But what if this bubbly, pure sensation isn't completely random? What if you could tap into it, nurture it? India's ancient health system, Ayurveda, says you can, and it has a name for the force that flows through us when all is well: ojas (OH-jas). "Ojas is your energy, your vitality, your immunity, your fertility, your longevity, and your joie de vivre," says medical herbalist and Ayurvedic practitioner Anne McIntyre, author of more than a dozen books on natural health. By cultivating ojas, experts say, you can experience deep, genuine joy more often and attain a new level of vibrant health.
Keep reading so you can start feeling better.
Feeding your ojas can start in the kitchen, say experts. Cultivating an all-important force known as agni, translated as "digestive fire," is one of the central tenets of Ayurvedic nutrition. Agni helps the body digest food and absorb nutrients, thus infusing the system with ojas. If your agni is weak, food can then turn into ojas's nemesis, ama, toxins that eventually cause illness. The following tips will help your digestive system maximize the nutritional power in every morsel.
Drink Ginger Tea
"In the morning, your agni is like a fire that's died down overnight to just a few embers," says McIntyre, adding that it's unwise to overwhelm your system with heavy, hard-to-digest foods first thing in the morning. Instead, she says, start the day with a steaming cup of ginger tea. "It helps to stoke that internal fire, so it's better prepared to 'cook' the food you eat." Drinking ginger tea throughout the day can continue to clear ama and aid digestion.
Forgo the Ice Cubes
In the summer especially, icy-cold water can seem more refreshing, but for maximum agni efficiency, choose room-temperature instead, says McIntyre. The reason? Think of agni as a furnace in your belly, and you'll see that dumping glasses full of icy water on it is counterproductive.
Have a Midday Feast
Just as the sun rises to its highest point in the sky, your stomach produces plenty of heat, making it the best time for digestion. "Your agni is working more efficiently at midday," says McIntyre. For this reason, Ayurvedic practitioners strongly recommend eating your main meal at noon, and having a smaller breakfast and a lighter dinner.
Pick a Bouquet of Tastes
In contrast with the meat-and-potatoes mentality so dominant in America, Ayurvedic cooks consider a wide range of flavors a necessity. "Food should be delicious and varied as well as energizing," notes Ayurvedic cooking expert Kavita Mehta, owner of India Foods Company, an online store. Having a balance of salty, sour, sweet, spicy, astringent, and bitter helps to cultivate agni. Most of us are already on intimate terms with the first four; to add astringent foods to your diet, include more beans, lentils, cauliflower, or cabbage, and reach your bitter quota with greens such as arugula or kale. If you know which doshas, or energies, dominate in your constitution (see "Know Your Dosha," pg.5), you can tweak these tastes to your individual makeup.
Shift with the Seasons
In the Ayurvedic paradigm, each season is influenced by a dosha. Summer is a pitta time, ruled by fire, so right now we need cooling fruits and salads. When winter arrives -- vata season -- you'll benefit from heavier, warmer meals like beans and whole grains. Often we adjust naturally to the seasonal changes, and following that instinct will help cultivate ojas. While you're at it, you'll safeguard your energy and be more likely to avoid illness.
Choose the Freshest Ingredients
"Your meal begins in the market," says Mehta. "Eat in season, choosing tender and crisp vegetables, supple fruits, good spices, nuts, oils and grains. Ayurveda pays special attention to the vital energy in foods and the sun's energy that's locked up in greens and grains." Leftovers are verboten in Ayurveda; eating a freshly cooked, colorful meal will charge your ojas far more efficiently than reheating yesterday's mac and cheese.
Eat Ojas-Promoting Foods
Certain foods avoided by some health-minded types can prove beneficial when eaten in moderation, say Ayurvedic experts. "Four specific foods are associated with ojas: organic milk, organic almonds, organic honey, and organic ghee (clarified butter)," says Simon. Before incorporating these into your diet, McIntyre recommends simplifying your meals for a few weeks. "Eat light, vegetarian foods," she says. Breakfast can include oatmeal and fruit. For lunch and dinner, eat basmati rice, beans and legumes, steamed vegetables, and mild spices. "These help prepare the body for the sweeter, heavier foods," she says.
In a culture marked by extremes, our lifestyles often stray off-kilter, and poor health can follow suit. "Everything in Ayurveda is about balance," says Lonsdorf. Whether we're at work or working out, it's essential to have a healthy, nonobsessive mind-set. Start with these suggestions.
Stay in Motion
Getting regular exercise is essential for augmenting ojas. Simon recommends yoga because it "serves and nourishes us at every level of our being." But virtually any form of exercise that gets the blood flowing and makes you feel more calm and centered will benefit ojas: a walk in the garden, a quick swim, a brisk jog. The key is in approaching the activity in a noncompulsive fashion, and not overdoing it. "Overexercising puts the body through subtle biochemical changes that erode health over time," says Lonsdorf.
Watch What You Drink
Alcohol, especially distilled spirits (like gin and vodka), depletes your ojas. "That's not to say you can't have a glass of wine now and then," says Simon, "but it is important not to overindulge." Other predictable no-nos include smoking and eating excessive amounts of fried or heavily processed foods.
Step Away from the Computer
We all know this is easier said than done. But if your job requires long hours in front of the screen, it's critical to take breaks. "Computers can disturb our electromagnetic fields, and living inside our heads so much is hard on ojas," warns Lonsdorf. Take a deep breath, log off, and go for a quick walk. Use the time wisely by noticing the world around you rather than obsessing over details and deadlines.
Don't Skimp on Sleep
"Ojas holds together consciousness and matter," says Lonsdorf. "When we're exhausted, that connection grows thin." If you must get less than eight hours of sleep, Ayurvedic experts say it's best to go to bed early and get up early. In other words, sleeping from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. is better for your ojas than sleeping from 2 a.m. until 8 a.m.
Acting from your heart and nourishing yourself boost your wellspring of joy. Women in particular need to consciously refuel their inner resources, say experts. "There's a tendency for women to give until there's nothing left. That's why it's essential to make time for things that nurture you," says Simon. Begin with this advice.
Get a Relaxing Massage
You no longer need to justify splurging on that decadent spa treatment. "Gentle, loving touch does wonders," says Lonsdorf. Remind yourself that you're simply investing in your ojas, and in doing so are replenishing the very sap that keeps you vital.
Speak "the Sweet Truth"
Vedic literature says that telling the truth generates ojas. You don't need to inform your friend that her hair's a disaster, or go on and on about your husband's bad breath. What we're looking for here is "sweet truth," says Lonsdorf -- in other words, tactful, kind, loving honesty. "We need to cultivate tenderness." Being genuine with people will free up internal space that might otherwise be cluttered with guilt and anxiety.
Let Go of Grudges
Whether it's the guy who cut you off in traffic this morning or the mother who failed you as a kid, let it go. Resentment and stored-up rage burn ojas and cloud the mind. "Giving energy to anger destroys your health and happiness," says Lonsdorf. Practice forgiveness whenever possible; in the heat of the moment, take some deep breaths until the anger cools, then speak.
Connect with Nature
Think of the times in your life when you've felt most alive. Chances are at least a few of those memories include an ocean, forest, or mountain as their backdrop. "The body needs to plug into nature for rejuvenation," says Mehta. You don't need to sell your city apartment and head for the hills, necessarily, but look for simple ways to stay in touch with the natural world. Hike on the weekends, plan a family camping trip, or spend time in the garden.
Follow Your Passion
Whether it's through meditation, politics, religion, yoga, or art, it's important to transcend your personal sphere. "Some people get there through charity or devoting themselves to learning, others practice Transcendental Meditation. Whatever connects you with something greater than yourself is good for your ojas," says Lonsdorf.
Take a Long, Luxurious Bath
Sure, you could clean out the fridge or weed the garden, but taking time to unwind has major benefits. Don't underestimate the power of simple, sumptuous pleasures: They're essential. "Ojas is our spark of life -- it contains everything we truly want," says McIntyre. If taking care of ourselves guards that precious spark, isn't it worth making an effort to slow down?
According to Ayurveda, each of us is a combination of three doshas, or energy archetypes, which determine both our physical and emotional health. Making lifestyle choices that help balance your dominant dosha or doshas (many people are a combination of two) will help boost your ojas. See below for some of the main principles of each dosha. For a thorough analysis, consult a trained Ayurvedic practitioner.
Associated with the air element, vata types are generally thin, very active, and talkative -- and they get cold easily. When in balance, they're creative, joyful, and open-minded.
Symptoms of Imbalance
Constipation, anxiety, insomnia, lower-back pain
Cold or raw food, cold weather, traveling
Warm weather and food, sticking to routines, warming spices
Ruled by the fire principle, pitta types have a tendency to overheat. They're often orderly and driven, with medium frames, strong digestion, bright eyes, and rosy skin.
Symptoms of Imbalance
Impatience, anger, inflammation, acid reflux/heartburn
Hot weather, spicy and sour foods, excessive salt or oil
Cooling foods and drinks, mild or cool weather
Associated with water and earth, kaphas often have a large, sturdy build and smooth skin. Cautious and calm by nature, kaphas like routine and tend to be very loyal.
Symptoms of Imbalance
Fatigue, weight gain, depression, sinus problems, water retention, greed
Heavy and sweet foods, wet weather, being sedentary
Exercise, dry climate, light/bitter food, spontaneity
Minding Your Ojas
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Being in nature
Forgiveness; releasing anger
Connecting with a higher cause
Organic milk, ghee, almonds, and honey
Anxiety and worry
Working too much
Too much TV
Lack of sleep
Too much sex
Text by Jody Gehrman