Ayurvedic Caregiving: How to Take Care of Yourself While You’re Taking Care of Others
The flight attendant shoots me a look of mild displeasure after serving me the third cup of hot water since takeoff from Auckland. I smile at her appreciatively, then unashamedly steep some organic tulsi tea, knowing that staying well hydrated is the first step to navigating air travel in good health.
Cultivating strong immunity has been my priority on this monthlong international journey, so in addition to my usual yoga practices, I’ve been leaning heavily on Ayurveda’s trustworthy approach to self-care.
Seven years ago, I dropped everything and flew to New Zealand to support my best friend through an invasive operation and difficult recovery week. Changing multiple time zones, traveling from summer to winter, and taking over her busy household responsibilities was a big adjustment for me.
Caring for her also meant changing bandages, emptying drainage tubes, logging stats, managing medication, meeting with surgeons, caring for her family, providing positive encouragement, and sharing tears, prayers, and much more.
Although the fatiguing effects of the operation were certainly far more drastic for her, we were both drained and weary. Self-care during my caregiving duties was essential.
Staying Balanced in Difficult Times
According to Ayurveda, chronic illness, surgery, and travel all tend to disturb vata dosha. The shock and upheaval aggravate vata, leaving someone vulnerable to feeling ungrounded, scattered, sleepless, or fearful.
Furthermore, when vata is increased, it tends to deplete ojas, the nectar of immunity, while disturbing sattva, the energy of harmony, peace, and balance.
Now, in 2022, after seven good years, her sickness returned and progressed—calling me back to beautiful New Zealand amidst a stressful pandemic.
This visit was different. No hospital visits or post-surgical care required. I was there to savor our friendship and be a helpful companion—drawing baths, pouring tea, passing the time during weekly chemotherapy, cooking nutritious meals, taking the dogs for walks, spending time with her family, and just being present.
Although my professional tool belt had greatly expanded since my last visit in 2014 to proficiently support old age, sickness, and dying (I have a Masters in Mindfulness Studies and am certified as an End-of-Life Doula), my Ayurvedic self-care devices were pretty much the same.
So, on both of these challenging trips to New Zealand, I prioritized my overall well-being by balancing vata, protecting ojas, and boosting sattva. Below is my simple Ayurvedic methodology for self-care while caregiving.
Understanding the Fundamentals of Ayurvedic Self-Care
When it comes to Ayurvedic self-care, there are a few fundamental concepts that help us maintain a state of balance and well-being. These become ever more important in times of caregiving, because when our own cup is full, we can more easily show up and be of service.
Two Basic Rules for Maintaining Balance
Rule #1: Like increases like.
The doshic qualities (gunas) accumulate and cause imbalance when diet and lifestyle choices overuse those qualities.
For example, if you are suffering from dry skin, hair, or bowels and eat foods with a similar dry quality—rice cakes, popcorn, or crackers—then the signs of dryness will increase (dry + dry = more dryness).
Rule #2: Opposites balance.
On the other hand, elevated doshic qualities can be returned to balance by diet and lifestyle choices containing opposite qualities.
For example, if you have dry skin or bowels and eat foods with an opposite moist or oily quality—such as warm milk with ghee or veggie soup—then the amount of dryness showing up in your body will decrease (dry + moist = balance).
With this basic understanding, you can begin to recognize the signs of vata dosha that may show up from overextending yourself while caregiving, and implement opposite qualities before any kind of serious imbalance (or burnout) occurs.
- Vata dosha is made up of the air and ether elements and exhibits the following qualities: dry, cold, light, mobile, rough, and hard.
- To bring vata back into balance, the following qualities must be introduced: moist, warm, heavy, slow, smooth, and soft.
Using Food to Maintain Balance
The fall harvest is nature’s antidote for vata, making it easy to favor warm, moist, cooked root veggies, pumpkins, squash, grains, soups, stews, and other nourishing meals.
While in New Zealand, I prepared loads of organic soups, stews, casseroles, roasted veggies, kitchari, spiced milk, hot cereal, and warm herbal teas. In other words, cozy, healthy comfort foods to bring us both nourishment and balance.
Using Environment and Routine to Maintain Balance
Lastly, create a vata-balancing environment and daily routine. Keep the home quiet, warm, peaceful, tidy, and full of love. Do your best to adhere to regular mealtimes and be consistent with the times you go to sleep and wake up each day.
Tucking my friend in at night with a gentle head massage, sharing our daily gratitude lists, and joining our voices in prayer deepened our 40-year friendship in profound ways.
8 Tips to Support a Healthy Immune System
As the primary caregiver seven years ago, I learned quickly to beef up my daily self-care routine to ensure that I wouldn’t crumble under such intense circumstances. Here are eight immunity-building tools that worked for me.
1. Reduce Sensory Stimulation
According to Ayurveda, a main cause of imbalance is asaatmyendriyaartha samyoga, or improper use of the sense organs.
Vata governs movement and the intake of information through the sense organs—the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. When the sense organs are overused (too many hours on the computer) or misused (watching violent movies), then vata gets aggravated.
Turn off the TV, computer, and cell phone. Shut off the radio while driving. Cease the constant stimulation. Savor quiet time. Enjoy quietude. Simple and incredibly effective, but not always easy to do.
2. Breathe Rhythmically
As a pranayama enthusiast, I rely heavily on the healing power of the breath. Gentle, slow, rhythmic breathing is extremely useful for circulating prana, releasing stress, settling vata dosha, boosting presence, and increasing inner peace and clarity.
Try this simple and calming channel-purifying breath, Nadi Shodhana Pranayama:
- Make sure you feel cozy—consider using a meditation shawl or wrapping a blanket around your waist to enhance warmth and stability. Sit up tall and soften or close your eyes.
- Close the right nostril gently with the right thumb. Inhale slowly up the left nostril. Close the left nostril with the ring finger, lift the thumb and exhale down the right nostril. Inhale back up the right nostril. Switch to exhale left. That’s one cycle.
- Continue at a comfortable rhythm for 2–10 minutes, or until you feel relaxed. The breath should be smooth, soft, even, and soothing. Use it any time of day or night, whenever you need enhanced balance and ease.
- When complete, return to a natural breath and scan the body, noticing the afterglow of the pranayama—perhaps you feel more relaxed, clear, and focused.
- Repeat 3–5 times a day.
*Note: Keep your breath gentle and relaxed during this practice. It is not necessary to strain or force the breath.
3. Gargle with Warm Saltwater
Easier than using a neti pot if you’re away from home, a morning saltwater gargle is an ancient practice that helps remove toxins from the throat—preventing them from penetrating into the bloodstream and compromising immunity.
This is absolutely one of my favorite tools for promoting a strong immune system and soothing the throat.
- Stir ½ teaspoon of mineral salt into ½ cup warm water.
- Gargle the salt water around your mouth and back of your throat for 20–30 seconds.
- Spit out and rinse.
- Repeat once a day.
*Note: avoid if you have bleeding gums or high blood pressure.
4. Drink Spiced Milk with Dates and Almonds
Milk, dates, and almonds are extremely nourishing and grounding—great for balancing vata and supporting strong ojas. Enjoy this delicious drink 2–3 times a week.
|Vata-Balancing Spiced Milk Recipe|
In a medium saucepan, mix all ingredients together, except the saffron. Simmer for 5–6 minutes on medium-high heat, stirring continuously. Pour into a large mug and sprinkle saffron on top. Sit quietly, relax, and enjoy!
5. Sip Warm Tulsi Tea
Warming and purifying, tulsi tea is excellent for relieving stress and supporting healthy immune function. It’s reliable for soothing vata dosha, safeguarding ojas, and it’s even a breath freshener!
Tulsi is my top pick for traveling—I never go anywhere without it. Drink 1–2 cups a day, as needed. Banyan’s Tulsi Fields Tea combines tulsi with the digestive power of cumin, coriander, and fennel. Delicious dosha-balancing goodness!
6. Practice Self-Massage with Warm Oil
Nothing’s more vata-balancing than a self-massage with warm oil at the end of the day. In the colder months, use a warming oil such as sesame oil or Vata Massage Oil. In the warmer months, use a cooling oil, such as coconut oil or Pitta Massage Oil.
The pace and intention of your massage is just as important as the oil. To balance vata, rub it in slowly with firm, long strokes—creating a soothing, relaxing, and nourishing effect.
7. Take Daily Nature Walks
Spending quiet time outside is one of Ayurveda’s most highly praised practices for boosting sattva.
For me, brisk morning walks along the gorgeous Auckland waterfront strengthened my body, invigorated my life force, and kept me feeling positive. Similarly, slow afternoon strolls on park trails helped me unwind from the day and provided tranquil opportunities to process my emotions.
According to modern research, consistency trumps duration, so small daily doses are both reasonable during a busy caregiving schedule and beneficial for well-being.
Keep it simple! Gaze up at the sky and refresh your mind with the vast beauty of the natural world.
8. Read Something Positive
Many caregivers experience not only physical tiredness, but mental fatigue, foggy-headedness, and elevated stress. This can all lead to increased rajas (over-stimulation) or tamas (sluggishness or “blah-ness”) in the mind.
To consistently boost mental sattva, my daily non-negotiable self-care tool is reading something uplifting before bed. Whether it’s a page or a chapter, inspiring books and heart-warming poems help me stay connected to the reality of our interconnectedness and my intention to spread goodness.
If you’re too tired to read, then journal a short gratitude list. This is an excellent way to refresh your mind before drifting off to sleep. Simple and precious.
Walking Away with a Full Cup
Back on the plane home, sipping my tulsi tea, I observe the scene. Nearly every television screen is set to some action-packed channel. On my first flight to New Zealand in 2004—before starting Ayurveda school—I remember voraciously packing in five movies!
But now an Ayurvedic practitioner for over a dozen years, I know that overstimulation might leave me fried, frazzled, and vulnerable to sickness.
I choose instead the yogic practice of pratyahara, or sense withdrawal: a warm blanket, earplugs, and eye pillow. Cozy and quiet, with my vata in check, I settle in for a long, restful nap.
After this second caregiving voyage to the other side of the world, I return home feeling surprisingly grounded, integrated, and invigorated. Grateful for Ayurveda’s simple, safe, and invaluable practices, I humbly reflect on my journey.
Yoga and Ayurveda have given me the greatest lessons of my life: safe travels, strong immunity, and the precious gift of deep friendships. May these self-care tools be of benefit to caregivers across the globe.