm of local, seasonal harvest.» In Nordic Ayurveda, attention would be given to cooking with self-harvested produce, combined with carefully chosen herbal supplements to suit your individual constitution.
Ayurvedic cooking is almost like a musical symphony, an alchemical masterpiece of flavours, textures, colours, and temperatures. The Nordic version of the Ayurvedic meal (thali) would take the form of a sophistically composed plate, where attention also is paid to the preparation, intention and sequencing of the food. Greater attention would be given to the healing properties of our local flora and and ‘superfoods’, all ingredients from our natural Nordic pharmacy. The idea that ‘what heals, also prevents’, invites us to optimize our daily food intake, by providing targeted nourishment to our physiological systems and processes.
In ‘The Yoga of Herbs’ the authors David Frawley and Vasant Lad argue that «Ayurvedic Herbalism is not of the east or the west, of ancient or modern time. It is a science of living that encompasses the whole of life, and which relates the life of the individual to that of the universe. A knowledge that belongs to all living beings.»
With a widened awareness of how Ayurveda could be applied to our local contexts, in this case – that of the Nordic dwellers, we facilitate the meeting of indigenous knowledge traditions and uphold the responsibility of our common ancestral heritage and re-imagined sense of environmental guardianship.
And by nurturing an authentic, wild and honest dialogue with Mother Earth, I am continuously participating in this conversation – as every step in Her direction feels like coming home.