Happy MLK Jr Day, from the Indiana tundra. It’s four degrees at noon, with a windchill of negative fourteen. My cats yowl at the garage door, my dogs circle my feet, and I’m circling from exercise to unopened mail to dishes to food. All of these factors make it seem like my first post in a long time should deal with the Vata dosha.
This is what happens when I have a day off in the winter: I stay up late, get up late, exercise longer than normal because I have time, and then realize I have more to do than is possible on a day off, and go into a frenzy. On one snow day several years ago, I ran, angry cleaned all day, went to a kickboxing class, walked my dogs in a near-blizzard, and wondered why I wanted to weep by the end of the day. The feeling of not being able to sit still fought a death match with total exhaustion. The loser was always me.
This was the after-affects of a Vata imbalance. Vata, according to Ayurveda, is made up of the elements of space and air and is dry, windy, cold, light, and changeable. Just like too much cold wind, it can make a person brittle and anxious. Vata is the leaves rattling on the trees and the wind howling around the corner of your house in the dark. It is your skin cracking and bleeding on your hands and the inability to sleep early in the morning.
It is also creativity and movement, like the rush of poems Sylvia Plath composed in the fall of 1962 or the way my friend becomes a stand-up comedian and performance poet, riffing from one word to another on our conversation until our sides hurt from laughing and she performs vibrant and unpredictable. It is the scurrying of a squirrel up and down a tree, and the vibration of the flag pole outside my window. Vata moves things: ideas through the brain, words out the mouth, bodies around the world.
Vata’s season is usually the autumn through early winter. Like Kapha, it is cold, but unlike Kapha, this cold is bitter, windy, and dry, whereas Kapha’s is damp and heavy. When I ran Saturday morning, hard tiny pellets of snow hit my face, whirling in the wind. That is a Vata snow. Traditionally, Vata’s time period in the day is 2-6, a.m. and p.m. This is why insomnia often strikes early in the morning, and probably why so many authors and poets (and occasionally this one) claim the very early hours of the morning are their best times for inspiration.
I probably always had a lot of Vata in my life, but college helped it take over my life. Fall semester in college followed my favorite math formula: busier = better. This seemed like magic–the more you do, the more you can do, and there was no upward limit, especially if I quit sleeping and lived on granola bars. As the authors of Eat Taste Heal point out, the ways to imbalance Vata are to do everything I was doing in my twenties–eating on the run, over-consuming coffee, sleeping irregularly, staying up late, and traveling a great deal. One good thing I did was follow my creative interests in college and graduate school. Another was choosing to follow those interests to grad school in Scotland, where my multitasking was tempered by the slower European lifestyle. Walking everywhere slowed me down and forced me to make more logical scheduling decisions.
But during the winter of my first year living back in America, I backed into a mailbox and rear-ended a guy within a week. Neither incident caused much damage, but my mom pointed out I was getting increasingly distracted, which my three jobs and constant exercise probably had a lot to do with. And if I was honest this pattern had happened long before. I’d barely sleep for weeks during the semester, then oversleep and miss a class and work. I’d overcommit everyday while the urge to cry over anything got stronger.
Vata tamed is like magic to me. Vata under its own dark, dry power can become mania. After her autumn of creativity, Sylvia Plath killed herself in the bitterly cold British winter. My funny, creative, high-energy students begin to weep and flail against themselves sometime in early December when the enthusiasm and creativity gets burnt up in late nights studying and partying. According to the Chopra Center, “When unbalanced they are prone to worry and anxiousness and often suffer from insomnia. When they feel overwhelmed or stressed, their response is, “What did I do wrong?” Vata can make me feel limitless, like space, but on bad days I feel like the falling is limitless too.
If this sounds like an ADHD diagnosis, it’s because ADHD can be described as an extreme Vata imbalance. In reading The Atlantic’s article “ADHD is Different for Girls” I recognize myself and so many of my female students. “Women with the disorder tend to be less hyperactive and impulsive, more disorganized, scattered, forgetful, and introverted. ‘They’ve alternately been anxious or depressed for years,’ Littman says. ‘It’s this sense of not being able to hold everything together.” When these qualities appear in a person with elements of Pitta, the airy anxiety of a Vata imbalance can turn into a rage (see my posts on Pitta imbalances to see where the hot mess ends up). When it happens in a person with Kapha elements, depression often results. An excellent book that goes more into the connections between Ayurveda and depression is Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way.
While Ayurveda would not tell a person with ADHD and its accompanying anxiety and depression to go off their meds, it will say you can do other things to make your life better. For balancing Vata, think grounding and schedule–from food, to exercise, to daily activities. Particularly in the fall and winter, eating heavy, solid, nourishing foods like soup, sweet potatoes, squash, almonds, and oatmeal at regular times of day are important, as is avoiding dry, overly sugary foods. Oil massage has become an important way to soothe my wind-dried hands as well as my tired quadriceps and frantic mind. Ayurvedic doctors recommend sitting down in the afternoon and pursing creative activities, which is why I’m sitting on my butt writing, staring down my writing goals instead of trying to clean the whole house at once.
Finally, meditation and yoga has helped me learn to one thing, or even nothing, at a time. While running and intense fitness classes often make me feel better because they burn off the nervous energy, they sometimes don’t replace it with anything else, and it’s very easy for me to add another mile, another class, more movement, rather than holding still and letting myself be confronted. Yoga in all its variations–power, ashtanga, restorative, yin–does this for me. With yoga, I’ve gradually added a short but reliable meditation practice. I spend at least five to ten minutes a day meditating, either focusing on my breath or focusing on specific things I’m grateful for.
This morning, when the old urge to panic kicked in, I did something different, which I suppose what the last year has been all about. I rubbed oil into my skin from my toes to my neck, then wrapped myself in a robe and sat down. The anxiety beginning to rattle me started to pause, then go away as I sat cross-legged, ridiculous, calm on my floor, taking one breath at time.