My mom took my sisters and I to an Ayurvedic doctor when I was a kid, and while I carry some of it with me, I realize I was too young to fully understand what it was all about.
So I asked my friend Nicole to share her incredible journey with Ayurveda for the Real Women Wellness series. She shares her story with us below:
In college, my eyes would wander to a poster on the front wall of the classroom that said: “If you can only be free living on a deserted island, then clearly, you are something less than free.”
I remember seeing that poster and feeling like it saw me too. I was drawn to it, day after day, though I couldn’t explain why. Looking back, I think it put words to a feeling I struggled with - of trying to control my surroundings in order to live in a way that felt free, while collapsing under the weight of all that seemed beyond my control, including the people in my life, and even my own thoughts, actions and behaviors. This clash of freedom and control was a constant in my evolving health journey and my relationship with food, wellness, my body and spirit.
Growing up, I was an athlete with a fast metabolism, and I ate like I was a linebacker on the patriots. I always felt strong and healthy, though my food choices and habits didn’t necessarily reflect that. I would eat garbage, and then I would eat vegetables and then back to processed foods. But mostly I just ate a lot - without taking notice of how foods were digesting or affecting me. I never made connections between what was I was eating, putting on my skin or surrounding myself with to how I was experiencing life, internally and externally. Each winter, I suffered from dry skin and severe eczema on my hands that I believed was just a result of my genes.
The first time I truly took agency over my health and diet was my sophomore year in college when I stumbled upon a book called “Skinny Bitch.” I was advised by these two cool, sassy, ‘tell it like it is’ authors to read the ingredients of everything we consume and to be fully aware of what we put in and on our bodies. They reminded me that every decision we make is a choice that will either align us on the path we want to be on or move us away from it. They also described the horrors of the commercial meat industry, as well as the benefits of a plant-based diet.
After reading, I gave up diet coke immediately and without pause, which I had been drinking all my life. Then I gave up meat, dairy, gluten and sugar for a few weeks and felt the effects quickly. I came to some crucial realizations, such as: “I don’t even like chicken! Why have I been eating it all my life?” For the first time, I realized that I wasn’t bound by the archaic food pyramid and all the foods I grew up thinking I needed in order to live.
I didn’t stay vegan or even completely vegetarian, but I did limit my meat intake permanently. I also probed deeper into health and nutrition, continued reading books and magazines on wellness, and followed trends, diet experts and health coaches. I explored yoga and meditation and infused my diet with super-foods, raw foods, supplements, green smoothies, cacao, spirulina, etc.
By my mid twenties, I would alternate between cold, multi-ingredient, super-food packed salads and smoothies with organic donuts and baked goods from Wholefoods. My mostly plant-based diet was not nourishing me, so I would turn to the comfort of hearty baked goods and breads to fill a lack of fullness and true satisfaction. I was in this yo-yo pattern and combined with the airy, dry, cold climate of Colorado, where I was living, I felt extremely anxious, ungrounded and unsettled. But, again, I didn’t make the connection between my food, my environment and the emotions I was experiencing daily.
A few years later, I decided to spend a few months working on a farm in Kauai in exchange for food and lodging. I lived, worked, and ate all my meals in a conscious community that was living by the principals of Yoga and Ayurveda. This was my first exposure to Ayurveda, and the setting and commitment allowed me to dive in fully, without any escape mechanism (though many days I wanted to run). For two and half months I stopped drinking caffeine and didn’t eat any processed or refined foods, sugar, or meat. Vegetables were grown on the farm or from other local organic farms. All the rice, grains and legumes were sourced sustainably, and they even grinded their own flour from wheat berries. I also included ghee in my diet for the first time and felt instantly nourished by its healing properties.
Ayurveda is rooted in prevention and considers us as part of nature. It examines the rhythms, seasons and qualities in nature and in ourselves, to treat imbalances, rather than solely addressing the symptoms of a disease. The qualities and elements in nature are organized by the three Doshas: Vata (air and ether elements), Pitta (fire and water elements), and Kapha (earth and water elements).
I learned that the anxiety, fear, inability to make decisions and spacey-ness I had been experiencing was a result of Vata being out of balance. The air element within me, which is naturally prominent in my constitution, had been aggravated and elevated from all the cold salads, smoothies, and dry crunchy foods, like popcorn, crackers and nuts, in my diet, combined with the light, dry, airy qualities of Colorado. In Ayurveda, like attracts like and the opposite brings balance, so I needed to incorporate grounding, nourishing foods in my diet such as, grains, ghee, legumes and root vegetables. I needed to slow down, have a grounding yoga practice by holding poses for at least 20 breaths and build routines and stability into my life.
Ayurveda also taught me the importance of digestion as a measure and means for optimal health, and I had to do a lot of work to improve mine. Our digestive fire or “Agni” allows us to transform food into useable energy and also to “digest” life (our emotions and experiences) in a way that allows them to flow through us naturally and not get stuck.
If a meal is not fully digested, then the next food we eat gets stuck behind the undigested buildup. This buildup leads to fermentation in the digestive tract that creates an acidic environment and imbalance. I realized that all of the expensive super-foods that I had been trying to integrate into my diet didn’t make a single difference if my digestion wasn’t strong enough to absorb and assimilate the nutrients provided.
Some Ayurvedic tips for improving digestion:
Eat warm foods and drink warm beverages. Cold drinks cause our digestion to work harder to bring it to body temp (think of it like pouring sand on a fire).
Going for a short walk after a meal stimulates digestion.
Limit snacking and allow your body to digest a meal completely (4-5 hours) before eating again.
Food combination is important and fruit is best eaten alone. Fruit digests faster that anything else, so when eaten with other foods is causes fermentation in the digestive tract.
Finding Ayurveda when I did in my health journey felt like coming full circle. My search for healthy living had taken me to such extremes that suddenly everything felt simplified. I learned how to cook and started using food as medicine to nourish myself by combining warming spices, ghee and organic whole foods in moderation. And though Ayurveda appears to be rigid in rules and structure, it’s really about direct experience and slowing down enough to notice how what you eat makes you feel. I found that I needed the structure to explore my freedom and creativity with food and to find balance and nourishment from my diet and lifestyle. I finally had the space to learn and listen to the greatest teacher: my own body. All of the knowledge and wisdom from books and experts can’t compare to hearing your own body telling you what it needs and communicating back what works and what doesn’t work.
The hardest part was leaving the farm and integrating the practices into my life, outside of that bubble. Initially, I felt restricted and alone in how I was living and how it seemed to clash against the lifestyle of my family and friends. But eventually, I found that committing to the path I was on allowed the barriers and differences to fall away naturally, thought not always painlessly.
I still struggle with a hyper-awareness of all the toxins in my environment that surround me and seem out of my control. Ayurveda takes everything into account - even the energy of the cook and the energy in the kitchen goes into the food. And when you eat clean and Ayurvedically for long enough, your senses become clear and heightened, so everything you encounter becomes intensified – people’s energies, loud noises, the smell of cigarettes – and it can all feel overwhelming and inescapable.
So now, I’m working on letting go of the judgment that accompanies control. Over time, I’ve come to believe that true freedom is about striving for the best, but ultimately letting go of the need for things to be a certain way in order to exist peacefully. By showing up and surrendering the parts we can’t control and doing our best with what we can, we can find a way to navigate the uncertainty and continue on a path that feels intentional. When we get off the path, we can simply learn, accept the consequences and face the next choice - trusting in the process.
If we can digest food well, we can digest life and all the emotional ups and downs. And that’s a good thing because none of us is on a deserted island, and if we were, we would never be free.
- Nicole x
If you have more questions, feel free to reach out to Nicole at Nicole.Lonero@gmail.com or you can find her on instagram @nicolelonero