so tell me about your poop…
When these words came out of the mouth of my first Ayurvedic practitioner, a sweet, doe-eyed woman whose illuminated presence made up for the awful fluorescent lights of her tiny Wall Street office, I was a little taken aback. Okay, a lot taken aback. I was there to discuss digestive problems, so the question wasn’t totally out of the blue, but none of the Western doctors I’d seen for the same issues had bothered to ask about my elimination, or what I ate on a daily basis for that matter. I cleared my throat, adjusted myself in my chair, and had a good think about how to answer. To be honest I didn’t really know anything about my poop, since I never thought to inspect the toilet. But that line of startling self-inquiry took me down a path of deep, long-term healing I never would have expected. Now, I not only inspect my poop daily, but also my tongue, skin, eyes, and all the different parts of my life, as a way to understand what kind of nourishment I need to feel my best that day through the elegant, practical, and simple rituals of an Ayurvedic lifestyle.
The style of medicine practiced in Ayurveda is different in many ways from traditional Western medicine, and before your first consultation it may be helpful to know a bit about what to expect. First and foremost, we spend a lot of time talking, and not just about your symptoms. An Ayurvedic consultant will ask you about how you’re physically feeling, of course, but also about your work, your daily schedule, your relationships, your spiritual practices, and your diet. Because Ayurveda looks at health as a trifecta of body, mind, and spirit, all the parts of your life are potential keys to unlocking the healthiest version of you.
We may also talk about some things a regular doctor wouldn’t spend much time on—asking what temperature water you drink, looking at your tongue, and, yes, talking about your poop. Before you start thinking this is all TMI, step back and think about what all these things reflect: the state of your digestion. We may be what we eat, but in Ayurveda we are more what we digest, and everything we do in our day in some way or another serves to protect and maintain our agni, or digestive fire. Without a robust agni, the nutrients of even the healthiest foods (hello, kale salad) won’t make their way to our cells, and more importantly won’t be transformed into the silky, sweet, immune-juice known as ojas, which gives us vitality and endurance. Practices like drinking warm water in the morning, having regular and consistent meal times, and eating cooked and appropriately-spiced meals made of wholesome, seasonal foods all keep the agni strong and happy. And a happy agni makes for some pretty happy poops (and skin, hair, and nails; muscles, bones, and nerves; mind, heart, and breath . . . . all the things that get nourished by ojas).
In conjunction with the physical, Ayurveda is also interested in the food we give our minds. I’m not talking about the organ inside our skull (aka, the brain), though how we feed our brains with healthy fats, sleep, and time in nature is also important. Rather, the psychology of Ayurveda looks at the balance of three fundamental factors, known as the mahagunas or great properties: sattva, rajas, and tamas. (Yogis may know these from the Bhagavad Gita, where the lord Krishna describes, “Those who are sattvic worship the forms of God; those who are rajasic worship power and wealth. Those who are tamasic worship spirits and ghost.” ) In everyday life, these qualities show up as harmony and peace, activity and instability, and inertia and darkness respectively. While the mind is naturally sattvic, we can flow in and out of sattva, rajas, and tamas at a moment’s notice because of the mind food we’re digesting—a piece of upsetting news can send you down a tamas hole, resulting in a depressed mood and even sluggish digestion; likewise, if you were to go for a run in the midday heat, then power through emails until midnight with a pot of Red Bull-spiked coffee at your elbow, you might feel yourself on a rajas tirade, resulting in insomnia and acid reflux. Such events could be short and fleeting, but when they happen again and again over time, we can find ourselves in rajasic or tamasic patterns that prevent us from experiencing the sweet grace of sattva. Meditative practices, such as yoga and pranayama in addition to seated meditation, can help to bring us back to sattva, so we can change the behaviors that led us off track in the first place.
The last piece of the puzzle which nary a Western doctor has ever examined (at least in my experience) is the spirit. You may not be able to order a test or palpate someone’s spirit, but Ayurveda has lots of ways to evaluate whether a person is living in a way that supports their soul’s fulfillment. This is often an indirect line of inquiry, which we don’t necessarily jump into in our first session; it’s important that everyone feels comfortable and safe before we start sharing ourselves so deeply, since doing otherwise might result in worse feelings. But we can touch upon aspects of spiritual health (which doesn’t, to be clear, refer to religion or spiritual practices per se, though that can be part of it) through examining our motives for our behaviors. Are we communicating well with the people we live and work with? Do we feel supported and satisfied by how we move around the world? Are we giving and receiving in equal parts? Are we holding onto past frustrations or traumas in a way that’s causing blockages in our gross and subtle body channels? If the answer is no, then we might be starving our spirits of the most essential food, which makes more ojas than all the tahini and dates and turmeric in the world could generate: love.
Oftentimes, once the immediate physical problems are cleared up, these dis-eases of spirit are easier to see and tackle, since we have more resilience and confidence in how we are functioning (ask anyone who hasn’t pooped in a few days to make a decision, and see how clear their minds are!). Hence why an Ayurvedic program will never promise an overnight quick fix. Sure, a good cup of CCF tea or a few days of kitchari might clear up an upset belly or skin irritation, but we often need to look to the heart—the seat of the spirit—for the root cause of those ailments.
Hence why it’s important to establish a trustworthy relationship with your Ayurvedic counselor from the start. If you’re not getting the right vibe when you meet, it’s no offense to them (or you)—you both need to jive so you, the client, feel comfortable telling your counselor everything they need to know, so they can direct you to the most effective medicine.
Preparing for an Ayurvedic consultation might feel more like an interview or date, what with the depth of questioning that comes in the intake form full of questions you may have never thought about before, like the ones above. But consider it as a long-term investment in your well-being. If taking a look at your poop in the morning, and telling someone what you see, will help you feel better every day for the rest of your life, would you do it?
If you’re eager to start your journey to wellness through Ayurveda, I’d be delighted to be your partner. Contact me today to set up a consultation, or ask any questions you may have about the practice and methods of this ancient healing art.
A free 30-minute consultation is also included in registration in my upcoming course, Introduction to Ayurveda: A Yogic Journey through the Five Elements. This 5-week series will integrate the five Ayurvedic elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—into how we move, and invite you to explore your unique combination of elements through interactive discussion about the fundamentals of an Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle.