Four years ago, when I walked into The Dhyana Center for Health Sciences, an Ayurvedic clinic in Sebastopol, CA, I had no idea that I was about to begin studying a whole new medical system. I had been mildly interested Ayurveda, and had set up a consult with the center’s founder, DeAnna Batdorff. I was a new CPM and wanted to learn how to best take care of my body with the demands of being a homebirth midwife. I felt an instant connection with DeAnna, and discovered that she attended births, supporting many women in labor. I was instantly inspired and fascinated by her understanding of pregnancy and birth through an Ayurvedic lens.
Later, a team of midwives I was working with approached her about teaching a class on pregnancy and Ayurveda. Through this class, I found new tools to support my birthing moms, as well as their babies. In the year that followed, I attended The Dhyana Center’s Ayurvedic Certification Course. As I moved thru the layers of Ayurvedic philosophy, pulse assessment, treatments and remedies, two things happened. I immediately saw Ayurvedic tenants exemplified in all my clients AND I realized how complex, deep, and rich this medical system was. There is no piece of human life missing from it, it accounts for all of our parts and has ways to see the connections between each part of our minds, bodies and spirits. I quickly realized that this system requires as a lifetime of study and practice.
Ayurvedic medicine is a system of traditional medicine native to the Indian subcontinent. Currently, it is practiced all over the world as a form of holistic, alternative medicine. The earliest literature on Indian medical practices appeared over 5,000 years ago. It is believed that the practices of Ayurvedic medicine were passed down thru oral tradition and teaching long before this literature appeared, making this an ancient medical system. Ayurveda is the basis for the medical traditions of India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Burma, and China.
The word Ayurveda means ‘the science of life.’ It is a system of medicine in which the objective is to find a balance between the elements (ether-air/fire/water-earth) in the body, emotions and mind, parallel to the elemental balance we see in nature. In Ayurvedic practice, the assessment of one’s body, mind and emotions is based on one’s pulse, elimination, eyes, tongue, skin and posture.
With this assessment, everyone has a primary and secondary type or ‘dosha’ that is set upon taking the first breath at birth. These types tell us where a person’s imbalances are likely to be throughout their life. This approach to medicine focuses on accepting where these imbalances lie and providing tools to change them through nutrition, remedies and treatments. This piece is particularly interesting to me as a midwife. While babies do have a type or dosha in utero, it is set upon taking that first breath. A person’s birth experience can have an influence on where their imbalances will be in their life. It is Ayurvedic medicine’s affirmation of what we already know as midwives–that those first few moments matter.
There are 3 types or elements in Ayurvedic medicine (and each person has a secondary type as well). Vata is the air/ether element; Pitta is the fire element; and Kapha is the water/earth element. Vata, Pitta, and Kapha all have sub-types as well, creating an infinite number of ‘doshas’ that a person can be. All the types have strengths as well as common imbalances.
Each tissue in the body, organ, channel and emotion has an element which predominates it function. For example, Vata or air organs are hollow, which means then have ‘air’ in them: lungs, small intestine, colon, heart. The Pitta organs are assimilating organs: stomach, spleen, liver, gall bladder, speaking to the transformative nature of fire. The correlating organ, tissue or channel can also tell us where weaknesses may be. For example, in pregnancy, women who are Pitta (or whose fire has become imbalanced) are more likely to develop pre-eclampsia, coliostasis, or other liver related conditions.
The common way to characterize imbalances is with heat and moisture. Is this mother, baby, organ, tissue, or emotion too hot (Pitta), cold (Vata), wet (Kapha) or dry (Vata)?
Working with the doshas, the most basic diagnostic question in Ayurveda is “Is there too much hot, wet, cold, or dry here?” The treatment then lies in balancing; warming the cold, cooling the hot, moistening the dry and drying out the wet. Since nutrition is such a big part of midwifery and ayurveda, I can sometimes look at a women’s diet and not only have an idea of her dosha, but also how her diet may be pushing her towards hot, cold dry, or wet. Nutrition and diet are the perfect places to begin to address the imbalance.
Below are some examples of how imbalances can potentially present in pregnancy, birth and postpartum according to dosha or type. This is just a sample of what’s possible, there are numerous ways to look at a primary and secondary dosha with it’s subtypes and find the appropriate treatments.
For example, Pitta women are doers. These are the women who are very busy, on the go, resistant to slowing down, and very direct. When there is too much fire in the body, it tends to get dry, just like the earth after baking in the hot sun. These women tend toward viral loads like herpes and GBS, high blood pressure, hemorrhage, fevers and liver compromise. They need treatments, foods, and remedies that moisten and cool the system prenatally and in labor. For example, daily aloe juice with lemon is a great support for this type. Pitta women tend to appreciate their care providers being supportive and direct with them but not demanding. This is part of providing grounding and cooling for the fire.
Women who are predominately Vata, the air element, tend to have very active minds, be creative, details-oriented and run dry/cold in their bodies. Since their bodies run cold and dry, hydration and warmth are crucial. They may need remedies that help the cells retain the water they drink. Again we can look to nature for more understanding. When it rains on a dry river bed, the water often just runs off instead of sinking into the earth. This is how I think of the Vata body type. We need to moisten and nourish the river bed prenatally. A daily warming essential fatty acids like raw sesame oil is helpful. Measures to increase water retention like chia seeds and flax in their water will help body utilize the water they drink. Coconut water with ginger (ginger to warm cooling coconut water) is helpful as well.
Out of balance Vata will also worry about all the ‘what if’s’ in labor. They sometimes have difficulty dropping out of the mind and into the body more than other doshas. Without supporting the woman to find her fire, failure to progress, ineffective or incoordinate contractions are common. Treatments to warm and open the hips, bringing fire forward are helpful: cuppings (a bodywork tool used to draw out heat or cold), gua sha (a massage tool to move lymphatic fluids, which warms and opens), vigorous salt scrubs, essential oils and hip opening postures.
Kaphas are the natural caregivers of Ayurvedic philosophy. Kapha tend to take care of everyone else before them selves. These clients sometimes have difficulty receiving care and nurturing from their midwives. When thinking about the Kapha imbalances, we have a great analogy from nature–too much water and earth makes mud. An imbalanced Kapha women will lose energy and motivation quick in labor. She needs to be motivated, believed in, and cheerleaded her thru the process. Helping her to find her fire and inspiration is very supportive to move thru the mud. Activity and frequent changes during labor are great for Kapha as it keeps the fire up and the energy from stagnating. Lymphatic work prenatally is important to keep the lymph/waterworks from getting stuck. Regular lymphatic work also prevents postpartum depression (of which Kaphas are more prone to). Kapha women tend to love sweet foods, so yeast and gestation diabetes are more common for this type. Great preventative foods are raw, light, nourishing foods prenatally.
As midwives, this is just the beginning of what is available to us through Ayurveda. I am continually in awe of how simple, accessible, deep, complex and holistic this perspective on health is. I am grateful to my teacher DeAnna Batdorff and her teachers, for all it has offered me, and the families I serve.
The Dhyana Center and I are also collaborating to create another Ayurveda and Pregnancy workshop on April 1, 2 and 3, 2011. Continuing Education Units will be available. For more information call 1-800-796-6863 or contact the center through the website at http://www.dhyanacenter.com
Colette Mercier is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner and Licensed Midwife with a homebirth practice in Sonoma County. For more info on Colette visit www.colettemercier.net