I am not big into New Year resolutions, as I live quite mindfully 80 percent of the time. (Being face down in pecan pie 20 percent of the time qualifies as being human.) But I am big into setting intentions. My intention for 2023 has been to continually nourish my nervous system. I will tell you why.
Toward the fourth quarter of 2022, I felt the quality of my sleep change for the worse. I was waking up in the middle of the night several times. My digestion felt off. My eyes had started to twitch. And I carried a lot of stress. According to Ayurveda, the nervous system is governed by Vata dosha, which is made up of the elements air and ether. Vata energy has a catabolic effect, meaning that it breaks down, reduces, and depletes. Travel, erratic lifestyle, insufficient sleep, and emotional upheavals can all cause Vata imbalance.
My nervous system was exhausted. Between school, home life, my day job, clients, writing deadlines, caregiving responsibilities, exams, and an internship in an Ayurvedic hospital in another country, I was sleep-deprived, stressed, exhausted, and moving at lightning speed between cities, countries, and continents. I drank way too much Masala chai to stay awake, energetic, and alert. All of these compounded to create further Vata aggravation.
Vata and the Nervous System, Explained
Ayurveda refers to the nervous system as majja dhatu. This includes the brain, the spinal cord, vertebrae, and the skull. Ayurvedic texts provide a firm basis for a physiological and functional link between Vata dosha and the nervous system.
Some signs of excess Vata in our nervous system include constipation, indecision, fear, dry skin, worry, and anxiety.
When the gunas (qualities) of Vata—such as coldness, roughness, lightness, mobility, and dryness—are elevated and lodge into our nervous system, they can deplete the myelin sheath, which is a protective layer for the nerve fibers. This can compromise the flow of electrical signals leading to our physical bodies.
Ayurvedic Protocols to Nourish the Nervous System
Double down on pranayama: I have had a morning pranayama practice for over a decade now. But I recently started practicing breathing techniques like Anuloma Viloma and Bhramari twice a day—in the morning and before going to bed. This allowed my parasympathetic system to get activated and pull me out of fight-or-flight mode. Slowly, my sleep became deeper and less disrupted.
Switch up your meditation style: Numerous studies have shown that meditation soothes the nervous system and helps rebuild it. Consider trying out different techniques to keep your mind curious. As I worked on soothing my nervous system, I practiced guided meditation, Transcendental Meditation, chakra meditation, deep breathing, trataka (candle gazing), and a few others. Every session deeply healed my mind and body.
Eat without disruption: My lunches at the Ayurvedic hospital I interned at were a team activity, which I loved, but my nervous system didn’t. Imagine eating in a canteen with hundreds of people, all kinds of noises, dishes clanging, and loud chatting. I am very sensitive to sound, and I found myself reacting internally to the overstimulation. There was never the time to enjoy a relaxed meal because the other interns and I were running between patients, case studies, doctors, lessons, and our daily duties. I couldn’t digest the wholesome, freshly prepared, and delicious Ayurvedic meals. Once I returned home, lunches were cooked with love and eaten in silence without any gadgets, emails, or chatter to distract me.
Honor your sleep duration and time: The time at which we go to sleep matters, and science backs this up. At home, I go to bed before 10 p.m., which is when Pitta time of the night starts. That’s when a lot of people find their “second wind.” I also wake up in the Vata hour of the morning (Brahmamuhurta), beginning 96 minutes before sunrise. The stillness, clarity, and spiritual connection is pure and deep at this hour of the day. At the hospital, I was working 14 hours a day and then staying up at night to log into my job in the United States. So erratic and unhealthy, but I didn’t have a choice. Once home, I started to reconnect to a more natural circadian rhythm. One of the best ways to detox your nervous system is to get to sleep on time and get 7-8 hours of sleep.
Practice daily oil massage: There are millions of nerve endings on your skin. Massaging your body with oil and offering calm and slow movements to your limbs, torso, neck, and back can decrease stress, calm the nerves, and relax your mind and body. The Sanskrit word for oil, sneha, means love. Being saturated with oil is believed to have a similar effect as being filled with love.
Step onto your yoga mat daily: I did yoga asanas at the hospital on most days. But on some days, I skipped. I was too tired to drag myself to the outdoor yoga space knowing I had five miles of stair climbing ahead of me. But I quickly got back to my daily sun salutations and asana practice as soon I returned home to New York City and noticed how tight my body had become. Inversions, spinal twists, and balancing poses can help bring balance and calm the mind. The series of postures in Surya Namaskar may support the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, which lubricates and washes the brain and central nervous system.
Eat seasonal foods: Even though the food at the Ayurvedic hospital was made fresh with love right before we ate it and was both nutritious and delicious, it was Pitta-provoking. The spicy lentils, sour curries, and fermented foods (dosa, idli, and other South Indian delicacies) aggravated my Pitta over a period of time. It didn’t help that the hospital was in the southern part of India where November days are 110 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity. Throw in several daily cups of Masala chai, and I was a recipe for Pitta disaster. Once I returned home, I started to eat Ayurvedically—enjoying foods to lower my Pitta dosha.
Utilize the power of Ayurvedic herbs: Ayurveda offers herbs which heal both the nerve tissue and the myelin sheath. Ashwagandha and Brahmi come highly recommended for relieving stress, soothing the nervous system, and strengthening the nerves. (Caution: While it might be tempting to rush to a health food store or order these herbs online, seeing an Ayurvedic practitioner is recommended to assess if the herb is right for you, including recommended dosage, duration of use, and any contraindications.)
Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional. If you are nursing, taking medications, or have a medical condition, please consult with your health care practitioner prior to the use of any of these herbs. If you are looking for advice from a trained yogi and Ayurvedic coach, contact Sweta here.