Journey into Healing –
One Teaspoon of Sweet Nectar at a Time
by Wendee Holtcamp
When I first heard about the Chopra Center’s Journey into Healing workshop, I knew instinctually that I needed to go. Although I had been managing a successful writing career and balancing the demands of single parenthood for many years, the stress was mounting. I was nursing a heartache related to a communication breakdown with my teenage daughter, and I found myself spiraling into depression.
It was time to take action steps to heal my heart. Not only did I want to go to Journey into Healing, I know that it would happen. I have never before attempted to “manifest” things in my life, but I actually did for this event. Deepak was calling! A couple of weeks later, I found myself in sunny Carlsbad, California, ready to begin.
The day I arrived was gloriously sunny. Like other newcomers to the Chopra Center, my experience started with the four-part Primordial Sound Meditation course. During a private ceremony I was given my individualized mantra, based on the time and place of my birth, and I had an experience that set the tone for the rest of the workshop. While I was repeating my mantra with my instructor, I felt a strange and strong desire to laugh out loud, like it was bubbling up from within me. Being self-conscious, I didn’t want her to think I was making fun of the process or not taking it seriously, so I repressed the laughter, but the joy of that moment stayed with me throughout the rest of the week.
Journey into Healing includes yoga and group meditation sessions each morning and evening, decadent vegetarian meals, and fascinating lectures on everything from the science behind meditation to how to use food as medicine. The cornerstone of the workshop is learning the scientific basis and the practices of an Ayurvedic lifestyle, the Chopra lifestyle if you will – which includes yoga, meditation, and mind-body medicine and wellness. The word Ayurveda comes from two Sanskrit root terms: ayus, which means “life”; and veda, which means “knowledge” or “science.” The more commonly known healing systems of Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture are both offshoots of ancient Ayurveda.
Discovering that the concepts taught at the Chopra Center are grounded in scientific and medical research and practice was gratifying and exciting. There are several accomplished physicians who provide medical consultations at the Chopra Center and who also teach at the workshops. I was impressed that physicians and psychiatrists attend the Journey into Healing workshop from around the world in order to receive “Continuing Medical Education” credits through the University of California-San Diego Medical School.
One of the most profound experiences for me came when Dr. Valencia Porter introduced the group to the Ayurvedic view of medicine on the first day. I have had experiences with the Western model of medicine that left me extremely frustrated, so what she said resonated deeply with me. Whether it was a recurring sinus infection that went on for months, a case of unexplained fatigue, or a hospitalization that involved the entire right side of my body going numb, the medical care I received never actually diagnosed the problem. My physicians would just give me pills or tests and wait until my symptoms went away.
Valencia shared a beautiful story that exemplified the difference between the Western and Ayurvedic approach to wellness. As I listened, I had an aha! moment when I realized what had been missing in the care I had received.
Valencia told as about a tree she had in her yard that started losing its leaves. In order to truly heal the tree, she explained, it would not be enough to merely manage the symptom – the leaf loss – yet that’s how most traditional Western medicine treats people. When considering how to treat her tree, she assessed its condition from the ground up. What is the state of the soil? How were the roots? “You have to nourish the roots to enjoy the fruits,” she said.
This is a perfect analogy to the Ayurvedic approach to health. The Western model of medicine defines health as the absence of disease, but many people live with chronic pain, discomfort, or unhappiness – in other words, they feel like crap. If doctors can’t find anything wrong, they declare you healthy, or they merely manage symptoms (the leaves on the tree), which is merely a cosmetic approach. The Ayurvedic model, on the other hand, defines disease as the absence of vibrant health, and seeks to treat the whole person – body, mind, and soul.
“If all your tests come back fine, even if you still feel like crap, you’re ‘healthy’ according to the Western model. But we want to feel great,” Valencia said.
“When Deepak Chopra and David Simon started the Chopra Center more than a decade ago, this holistic approach was considered ‘alternative’,” she explained. At that time, the concept of mind-body medicine fell under the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Division of Unconventional Medical Practices (note the tone implied in the name). Today, it falls under the more aptly named NIH Division for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which uses scientific research to determine which practices are safe and effective, and to integrate them into Western medicine. According to the NIH website, Americans spend $34 billion out of pocket on alternative and complementary medicine every year. Complementary medicine and health is catching on not just among consumers, but also among the medical community. To date, forty-six medical schools in the U.S. and four in Canada now have integrated or holistic medicine as part of their curriculum.
“What’s your dosha, baby?”
A central part of Ayurveda involves understanding an individual’s constitutional type, known as their dosha. In Ayurveda, all health-related measures are based on a person’s unique mind-body type.
I learned that there are three main doshas that each contain two primary elements: Vata (space and air), Pitta, (fire and water), and Kapha (earth and water). Each of us contains the elements of all three doshas, but in a unique proportion, which gives us the distinctive qualities of our mind and body. As our instructor introduced us to the doshas, I had so much fun figuring out what my dosha was, and laughed out loud listening to his funny stories and illustrations.
“Vatas are like tender flowers. They’re thin-skinned, both physically and emotionally. They are easily distracted and can even forget to poop,” he said as the class erupted in laughter, many seeing themselves fitting into this category, myself included. “Vatas have cold hands and feet, and a cold tush. They are oblivious to routine. It’s not in their vocabulary. They welcome new experiences and are the life of the party. They’re energetic and good communicators. They love to start new stuff. But when unbalanced or ‘Vata-deranged,’ they have too much air and become ‘swirly,’” he said, as he twirled around on the stage. “They don’t sleep well, they get gassy, bloated, dry, tender in their belly and all over. Emotionally, they tend to blame themselves when something goes wrong.”
I had already started the dosha questionnaire and was not quite sure whether I was a Vata or Pitta, but when the instructor said that Vatas need to be treated like a tender flower, petted, and held, I had an emotional response as I resonated so deeply with his words, and knew instinctually that Vata was my primary dosha.
We then learned about the Pitta dosha. “Pittas have red or ruddy skin and strong digestion. They can eat rocks, cans, and about anything else,” the teacher said as the class laughed. “They are direct and precise. They like to be right. The fire is always burning . . . always digesting, metabolizing, cooking, assessing.
“Pittas are good decision-makers and good leaders. You should treat them like a dear, loving friend. Treating them any other way could cause a lot of problems – you could get bitten! When unbalanced or ‘Pitta-inflamed,’ they can get irritable, caustic, abrasive, and aggressive. Whereas Vata types tend to blame themselves and ask themselves what they’ve done wrong, unbalanced Pittas tend to blame others and have no problem telling them so. They’re prone to skin rashes, indigestion, and painful joints.”
We then moved on to the Kapha dosha. “Kaphas, on the other hand, have thicker skin and don’t take things personally. “They probably have let a lot of stuff you have sent their way roll off their backs. They have lustrous hair. They sleep like the dead. They’re slow but have great stamina. They love to check boxes and put a place in order. They are steady and loyal, maybe a little too much so.” When unbalanced or ‘Kapha congested,’ Kaphas can grow clingy and attached and hold onto stuff that no longer serves them. They can get congested, overweight, and complacent, and they can tend to procrastinate.”
Undoubtedly because everyone recognized themselves or friends and partners in these descriptions, the class was already in stitches when the instructor gave a final example. “In a restaurant, a Pitta will be the one complaining to the owner about the bad service, the Vata will be hiding under the table, and the Kapha will be the person yawning and saying ‘whatever.’”
The Value of Doshas
Ayurveda makes use of this typing for more than just understanding our personality type. Knowing a patient’s dosha helps the physicians at the Chopra Center determine the best medical treatments and make specific recommendations for massage, nutritive therapies and herbal supplements. Unlike conventional Western medicine, which tends to treat diseases rather than patients, Ayurveda doesn’t have a one size fits all approach. As Deepak has described, standardized treatment tends to be a “hit-or-miss affair.” It is based on the assumption that a given illness or disease is the same in all people, which isn’t the case. Understanding the doshas offers a more accurate way to pinpoint what is happening inside an individual.
One Teaspoon of Sweet Nectar at a Time
According to ancient Ayurvedic texts, holistic health involves balancing the doshas, keeping one’s digestive fire strong, balancing tissues, ensuring proper waste elimination and keeping the mind, soul and senses happy. These are accomplished by sleeping well, regularly engaging in meditation and yoga practice, eating nourishing food (as Deepak said, the closer to the light a food is, the better it is for you; in other words vegetables with a lot of color and flavor), and other practices that keep the doshas balanced. We learned which foods and herbs would balance our individual dosha type, which herbs counter various conditions, and the importance of communing with nature and regularly releasing both physical and emotional toxins. Some of this is easier learned than practiced, but luckily, Chopra Center certified instructors exist all over the world to help those who prefer a guide.
Lessons in Letting Go
The entire five days were memorable and life-changing, but two other lessons made a deep impact. The first was the discussion of ama and ojas. Ama is a Sanskrit word meaning “toxic residue,” and it can be physical or emotional, such as the regret, unforgiveness, or anger we harbor in our hearts. Ojas means “sweet nectar” and it also takes both physical and emotional forms, including healthy foods and herbs and kind, loving words. I loved the idea of reflecting on our interactions with other people and considering whether we had given ojas or left behind “a giant blob of ama.” If we had created toxic residue, we could help to dissipate it by making amends with the other person and asking for forgiveness.
The second life lesson that stuck with me was when Deepak spoke about changing our thinking and how consciousness creates reality. In his calm, laid-back Indian accent, he said, “And if I don’t like a thought, I just say ‘NEXT!’” In other words, we don’t have to get wrapped up in a thought but can just let it dissipate into the endless stream of thoughts that fill our mind. How simple, yet how profound is this idea? I have a tendency to obsess about things and situations, and since I returned home I have had several occasions in which this idea came in handy. I am now telling my negative thoughts “NEXT!” on a regular basis (teenagers and exes provide plenty of opportunities for practice, not to mention great potential to accidentally leave giant blobs of ama . . . which then reminds me to get back into the meditation chair).
My Journey into Healing workshop experience exquisitely lived up to my expectations. The daily practices that I learned have begun to transform my life. Since attending workshop, I have meditated for thirty minutes every morning except for one, whereas in my former life I could never seem to find even ten minutes per day to meditate. This feels like a huge accomplishment for me. I am trusting that every time I meditate, I am putting ojas into my soul, a teaspoon at a time. If practiced consistently, eventually I will find a reserve of sweet nectar from which to draw strength and calm.
Wendee Holtcamp is a freelance writer, photographer, scientist, educator, and self-described bohemiam. To learn more about Wendee and her work, visit her website.