The Spring Equinox falls on March 20 this year, and though the weather is still mostly cold, this is is the time of year to begin spring cleansing and gently transitioning to a spring diet and lifestyle. We are affected by seasonal changes, and that in order to be in the best possible health, we need to adopt a seasonally attuned lifestyle, constantly adjusting our daily routines and the foods we eat as the seasons change. It is especially important to be focused on our health at seasonal transitions, as these are moments when we tend to be more susceptible to illness, but also when we have a unique opportunity to make significant and lasting improvements to our health, if we adopt the appropriate lifestyle practices.
The Doshas, Prakruti, and Vikruti
In Ayurveda, there are energies, or doshas, associated with each of the seasons. There are three doshas– vata, pitta, and kapha– each of which has a different qualities. Vata is predominantly dry, rough, light, cold, subtle, and mobile; pitta is hot, oily, sharp, light, liquid, pungent, sour, and spreading; and kapha is heavy, slow, cool, oily, damp, smooth, soft, static, viscous, and sweet. The energy of winter is kapha, late winter/early spring is kapha moving into pitta; late spring/early summer is pitta, summer is pitta, late summer/early fall summer is pitta moving into vata, and fall is vata.
Each person’s constitution is also made up of some combination of the doshas, which is called our prakruti. This could be predominantly vata, pitta, or kapha, could a combination of all two, or even all three, which is called tri-doshic. Also, at any given moment in time, we also have a vikruti, which is an altered state of the doshas, reflecting the current state of our health. If we are in excellent health, our vikruti will be the same as our prakruti. But more likely there will be a discrepancy- or a dosha or doshas that have fallen out of balance- and according to Ayurvedic doctor Vasant Lad, it is the difference between the two that gives a direction for healing.
Our minds and bodies are affected by the change in doshas that happens at the change in seasons. This can help to restore our bodies to harmony, health, and vitality, providing an opportunity to rid ourselves of deep-seated illnesses and bring our vikruti in line with our prakruti. But if if we are not mindful about adapting our daily practices, this can also cause imbalances in our systems and to aggravation of a particular dosha. Seasonal aggravation of a dosha can lead to sicknesses related to that dosha, especially if that dosha is predominant in our own physical constitution, or if we have a pre-existing imbalance in that dosha.
The Doshas in Spring
In early spring, the kapha dosha that has built up during winter begins to liquefy and run. In Ayurveda it is said that as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm. In nature at this time of year, at the warmest time of day, the ice and snow begins to melt and water starts flowing, and the water brings new life to the earth. The sap in the trees begins to flow during the warmth of the day to help bring new life to the branches. And in our own bodies, accumulated kapha dosha also begins to flow.
This can be a beautiful way for the system to cleanse itself of winter accumulation, and prepare for renewal and rebirth that takes place in the spring. Spring is considered “the king of seasons” Ayurveda, and a time that an be very conducive to health and vitality. In spring, writes Vasant Lad, “Mother Earth wake up and causes sprouting; energy moves up; everything is blooming and flowering, full of colors and greenery. People feel energetic and love to go outdoors. It is the season of celebration.” Acharya Shunya writes, “Romance and renewal are one. Allow the blossoming of your true nature, and thrive.”
But in order for this to happen, we need to support the bodies’ natural processes and also make sure we do not become overwhelmed by the surge in kapha dosha that happens right before we move into pitta season. In Ayurveda, like increases like, and opposites bring us into balance. Acharya Shunya writes, “Spring…requires letting go- allowing the melting to occur, and to balance this melting…. (emphasis mine)”
What she means by this is that there are proactive steps we can take to support the liquefaction of kapha dosha in the body and ensure that the body’s natural spring cleaning processes restore us to optimal health, rather than causing us to become bogged down in a state of kapha imbalance. If we do not take these steps, and instead continue to live in the same way we did in winter, it can cause depression, lethargy, overeating, oversleeping, and weight gain. We may, especially if we have a predominantly kapha constitution, also be prone in early spring to mucus flowing, wet coughs, and seasonal allergies at this time of year. And the flowing of kapha dosha could cause a dousing and weakening of the agni, or digestive fire in the body, which can limit the body’s ability to cleanse itself of toxins and eventually lead to the build up of ama, a toxic, sticky, foul-smelling substance that is the cause of most diseases in Ayurveda.
So what are the steps we need to take to stay healthy and keep our doshas in balance in during the transition to spring, so that we can allow the blossoming of our true nature and thrive?
First, the transition from winter to spring is a good time for a process known as panchakarma in Ayruveda, a five-step process of pre-purification methods to prepare the body to let go of toxins, a purification process, and then a rejuvenation process. This is an intense procedure that should only be done under the guidance of an Ayurvedic doctor. In New York City, the Ayurveda Center I go to is the New York Ayurveda and Panchakarma Center, and they offer panchakarma programs tailored for the constitution and needs of the individual client.
Vasant Lad, in his Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies, offers a simple nine-day Ayurvedic purification program that can be done safely at home by most people. I also recommend the Spring Cleansing guide from Thyme Herbal, which is a guide to a gentle kitchari cleanse you can do at home, and is inspired and informed by Ayurveda but also includes some ideas from the Western herbalist tradition. These cleanses usually involve some sort of preparation followed by a fast – usually a mono-diet of kitchari but possibly also a juice fast – coupled with some combination of sweating, oil baths, bathing rituals, herbal teas, extra rest, and a gradual reintroduction of wholesome, constitutionally and seasonally appropriate foods.
It should be noted that pregnant women should not do deep cleanses, and neither the panchakarma nor home purification should be done during pregnancy or in the first months of post-partum healing. I would also caution against doing any sort of deep cleanse while breastfeeding. Additionally, anyone who is already weak or debilitated would likely be better off avoiding any sort of deep detoxification.
Before the cleanse, it is customary to prepare the body by gradually eliminating processed foods and other products with which we may have a habitual relationship, like coffee or alcohol. To stop using those products at the start of the cleanse can make the cleanse more challenging; it is usually easier and more beneficial to wean yourself off of them slowly in the weeks leading up to the cleanse. Also, in Ayurveda, sometimes it is recommended to consume oil or ghee in greater quantities in the week or weeks leading up to the cleanse, with the idea that the ghee or oil will draw ama out from deep in the tissues of the body and allow it it to be eliminated.
During the spring cleansing, it is good to begin following more closely an Ayurvedic daily routine, including: waking up early and sleeping early; doing ritual cleansing of your eyes, mouth, nose, and body; drinking warm water and herbal teas; doing self massage, possibly with an oil appropriate for your constitution; limiting use of electronics; and doing gentle exercise and meditation practices. Dry sauna can also be very helpful during a spring cleanse in particular.
It can also be very helpful and supportive of the physical spring cleansing to clean your home at the same time, using natural cleaning products, and giving away anything you no longer need. When I do my spring cleaning, I open all the windows to allow the stagnant energy to leave and new energy to enter, and I smudge my home. There are many different plants you can use for smudging. Palo santo and sage are good for eliminating negative energy. The book Sacred Smoke by Harvest McCampbell has lots of detailed information about plants used for sacred smudging in Native American cultures, and many of these plants are available today in pre-made smudge sticks. You can also make your own smudge sticks from fresh plants, which I have done, and then let them dry for whenever you are ready to use them.
Also, during the spring cleansing, stagnant emotions may surface. In Ayurveda, suppressed or unprocessed emotions can cause an imbalance in vata dosha and eventually to a build-up of ama in the physical system, leading to sickness. When we cleanse our bodies, we also seek to release these emotions so they can no longer do us harm. We can help this process through yoga, and also possibly though meditation, journaling, or art-making. Also, the foods recommended for spring in Ayurveda help to release blocked emotions; this will be discussed more in the section on spring diet.
After the spring cleansing, it is good to slowly re-introduce other foods, being especially mindful about limiting the foods you incorporate into your diet to those that will promote health and vitality. resources I find helpful on the Ayurvedic diet, and on how to prepare food in a way that will help to promote health and healing include the books by Maya Tiwari, especially The Path of Practice and a Life in Balance, and Acharya Shunya’s Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom. Ideally the diet should not include processed foods and caffeine and alcohol should probably not be reintroduced, except perhaps medicinally in limited quantities for people for whose constitution will benefit from it. The foods we eat and the quantity we eat should be appropriate for our constitution and should also take into consideration our vikruti, since food choices can either exacerbate existing imbalances or, if we are mindful about our eating, help bring doshas back into balance. In general, the best foods to eat from an Ayurvedic perspective, and when practicing the yogic yama of ahimsa, or non-violence, are plant-based. Whole grains; organic, seasonal produce; warm and lightly spiced foods; and ghee and milk are considered especially sattvic foods and are often recommended in Ayurveda.
As a vegan, I don’t use ghee or milk; I generally replace with coconut or other oil and nut milks. These don’t necessarily have the same medicinal properties, though, which should be taken into consideration when using food medicinally. Vegans interested in eating an Ayurvedic diet will find the book The Ayurvedic Vegan Kitchen helpful.
In Ayurveda, the foods we eat should change season to season, and there are particular foods that are most appropriate for spring. That said, we always need to consider our prakruti and vikruti, and make sure we are balancing the importance of eating seasonally with the food choices most appropriate for our constitution and the foods we need medicinally in order to correct any imbalance in our systems.
In general, the recommendations for spring are to eliminate completely or strictly limit cold foods, especially ice creams or iced drinks, and oily, heavy foods. In general dairy products are to be avoided, especially in the morning. We should mostly eat slightly warming and mildly spiced foods. Also, in spring, we should generally seek out foods that fall into three categories: bitter, pungent, and astringent. In Ayurveda there are six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Sweet, sour, and salty foods can aggravate kapha dosha, so it is good to limit their use in spring if you are trying to be mindful of keeping the kapha dosha balanced. The pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes, though, calm kapha. Examples of pungent foods include hot peppers, onions, radishes, garlic, mustard, and ginger. Bitter foods include coffee, funugreek, turmeric, dandelion root, and sandalwood. Astringent foods include chickpeas, green beans, yellow split peas, okra, turmeric, and goldenseal. A tea that is recommended for spring is pipali, a blend of cumin, coriander, and fennel in equal proportions. After meals, it can be helpful to drink tea made from ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon.
Also, in Ayurveda, we should alter our daily routine in springtime. First, it is recommended to wake up a bit earlier than in winter. The ideal time to rise would be about ninety minutes before sunrise, a time known as Brahma Muhurta, when the energy is very clear, calm, and peaceful. A bit of vigorous exercise can be useful in the morning for people whose constitution can support it, perhaps a brisk walk outside. Sleeping in daytime is generally not recommended in spring, and it is recommended that we begin limiting our sexual activity in spring, and continue to decrease it as the weather gets hotter.
Mindfulness and Joy
It should be noted that when living an Ayurvedic lifestyle, we can not simply base our routines on the calendar. We should not necessarily start a spring cleansing program on the Equinox and switch to a summer routine on the solstice. Rather, we need to be very aware of the natural world around us, and adjust our activities and food consumption day to day based on what is happening in nature and what is happening within us. In time, this becomes increasingly intuitive, but at the beginning may require bringing a significant amount of mindfulness and attentiveness to things in nature and within ourselves that we may not be in the habit of noticing.
That said, as we approach this practice of healthy, seasonal living, we should keep in mind the words of Baba Hari Dass about yoga, which also applies to the sadhana of an Ayurvedic lifestyle: “Don’t think that you are carrying the whole world; make it easy, make it play, make it a prayer.”
Sources and Recommended Resources:
Dass, Baba Hari. Ashtanga Yoga Primer.
Frawley, David. Yoga & Ayurveda: Self Healing and Self Realization.
Frawley, David. Ayurveda and the Mind.
Frawley, David and Ranande, Subhash. Ayurveda: Nature’s Medicine.
Johari, Harish. Dhanwantari.
Lad, Vasant. The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies.
Lutzger, Talya. The Ayurvedic Vegan Kitchen.
McCampell, Harvest. Sacred Smoke.
Nickerson, Brittany Wood. Spring Cleansing.
Shunya, Acharya. Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom.
Svoboda, Robert. Ayurveda for Women.
Tirtha, Sami Sadashiva. The Ayurveda Encyclopedia.
Tiwari, Maya. The Path of Practice.
Tiwari, Maya. Ayurveda: A Life of Balance.