Sometimes studying Ayurveda feels like studying poetry. Given my penchant for a well-turned verse, this is usually more of a draw than a problem for me, but occasionally I wish the authors of these 5,000-year-old texts could have been a little more . . . direct. Take, for instance, this passage in a section about ojas in Dr. Vasant Lad’s textbook (read: an authoritative clinical text):
Mobility and stability go together in para ojas [the more refined version of ojas]. There is freedom and freedom is love, freedom is awareness. Therefore, awareness is love. Awareness is an all-inclusive state of consciousness. It is expansion. Therefore, love is expansion and selfishness is contraction. The moment one becomes selfish, one contracts the mind. This contraction dries ojas. Awareness enhances ojas, because para ojas becomes awareness.
While I immediately loved the ideas put forth here (and took the time to underline and star the passage, take a photo of the page, and post it to my Instagram stories), I couldn’t help quint my eyes after reading it a few times. What, Dr. Lad, do you mean? I asked out loud. Ojas is already far on the subtle spectrum when it comes to Ayruvedic concepts, and my classmates and I at Ayurveda school had struggled to get the concept to stick. It will come, our teachers reassured us—but this “textbook definition” didn’t seem like it would get me there anytime soon.
My personal obsession with ojas stems from a long-time grappling with it as both concept and experience. When I presented to my first Ayurvedic practitioner with a severe case of burnout and vata derangement—I worked long days where I mostly read and wrote, ate cold salads, raw fruits, and coffee, either standing up or walking, and “wound down” for bed with a seventy-five-minute vinyasa yoga class—she explained that one thing I could do was “boost my ojas.”
I assumed my situation of low-ojas was something akin to a vitamin deficiency. Take a few pills every day or mix a powder into my tea, and boom, I’d be ojas-ized. The marketing experts of the wellness world supported this belief. I went to my local Whole Foods to stock up on other staples I’d never known I needed—cumin, coriander, and fennel; coconut oil; a special kind of lentils I miswrote on my shopping list as “moon” and somehow managed to find at the way back of a dusty bottom shelf—and was greeted by a world of ojas support. There were date-and-almond ojas energy bars, turmeric-based ojas milk, and ojas skin- and body-care. The answer to my problems couldn’t have been easier! I could buy my way to an optimal level of ojas, and knowing me maybe even go above and beyond the accepted level of . . .
I couldn’t finish that sentence at the time because, in all honesty, I truly had no idea was ojas was, let alone how much I needed. It seemed oppositional to the dry, rough, and depleted qualities of the vata dosha that was lodged everywhere in my body, which made sense given the unctuous and heavy products I could buy to boost ojas. I experimented with a few of them, followed the protocols my practitioner gave me, and found much relief from my excessive symptoms of gas, bloating, constipation, and exhaustion. My body felt stronger, my skin brighter, my outlook on life suddenly content instead of hopelessly frazzled. Is this what ojas looks like? I asked myself when I looked in the mirror in the morning after drinking my hot water with lemon, meditating, and pooping—all parts of the standard Ayurvedic morning routine, or dinacharya.
Yes, and no. Ojas, as I’m becoming more and more appreciative of in my studies of Ayurveda, exemplifies the beautiful yet frustrating complexity of this ancient healing art. It is at once subtle and gross, intangible and tangible, philosophical and scientific. According to the classical texts, ojas is indeed a real biological substance in the body, “the one which dwells in the heart and is predominately white, yellowish and reddish in color”; of which we have a fixed amount (eight drops); and which serves a physiological function, namely immunity (Sutrasthana 17/76). It is the essence of kapha dosha (a substance made of earth + water), responsible for our body’s ability to protect itself, its vigor, and its vitality. In order to have those things, you need nourishment—which is what those ojas products were giving me. Visualizing ojas from these descriptions, I couldn’t help think of the silvery streams of memories that Professor Dumbledore and Harry Potter would pull from their foreheads with their wands and deposit into the Pensieve, the bird bath-like vessel into which they plunged to relive the past, and reveal the secrets of their souls.
While not 100 percent accurate (I actually think those wizard memories are more like tarpaka kapha, the membranous liquid that protects our sense organs in our heads and, yes, stores memories), the magical image of ojas does help us get to the second, more philosophical sense of ojas, the one that I couldn’t quite grasp at first. Charaka goes on to say, “If the Ojas is destroyed, the human being will also perish. . . . As the bees collect honey from the fruits and flowers, similarly the Ojas is collected in the body, by the actions, qualities, habits and diet of human being” (Sutrasthana 17/76). That makes sense biologically; if we don’t have immunity or nourishment, we’ll die. But we can’t just get any immunity, any nourishment, and expect to build and maintain ojas. Dates, almond, turmeric, and a host of other foods are imbued, the texts say, with a “special potency” (called prabhava) that feeds ojas directly. In other words, the quality of what we ingest and digest—not just foods but all experiences—matters for ojas. Which means we need to actually have a sense of who we are, and what we really need, in order to nourish our ojas.
When we are armed with ojas, we have immunity not because of robust white blood cells or a diverse gut microbiome (though those things matter, too); it’s because we know ourselves, and put in the time and effort to make sure we have what we need, and desire, at a fundamental level.
In my case, I got better partly from the types of foods I was eating, yes, but more because of how I was eating them. I didn’t realize it at the time, partly because I was simply following my practitioner’s suggestions and desperate to feel better, but I was learning how to listen and respond to the need for rest and rejuvenation. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t rush through my morning routine by making the two, then five, then twelve minutes of meditation I practiced go by faster; I couldn’t rub oil on my skin for abhyanga while checking my email; I couldn’t prepare the new recipes I was told to eat with ingredients I’d never heard of while writing reports for my job. I had to practice awareness in a new way. I had to free my mind from its long-held patterns of behavior and thought. I had to accept I needed love, and let myself be loved, first and foremost by myself. Self-care was the main—the only—ingredient I needed to boost my ojas.
Dr. Lad may have taken the fast track in positing these ideas about ojas upfront in his textbook, but the spiraling toward and away these essential ideas of awareness, freedom, and love is why Ayurveda has stood the test of time. Its notions of seasonal eating, circadian rhythm, the dangers of excess and overstimulation, and, yes, self-care, are coming to the attention of more modern scientists (and wellness marketers) every day, which presents exciting opportunities (and dangers) to students and practitioners.
And the same is true of ojas. The classics describe that when food gets digested, its essence is refined and “metabolized” through seven layers of tissue, called dhatus, the last two of which are the nervous tissue (bone marrow, nerve cells) and reproductive tissue. They could be said to contain our sense of self, that which resides in the heart and keeps us from perishing—our DNA. A few drops of ojas comes forth from the reproductive tissue after the thirty-five-day cycle of refining our food (which is why what we eat matters). Ojas in turn becomes the container for our other subtle-body energies: the inner glow of tejas, which keeps us inspired, and the circulation of prana, which moves our breath, food, energy, and all of our life functions.
While there may not yet be a clear correlative to ojas in Western anatomy, some fascinating processes of the immune system illustrate that Ayurveda had it right all along. An elegantly intricate series of chain reactions and internal commands, our immune system basically exists to preserve the integrity of our bodies (a strong immune system is also highly reliant on a balanced diet and mental health, which affect our microbiome). It knows what is “me,” and whenever a non-me substance enters, it attacks.
This internal army comprises two main classes of cells. B-cells are made in the bone marrow (hence their name), and make antibodies with unique receptors for pathogens thanks to the shuffling of DNA between parent and daughter cells; no two are alike, and each one is responsible for guarding a small part of us against a small part of the outside world. T-cells either attack pathogens or sound the alarm when one enters, and once a T-cell is activated it replicates to become either more alarm cells (called effectors) or “memory” cells, which stick around in case the same intruder comes back in the future. They’re made in the bone marrow, too, but also in the thymus gland.
Can you guess where the thymus is located? At the back of the sternum, between the lungs and behind the heart.
It’s in (or, at least, near) the heart where we produce the army of cells that protect the essence and truth of who we are, that prevent us from being swallowed by the external expectations and facades that make us ill, that allow our DNA—our inner blueprint—to endure and thrive with vigor and radiance and life.
In the end, understanding neither the poetry nor the science of the purpose, form, or effects of ojas really matters to its cultivation. You don’t need to buy, or even eat, special foods (though this and this certainly wouldn’t hurt). You don’t need a guru or an MD. You don’t need to practice yoga or chant Sanskrit. All you need is what each of inherits at the moment we’re conceived: love.
Looking for ways to boost your ojas? Try these activities to cultivate freedom, awareness, and self-love:
- Mindful eating—enjoy your meals away from distractions like technology or reading, and in silence or with peaceful music
- Choose organic, local, and seasonal foods; enjoy more warm/cooked meals than cold/raw meals; simplify your diet with fewer processed foods
- Establish a regular bedtime routine to wind down your nervous system—try turning off electronics 2 hours before bed and rubbing oil on your feet
- Spend time in nature and with people who bring you joy
- Coat yourself with love in the form of an oil massage, or abhyanga