Testing out the Ayurveda lifestyle

One writer's journey through alternative medicine, meditation and the study of poop

Never have I ever thought so much about my poop.

At my first alternative health appointment, in fact, my poop becomes a very important topic of discussion.

Size? Color? Shape? How often? Does it float? Or sink? Can I see food particles?

Oh, it’s brown? What shade of brown?

Let me back up. I have chronic digestive problems. I’m also 23—too young for chronic digestive problems. For the past year, I’ve been experiencing bouts of burning indigestion and very sudden heavy discomfort. It doesn’t happen every day, or even every week, or even every month, but just often enough that my family and friends started to worry. There was a week of brutal constipation and cramps around the holidays. An ulcer, maybe? At 23?

In January, I decided to be proactive about my health—a new year, a new leaf, right?—but resisted seeing medical doctors. I assumed they’d just prescribe pills, and if it was possible to find a more natural way to soothe my stomach, I wanted to explore it.

The world of alternative and complementary medicine holds some heft—according to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, 33.2 percent of Americans use some form of it. And according to the 2007 survey, American spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on alternative health products in one year.

Somewhat at random, I chose Revive Ayurveda, an Auburn-based practice of the ancient Indian medicine. While Ayurveda isn’t the most prominent form of alternative medicine, it’s recently garnered a buzz in Sacramento. Especially in yoga circles—that’s where I first heard about it.

For one month, I followed the strictest diet of my life. I gave up coffee, meat, cheese, bread, desserts and basically everything I ever found to be delicious. I even gave up salads. On some days, I found myself covered in an oil that smelled of medicinal eucalyptus—and subsequently covered in a rash. On others, I ordered hot water at a bar while friends chugged beer.

Ayurveda leaders envision a future where the system is a fully recognized profession, treating people alongside Western medicine. There’s a national effort for licenses and standards, and Shunya Pratichi Mathur, president of the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine, is pushing for California to lead the charge.

“Now is the time … we can make impact,” she says. “We should not be reduced to the margins of health care.”

Until then, the Ayurveda industry is barely regulated, with few large-scale scientific studies backing its methods. Treatments can be expensive, education varies in quality and the possibility of scams seems ripe.

I dive in anyway, ready to answer some questions. Is Ayurveda all New-Age bullshit, or will my stomach finally find enlightenment?

‘The past and future of healing’

First, we meditate.

It’s how we’ll start every appointment, my Ayurvedic practitioner Heather Anthony says.

I never meditate—I’ve always had trouble with the associated spiritual jargon. I took a couple of classes at Burning Man. In one session, I fell asleep. In the other, my mind raced about everything I had to do post-Burning Man.

In any case, we now sit silent and focus on breathing. We place our hands on our chest. Namaste.

I do feel at peace, in the moment. Bamboo, mini-Buddhas, burning incense and soothing gong sounds fill the office. The chair is comfy, and Anthony brewed me green tea.

Anthony sports dyed blond hair, a surprising amount of makeup and a sparkly pink scarf. She is not quite the hippie I had expected, but maybe that’s a good thing. Most importantly, she radiates healthiness and happiness.

Before our first meeting, I filled out a nine-page questionnaire detailing everything from my daily habits to my sex life to my frequency of pooping. It also held a lengthy warning, essentially that Ayurvedic specialists are not medical doctors, nor licensed professionals. Jarring.

We launch into our two-hour getting-to-know-me session. I can’t remember the last time I talked about myself for so long, but it results in discussing various ailments—my tendency for nosebleeds, my easily bruised legs, my constantly tense shoulders, my dandruff, my sometimes smelly ear wax. Gross.

And, of course, the aforementioned digestion issues.

Anthony checks my blood pressure, my pulse—both the Western way and the “Ayurvedic way,” feeling for ether, air, fire, water and earth within my body and whatever else that means—and photographs my tongue. In Ayurveda, it’s believed that you can see the health of all your organs on your tongue.

Technically, Anthony is still completing an internship to finish her studies at the California College of Ayurveda, the first such state-approved school in the country, located in Nevada City. It launched in 1995 and, just three years later, its founder Marc Halpern helped form the National Ayurvedic Medical Association.

According to Halpern, the college enrolls about 100 new students annually. The demand for education is evident, but California is one of just nine states that technically allows Ayurvedic practitioners to even work through what are known as Health Freedom Laws.

First, some Ayurveda basics: it’s a 5,000-year-old system of holistic health care that considers each individual completely unique. That means two people could suffer from throbbing headaches, but each would receive different treatments based on his or her individual makeup. This makeup—or constitution, in Ayurvedic terminology—is based around the five elements, which join together into mind-body energies, called the doshas. There are three basic doshas—Vata, Pitta and Kapha—and they subtly express themselves in certain physical, emotional and mental patterns.

Confused? Think of them as potentially offensive stereotypes. Airy Vatas are skinny, artsy and scattered—sometimes forgetful, anxious. Fiery Pittas are medium-bodied, driven leaders—potentially with a hot temper. Earthy Kaphas are larger, nurturing, calm—with a greater risk of laziness and attachment issues. Each dosha has balanced qualities—when mind, body and spirit are jiving dandily—and possible imbalanced qualities, which is when bad things happen.

One week after my first Ayurvedic appointment, Anthony delivered her analysis: I’m 47 percent Pitta, 33 percent Vata and 20 percent Kapha.

My Pitta apparently manifests itself in my medium-sized nose, rosy skin, concise speech patterns and strong appetite. My Vata shows in my long neck, “delicate and subtle facial energy” and regularly cold hands and feet. My Kapha comes from my smooth and slightly oily skin, short fingers and difficulty getting up in the mornings. I snicker at “delicate and subtle facial energy,” but I suppose these descriptions are accurate.

My imbalances are shown by the following: a gray plaque coating at the rear of my tongue, which apparently signifies colon trouble; muscle tension; feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious or worried; nosebleeds; occasional burning indigestion; stubbornness; and I think you get the idea so I’ll stop.

With the exception of the indigestion and nosebleeds, these all sound like perfectly standard parts of being alive in a modern world. Of course I occasionally worry. Of course I am occasionally stubborn. Of course my shoulders feel tense after a full day typing on a computer. And who has a perfectly clean tongue?

Anyway, Anthony says these are all relatively minor offenses. I’m fine for the most part. But what about people who have been leading horribly unbalanced lives for decades?

Cancer, potentially.

Take El Dorado Hills resident Colette Nalley. After undergoing surgery for colon cancer in 2013, doctors told Nalley that she still needed chemotherapy. Nalley did not want chemotherapy.

Instead, she called the California College of Ayurveda and spoke to then-teacher Ryan Strong, who now has his own private practice in Sacramento. Nalley hoped Ayurveda would save her from chemo, but Strong told her she was too far gone. Ayurveda could help ease the effects of chemo and aid recovery, however.

Learning about her constitution—Pitta, like me—changed everything.

“I exercised a lot. I thought I ate well. I thought that’d protect me. But it was extreme,” she says.

Nalley once did marathons, went on runs during lunch breaks, biked 100 miles in a day and finished everything off with hot yoga. Pitta types tend to get overheated, tend to overwork themselves—relaxation and quiet are important.

Now she meditates daily. No more processed foods, snacking, salads or coffee. Herbal supplements gently work on her colon.

Now she’s cancer-free.

“The concept of getting your mind and body into balance was most important,” Nalley says. “Walking instead of running, enjoying the scenery, enjoying the moment.”

While Nalley didn’t notice her life’s imbalances, Sacramento yoga teacher Kat Sholan was keenly aware of her battle against constant stress and pressure, mixed with feelings of repression and depletion.

Finally she had enough. At 40, she gave up a successful career in architecture in the Bay Area—she had a master’s from Harvard, worked on multimillion dollar projects—in favor of leading an Ayurvedic lifestyle.

“I was feeling really misaligned with what I was doing, like I hit a wall,” she says. “Through the study of Ayurveda, I somehow summoned the courage to step away from that, without a plan, without a safety net, without a partner supporting me.”

In May, Sholan will begin accepting clients for Ayurvedic health consultations, on top of the Ayurvedic physical therapies that she’s offered for a couple of years. She and Strong also plan to open a healing center in Sacramento. The goal? To keep up Ayurveda’s momentum in Sacramento through, in part, free workshops for the community.

“Every person who has come to see me—and if they really try to get at the underlying imbalance—they benefit,” Strong says. “And I work with some people who are terminally ill—they’re not looking for a treatment. They’re looking to find a way to live the life they have better.”

Most Ayurvedic practitioners, like Strong and Sholan, acknowledge the importance of Western medicine. But Strong doesn’t hesitate to call Ayurveda “the past and future of healing.” They both loathed the Western pill-for-symptom mentality and sought out something that made more sense to them—something holistic and preventative.

“For me, what’s so appealing about Ayurveda is that it’s empowering,” Sholan says. “It’s about taking responsibility for your own health and well-being.”

I like the sound of that, confident that I’m completely capable of rising to the challenge. Well, hopeful, at least.

Dietary extremes and dreams

In Ayurveda, it’s believed you can see the health of your whole body on your tongue. Scrape early, and scrape often.

Photo by Kevin Cortopassi

Week by week, the recommendations pile on.

Some are common sense, like making dinner my smallest meal. It seems reasonable—you shouldn’t fill your belly shortly before going to sleep—but it also goes against everything about our American culture. Dinner is a time spent with loved ones—it’s a ritual I prefer prolonged for hours. Lunch is usually time spent at a desk, and if I’m feeling particularly social, on Google Chat.

I stop drinking cold water. And stop drinking liquid with meals in general. And those meals are much smaller, and spent away from screens and G-Chat and distractions, and held at the same time every day. All of these things are crucial, Anthony says, for keeping my “digestive fire” strong.

One day, I purchase Mahanarayan oil—a whopping 25 ingredients swimming in a sesame oil base—to warm up and apply all over my body, from my scalp and ears down to my toes in specific motions. It’s supposed to increase circulation and mental alertness, calm nerves and improve sleep, at $11.95 for 4 fluid ounces.

The first time feels funny, a little awkward. I sit on a towel in the middle of my bedroom glistening from the stuff, unable to really do anything else because I’m covered in oil. And I have to let it seep into my skin for 20 minutes.

Soon I realize I must be allergic to one of those ingredients. The dashamula? Shatavari? Manjistha? Arjuna? Bhumyamalaki? Calamus? Who knows, but I take a break after noticing the little red bulbs of a rash.

Anthony swaps the Mahanarayan for another blend of just nine herbs in oil. It smells faintly of boiled peanuts.

Days start with hot water and lemon—believed to stimulate the liver and get the whole digestive system moving—instead of my usual black coffee. Anthony doesn’t tell me flat-out to stop drinking coffee—she figures it’d be unrealistic—and instead warns me about all of its horrible effects on my body, followed by a recommendation to add cardamom powder and coconut oil or almond milk to offset its acidity. I try the combination once and decide completely giving up coffee—something I’ve consumed daily since high school—would be easier. It doesn’t taste horrible, but it no longer tastes like coffee.

The real challenges come with my dietary program, a four-page list of items that are best to eat daily, OK to eat in small amounts, or best to eliminate altogether.

Let’s start with the eliminations: wheat, oats, dairy, eggs, sugar, meat, strawberries, plums, spicy peppers, raw garlic, dried ginger, mustard, raw vegetables. All are believed to cause heaviness, burning or are simply difficult to digest, like salads, apparently.

Eventually, Anthony suggests I also eliminate avocados and nuts, because they supposedly cause acid reflux issues. And brown rice, because it’s tougher to digest than white rice—the hull that makes brown rice so much healthier also causes digestive trouble, she says.

My first attempt at breakfast feels impossible. I usually eat toast, granola, oatmeal or eggs, and suddenly all options have ceased to exist. Millet porridge? Ugh. And I don’t care how many gluten-free, vegan blogs say that amaranth’s odd texture makes for great porridge. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t.

As I live in a big communal house with shared cooking responsibilities, I quickly begin to feel like a complete jerk. My list on the fridge of can’t-eat foods annoys me. I can’t even imagine how annoying it must be to everyone else. And inevitably, people forget, and then I feel like even more of a jerk declining the meal they prepare for me.

One time, a housemate specifically seeks out quinoa pasta instead of wheat pasta, but then forgets to tell me about the eggs and breadcrumbs binding together some black bean faux-meatballs. Another night, I am forced to cook what was once a beautiful spinach salad.

In the midst of all these lifestyle adjustments, I catch the flu. Bedridden, I blame my weak immune system on Ayurveda and feel no qualms about reaching for the evil Tylenol. During my week of recovery, sadness takes over. I almost cry at the sight of a friend eating macaroni and cheese. Sushi inexplicably permeates my dreams—the texture of raw tuna becomes an object of near-obsession. My boyfriend goes out of his way to find me vegan, not-spicy noodle soup, but the noodles contained wheat. I eat them anyway. I complain and complain, which earns me a new nickname: “ayurbaby.”

At my final appointment, I space out during meditation, my blood pressure is almost dangerously low and I learn I’ve somehow lost 10 pounds. I love food too much for this, and now I’m weak and irritable. A meal is no longer something I look forward to—it’s a chore, another in a long stretch of unwanted obligations. Days feel so long, so filled with tedious tasks. I feel like my freedom, my American right to choose, has been stripped away. I know, I know. I chose this. For some reason that I can no longer remember.

I’m tired. I’m melodramatic. I’m done with Ayurveda.

I tell Anthony it’s mostly because of the cost—I’m a broke writer, after all. Every follow-up appointment would cost me $65, beyond the $175 price tag on the first two meetings. None of it covered by health insurance. Because Anthony is still technically an intern, her services are also cheaper than most other professionals in the area. Others charge beyond $200 for those first appointments, and closer to $100 for follow-ups. And beyond health consultations, the unregulated field presents lush retreats, body cleanses, spa treatments and physical therapies as vital components of healing—for hundreds to thousands of dollars.

On the extreme end, there’s Deepak Chopra, the bestselling author and arguably the most famous and controversial proponent of Ayurveda. His healing center regularly offers a 10-day “Perfect Health” retreat for $4,000. One Sacramento center offers “purification and rejuvenation treatments” for $550. Per day. Or just one-and-a-half hours of integrated massage therapy for $270. Want a dam of dough placed on your chest and filled with warm, herb-infused milk? That’ll cost $85.

Anthony says she understands, and that at least now I have a framework for continued healing. But then she leaves me with something cryptic.

“You’re young,” she warns me. “You may feel fine now, but if you continue like this, it could be really damaging.”

I like Anthony. I believe that she believes I need more help, and that Ayurveda will save me. But I still have doubts, so I meet up with Meghan O’Hara, a local registered dietitian and health coach with True Nourishment. I show her my four-page dietary program, read aloud entries from my food journal and learn that some of my concerns are definitely valid. At least from a Western nutrition perspective.

According to O’Hara, I was getting maybe 60 to 70 percent of the protein I need each day while eating Ayurvedically. With meat, dairy, eggs and nuts off the table, I relied heavily on tofu. Finding time to soak and cook dried beans on a regular basis? Not a chance.

“I imagine if you kept going you’d see the effects of protein deficiency—low energy, low on some of your minerals,” she tells me. “You’d create new symptoms.”

It helps explain why I’m so exhausted.

O’Hara agrees with my concerns about a diet that eliminated raw vegetables and recommended white basmati rice over all other grains. Whole grains hold fiber and nutrients that are stripped away with refined white rice. And raw veggies are much healthier, too.

Raw vegetables and whole grains can be hard to digest for people with serious gut diseases, O’Hara says, but a relatively healthy 23-year-old should have no issues.

Some stuff sounds more legitimate. Hot water and lemon is, scientifically, an excellent way to kick-start your digestive system in the mornings, O’Hara says. Coffee, while studies have proven carries some health benefits, can also be damaging for some people lacking certain enzymes. And no one needs dairy in a diet—plenty of legumes and leafy greens are rich in calcium.

Ultimately, O’Hara has some theories for my discomfort—a gallbladder issue, perhaps, or a threshold for mixing acidic and high-fat foods. I like these answers. They sound more plausible than an imbalance of my inner ether. But what about my diet? Are there specific foods I should avoid, beyond the obvious? O’Hara can’t help me there, at least not without our own consultations.

“There are so many philosophies of nutrition—it’s almost like a religion these days,” O’Hara says. “There’s really no definition of ’healthy diet.’”


Push toward legitimacy

In the age of the Internet, gleaning real truths about health and nutrition is challenging. The onslaught of sensational listicles about superfoods, detox tricks and alternative home remedies never seems to end.

Take Raj Karthikeyan, a Fair Oaks resident I met at an Ayurveda meet-up group. Karthikeyan became obsessed with self-care and Ayurveda just a few months ago. For years, he suffered from an enlarged prostate, but didn’t want to take medication for it. After attending one Ayurveda meet-up, he ordered herbal supplements online.

Less than $50 and one day later, the problem vanished, he says. Now he’s adopted an Ayurvedic lifestyle.

“I have more mental clarity and more energy,” he says. “This is the first time I have a lifestyle I can actually keep up consistently.”

He regularly posts articles on Facebook with titles such as “Discover how coconut oil can rescue the brain from Alzheimer’s” or “Four apple cider vinegar recipes to boost immunity and lose weight.” On the phone, he tells me he eschewed olive oil for coconut oil because it supposedly helps with weight loss.

O’Hara says there are no studies suggesting that’s true. Plus, coconut oil contains more saturated fat than butter.

It’s unclear why such misinformation floats around, but even the nutrition industry contradicts itself. A couple of weeks ago, the latest U.S. dietary guidelines went back on its decades-long advice to avoid cholesterol-laden foods.

But people are gullible. That’s what makes Ayurveda’s lack of regulation troubling—scamming seems too easy. Halpern, the founder of the California College of Ayurveda and the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, referred to the push for licensing a “public safety and credibility issue.”

The association recommends at least 600 hours of training for Ayurvedic health counselors—professionals who primarily coach on diet and lifestyle—and at least 1,500 hours for full-on practitioners, who deal with disease management. Coursework at the California College of Ayurveda, for example, covers anatomy, physiology, pathology, psychology, nutrition and herbalism.

But only 23 schools are members of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, thereby meeting these standards and gaining state-approval. There are far, far more unofficial programs touting Ayurvedic training across the country.

Mathur says the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine has recently laid out its five-step plan to achieve licensing and she’s already started informal, friendly dialogue with politicians and anticipates state legislators will attend the association’s next big conference in 2016.

“With licensing, insurance companies can cover us, students can get grants and loans, more research would be done at important universities,” Mathur says.

A major criticism of Ayurveda is the lack of large-sample, double-blind, randomized studies with controls and placebo groups published in peer-reviewed journals—the gold standard in Western science. Look up “Ayurveda” on PubMed, the biggest online hub of biomedical research, and find fewer than 4,000 studies. Compare that to traditional Chinese medicine’s more than 33,000.

Mathur argues there are many studies, but they took place in India, where standards drop in rigor. In the U.S., Ayurveda doesn’t exactly have organizations with lots of money backing more research.

“At the end of the day, we all want a piece of the pie,” Mathur says. “It’s a battle of ideas, a battle of paradigms. Who has the truth?”

I’ve held onto some Ayurvedic practices. I start each day with hot water and lemon—no more coffee for this previous addict. I regularly scrape down my tongue for the good of oral hygiene. I reserve moments to just breathe quietly. When I have the time, I still relish in the nurturing warmth of rice porridge with stewed pears in the morning.

But that’s the trick: when I have time. Living an Ayurvedic lifestyle isn’t accessible to many people, and likely those who could use it most. Anyone with a full-time job, working a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, might struggle squeezing in a breakfast that takes 30 minutes to cook. Busy people don’t have time to cook all their meals every day, and they definitely don’t have time to take long, leisurely lunches in silence. They don’t have time to meditate before dinner—they have to cook, or watch their kids, or work a second job.

That all said, I haven’t experienced any stomach problems since Ayurveda, or since adding all the “bad food” back into my diet. Maybe that means it worked after all—reset my digestive system, cleared out toxins or something. Or it’s all a coincidence, placebo.

Either way, I scheduled an appointment with a medical doctor and happily enjoy a 10 p.m. slice of chocolate cake every so often.

The way I feel about Ayurveda is close to how I feel about astrology—fun to think about, maybe accurate but not something that should dictate all of my actions.

Perhaps that’ll change one disease-ridden day, but for now, my poop is medium brown and banana-shaped. Healthy.