by Kristin Henningsen
We’re all on the hunt for ways to make ourselves healthier, sharper and more productive (after all, those to-do lists aren’t going to slay themselves). But what about being more balanced? While we could all use a quick fix every once and a while to get through our day, finding balance in your body and in your scheduled may just be the key to unlocking the best version of yourself. This is exactly the philosophy behind the ancient practice of Ayurveda, which has recently seen a rise in the west, as Ayurvedic practitioner Merin Perretta from Trillum Healthworks explains.
FOCL sat down with Perretta to learn more about what it means to lead an Ayruvedic lifestyle to how you can carve out time in our increasingly busy schedules to take care of ourselves. Here she shares some of her everyday tricks and tips for how to leverage ancient solutions to modern-day problems.
While Ayurveda has been around for thousands of years, it is just now gaining popularity in the West. How would you describe Ayurveda to someone who is new to the practice?
I would start with the word Ayurveda itself. It’s pretty huge but also simple, which Ayurveda is. Ayur means life, and veda means wisdom. It’s the wisdom of life or the science of life, and it’s about finding patterns. Ayurveda is the science that helps us stay healthy and in tune with our bodies and our environments so that we can be available to the yoga or the mental, spiritual and emotional work and development that we want there. They really dovetail. If we’re sick, it’s hard to have a spiritual practice and Ayurveda plays off those two things. How do you take care of yourself, and how do you take care of your body?
In your experience, what are some of the potential health benefits for staying balanced?
Balance is the word. When we are in balance, the health benefits are infinite. I haven’t found any end to it. When we are balanced, we are adaptable. Stress just happens in our life, and when we’re balanced, then we can adapt to those stressors.
In Ayurveda, the word balanced is used a lot — balanced doshas, fire (agni), tissues. Balance is a huge part of being established in oneself. And when we are balanced, we have well-functioning body processes that allow us to experience bliss. When we are there, the health benefits just keep going … there’s just no end. Just a few of the things I’ve seen is that digestion gets balanced out, sleep cycles normalize, and we are better resourced to handle the everyday stressors that we come into contact with. (Editor’s Note: For more, check out our guide to balance - also called homeostasis - to discover why it’s so critical to our overall well being.)
In all my years I have been doing this, I have never encountered two people with the same experience of finding balance. Two people can literally be in the same place or have the same thing happen but will have a different experience with it. We need to understand what takes us out of balance, how you are out of balance, and what you can do to bring yourself back in. I had a good friend say, “Balance is something I recognize every time it swings by.” So, recognizing what that is and staying with that when it swings by and how to get back there, it’s an inside job.
What role do Ayurvedic herbs like Bacopa, Lion’s Mane and Rhodiola play in increasing focus and energy?
In my professional practice, I don’t prescribe herbs. I like to work in conjunction with people who specialize in them. You mention some rockstars in the remedy world, and I like to use them as an addendum for the lifestyle work that Ayurveda brings and the psychospiritual work that we can do in our personal lives. It’s not an isolated thing.
It’s always best when used in conjunction with people who are highly knowledgeable with that. Working with a good herbalist in a mindful way can have a real potent effect. That said, I know many herbalists who recommend herbs like Bacopa, Lion’s Mane and Rhodiola for just that; to support and increase energy and focus. Whether they are doing so in a tea, powder or other form is really dependent on the person in front of them and what they need.
Ashwagandha has played a large role in Ayurvedic practices. What are some of the benefits that this herb has for one’s health?
Ashwagandha is something I use in my personal practice. Like Rhodiola, it’s an adaptogen, and both are good for stress. And while we think of stress as a bad thing, it doesn’t have to be. It’s there to test us and strengthen us. If we’re not in a place to handle stress, then any amount of it can be too heavy of a load for us to carry. But we can build ourselves up to handle that stress — build our nervous system for growth and repair. And the other herbs are all good for that in conjunction with the other work that I mentioned.
Ashwagandha is helpful for stress and sleep and can be rejuvenating, and who doesn’t want that? We all do. In Ayurveda, everything has the potential to be either a medicine or a poison. These herbs are amazing when taken medicinally. And Ayurveda talks about that.
Are there herbs that you use in your daily practice?
Ashwagandha is definitely there — same with Shatavari, Bacopa and Rhodiola. Even more than those, I always use the culinary herbs because those also have a health effect — ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, turmeric and cumin are some of my favorites. For someone who’s interested in dipping their toe into Ayurvedic herbs, that’s where I recommend starting because you’re interacting with the herbs in a different way.
Ashwagandha, Rhodiola and Bacopa have a bitterness to them, their rasa or flavor. But some of the culinary herbs invite us to experience them in a different way, and Ayurveda is all about that and learning about those. Interacting with them and sharing them and smelling them can be really fun. That’s always where I’m at.
More and more people are turning to products with CBD in them to support sleep and general wellness. Have you incorporated this into your practice? Are there other health benefits to CBD?
Sure. Personally, I have worked with CBD in a couple different respects. It’s very helpful with the general inflammation (like from working out) that we all experience and calming nervous energy. For some people, CBD is really magical and wonderful, and they play with it and learn how to get what they need from it. For others, that might be Ashwagandha or Rhodiola.
Each one of us is such a unique creature. We have certain things in common in our experience, but we’ve each grown up in different environmental conditions, and we handle our stressors differently. So, for each person it’s important to take responsibility for their experience and playfully explore what works for them.
What are three easy steps people can take to stay balanced and increase focus?
There are basic things that we all can do.
- Breathe. We’re all breathing. If you are breathing, then you can practice Ayurveda and you can increase balance and focus. Pay attention to your breath. I can’t tell you how many people that I’ve talked to that are wound up, and when we pause and take a deep breath, everything changes. It’s nice to meditate for 20 or 40 minutes or have a big yoga practice, but that one breath can change your whole day. So, practice breathing.
- Drink enough water. We should each be drinking half our body weight in ounces per day. And if you do the math for most people, they’re like, “Oh, that’s a lot of water!” But you’re made of water, and it’s carrying everything. All the herbs are suspended in the liquid of our being. Sipping it through the day and keeping yourself hydrated can change brain function and focus, digestion, respiratory function, everything.
- Get some sleep. It is really undervalued in our culture and so, so, so important. Go to bed early. Go to bed with the sun, and wake up to be ready for the sun. It’s winter here in the Northeast, and that means we get a lot of time to sleep! And Ayurveda tells us that we want to be sleeping that much. It’s time to rest. The land is lying fallow, and we’re meant to be doing that, even though the culture at large is telling us to go, go, go. That can be so harmful to our balance.
Breathe deeply, drink water and get a good night’s sleep. If everyone did those three things, there would be a huge change in our world honestly.
How do you help your clients find time to take care of themselves? What are some quick fixes to boost energy and focus that you’d recommend?
Not to be overly pejorative about it, but I think that we don’t have time to not take care of ourselves. The reality is that when you’re sick, you can’t do anything else. Those things that we think are so important, that we’re rushing around to do, don’t mean anything if we’re sick.
When I’m meeting with someone, I’ll have us take a deep breath together. I’m not asking people to change their lifestyle. That takes time. But start with what you’ve got and start to imbed what the Buddhist call “the sacred pause.” For example, every time you get in the car, put a Post-it Note or something on your steering wheel that says “pause” or cue yourself in other ways. You’re still getting in the car and going somewhere, but pause for a second and take a deep breath and notice. Notice your body, notice how you’re feeling, etc.
That moment of stillness creates an awareness, and it allows us to come into an awareness of ourselves. We think we don’t have time to do those things, but once we slow down and pause, we find that we actually have so much more time than we thought we had. We see we have plenty of time to do all that, and I actually enjoyed myself because I was present with it.
The body has a wisdom, and it’s going to tell us everything we need to know. Everybody already contains within them everything they need. It’s just about slowing down and listening to that wisdom. And I wish there was a quick fix. In the beginning, it’s kind of like going to the gym where you have to get there a few times to see that it actually feels good, and over time you build up the energy and motivation to do that.
As I said in the beginning, Ayurveda, the wisdom of life, is actually so simple. And the mind has a hard time accepting that it can be that easy, but it really is. We think it should be complicated. Every time you change gears, see if you can pause and ask, “Where am I? How does it feel to be in my body? When was the last time I took a deep breath?” It’s so simple, but it’s really so huge.
I hope that if there’s one little thing in this interview that each person can take and work with, then that’s a seed that’s worth planting.
Kristin Henningsen MS, RH (AHG), RYT, is a clinical herbalist and educator who first fell in love with plants in the Desert Southwest. She’s passionate about bringing plant medicine back to the people and integrating Western herbalism, TCM and Ayurvedic practices to empower folks in their healthcare. She maintains a private clinical practice and serves as faculty for several university programs.