The Ayurvedic Approach to Healthy Habits
Habits are hard—to make, to keep, to break. There’s science that proves this,1 but we need only think about how we feel when January 1st rolls around, resolved to somehow change our lives or ourselves, and what happens in the interim that prevents that dream from becoming reality for 80 percent of us.2
The COVID pandemic has brought this reality to the fore, as all of us have had to confront our habits to some degree or another in adjusting to a radically new way of working, learning, living, and communicating.
Mastering the art of habits has become a hot topic among trendy apps and other wellness services even pre-COVID, but it’s been part of Ayurveda for thousands of years. Whether it’s the daily routine we complete every morning, regular mealtimes, or turning to dosha-specific food lists or yoga practices, habit is essential to our understanding of health.
According to one ancient text, the Ashtanga Hrdayam (6a),
"From satmya (habituation) are derived the life, health, enthusiastic activity, radiance and strength (physical and mental)."
This concept of satmya is the effect of getting habituated to foods, drinks, activities, climate, living places, and so on. Ayurveda significantly differs from other philosophies of habituation, however, which is part of why it’s been working for so long compared to the fad diets, workouts, and superfoods that fade in and out every few years.
The satmya of Ayurveda is much more about cultivating the skills of mindfulness—making space for noticing—than doing something specific day in and day out.
They’re more about the how and why we do things than what we do. Our habitual practices cultivate an ability to meet the present moment with freedom, confidence, and even spontaneity.
Habits are not one-size-fits-all clothing we need to stretch and warp to fit our bodies, but containers for awareness that become animated by our current state, with all its unpredictable beauty. With this more personalized and present approach, Ayurveda can help us develop a relationship with habit that keeps us awake to who we are, rather than confined by an idea of who we think we should be.
Habits Meet Doshas
Our relationship with habit can often be traced back to our doshas. Vata, pitta, and kapha type individuals all have different responses to routine, which can explain why one person can be totally resistant to the idea of having the same meal for lunch every day, even for a short time, and another will happily go full-on monodiet for a month.
- Vata: Air and space-dominant vatas tend toward the forgetful side, making habits hard for them to hold onto. They prefer improvisation, blowing through their days on the whims of their imagination. This makes regular routines super important for vata, which can be a grounding and comforting reminder of stability once the habit is in place.
- Kapha: Kaphas can have trouble getting motivated, making the whole idea of changing an existing routine or starting a new one a hurdle. But with proper cheerleading, kaphas are great at sticking with habits once they’re in place—and will keep them until change is required.
- Pitta: Pittas are habit-lovers—sometimes to a fault. Give a pitta a planner, colored pens, and sticky notes and they’ll be in heaven. These types need a framework of habits that’s a little looser—scheduling time for relaxation and play, for instance, will keep them feeling safe in structure but invite necessary space into their routine-driven life.
We can see these patterns around habit taking place in other contexts too—the time of day, time of year, and time of life, which have ebbs and flows of vata, pitta, and kapha. Case in point: January 1st falls smack dab in the middle of vata season in the Northern hemisphere, which may be part of the reason why it’s so hard to stick to those New Year’s resolutions!
Likewise, as we enter the pitta phase of night at 10 p.m., many people experience bursts of creative and project-planning energy. While exciting, heeding that energy and staying up too late can ultimately disrupt our bodies’ habitual cycles of detoxing that takes place while we sleep.
Keep this in mind when you’re thinking of shifting your habits, so you can choose a dosha (namely, pitta) that will be your ally in making it successful.
Habits Meet Gunas
Regardless of how you feel about habits in theory, one thing that can level the playing field among doshas is homing in on the gunas, or properties, of our activities and foods as the motivating factors for our choices.
Ayurveda categorizes all things in our life along spectrums of ten pairs of opposite qualities, making twenty gunas total—hot/cold, fast/slow, light/heavy, and so on. By knowing these qualities, we can use the principle of “like increases like and opposites balance” to create harmony.
Consider how this may come into play when getting dressed in the morning. You choose clothing that’s suitable for the weather, or what you’ll be doing that day, or how you want to feel in your skin, based on their qualities.
You’ll likely choose something lighter and looser if you’re going for a hike in summer (balancing pitta), whereas more fitted layers will keep you warm in winter (balancing vata). During the week when you need to work, you might plan your outfit the night before and get dressed before dawn, whereas on the weekend you might slum around in PJs until after your morning tea.
You’re still getting dressed—that’s the habit—but the qualities of the habit are different depending on the circumstance.
When and what type of exercise, foods, clothing, activities, and relationships we choose all follow the same principle. We need these general categories of nourishment in our lives to be healthy and balanced according to Ayurveda, but not always in the same form.
For instance, during the summer our digestive fire, or agni, is generally low due to the heat in the environment around us. That means we may prefer lighter meals with fresh fruit and veggies and minimal oil, or even fewer meals.
Come fall, our agni fires up again—we get hungry more often and for denser, more filling foods. If we try to stick with the summer menu and schedule of eating for the sake of habit, we’ll likely find ourselves pretty far along the hangry spectrum.
In fact, if we insist upon the same habits when the gunas demand something else, we’re engaging in “crimes against wisdom,” or prajnaparadha, one of the three main causes of disease in Ayurveda. The buildup of gunas means a build-up of doshas, so it could snowball into a full-blown imbalance if not addressed in a timely manner.
Habits Meet Dinacharya
Getting to know the gunas of your internal and external environment can be tricky, especially if you’re used to the idea that you can master a single diet, movement, or sleep routine for your entire life.
The benefits of dinacharya are myriad. By cleansing the sense organs in the morning (like tongue scraping or oil pulling), we help to clear our channels of perception through which we communicate all day long through our speech, listening, and interactions with others and ourselves.
Maybe you notice the coating on your tongue is a different color or on a different location, or your skin feels a little drier. When these things happen, we make a mental note to recall what might have caused this—maybe something we didn’t digest well, or a bout of stress—and adjust the cleansing ritual accordingly.
Those ten to fifteen minutes of cleansing in the morning can have significant ripple effects throughout our day. From a foundation of mindfulness, we can make choices to support whatever will bring us clarity and balance in other containers of habit, too—at meals, when our energy shifts during the workday, or when we find ourselves being reactive around others.
With mindful observation, we can notice when the food we eat is no longer serving us, when we’re having trouble focusing on tasks, or when our bodies are asking for a shift in routine. From there, we can evaluate the gunas of our experience and make appropriate adjustments.
Maybe a certain food is increasing our feeling of heat, so we look instead for something cooler in nature. Maybe our brain fog is rising during the vata time of day, between 2 and 6 p.m., so we choose to take a walk or do some breathwork to reinvigorate us.
The definition of dinacharya as “daily routine” takes on new meaning in this light—observing and acting accordingly is the routine or habit that governs our entire day.
And as Vagbatta says in the Ashtanga Hrdayam (Sarirasthana 2.47),
"He, who constantly thinks of (reviews, examines) how his day and night are passing (and adopts the right way only) will never become a victim of sorrow."
Not a bad outcome for simply paying attention!
Habits Meet Nature
Ayurveda believes we are a microcosm of the macrocosm, including in the context of habits.
But nature isn’t stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. The macrocosm of our universe and shared home, the Earth, has her own habits that cycle through the seasons and the periods of life we move through as we age.
Thinking about this big-picture continual adjustment of habits can be helpful for those who relish in consistency or tend to identify strongly with their habits. Maybe we think of ourselves as “a coffee drinker,” “a runner,” or “a mother.”
These roles are meaningful, rooted in doshas and gunas and personal preferences, but they’re neither everything nor permanent. They’re just one facet of the whole jewel of our being that’s constantly shifting in the light of our lifespan.
With this in mind, we might look at how habits fit into a greater cycle of who we are—a season or a whole life (or multiple lives, if you want to go there!).
A coffee habit, for instance, might be integrated into our day during spring season, when its gunas balance the external elements, or when we know our agni is robust, rather than every day.
That way, the habit supports our overall health in the long-term: we can enjoy coffee to its fullest when the moment is right, and experience satisfaction from other drinks at other times of the year, incorporating things like Turmeric Milk Mix or CCF Tea.
Similarly, if we choose to exercise during the phase of our menstrual cycle that’s most grounded and stable (right after bleeding), and thus supportive of cardiovascular activities, we’ll be able to keep up with the habit of movement throughout our lives rather than burn out or get hurt by pushing through.
As a parent or caretaker, we become invested in another person’s survival and well-being but eventually need to return to a state of being nourished ourselves. In doing so, we can enjoy the other lives we nourish with pride, while also being secure in our own identity.
All summer long, the trees maintain their lush foliage only to dry up in fall. By releasing the leaves they spent months caring for, they reveal the arresting clarity of bare bark—the hopeful foundation for the sweet buds of spring.
All the seasons have their beauty, their demands, their habits, and their qualities, each one equally worth paying attention to.
Thinking about our habits from this perspective might help ease some of the pressure we place around habits as a culture. Habits contribute to the overall canvas of our life, and if we open ourselves up to change, we might discover that we can experience more opportunities in the world than we may have realized.
The single habit of mindfulness might help us better hold the full spectrum of gunas we are capable of embodying, while also ensuring those gunas are greeted with sattvic minds, bodies, and hearts.
Habits are thus a means to an end, not ends themselves. As Lao Tzu wrote,
"Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard."
Living like water, we can traverse more terrain, overcome more obstacles, reflect more beauty through our actions, and experience more of life in a state of balance and flow.