Nobody wants to grow old—the aging process is hard on everyone. In America, it's downright brutal, says Andrew Weil, M.D., because we associate worth with youth. "The idea that the value of life diminishes with age is unique to our culture, and it's more intense than it's ever been at any time," he says.
Enjoy life: Given our culture, we can be forgiven for spending so much time and energy fixating on youth, but it's time and energy misplaced, says Weil. "Putting attention toward reversing aging distracts you from what's really important—maintaining health as you go through life so that at any point you have the energy to enjoy it."
Make peace with aging: Weil has written a book on the subject, Healthy Aging (Knopf, 2005), and encourages readers to make peace with growing older. "Aging is inevitable, so you don't want to be against it, you want to go with it," he advises. The best way to live a long and healthy life, he says, is to find a path that addresses the concerns of mind, body, and spirit and sees aging as life's reward.
The Ayurveda path: A sure path to a livelier and longer life is Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old science of longevity. "Ayurveda is designed to help maintain the vitality, creativity, and flexibility we associate with youth, while also valuing wisdom," says David Simon, M.D., medical director of the Chopra Center and coauthor of Grow Younger, Live Longer (Three Rivers Press, 2001). "The Ayurvedic philosophy is that once you've fulfilled certain needs—raised a family, built wealth, or achieved professional goals—you're ready to understand the purpose of life. So it's not about acting like a teen. It's about staying in the best health so you can share the wisdom you've gained with the next generation."
The Dosha life forces: To benefit from Ayurveda, you need to understand the doshas—the three energies that enliven the human body. "The doshas are the forces that govern our lives," explains Patricia Hansen of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Yoga and Ayurveda in Boulder, Colo.
- Kapha: "The force of lubrication and stability is the kapha dosha," Hansen says. "Kapha governs the body's structure, but also the synovial fluid in the joints, the softness to the skin, the smoothness in the voice, the calm qualities of the mind." Kapha can be described as heavy, dense, stable, and smooth.
- Pitta: "The force of transformation is called pitta dosha. It has to do with metabolism, assimilation, and digestion—not only of foods but of experience and information," says Hansen. The qualities of pitta are oiliness, lightness, intensity, and—above all—heat.
- Vata: "The force of movement is called vata dosha, which has to do with activity in the body, from the heartbeat to the blinking of the eye to the firing of impulses among neurons in the brain," says Hansen. Linked to the nervous system, vata dosha manifests itself as dryness, mobility, creativity, and roughness.
These three forces—vata, pitta, and kapha—govern nature, too, including the changing seasons, the hours of the day, and the different stages in our lives. We are born into a kapha stage, which lasts from birth to about age 25, where we use the forces of stability to build our bodies and identities. In the pitta cycle, from age 25 to 55, we draw on our own fiery energy to achieve in the world. Vata, the final stage, happens after menopause in women, at about age 55. It's a time to pursue creative endeavors and to relax. The idea is to get to the vata stage in the best shape possible. To do that, we have to balance the doshas, which play on us from the outside (the seasons and the life cycle), as well as the inside.
Your longevity plan: Each of us possesses all three doshas in a specific ratio that was determined, says Hansen, at the time of conception. Once you understand your dosha, you'll know how to maximize your energy and age with grace.
Plan your future: "With the knowledge of your dosha type, you can see your future," says John Douillard, D.C., Ph.D, author of The Three Season Diet (Random House, 2001) and creator of Gaiam's new Ayurveda Wellness DVDs. If you're a pitta, for example, you know you're prone to inflammation and burnout. As a vata, you tend to worry and overanalyze. Kaphas suffer from congestion and lethargy. And these tendencies worsen if ignored over the years.
Go downstream: "Using diet, exercise, meditation, and lifestyle changes, Ayurveda helps you live in harmony with nature," Douillard says. "It's the difference between paddling upstream and paddling downstream; going downstream, all you have to do is steer." You can stop swimming against the tide any time—the sooner the better."
Change now: "Hopefully, you will see yourself in these cycles and feel motivated to make changes now," Douillard says. "The beauty is that once you realize what you've been doing wrong—worrying too much, pushing too hard, or being too sedentary—it's never too late to start living life in harmony."