So, it meant something that I was rising two hours before the sun just for a yoga class.
Scott Blossom is one of a handful of yogis in the world who teaches Shadow Yoga, a practice of fluid movements that feels like yoga, qi gong, and dance all in one.
In his packed classes at Yoga Tree, Scott teaches how to stabilize yourself not with your muscles but with your bones, breathe into a forward bend so deep that you can eventually wrap your elbows behind your ankles, and flow between poses by channeling Michael Jackson. But he does this only at 6:30 in the morning.
I’ll admit I first went because Shadow Yoga sounded like a ninja skill, but I kept going because I found myself leaving class feeling good. Not in the way that people who use namaste in normal conversation say they feel, but truly, deep in my gut good – relaxed and open to whatever difficult thing might come my way. Also, suddenly I had abs.
So when Scott mentioned trying a weeklong Ayurvedic cleanse to ring in spring, I decided to go all in.
Ayurveda (eye-ur-vay´-da), which loosely translates as “the knowledge and science of life,” is a medical tradition that originated in India many millennia ago that covers the eating, thinking, and feeling part of being. It is the complement to the yoga that most of us in the West limit to 90-minutes on a mat. As Scott puts it, “Ayurveda is a common sense approach to life.”
Scott, along with practitioner Andrew Thomas, leads cleanses a few times a year through outlets like Yoga Tree or Yoga Journal, and by appointment through their website. Traditionally, practitioners in India do cleanses at clinics under the watchful eyes of Ayurvedic doctors (especially necessary with the most involved processes, which could entail vomiting and bloodletting with leeches).
The Ayurvedic cleanse I was going to try would fit easily into my schedule and the realities of living in San Francisco, though still follow tradition. There would be a diet and activity plan, but unlike boot camp or a trendy juice cleanse, it would be tailored to my needs. Also, I could eat a long list of foods that included quinoa, pears, avocados, sweet potatoes, and healthy fats like ghee and coconut oil – all nutritious enough to sustain me in the long term and each with its own healing effects. Most importantly, I would eat until satisfied.
I first did an online assessment to determine my prakriti, the physical and emotional tendencies I was born with, and vikriti, my current state due to living in a world of mortgages and unscripted television.
The questions included whether I am “easily judgmental, impatient, critical” (unfortunately), find routines challenging (only the boring ones), and have “large and luxurious” eyes (my optometrist once said my eyeballs are huge).
It turned out that the spacey vata and angry pitta parts of my personality had taken over. This meant, the results told me with eerie accuracy, that I (and, coincidentally, Madonna) was prone to burnout, profuse sweating and rashes, and enjoyed ice-skating. The results ominously suggested, “surrendering” might help.
The next morning, I met with Andrew for my consultation. He exuded such an optimistic and earnest view of the healing power of Ayurveda that I was compelled to show him the rash I’d had on my arm for a month.
Instead of advising me to try a new moisturizer, he explained how the mental blocks that prevent us from acting in ways that would otherwise protect and promote health are often the root of disease. “You seem to have an overactive mind,” Andrew said. “So, if possible, try to do as little as you can this week.”
The prescription was so simple that it threw me off. How would I know things were changing if I didn’t have a list of verboten things to pine for?
“Ayurveda isn’t about restrictions or rules,” Andrew said. “This is about giving you space to look at your habits, expectations, and thought patterns so that you can decide whether those things are helpful to you or not.”
He laid out some guidelines for sleeping, eating, exercising, and limiting computer use to only what was necessary for work, and then explained how to use oils for my nose and skin. Then he equipped me with a Banyan Botanicals Cleanse Kit, a box packed with most of the food and tools I would need for the week.
From Monday through Saturday, my days went like this: Up at 6:30. Scrape the white stuff (undigested food) off my tongue and brush my teeth. Rinse out my nose with salt water using a neti pot (a teapot with a long spout), and then tap a few drops of organic sesame oil (helps with allergies, also delicious with kale) into my nostrils. Drink lots of fennel/licorice tea. Do a sequence of standing yoga poses or restorative yoga followed by breathing exercises. Eat breakfast, a pot of rice and mung bean porridge. Then, get to work cutting out all unnecessary distractions. In the afternoon, if tired, nap (or sit for a good 10 minutes with eyes closed). For lunch and dinner, cook up kitchari, a spiced porridge of lentils, rice, and vegetables. Soon after sunset, put away the laptop. Massage warm sesame oil into joints and skin and take a shower. Bed by 10:30.
The first changes I noticed were for the first time in a long time, falling asleep quickly each night and sleeping hard until morning, when I’d wake up actually refreshed. Also, while my cooking and bathroom rituals now took twice as long, the time required for each forced me to slow down. By the third day, I found myself moving in a comfortable rhythm with time for regular pauses to relax, think, and just be.
On Saturday, I went to see Courtney LaCava at Dakini Ayurveda in Noe Valley for an abhyanga massage, an Ayurvedic technique that uses custom herb-infused oils to release toxins and, as Courtney put it, “help reduce your dependence on unstable bolsters” – like alcohol and coffee – “for relaxation and energy.” Technically, my evening sesame oil rubdowns were doing the same thing, but in Courtney’s hands, this was a massage unlike any other.
We started, as in a yoga class, by setting personal intentions. And then for the next hour, Courtney rubbed the oils into my skin with a variety of little circles and hard kneading, coordinating her movements with my breathing. By the end, when she rubbed vetiver oil into the soles of my feet and they suddenly felt remarkably light and flexible, I believed massage, as much as food, could be medicine.
That night, I took a spoonful of castor oil to start the last stage of the cleanse, known as purging. Everything I had eaten over the week had swept the toxins out of the musty corners of my body and into the dustpan of my gut, and now it was time to dump it. I spent Sunday reading on the couch in between drinking cups of vegetable stock and trips to the bathroom. While the process wasn’t particularly pleasant, it wasn’t a big deal either. It was all worth it the next day when I sprung out of bed feeling the best I had all week, maybe all year.
I am no yogi, but even I was able to sense how these simple changes made a huge difference. I slept better. My rash went away. And yes, I probably lost weight (I don’t have a scale, but my skinniest skinny jeans no longer pinch). Most importantly, I saw that doing more didn’t mean I was getting more done. It sometimes meant I was doing a lot of things rather badly.
Late Wednesday, I was at my desk typing to the blare of taxi horns. I could probably go another few hours, I thought. I could just brew some coffee to prop my eyes open. But instead, I closed my eyes and got really quiet. I blocked out the city din and tried to notice how I felt. My mind was reeling. My lower back was a little sore. My brow twitched. I was so tired.
I put my laptop to sleep, and then I followed suit.
Take the most basic step: Find time to quietly sit down and eat (without multitasking). Try Doctor Blossom’s kitchari recipe for your next lunch and dinner. If you want to take this further, sign up for a guided cleanse or learn how to do it on your own at doctorblossom.com. You can buy the supplies you’ll need through Banyan Botanicals ($69.95 for the Ayurvedic Cleanse Kit), or places like Rainbow Grocery. Schedule a massage at Dakini Ayurveda ($90 for 60 minutes).