True Beauty Is More than Skin Deep—Here's How to Nourish Yours
You may have heard the phrase “beauty is only skin deep” as a rebuttal to our culture’s obsession with looking a certain way, whether it’s maintaining a youthful, dewy plumpness even into our wisdom years or a flat, six-pack tummy even after bearing children.
While the intention behind this idea is sincere—beauty on the surface does not directly translate to beauty below the surface, in one’s heart or personality—Ayurveda begs to differ.
In fact, an Ayurvedic view of beauty might say just the opposite, and more: beauty is not just skin deep—but penetrates much deeper, through the skin, blood, muscle, fat, bone, marrow, and reproductive tissue.
Beauty is indeed a reflection of all seven tissue layers, or dhatus, of our body being balanced and working together—the ultimate reflection of the health of our entire system.
True beauty is not the kind that’s painted on or airbrushed away, nipped and tucked and grafted. Rather, it’s a feature of someone’s being that we might see more with our heart than merely our eyes.
Using Functional Beauty to Cultivate Health on Every Level
Soundarya, the word for “beauty” in Sanskrit, is given as much attention in classical Ayurvedic texts as digestion, elimination, and other facets of our physical and mental health. What’s unique about Ayurveda’s approach to beauty, though, is the origin point.
If asked to assess our level of beauty, many of us might turn to a mirror and look at our faces and figures. Or, we’d apply products, makeup, and snazzy clothes in order to look more beautiful for a special occasion.
In order to cultivate the deeper-than-skin beauty, though, Ayurveda says that we need to start inside and consider beauty as the end result of a properly nourished system. In this way, beauty serves an extremely useful function in our lives.
If we look in the mirror and see tired eyes, a puffy face, or irritated skin, we might be reminded of the ways we’ve neglected our sleep, fallen out of a regular eating schedule, or indulged in one (or four) too many cups of coffee. Once you resume proper nutrition in these ways, what you see in the mirror will begin to reflect your inner state of health.
We Reflect What We Take in Through Our Senses
Ayurveda teaches that we are microcosms of the macrocosm, which means our lives are a facet the whole of nature, and vice versa. How beautiful we appear on the surface, then, is also a measure of how in tune we are with the world around us.
Consider what happens to your face when you’re stressed, in an environment polluted by physical or emotional toxins, or taking in some sad or upsetting news: maybe your brow furrows, your eyes squint, or your jaw or shoulders tense in fear or horror.
Besides distorting our appearance in the short-term, these sources of stress can do long-term damage to the tissues of our skin, leaving it dry, wrinkled, dull, red, or irritated.
Our posture opens and our eyes widen with love when we see a newborn baby; a smile spreads across our face when we take in a sunset or pristine snowfall; the tension in our eyes and jaws soften when we hear a soulful melody.
The more that we feed beauty through our own self-care and sense-care, and practice witnessing it in the world around us, the more beautiful life itself becomes. We see ourselves as part of a great cycle of beauty, grace, and connection that penetrates our being at the soul-level.
By participating with the wholeness of our being in the present moment, we combat aging and embody longevity in a way that not even the most powerful skin cream or laser treatment could match.
So before you spend your hard-earned money and valuable time on topical potions and lotions to try to look different or younger, consider these Ayurvedic approaches to beauty that will honor and reflect the wholeness of your being right now.
Cultivating Beauty in the Body
Like with most things in Ayurveda, beautiful skin starts with digestion. Eating a nourishing diet that’s balancing for your constitution and for the season will ensure that you’re producing good-quality ojas—the end-result of digestion after all seven layers of your body’s tissues get fed.
Ojas is considered our immunity elixir in Ayurveda. When we have abundant ojas circulating throughout our system, it means that the whole body has been properly nourished.
Since skin is considered an organ of digestion (it expels toxins through sweat), clear skin also means that digestion and elimination of our food is happening in the right channels. When there are blockages in the digestive tract, the wastes may overflow into the skin in a desperate attempt to be removed from the body.
When it comes to the typical areas of our body we associate with beauty—our skin, hair, and nails—we can consider how certain tissues are being fed in addition to our overall ojas reserves. Skin is a byproduct of the lymph and blood layers (rasa and rakta dhatu), which are the first two dhatus created by our food.
They benefit from foods that are juicy and sweet: milk, fruits, dates, almonds, ghee, whole grains, coconut, and of course, water (always warm or room temp!).
Since they’re more superficial layers of the body, rasa and rakta will actually be the last to suffer if our diet or lifestyle are creating imbalance in the body. That means skin issues are often the sign of more deep-seated imbalances and can be difficult to correct.
Hair and nails are the byproducts of the bone tissue (asthi dhatu), which is the fifth tissue layer. Unlike other tissues that are soft in texture, bone is a mineral and thus fed by minerals: think salts and all the vitamins and minerals you might see listed on your supplement bottles.
A diet consisting of a variety of fresh produce can get you all those same ingredients in a form more readily digested by your body than a pill—which means more ojas! So supporting hair and nails is about keeping things well rounded and colorful on your plate.
Notice that in talking about these foods, we’re not necessarily advising a certain number of grams or ounces. Rather than quantity, Ayurveda asks us to consider the quality of our foods—as well as our beauty.
Like telling an apple it should be an exact shade of red or ratio of width to height in order to be worth eating, forcing our bodies into a fixed metric of beauty is unreasonable and unfair. When we see and appreciate these unique qualities in our food, they are more easily digested and therefore nourishing.
In the same way, we can see our unique bodies and traits as sources of beauty and nourishment.
Creating Beauty in the Mind
Not making enough ojas is one way our beauty can suffer from the inside, but ojas can also be stolen from us and leave us looking not our best. Illness is one culprit, since ojas will be used to fight off whatever is attacking our immune system.
Stress can also cause our bodies to go into defense mode, especially our immune and nervous systems, which inevitably shows up on our faces. There’s a reason we think of stress as a source of mental illness—it’s something that makes us sick at the energetic level of our existence.
And since energy, or prana, is our life force, any disturbance in this realm will ultimately cause a snowball effect that depletes our health and our beauty.
Practicing mindfulness can help us restore the smooth and easy flow of prana that nourishes our body-mind connection and softens the spikes of inevitable stressors in our lives—whether from physical, emotional, or mental illness.
Rather than a pile of bills or an encroaching deadline for work taking up space only in your body and mind, we get to contextualize the stressors in a bigger context of our lives, and even in the whole of nature and time.
In that way, the stress becomes less potent—like a teaspoon of salt in a large pot of water, rather than straight off the spoon.
Mindfulness is how we begin to see more sources of beauty around and within us.
When we’re rushing through our days, it’s much easier for us to focus on what’s challenging, even ugly—the threats to our safety that our nervous system is wired to prioritize for our survival. These are the things that make our faces scrunch in disgust or scream in fear.
Moving through the world at a slower pace, though, we might notice a garden we never saw before on our busy commute. Or, looking up from our phones, we might watch the playful shapes of the clouds dancing in the sky.
Whenever we pause to take in our surroundings in an open and curious way, we immerse ourselves in the always-changing beauty of the world.
This is the ultimate truth of the cliche “stop and smell the roses”—an invitation to fill yourself with the ageless prana of the natural world of which you are a part.
Embracing Beauty in the Spirit
It’s hard to define what we mean by “spirit” when it comes to health, since spirit by definition lacks the quantifiable substances by which we see and feel our state of health. But one way we’ve been connecting with spirit through the body for ages is the eyes, which have been described as the “windows to the soul.”
In Ayurvedic language, the eyes are one of the homes of pitta dosha, the fire element that reveals to us all the light and shadow of our world.
A specific form of pitta, known as sadhaka pitta, also resides in our hearts. It is like a passionate flame that burns when we feel engaged in meaningful work and relationships, or when we are connected to the world by love.
Our eyes are undeniably a source of beauty in a physical way, and one of the most heavily adorned when it comes to make-up and beauty products. We want our eyes to be clear and dramatic, mysterious and inviting, all-seeing and wrinkle-free.
What serums and shadows can’t do, though, is imbue our eyes with the true source of all those qualities: love. Love is what allows us to feel held and supported by a network bigger than ourselves, whether it’s our families, communities, or a divine consciousness.
Beautiful eyes are those that take in everything and love it all, understanding that each and every being has a purpose.
In many religions, this all-seeing, all-loving, and all-knowing gaze is the very essence of God, but spirit exists outside of any formal institution. The design of our universe, from the microorganisms at the bottom of the ocean to the bevy of stars in the galaxy, is proof of this cohesive, awe-some love.
The same stardust that twinkles in the night sky twinkles in our eyes.
Simple Beauty Rituals for Each Dosha
As you build a beauty cabinet of Ayurvedic practices, keep these rituals in mind to bring your unique constitution into its most radiant state of body, mind, and spirit. If you’re not sure which dosha needs your TLC, consider taking the dosha quiz.
Vata-Balancing Beauty Rituals
- Massage your body in oil. In Sanskrit ”sneha” means oil, as well as love, and the practice of abhyanga gives us a taste of both! Combat dry skin by massaging sesame oil or Vata Massage Oil all over your body to give your skin a glow of health and suppleness.
- Recharge. Prioritize rest and quality sleep. This is when your body can replenish your active senses and mind, encourage healthy cell and muscle repair, and prevent dark circles and wrinkles.
- Hydrate. Keep your tissues moist and supple with warming herbal teas like CCF, Tulsi Fields, Joyful Heart, and chai. Avoid drying and stimulating caffeinated beverages.
Pitta-Balancing Beauty Rituals
- Bathe yourself in flowers. Pitta loves fragrance and all things floral, so use rose water on your skin to cleanse pitta and wear floral scents to soften and cool any excess intensity.
- Soak in soma. Enjoy a “bath” under the full moon, the nourishing light of which is called soma in Sanskrit. As you look up at the soft, brilliant moon, imagine your own face radiating with that same nourishing light. Anyone can benefit from this, and it is especially useful for supporting the menstrual cycle.
- Have fun with hats. Get fancy with hats that will protect fair and sensitive skin from the damaging rays of the sun. At the same time, be sure you’re getting enough vitamin D by exposing your skin to the sun without any covering (including sunscreen) for about 15 minutes a day. This can be especially powerful for those who suffer from the winter blues or who spend a lot of time indoors.
Kapha-Balancing Beauty Rituals
- Get moving! Exercise will help promote warmth and circulation for kaphas who tend toward stagnation. A good sweat session will bring color and clarity to your face immediately!
- Sweeten up with honey. Honey is kapha’s best friend: It goes down sweet but has a potent scraping and astringent quality to remove any built-up ama. For a glowing face, use a raw honey and sea salt mask once a week.
- Steam and soften. Like exercise without the effort, a dry sauna can be a great way for kapha to flush out toxins through the skin. Internally, ginger and cinnamon tea creates a warming and pungent environment in the gut that will move out any unmetabolized waste.