Ayurveda Is a Political Practice. Part one: Economic justice
Who is Ayurveda for?
I was recently facilitating a seminar on the subject of Ayurvedic dinacharya – often translated as “daily routine”, but which literally means “to follow the sun”. I presented the math for determining solar noon, at which digestive power is said to peak. I carefully built the old argument for the benefits of regularity in waking, cleansing, eating, working, exercising, resting, and sleeping. I lauded the sweetness of brahma muhurta – the two hours before dawn said to be ideal for contemplation. I said that an extended midday mealtime is excellent for digestion. I said that digestive fire is a reflection of well-timed food and the robustness of appetite is inseparable from steadily progressing towards self-actualization.
A woman sitting quietly at the edge of the room finally had enough. (I later found out she works as a welfare counselor.) She raised her hand and vocalized the questions that have been nagging me for years and informing the subtext of each Ayurvedic consultation I perform. “Who can do this for themselves?” she asked. “Who has this kind of time? How can a person on minimum wage or doing shift work possibly follow this advice? Who exactly is this stuff for?”
Indeed. The real benefits of Ayurvedic therapy only unfold under the blessing of time. And time, as they say, is money. Looking back over the past eight years, it’s clear that my clients who have had the hardest go at implementing my suggestions have often been those who have been battling the stresses of poverty. Single mothers, students, artists and writers, adjunct professors on term-to-term contracts, the unemployed – none of whom would have been able to afford an uncovered health care expenditure like Ayurvedic consultation if I didn’t offer a sliding scale.
A sliding scale is the absolute least we can do. To practice Ayurveda with integrity, we also have to be activists for economic justice. We have to work to equally distribute the most precious resource we have when it comes to the quiet contemplation at the root of preventative health: time.
It used to take several appointments with a client for me to begin to see how their finances were impacting their capacity to change their care choices. Even though I’m just old enough to have been brought up with a pre-Reaganite sense of class-consciousness, I started out pretty shy about letting this influence my practice. I certainly wasn’t trained to ask after the client’s income, dependents, and housing expenses to scan the stresses of each against their constitutional vulnerabilities. But now it’s standard procedure for me. As I examine hands and tongue and eyes, listen to the pulse, ask about menstrual cycles, libido, bowel habits and sleep hygiene, I also slip in questions about whether they are self-supporting, how much money they make, how much debt they carry, what percentage of it they spend upon necessities, and how they feel about the whole thing.
Many are taken aback, which is understandable. After all, they didn’t come to apply for a loan. So the gears grind a bit to accommodate the thought that these questions are not simply intrusive, but may reveal a hidden imbalance. To the general question “How are you doing economically?”, there’s often a shrug and the mumbling of “Well, you know, I don’t know, things are okay” This is usually a red flag. So I’ll press the question by suggesting that Ayurveda is about learning to negotiate environmental stress and its relation to internal balance, and the economy is a core aspect of our environment. After all, what’s the difference between how a person metabolizes food and exchanges carbon with the natural world and how they metabolize work and exchange labour for value within their society? How can we ignore the obvious health connection between how a person works and is valued in the world, and how they feel themselves to be?
Kapha, pitta, and vata as capital, labour, and value?
Do economies and bodies mirror each other? Could it be that the logic and pressures of an economy are expressed within the bodies of those who participate in it, willfully or otherwise?
In both the body and the body politic, vitality and value circulate, ideally seeking a rhythmic equilibrium. In the body, this equilibrium consists of the harmonious blending of the energies of resistance (kapha), compulsion (pitta), and creativity (vata). In the body politic, it consists of the equitable exchange of capital (kapha), labour (pitta), and value (vata). A pooling or stagnation of energies in any one place leads to both macro and micro illness.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, we could say that capitalism embodies a kind of congestion-pathology in favouring wealth accumulation over resource distribution. Capitalism stockpiles profits to leverage ever-greater strategies of extraction. This perverts the natural wish of the bodies of those it entraps to circulate the fruit of labour (ojas) for the equal benefit of all tissues. Wherever the energy of natural distribution has been siphoned towards the accumulation of profit, privation or wasting (vata-ama) appears in the siphoned regions. General immunity is degraded.
A compressed accumulation of potential energy or capital made meaningless because it is unshared might be a good metaphor for the logic of cancer. A small group of cells hordes nutrition for itself alone, slowly succumbing to the illusion that its vitality is independent of the whole. It parasitizes the body politic – and the body – to death. As above, so below.
The only thing new about my analysis here is the vocabulary. Here’s John McMurtry, in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism (Plume, 1999):
There are seven defining properties of a cancer invasion which medical diagnosis recognizes at the level of the individual organism. These seven properties can now be recognized for the first time at the level of global life-organization as well. And this is the pathological core of our current disease condition.
That is, there is:
- an uncontrolled and unregulated reproduction and multiplication of an agent in a host body; that
- is not committed to any life function of its life-host; that
- aggressively and opportunistically appropriates nutriments and resources from its social and natural hosts in uninhibited growth and reproduction; that
- is not effectively recognized or responded to by the immune system of its hosts; that
- possesses the ability to transfer or to metastasize its growth and uncontrolled reproduction to sites across the host body; that
- progressively infiltrates and invades contiguous and distant sites of its life-hosts until it obstructs, damages and/or destroys successive organs of their life-systems; and that
- without effective immune-system recognition and response eventually destroys the host bodies it has invaded.
(Of course I do my best to suppress such theoretical digressions when I’m practicing.)
“Do you feel poor?”
Once a non-privileged client has warmed up to the idea of contextualizing their health imbalances within their experience of economy, there’s a better chance that they’ll be willing to free-associate with a very subjective question: “Do you feel poor?” If the answer is yes, I may follow with “How does that feel in your flesh?” Responses range from the melancholic (kapha) to the frustrated (pitta) to the anxious-despondent (vata). Often there’s a mixture of the three. I know that my Ayurvedic counseling must explore ways of addressing these feelings, up to and including changing the conditions that give rise to them. I’m not trained as a career counselor, but I’ve learned over time how to dialogue with clients about the health implications of poverty. And I’ve tried to build some knowledge of local educational resources across a broad spectrum of pursuits: finding a dharma that pays justly often requires a bump in learning. But most of all, I try to foster comradeship with the client, and to depersonalize the isolation and oppression that financial stress brings by contextualizing it within a system within which there might be other modes of participation, and dignity.
It’s the purpose of capitalism to make all but the extremely few feel poor, so positive answers to “Do you feel poor?” express a wide range of interpretation and self-identification. So I need to make distinctions. I have clients who are positioned quite firmly within what we used to call the “middle class” in terms of income and opportunity (even though many of the middle class support structures built by New Deal values have virtually disappeared). When these folks say they feel poor they’re really saying that they are tired of the pressures of consumerism that impoverish self-regard. When many of these folks say they don’t have time to care for themselves in more balanced ways, they’re really saying that their time has been stolen by a paradigm of anxiety. With these folks, a psychotherapeutic approach can be helpful, along with side-helpings of herbs and such.
But when the client is living from paycheck to paycheck, or drilling down further into debt by the month, teas and psychotherapeutics may be unethical consolations, no matter how attractive they are to the client or how adept they make the practitioner feel. Individualist neo-liberalism reaches so deep into the psyche that many non-privileged clients actually blame themselves for their economic struggles, and come looking for strategies of “acceptance” and “self-forgiveness”. It would be easy to instruct these clients in the kinds of mindfulness techniques by which they could spiritually bypass their feelings, but I refuse the bait. I ask them instead to find and respect their anger and dignity and nurture the fires of appetite and justice that emerge. I try to help them find a meaningful place in the struggle for equality, while trying to envision with them the long-term effects, based upon present symptoms and patterns, that continued stress may bring.
Another way of Ayurvedically assessing both the feeling and materiality of poverty might be to invoke the old distinction between artha and dharma: two of four “purposes of life” from Vedic lore (the other two being kama and moksha, very roughly translated as “pleasure” and “freedom”). Artha translates as “wealth” and implies “work you do to secure your survival”. Dharma translates into a thousand idioms, but in this case suggests “contribution” and implies “the work you do to create connection and meaning.”
A common therapeutic axiom in Ayurveda suggests that the closeness of artha to dharma is a predictor of psychological, and then organic health. In this vein, economic wellness is not simply an index of income, but of meaning and fulfillment. Poverty is not just a lack of cash, but the stress of having one’s time stuffed up the hole in our culture, as Leonard Cohen sings. And as Barbara Ehrenreich describes in Nickle-and-Dimed, her late-90s low-wage tour through the heartland of neoliberal “welfare reform”, it’s the worst-paying jobs that can be the most meaningless. (A similarly searing report comes from Mae McLelland in another undercover journalism essay that everyone should read called “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave”.) It’s not that low-wage jobs don’t require intensive skills and high learning curves (and carry higher risks of stress-related injuries), but that the acquired skills and effort can never express the worker’s heart, because they are the instruments of someone else’s dream. Poverty is the state of being robbed of not only money and time, but of meaning. This triple theft is a primary obstacle to the baseline of hopefulness and adequate relaxed time that contemplative self-care requires.
Ayurveda and privilege
While Ayurveda is often presented as a simple and inexpensive preventative naturopathy available to everyone (and certain parts of it surely can be) its current global marketing, which drives sales of exotic herbal compounds and entices affluent consumers to spa retreats, runs on a kind of privilege-blindness that tacitly assumes that everyone has equal portions of leisure and resource. With 22% of human beings (1.2 billion, according to the WHO) living in extreme poverty (earning 1.25 USD per day or less), and as much as one-third living at or below their national poverty lines, this assumption is unconscionable, and Ayurvedic practitioners must not continue to work under its shadow. What we can do is to work as hard as we can to turn that assumption into a reality. This means being as passionate about the most revolutionary blends of progressive policy initiatives as we are about our blends of herbs.
It also means recognizing that the economic inequalities that prevent access to Ayurvedic practice from being universal are an ancient problem within certain streams of the practice itself. I remember being nauseated to realize when wading through Caraka Samhita (one of the root-texts of Ayurveda, circa 400 CE) that the sections describing strategies for building sexual potency – involving the elaborate roasting of particular songbirds in exotic herbs and spices – could only be exploited by those with affluenza. Patients were to be attended by physicians, nurses, masseurs, cooks, and surely needed exclusive access to the produce of rich farmlands and gardens.
The fantasy of the Ayurvedic high-life lives on. If you can scrape it together, you can pay over $4000 dollars (“New Year, New You” special pricing) to luxuriate in Deepak Chopra’s 10-day spa-ritual retreat with the overly-enthusiastic name of “Perfect Health”, plus $2000 for accommodation in the adjacent Omni Resort, plus airfare to San Diego. In subtler ways, exclusive Ayurvedic luxury is also alive in well in the literature of even the most sensitive of Ayurvedic practitioners. Ayurveda: A Life of Balance by Maya Tiwari (Healing Arts Press, 1995) is an artful compendium of dietary and herbal lore, but following on Caraka’s lead, it features daily regimes attainable only by the Real Housewives of Mumbai, on vacation to rural Goa.
Consider that for an agenda running from 6am to 10pm, Tiwari advises the vata-spectrum person to apply themselves to “activity and work time” consisting of “attending meetings and communicating with others in general”, and “doing chores and errands of the day” from 10am to 2pm, broken up by an hour-long lunch break starting at noon. The rest of the strenuous day features “a warm bath with bath oils”, “massage body gently with sesame oil or natural body lotion”, “perform morning pranayama and gentle yoga asanas”, “rest; enjoy the stillness and pleasant sounds” (presumably of the house help doing their work), “take a nap”, “do gentle yoga stretches”, “meditate or chant”, “garner thoughts in stillness”, “listen to nature’s sounds (rivers, brooks, wind, leaves) or to beautiful music” (provided by the house minstrels). After such busyness, there’s a break for tea, “time to reflect on the day, wind down; plan ahead” (what shall we delegate to the maids tomorrow?), “take a nurturing evening brew”, “wind down” (I know – it’s all too much!), “take gentle after-dinner walks or perform other relaxing activity”, “do evening pranayama”, “meditate or do aromatherapy”, and then, “retire”. (p. 187) Phew! I thought she’d never get a break.
The pitta-spectrum person – not such a delicate flower! – is given a little more work to deal with. She’s advised to work from 9 to 10am, and then from 2 to 4pm, feisty as she is. But when we get to the kapha-spectrum person, a stranger layer of classism seems to emerge. A bucolic line-drawing of a stolid peasant picking apples accompanies instructions that suggests he should work from 9am to 2pm, and then from 3pm to 6pm. What a dependable, hard-working guy! Still – only a third of the population is working an 8-hour day, in a world strangely devoid of landlords, and children.
In other news, the US Congress reduced food stamp benefits to 47 million citizens in November, with the Republicans arguing for $10 billion in deeper cuts to follow. And the welfare counselor who asked me those questions just threw up a little in her mouth.
There’s also this: excessive self-care can be fruitless and exhausting, precisely because it misses a key target of our malaise, which is that we live in a deeply wounded and chaotic world.
Poverty fetish, Luddite fantasies, Impossible Ideals
How does Tiwari’s advice even make it into print? I can think of multiple factors. An apparently independently wealthy writer suffering from acute privilege-blindness tops the list. More subtle is the general sheen of fantasy that surrounds Ayurvedic marketing, in which health is seamlessly intertwined with the exoticism of endless leisure in a place very much unlike home, and in which daily life is conceived of as a kind of holiday from existential fact. Perhaps for the privileged, a fantastical practice of Ayurveda is a way of traveling to India without getting all the shots, where a 4-hour work day would be financed by one’s ability to hire basic house labour at impossibly low rates.
There’s also a Luddite fetish lurking in the background: a wish for life to return to the low-tech and lower population densities of pre-urban and pre-Industrial Revolution eras. It’s a world of unlimited time and expansive nostalgia. Tiwari advises ridding our kitchens of electric stoves and appliances, to which she claims we sacrifice the “cognitive memory” of our ancestors. This is a recurrent and often compelling theme within the book: that manual intimacy with the textures of life will re-awaken the child-like wonder that will be required for us to at least begin to make more ecological choices. My heart-strings are pulled, but the Arctic ice needs more than poetry. And climatologists will be unimpressed with her suggestion that we should all cook with wood. And feminists will notice that the utopian line drawings displaying the sadhanas of “carrying water”, “preparing grain”, “rolling chapatis”, etc., feature women doing all the work. As they always have.
The extremely happy Ayur-folk featured in the drawings of Tiwari’s book haven’t made it out of the 19th century. They’re using hand tools, kneading dough with their feet, washing clothes in the river, and grinding flour by hand, using stones, all within the very relaxed rhythm of their 4-hour work days. This gives an overall impression of romanticizing and aestheticizing poverty while ignoring the actual time and labour dynamics that produce value. Part of me is angry at the blind privilege on display, while another part of me is charmed by the melancholy that desires for the return of something that never existed. Such is the way with many modern Hindutva reconstructions of the Golden Age, filtered through the promises of happy doshas.
Jean Langford notes in Fluent Bodies: Ayurvedic Remedies for Postcolonial Imbalance (Duke 2002), “…the promises of 20th century Ayurveda extend from calming the overexcited dosha to easing the excessiveness of industrial lifestyles and from curing illness to healing modernity itself.” (17) In the Hindutva discourse echoed in Tiwari’s vision, modernity carries the legacy of colonial oppression and cultural amnesia. Tiwari isn’t just fantasizing about restoring the gracious aspects of her Indian-diaspora childhood in Guyana, or ruing the constant white noise of a technologized culture. I think she is also trying to re-invent an untouched motherland, purified of the colonial horrors of the past two hundred years. On top of this, she is trying to re-invent pre-industrial culture. The former is a fight that global practitioners of Ayurveda can understand and honour in their hearts, even if participating in it seems unclear. The latter is an impossible project. In my opinion, the gifts of Ayurveda will not be best served through mythical reconstruction, but through mindful, creative, and progressive adaptation.
On the therapeutic side, perhaps the most debilitating aspect of Tiwari’s suggestions is that they are literally impossible to execute, because they are not about food and herbs and bowel movements and time, but rather about inhabiting a “newly fashioned antiquity” (Langford). Is it only the lonely Trustafarian, so confused, so wracked with guilt, who is able to piously forswear unnecessary employment and time-saving appliances to pursue a life of Ayurvedic pureness? Let her grind her flour with a stone: it may be consoling for while. But for the rest of the population, sweating amidst the concrete and steel, Tiwari’s advice is myopic to the reality of not only time and work, but to where and how people must actually live. It places her adherents in a position, familiar to many lifelong spiritual seekers, of never being good enough, never being in the right place, never living up to the teachings, the teacher, the tradition, the untouchable past. I’m sure this is not her intention, but in Tiwari’s book, an integrated Ayurvedic way of life becomes as unattainable as enlightenment itself. The perfect Ayurvedic practitioner and the enlightened master become as rare and unapproachable as the 1%.
From the privatizations of self and wellness towards a pro-social Ayurveda
As a consumer product in a capitalist marketplace, Ayurveda dovetails with the privatization of the self that unconsciously contributes to global inequality. But it wasn’t always this way.
In Asceticism & Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery (Motilal Banarsidass, 2010), Kenneth Zysk shows that the roots of Ayurveda are not inextricably linked to the wealth of kings and priests, and not as enmeshed with the individualism we see today. According to Zysk, the earliest recorded textual formulations of Ayurvedic theory emerge in the medical advices of the Pali Canon, and were practiced in a very democratic (and therefore revolutionary) way by wandering Buddhist monks who offered their accumulated herbal and dietary knowledge to villagers in exchange for alms. In this pro-social and pragmatic form, Ayurvedic practice posed a direct challenge to the dominant paradigm of medicine, in which healing power was only accessible through temples, religious bureaucracies, and complex rituals. A naturalistic and empirical approach, honed by nomadic study, focused on a few selected remedies and procedures that common people could easily learn, governed by an ethics that rejected caste: this is the heart of the Buddhist Ayurvedic story. It’s a story that continues to pulse in the quieter streams of non-professionalized Ayur-rooted healing practice in India: the matrilineal whisperings of teas, masalas, stews, salves, and massage oils.
So Ayurveda wasn’t – and isn’t – always so flash. Nor has it always been seamless with the individualism that can become blind to privilege. To this day, many Indian practitioners and clients of Ayurveda are disarmingly unconcerned with the ultimate commodity of the globalized consumer version of the practice: one’s unique constitution. As Langford reports:
“…Westerners want to be predominant in some dosha…they want to be categorized as a particular prakriti. I never observed an Indian patient voicing curiosity, let alone desire [to know] about his or her prakriti. In his remark Dr. Upadhyay [one of Langford’s interlocutors] seemed to be commenting on a specific North American craving for individuality served up in an Ayurvedic recipe.” (57)
The problem is that the genuine Ayurvedic commitment to investigating constitutional uniqueness is easily fetishized by an individualistic wellness-ethos in which health is conceived of as primary a personal quest, an inner journey that can pretend to have little to do with social or political realities, so long as the quester is well-heeled. The search for what is particularly healthful for one’s own constitution can too easily blur with the general consumerist exercise, in which you display both virtue and personality through the refinement of your spa-menu or cookbook purchases. In capitalism, knowing what to uniquely seek out and buy is dependent upon the establishment of consumer selfhood. If Ayurveda blurs itself with this, how different can it be from the Google or Facebook algorithms that gather data about desires and self-perceptions, in order to better market to us?
At root, Ayurveda is about interdependence. Therefore, a consumerist approach constitutes the cruelest irony. The deal is: you are a unique blending of elemental energies that have very subjective physiological and psychic meanings. But those meanings are not privately generated or directed, any more than the unfolding of your genome can be isolated from environmental conditioning. Your constitutional meanings are created in relation to the meanings that evolve from qualities of your relationships. Your blend isn’t an exclusive brand that only you and your boutique therapist can understand and provide for.
In my own practice, I resist letting ideas about constitution crystallize. When asked “Can you tell me my dosha?”, I’ll discuss it a bit, but then try to change the subject to the granular study of what it feels like to be alive from day to day. Instead of sending the client away with a definition that will unlock the Ayurvedic cookbook-code, I want to provide a language for reading the delicate and changing sensations of their appetites and discomforts. Over time and several visits, a very malleable story of constitution begins to emerge – a general way of understanding how the client is and is likely to be in the world. But it’s never fixed. I don’t want to assign distinct constitutions to people, because I’ve never met anyone who needs another identity to shop for.
Moving forward, Ayurveda needs to be attentive to the ways in which the old values of individualized care and honouring the healing bounty of the simple earth can so easily be confused with individualism and the neoliberal fantasies of limitless “abundance” and equal access. Practitioners have to become as active in their ministry to the social constitution as they are to the individual constitution. They can contemplate the words of MacKenzie Wark, in The Beach Beneath the Street, criticizing another institution of self-care that can become myopic with individualism: “If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them.” (Verso, 2012, p.93)
Most of all, and finally, Ayurvedic practitioners must come to grips with a very promising paradox. We as human beings are constitutionally different from each other. But it is only social, political, and economic equality that can give us the time it takes, in a world so short on time, to explore and enjoy the mystery, together, of just how uniquely different we all are.
I’m offering this online 30-hour seminar in Ayurvedic living starting in January, 2014, for those who are interested.