“It’s just a little congestion,” the esthetician said as she examined my face under the harsh, bright spa light. I was wrapped in soft, just-warm-enough blankets, my ears soothed by gentle Sanskrit chanting, the room filled with a subtle and spicy aroma: all the ingredients for optimal relaxation that’s part of the facial experience. But despite the atmosphere, my mind was in panic mode. In a stroke of ironic luck, my normally clear complexion had erupted; a riot of red patchiness spread over my forehead, a swath of blemishes around my mouth, just days before my appointment. One side of my brain said, “Great timing! You’ll have a pro to clear this up.” The other side recoiled into the deeply imprinted memoirs of me ages 8-18, when chronic acne made me wish I could stay home from school daily just to avoid my classmates’ snickers, and made me avoid the mirror even more. As I once again found myself catching only the necessary glimpses of my reflection in the mornings as I frantically concocted the possible causes: the relaxation of my gluten- and sugar-free diet, a lack of sleep and hydration, shifts in humidity, a perhaps too-early jump into a vata-pacifying regimen when the weather turned cool for all of three days, my dirty pillow case and/or sleep mask . . . For someone who prides herself on not caring too much about looking perfect or even pretty, I was acting awfully vain.
Nonetheless, the woman administering my Ayurvedic facial seemed totally unconcerned by what I considered to be a major imbalance in my skin. As a mixed-dosha, I was already prone to having certain areas of my face be more sensitive than others, so I’d be fine with just a little extra attention to this problem spots, she said. “This would be good for you,” pointing to a bottle of Neem oil, “just to even things out.” I left my appointment feeling comforted by her words and enjoying the dewy glow—yes, I use that word in all seriousness—that only an hour of pampering exfoliation, steam, moisture, and gentle massage could induce.
In telling you this story, I could take this post in two directions. I could offer a practical guide to combination skin like mine, with tips on the best products and practices (and don’t you worry, this research will be the topic of this week’s internet distractions for sure). But another route intrigues me more, and I think is ultimately even more practical in the end. It goes beyond the skin, like Ayurveda itself, and dissects the internal conversation I’ve been having frequently about the nature of balance. All skin care requires a consciousness of maintaining balance, but when you have to balance two things not only with external factors but with each other, it’s even more of a juggling act. And when those things are in direct opposition with each other—like my vata (air/space) and kapha (earth/water) doshas—treating one would be exacerbating the other. You can feel like you’re always fighting against yourself.
When I got home from my facial appointment, I was actually eager for the first time in a while to have a deep look at myself in the mirror. I wanted to see what the esthetician had done, whether things had cleared up immediately or if I looked like a reality TV contesting coming out of an extreme makeover. But instead what I saw was nothing extraordinarily different from usual: it was just me. My same face—the few blemishes staring back at me red and angry from their recent treatment. My eyes, clear and wide; my expression, soft and inviting. The feeling of relaxation I had from being at the spa, and from its being late Friday afternoon, seemed to supersede in a way the “problems” I’d been dwelling on.
Ayurveda teaches us that everything external is a manifestation of the internal. This means that in order for anything that we see in the mirror before us to find its route toward healing, we need to look with equal intensity at the mirror inside of ourselves. Even if the “cause” of my uneven skin was any of the things I’d tried to blame it on—food, sleep, weather—the better question was, why was I being affected by them in the first place? Why was I turning to sugar and not sleeping or drinking enough water? It was that face—the face of my big-s Self, who was being treated poorly by my small-s self—that I need to look at, to send for an hour-long facial (and maybe some therapy . . .), and allow to heal before anything external could change.
Dualities are a part of nearly every philosophical, religious, and psychological theory behind human behavior. Masculine/feminine, shadow self/ego, yin/yang, Purusha/prakrati, good/evil. Each pairing suggests that, no matter the context, we humans are wired to ebb and flow between extremes of our personalities and mindsets even while holding onto a steady core. The key to not suffering congestion as a result of that flow is counterintuitive. You don’t suppress the “bad” one, try to smother it with distractions or simply ignore it as much as possible. You don’t turn away from the mirror, but rather you look at both mirrors simultaneously, accepting them both as integral to the whole.
When we choose to look in all the mirrors that reflect our lives, we’re able to see ourselves in a way that rivals even the best Instagram filter or composite face app. Letting the inward gaze guide the outward gaze ensures that the things we seek in the world—our food choices, our behaviors, the news and conversations we consume—will be nourishing and healing to both. In these moments of awareness and consciousness lay not the kind of beauty you can pay for or slather on with the right serum or cream. It’s the inner beauty that comes from clearly seeing who you are, and living in a way such that the entire world becomes a mirror of your truth.
While you’re working on defogging that inner mirror, check out these resources for skin imbalances that can help speed up the overall process of beautification (or at least prevent you from becoming a homebody):